The Disorderly Orderly (1964) – A Review

Jerry Lewis The Disorderly Orderly 1964 comedy movie
Jerry Lewis in The Disorderly Orderly

Jerry Lewis in a hospital.

That is all.

It’s really all you need to know in order to get the general idea of what you’re going to get with a Jerry Lewis comedy.

A lot (not all) of Lewis’ movies were the ‘in a’ variety. They were usually high-concept premises that would drop Jerry in a particular setting or environment and let him run loose.

Jerry in a department store. Jerry in a hotel. Jerry in a mansion. Jerry in a house with tons of women.

The Disorderly Orderly was Jerry in a hospital. Do you think he might cause some havoc, upset the patients or maybe even break some stuff?

Lewis is Jerome Littlefield an orderly in a private rest home who has dreams of being a doctor one day. However, Jerome has a huge hurdle to overcome. He suffers from a very unique form of mental illness where he takes on the symptoms of patients. Whatever ailment they might be suffering from, suddenly Jerome feels like he has it too.

Between dating brunette cutie nurse Julie Blair (Karen Sharpe) and giving head nurse Maggie Higgins (Kathleen Freeman) constant headaches, Jerome spends time with the resident shrink to be cured of his illness.

Jerry Lewis Disorderly Orderly 1964 funny comedy
Skeleton co-stars with Lewis

Then one day suicidal Susan Andrews (Susan Oliver) is admitted to the sanitarium suffering from being unloved. Susan happens to be Jerome’s high school crush and once seeing her again he will do anything to help her get better.

Even when she no longer has money to pay for her treatment and the evil head of the hospital Mr. Tuffington (Everett Sloane) wants to throw her out, devoted Jerome works nonstop to pay her bills. Julie gets jealous, Nurse Maggie gets madder and the audience gets more laughs as Jerome screws up every task he’s given to do.

There’s really not much story that you can sink your teeth into, but that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Disorderly Orderly is one of those Jerry Lewis vehicles that is mainly a platform to show off Jerry doing funny Jerry stuff. That’s what his fans wanted and that’s what made him so successful. The story itself is sort of a like a laundry line who’s uncomplicated purpose is to hang all of Jerry’s gags on.

The movie is directed by Frank Tashlin, who had worked with Lewis many times before. Tashlin had started work in animation. From his experience creating madcap Warner Brothers cartoons he transitioned into live-action features where he brought his talent for silly visual gags running at a rapid pace.

Like most of Jerry’s movies for me some gags work, but in this particular movie more don’t.

There’s something about Jerry that I never fully embraced. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like he’ll start to push things too far and overexaggerate his physical comedy to the point where I feel like I’m too focused on watching him over-perform for the camera rather than enjoying the gag that is unfolding. Like when he starts to mug for the camera too much I become turned off by him.

The Disorderly Orderly Jerry Lewis Karen Sharpe spaghetti dinner
Sharpe and Lewis enjoying a spaghetti dinner

It’s like I want the director to yell at him to reel it back just a tiny bit, don’t try to oversell it so much. But that’s what his fans love about him, so what do I know. Can you believe I’m criticizing Jerry for not being subtle enough??? Yeah, he doesn’t show enough restraint with his performance!

The movie has something of a bizarre surreal quality about it. A snail races past a crawling straitjacketed Jerry. There’s quite a number of audio gags that are punctuated with sound effects or lack of sound.

There’s a dopey gag with Jerry trying to fix a patients television thats picture is snowy. Of course when Jerry opens it up actual snow comes pouring out and the room is engulfed in a blizzard. That particular gag I thought went way too far for nothing.

The movie breaks the fourth wall occasionally with the camera lingering on a publicity sign for ‘Jerry Lewis in The Disorderly Orderly‘ in a store window. Or a hapless nurse staring at the camera as Jerry sets about to wrap a patients broken leg along with her too! It’s all innocent juvenile silliness.

The romantic ‘plot’ to the movie – which I guess they felt needed to be included – falls incredibly flat. It gets very hammy and feels insincere. What’s meant to be a sympathetic scene of Jerome staring at the sleeping Susan in her hospital room comes off rather creepy. It’s no wonder she feels weirded out by the guy.

The Disorderly Orderly comedy climax car chase
The zany climax

The character of Susan I didn’t like at all. For most of the movie she’s cold and insulting and really there was nothing about her that I could see why Jerome would still be hung up on after all these years. Instead of spending all his time working to pay her medical bills I would have spent all that time to get more kissing time with Julie.

The supposed crazed ending with Jerry trying to stop Julie from getting to the airport and him racing around in an ambulance, Tuffington getting some comeuppance and mayhem being brought into the streets all starts to wear thin and is never as madcap and funny as it’s trying to be. The gags aren’t that inventive and I was just watching it all rather stone-faced. Oh, I did like the theme song sung by Sammy Davis Jr though!

It’s an innocuous goofy excursion that Jerry’s devoted fans should have fun with. I wasn’t rolling with laughter with it and felt a lot of it was forced laughs that I just didn’t fall for. It wasn’t one of Jerry’s better movies. I’m not so sure it will do much to recruit new members to the legion of Jerry.


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