As Gilles Deleuze put it: “If you are a prisoner of the dream of the other, you are damned,” or, closer to Deleuze’s words, “you are screwed.”1 And it is surely the feeling that pervades one of Jerry Lewis’s most deliriously indulgent and intimately personal compositions, The Family Jewels. Released on July 1, 1965, the film tells the preposterous story of Donna Peyton (Donna Butterworth), a young heiress who must choose a legal tutor among her uncles in order to inherit her late father’s colossal fortune. Lewis stars as all six uncles,2 but also as Donna’s loving and devoted driver and bodyguard, Willard. The successive visits Donna pays to each uncle serve as a pretext for Lewis to deliver a series of typical (and uneven) vignettes of slapstick and absurdist humour.
The Family Jewels at once allegorises Deleuze’s famous remark as much as it imparts its unpleasant affect onto the viewer. On the diegetic level, it conforms to this understanding of being caught up in someone else’s dream. Even though it doesn’t feature oneiric sequences,3 the whole film is akin to a strange fantasy, some uneasy dream filled with doubles and grotesque characters, and whose de-multiplying of avuncular/fatherly figures would lend itself easily to a Freudian reading. The film’s mangled script, strange structure and egregious rhythm also feel like a bad but memorable dream, although the viewer, as often with Lewis, will be rewarded by moments of absurd poetry and some truly brilliant inventions. At one point, for instance, a gaggle of old ladies on a tiny plane ask the pilot to keep the volume of the music down, which he obliges, opening a small cabinet in which we find crammed a performing live band (including Lewis’s son, Gary). Later in the same scene the ladies are treated to some on-flight entertainment, a fictitious Anne Baxter vehicle, Sustenance, the universe of which is affected by the turbulences the airplane is experiencing (inverted 4D, as it were). It is through such nuggets of wacky originality (he may be riffing off of Buster Keaton, but not in a way that feels vacuously derivative) that Lewis shines best as a naïve “idiot savant” auteur, and where we can best understand the appeal of his sloppy but vibrant filmmaking to Godard and other figures of the French New Wave.
The film’s investment with death and inheritance (it opens with a mangled attempt by mask-donning mobsters to hijack a bank wagon, a straight pastiche of a late film noir such as The Killing, 1956) may also account for the uneasy, dark undertones of what otherwise purports to be a light-hearted comedy about human relations. Yet all characters except for Willard are one-sided caricatures, and the human factor is ridiculed and turned into a form of mechanical process: attempting to channel Keaton’s dynamic rapport with implements of modernity such as cameras, trains, cars, steamboats, and the like, Lewis adds to it, time and again, the industrial seriality of the modern machine. Such “proliferations” constitute one of the compelling elements to be found in the film, not in the often heavy-handed and imperfect way Lewis impersonates his avatars, but in the way he morphs, with seamless ease, from one to the other, from Willard as baseball player to Willard as limousine driver, from one uncle to the other, a de-multiplying process which carries in itself, unquestionably, the conundrum of a society of electronic and global reproduction – an exercise to which the medium of cinema lends itself perfectly.4
More perhaps than in any other of his films, Lewis is seen here allegorising cinema at every corner, not only borrowing on the classics of slapstick and screwball comedy, but also referencing the medium in countless instances, from obvious self-reflexivity (the frame of the camera of uncle Julius – himself a quote from Lewis’s act as The Nutty Professor (1963) – framed over the lens of the film camera; the aforementioned film on the plane) to more subtle instances, such as when Willard, in an entirely gratuitous sequence, stands in for a petrol station clerk friend and literally acts as a petrol pump assistant (bumpkin accent and all) while “directing” a camping car on the lot, before crushing another customer’s car out of a mix of zeal and technical incompetence. Each of the visits by Donna to the uncles serves as a a window into another genre: the silent hijinks of Willard and young uncle James evoke Keaton in The Navigator (1924); likewise, uncle Skylark’s pool game with gangsters in a basement recalls Sherlock Junior (1924); uncle Julius is seen manning a huge, antiquated camera, evoking the prehistory of the medium; uncle Everett’s short scene suggests at once the world of attractions (the circus) and the stuff of early sound cinema (static camera work and heavy on dialogue), seemingly resentful of its vocation; uncle Eddie’s protracted airplane number is at once screwball and slapstick; the scene in which uncle Skylark and his assistant Matson narrowly escape death by dynamite is an absurdist reference to suspense and adventure films; Willard choreographing a military parade as though remote controlling puppets ridicules militaristic propaganda; much as uncle Bugsy’s segment mocks gangster films.
Viewing Lewis’ brand of revisiting earlier cinema genres as mere ironic nostalgia is an insufficient interpretive key, and one that only partly unmasks The Family Jewels’ political implications. The film’s antics and multiple personas seem to speak to something else: the anxiety of ageing and the complex of queerness and/or belonging to a minority. By 1965 Lewis, almost 40, was no longer the charming goofy youth of the Martin & Lewis years, and was at the end of his run with Paramount pictures, unimpressed by his declining box office appeal (except in France, of course).5 In this film his routines seem laboured and subpar, most of the gags even failing to show any actual stunts or falls (not only between the various Lewis-characters, understandably, but also in scenes involving other characters). Lewis would sustain a critical back injury that would nearly paralyse him and turn him into a painkiller addict that same year.6 All this suffering and anxiety is felt in The Family Jewels, to an uneasy extent, and thus the filmmaker exaggerates his already arch numbers, forcibly, leaving us rather wanting to cringe than to smile.
However, the film is truly fascinating in its multi-layered (unconscious) political allegory: the mid 1960s were a time of high racial and social tensions in the US, but also a time when Hollywood came to a place of no-return where it would reinvestigate its own functioning after having gazed longingly at its idealised past – Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1948), Singing in the Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952) – and The Family Jewels speaks to this turmoil and transition in its derivative excess. More interesting still, in this respect, are the implication of playacting and multiple impersonation, a reverse version of 1920s black minstrelsy (allegorised famously in The Jazz Singer [Alan Crosland, 1927]). If an established, respected Jewish middle-class was still very much a work-in-progress in most parts of the US in the mid 1960s, those were also the years of prominent Jewish figures at last taking centre-stage, in academia and politics of course, but also, and not least, through their epigones in Hollywood (many of them however still “crypto-Jewish” or “non-Jew-ish Jews”). The constant play-acting of Lewis, turned to absurd proportions here, reminds us of another such comedian with chameleonic (yet utterly recognisable) skills: Peter Sellers, also famously impersonating four different characters in the contemporaneous Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964), and already a trickster as Lolita’s Clare Quilty (Kubrick, 1962). This “Jewish queerness”, the expression of the complex of Jewish artists having to perform at once gentile types (as opposed, to, say, the acts of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks) and queer figures (Lewis’ act to Dean Martin’s straight man) may be taken in The Family Jewels (a film about choice and heritage as much as it is about transformation) to the extreme, both as a mask and escape from reality (slapstick in a nutshell: the “spectacularisation” and de-dramatising of suffering and a return to childhood’s reflexes) and as a scathing account of a conformist society’s prejudices. In this sense, it is not surprising that Lewis allegedly discussed a remake of the film starring none other than John Travolta in the 2000s, at a time when another queerness was finally coming into its own as a publicly accepted and recognised voice and identity in the US.
The film’s finale most explicitly evokes the plight of the social or ethnic minority: after she has realised that Willard should be her father, Donna is confronted by the family lawyers, insisting that Willard will not do, and that she must choose one of her uncles. At the last minute, uncle Everett shows up unexpectedly, asking Donna to pick him as her new Dad. To everyone’s surprise, she agrees, and the two leave together. As they walk down the hallway, Donna reveals that she knows the truth: “uncle Everett” is actually Willard in disguise. She recognised him because, as always, his shoes are on the wrong feet.
To be accepted, Lewis suggests, we must knowingly agree to the terms of becoming prisoners of the other’s dream and fantasy. And in order to do so, we must pretend that we are somebody else, much as Willard has to parade as Everett to gain lawful tutelage over Donna and share in her immense fortune. Acceptance, or even survival, is in deception and tricking the other – a lie, to be sure, but one that does not constitute false testimony or can be harmful to anyone. The stratagem may go against a form of engrained Christian morals, but it does not constitute a moral fault. It allows one to retain one’s “secret” identity, all the while engaging in the wager of entering the other’s dream, yet refusing to be completely prisoner of it. This reminds us of the way in which many minorities—here, Jewish people—had to parade as WASPs or Catholics for decades or even centuries, or else be ostracised to ghettos and pales of settlements, or find themselves relegated to “baser” fields such as vaudeville or second-class music performing (as was pointedly the case with Lewis’ Russian émigré-parents), a complex and fraught nexus from which, of course, the problematic greatness of early Hollywood would partly emerge. Such is the sobering political statement and surprisingly deep moral of a film that could have been great, had Lewis had the humility to relinquish parts of its design and control to a less indulgent filmmaker. However powerful his desire for autonomy and authenticity, and however fascinating the things he had to say in the guise of farce, Jerry Lewis failed to accept that retaining control and independence never was a guarantee against the perils of the great obscure dream of Hollywood cinema.
The Family Jewels (Jerry Lewis, USA, 1965, 98min, colour)
Director: Jerry Lewis
Script: Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond
Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley
Sound: Charles Grenzbach and Hugo Greznbach
Music: Pete King
Editing: John Woodcock
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Willard Woodward, James Peyton, Everett Peyton, Julius Peyton, Eddie Peyton, Skylock Peyton, “Bugsy” Peyton), Donna Butterworth (Donna Peyton), Sebastian Cabot (Dr. Matson), Milton Frome (Pilot)
Producer: Jerry Lewis
The Family Jewels is screening as part of the ‘Jerry Lewis: The Total Filmmaker’ program at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival (28 July – 14 August 2016). Find out more and purchase tickets here.
- Deleuze’s words are “Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtes foutu,” which most accurately translates as “If you are caught up in someone else’s dream, you are screwed.” The phrase comes from his lecture “Qu’est-ce que l’acte de création” at the La Fémis film school in Paris, 1987, which is now available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OyuMJMrCRw ↩
- Actually, Lewis plays eight parts in the film, doubling up duty as uncle James, the sea captain and former Navy member, shown as his old contemporaneous self as well as, in the film’s lone flashback, his younger self on a sinking ferry during WWII. The other uncles are Everett, a clown who despises children; Julius, a professional photographer of female models; Eddie, a pilot who owns his own airline (“Eddie’s Airways, the Airline for the Birds”) consisting of one Ford Trimotor; Skylark, a Holmesian detective with a thick (and fake) British accent; and Bugsy, a gangster allegedly murdered by the mob. ↩
- In Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Deleuze explains at length the different forms of dream and dream structures to be found in Hollywood musicals and comedies of the post-War era. The philosopher calls “implied dreams” such instances without an explicit oneiric diegetic frame of reference. See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), pp. 44-67. ↩
- As Deleuze observed, Lewis’s comic genius had to do with the way in which it proposed a new take on the machine for the time image—both in terms of diegesis and structure/discourse: a cyber-mechanic hero in the line of Buster Keaton’s ‘great form’ in the movement image. ↩
- Paramount’s new executives felt no further need for the Lewis comedies and did not wish to renew his 1959 profit sharing contract. Lewis would move on to work with Columbia Pictures the following year. ↩
- Lewis sustained this critical back injury when he fell from a piano while performing at the Sands Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip on March 20, 1965. ↩