In the New York Times review of Jerry Lewis’s 1965 comedy The Family Jewels, an unimpressed Bosley Crowther complains that Lewis “has simply provided himself with a vehicle in which to show off his energy and skill in doing impersonations that have no real humor or quality.”
Well, he was right about the first part. The Family Jewels is an unabashed vehicle for its writer, director, and star, who died on Sunday at the age of 91. The Family Jewels rarely turns up in greatest-hits lists of Lewis’s career, which spanned seven decades. But with the benefit of fifty-odd years of hindsight, the film is a key showcase for Lewis’s chameleonic comedy skills and singular flair for slapstick.
Born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, Lewis achieved fame in his early twenties as one-half of the comedy duo Martin and Lewis, alongside Dean Martin, who played the straight man to Lewis’s zigzagging comic fool. In one early bit, Martin would stand onstage crooning as Lewis, in the guise of a busboy, hustled around the club dropping trays and sending food flying; meanwhile, Martin didn’t skip a beat. Lewis called their shtick “sex and slapstick,” and eventually they parted ways to chase those individual pursuits — Martin as the “King of Cool” and Lewis as America’s preeminent clown, its screeching, irrepressible id.
The Family Jewels centers on nine-year-old Donna Peyton (Donna Butterworth), whose father has died and left her a multimillion-dollar fortune on the condition that she choose as her legal guardian one of six uncles — all played by Lewis. (He also plays Donna’s chauffeur and bodyguard, Willard, a de facto father figure himself.) The film, coming at the tail end of Lewis’s most fruitful creative period, between 1960 and 1965, itself functions as a sort of greatest-hits package of his talents as a physical comedian. It’s a series of sketches loosely linked by its heiress plot. Each of Donna’s meetings with her uncles — a ferry captain and World War II veteran; a cheerless clown; a commercial photographer; an enterprising airline pilot; a wannabe detective; and a gangster on the lam — is an opportunity for Lewis to strut his stuff.
Uncle Julius, a fashion photographer, is a dead ringer for Julius Kelp, the buck-toothed title character of Lewis’s The Nutty Professor. When Donna visits him at his studio, he mistakes her for a young model and sets her down in front of a camera while he busies himself with the others. In this scene, like so many in Lewis’s films, the supporting actors are essentially props, obstacles for Lewis to whirl around, hurricane-like, buoyed by his trademark manic energy. The scene also demonstrates his skills as a comedy director: In one gag, he takes forever to set up a shot of a man and woman dressed in evening wear, switching out the colored backdrop over and over before settling on the white brick wall behind it. Throughout it all, the camera — which doubles as the camera Julius is using to photograph the couple — stays still while Lewis futzes, veering in and out of focus, his face looming large in the foreground as he adjusts the lenses.
The movie’s best gag features Uncle Eddie, a jolly pilot who runs an “airline” comprising exactly one dinky propeller plane. Having somehow convinced a group of fancy-hatted ladies to charter his plane, the hapless Eddie acts as both pilot and flight attendant in a scene full of surreal sight gags. When one lady asks him to turn down the music, he opens a tiny closet in which an entire live band is stuffed. (The band, incidentally, is his son’s, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, whose song “This Diamond Ring” also turns up in the movie, in a completely unnecessary scene in which Willard settles in after a long day and puts a record on the turntable.)
Later, Eddie treats his passengers to a movie, a fictional Anne Baxter flick called Sustenance that, appropriately enough, contains no dialogue. It doesn’t need it: As the plane hits a patch of turbulence, Eddie swerves sideways, and the characters in the movie follow suit. We cut to the outside of the plane and see it tilting dangerously to one side, then return to the interior to see the film’s dinner-party guests tilting along with it, food falling on their laps, the table itself sliding out of the frame as the well-heeled diners struggle to grip onto it. The passengers find it hilarious.
“Lewis,” the critic J. Hoberman observed in a 1988 Village Voice article, “thinks with his body.” Today, Lewis may be better known as the long-running host of telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. But his true legacy as one of America’s most brilliant physical comedians will outlast him. Lewis’s pratfalls, Gumby-like contortions, and deliriously twisted facial expressions are clear precursors to figures like Seinfeld’s Michael Richards, Jim Carrey, and Maria Bamford.
Lewis’s full-body hijinks are on glorious display in The Family Jewels. Is the movie self-indulgent? Sure. But why see a Jerry Lewis flick if not to watch the man revel in all his cross-eyed glory?