The Disorderly Orderly

The Disorderly Orderly. Paramount Pictures 1964.

Before watching the movie:

And here is a Jerry Lewis Shenanigan. I didn’t realize he was a mental hospital orderly when I picked this up, and I’m sure there are going to be elements that haven’t aged well, but hey, slapstick, right?

After watching the movie:

Jerome Littlefield wanted to be a doctor like his father, but he has a psychosomatic condition called “neurotic identification empathy” that causes him to over-empathize with his patients’ conditions to the point that he himself feels physically ill. Unable to complete medical school, he has become an orderly at Whitestone Sanatorium and Hospital, where his over-eagerness to help compounds with a natural clumsiness that drives Nurse Higgins mad, but Dr. Howard insists on keeping Jerome on because she loved his father and sees potential in him. A patient comes to the hospital after a suicide attempt who turns out to be Jerome’s high school crush Susan, who never knew he existed, and finds his awkward manner repulsive. As the hospital’s owner instructs Dr. Howard to enforce his rule that all patients must pay for their stay or be thrown out, Jerome volunteers to pay for Susan’s bills by working extra hours all day, every day, with no time off in order to keep up with the costs.

The plot is a little thin, as is to be expected of a slapstick vehicle. Most of the runtime is “let Jerry be funny on camera for a while”, so the plot is just enough to keep that going. However, it’s surprisingly not as tired as it might have been. There’s a love story, but it’s a love story about being able to move on from old wounds. It’s handled very maturely, Jerry-gurning notwithstanding.

The physical comedy isn’t as much pratfalls and knocking things over as I expected. A lot of it is just pulling weird faces and surprising, cartoonish physical juxtapositions. When I read that the hospital was a mental hospital and Jerome had a problem with taking on the ailments of his patients, I thought it would be much more about him imitating wacky mental cases, but the extent to which it comes up is a patient describing her physical ailments in great detail causing him extreme discomfort. Most of his misfortune comes from obliviously trying too hard to be helpful.

The for-profit nature of the hospital is shockingly timely. The hospital’s owner goes on at length about maximizing profits, robbing the ill of just as much money as the market will support without drawing scrutiny, and marketing toward the most lucrative patients. He specifically mentions vastly overcharging for the cheapest kinds of pills. Aside from the plastic surgery boom of the 70s and 80s, I thought ballooning healthcare expenses wasn’t a problem on the public consciousness until sometime in the late 90s when people started to realize what a bad deal HMO insurance was giving them.

It’s a Jerry Lewis movie with a medical theme. The first part of that should be enough to decide if it’s worth watching. I found it to have elements that seem to transcend its era, but it’s mostly just faces, falling over, and being awkward. If that sounds enjoyable, that’s all that’s needed.

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