The word family is an odd one as it can mean a genetic link, a gathering of like-minded souls, or quite simply, a pack of living beings that happen to occupy the same space at the same time. Perhaps, no one word can cause such a different definition from so many varying people from numerous cultures. In the end, what one makes of the term says just as much about that particular person as it does about the very word ‘family’.
In our special holiday edition of Hidden Flick, we ponder a film that was made by a comedian as he directed, produced and co-wrote a rather appropriate little statement about family, and the odd path one takes to define its elusive nature, whether through biology or other societal constraints. We sift through the evidence, as always, and we ponder that person of disinterest, that chap that no one bothers to notice sitting in a weird way in the corner laughing away, always laughing.
Ahhh, yes, the wayward comedian in our midst.
Born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey in 1926, the young Jewish comedian would become Jerry Lewis, team up with Dean Martin as one half of the Beatles of comedy, and ultimately become a solo act that has been unmatched for pure longevity, philanthropy and artistic vigor.
Lewis was at the height of popularity and fame with Martin, but when he extended his wings, and spread out into helming his own films, he found a direction that had been mined by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but never quite in the same way as Lewis. Actually, the hapless auteur has never been taken seriously by critics because of the alleged juvenile nature of his work. However, when one sees his films back-to-back, and notices the pristine design, the careful link between scenes, and the way that his films were bereft of filler, the truth slowly hits home. Not only was Lewis a Grand Master of Gags, he had a great gift for letting a scene play out as visual poetry. Was he as good as Keaton? Hmmm… Was he as good as Chaplin? No. Chaplin was the Hendrix of his art, and remains alone on top of the cinematic mountain.
But Lewis etched new and clever scenes on the esoteric cinematic canvas, and when he wasn’t re-inventing what an actor could do on screen, he was writing, producing, and directing numerous little gems of comedic genius. Lewis segued brilliantly—his films spun cartoon-like sequences together by interlacing skits with abstract characterizations, melded with some sort of weird plot often crucial to a hidden agenda, but, alas, was only an apparatus so the great artist could roll from one gag to another, underlining everything with the sense that THAT little guy making all the mistakes, that skinny freakish Buddha in Dork Attire, is really where it’s at. That little guy is humble and true to his nature. Jerry Lewis’s characters are so human that one almost needs to turn away, lest one recognizes thyself in a moment of surreal self-recognition.
Which is to say that Lewis’s canon is filled with the Wretched Divine—our human family is filled with alleged losers, and why not laugh with such creatures, instead of mocking them?
Ostensibly, The Family Jewels is a film about a little girl who inherits $30 million dollars. The will states that she needs to find an adult family caretaker from amongst six living uncles. Hence, her loyal and amiable chauffeur, played by Lewis, takes her around the country to visit each potential father figure, all six also played in inimitable fashion by the incomparable comedian, each character fully-formed with more than a touch of the vaudevillian absurd, and the only link is the pinky ring that the ultra-cool Lewis always seemed to wear like a gentle mobster.
The young lady is played by Donna Butterworth, who matches Lewis step by step on the long journey on the road to find that perfect father, that man who will help guide her through life’s little challenges. Instead, the chauffeur is the only constant, the only figure able to impress her with any sense of love and compassion, while each of her uncles has some sort of fatal flaw.
Humility reigns supreme in this film about one of the possible answers to the great question we surely face around the holidays—what is family? What does it mean to choose one’s own family, and what does it mean to be genetically-linked to quite a different definition of family? Jerry Lewis was many things, but he was never one to tell you what something means, or how it appears to him. Like any great artist, Lewis gave examples—in his case, visual examples often wrapped up with some funny gimmick, a choice bit of wardrobe, facial tick, or a the shtick that just seems to work. Jerry Lewis never got the critical recognition he deserved because, ironically, his art appeared so artless, while also reminding pretty much all of us searching for the definition of family that we are all human, make innumerable mistakes, and we can only sit down at the table and celebrate what we have, what we have earned, what we have found to be the truth, with others gathered from the road of our dreams, gathered together to share the lives we choose.
And, hey, if that isn’t what family is, I don’t know.