If you’re wondering what Jerry Lewis’ decidedly non-classic The Family Jewels is doing on my Blind Spot list, well, you can easily be forgiven. I blame the NetFlix gods for unceremoniously turfing The Nutty Professor from the ranks of their streaming library, so I took a flier with his 1965 effort that (just like The Nutty Professor) was also written and directed by Lewis (and additionally produced in this case). The intent was to watch and compare two of the top comedies from a pair of brilliant physical comedians who also worked behind the camera. One of them (Buster Keaton) is a personal favourite while the other (Jerry Lewis) is someone whose filmography has barely been scratched by me. Keaton, of course, is the great Stone Face: a gifted and slightly bonkers physical comedian who did insanely dangerous stunts, but whose characters on screen rarely showed any emotion. Lewis, on the other hand, drew strongly on his elastic facial expressions to double down on the physical gags of his films. My preference has always been with Keaton (knowing Lewis just from clips off TV, etc.), but a viewing of one of Lewis’ earliest films called The Bellboy made me reconsider digging into his film career.
Therefore The Nutty Professor was the obvious next step for investigating Lewis – it’s typically his highest rated film (among those he directed and starred in), is rife with potential for slapstick and is essentially part of general pop culture at this point. The Bellboy was an excuse to squeeze numerous skits and ideas together into a non-plot film, but it succeeded in impressing me along several lines. Lewis showed he could actually be subtle and very inventive while being a complete goofball. The Nutty Professor will have to wait, but I had some high hopes going into The Family Jewels that I’d get at least more of the same and build further anticipation to his other films. How did that pan out? Well, let’s review my first sentence of this post again…Barring several moments of reasonably inspired absurdity and several deftly timed bits by Lewis, the film flops and flounders as it haphazardly wanders through its plot mechanism: a 9-year-old heiress (first time actress – and boy does it show – Donna Butterworth) gets to spend 2 weeks with each of her five different uncles (all played by Lewis) to see who she prefers to be her guardian. The family chauffeur Willard (also Lewis) is her best friend and escorts her to each new candidate. He also happened to accidentally stop an armoured car holdup at the start of the movie which is not forgotten by the gangsters he thwarted.
Keaton’s 1923 film also deals with the concept of family and what it really means (he even sneaks his own father Joe Keaton into the film as a train engineer), but it begins in a more overtly melodramatic fashion. It opens with title cards informing us of a generations long feud between the McKay and Canfield families that has little purpose anymore – the adult males just know that they want to kill the other family’s adult males. And so, on a dark and stormy night, a visiting Canfield decides to do what he feels is his duty and remove the local McKay from the face of the earth. He succeeds, but also manages to get himself bumped off too. The elder McKay’s widow decides to take their 1 year-old son and move to New York city to get away from the feud and promises never to tell the boy about any of it. After this opening (which, though not funny, is very well constructed with little need for intertitles), we cut 20 years into the future and meet 21-year-old Willie McKay. The moment Buster Keaton’s face comes on screen, the film shifts easily into its comedic space. Almost as easily as Keaton effortlessly and economically creates humour with subtle movements and body positioning (he sometimes seems quite frozen in mid movement). Of course, there are also the stunts that build to bigger and bigger payoffs as the movie goes on, but some of my favourite moments are the small things he does. Just the way he tosses a piece of luggage on top of a carriage is something to behold. And, possibly my favourite part of the film, a 10 second throwaway of him not knowing what to do with his hands when he realizes a set of people are watching him. His timing, movements and variety of ideas are all simply magnificent.
Lewis also leaves no doubt what kind of film you are watching the second he comes on screen, though his comedic intent is far more in your face. That’s not necessarily bad, of course, just that his rubbery mugging for the camera is a different approach. Some of it works here, but a lot of it feels forced and continues past any possible initial point of humour. One reason is that he simply has no one to play off – the young Butterworth has zero skills in this area – and so some of his bits aren’t overly welcome shortly after they’ve begun. This particularly applies to several of the uncle characters like Captain Eddie and the gangster Bugs Peyton who are all schtick and very little else. As soon as Lewis is finished with the permutations of the “crazy” characters, he’s ready to move on to a new scene. Though there is the overall plot that holds the movie together, it still feels like a set of sketches – even more so than The Bellboy. Through the strained moments, though, there’s still several good bits – Lewis can occasionally get more of a laugh by reining in his need for the BIG reactions such as when an entire row of books spills to the floor due to his touching a single one of them or during a full 2-minute long single take shot of him trying to get two people properly lit and positioned in a camera frame (in this case he actually has someone to play off). This inconsistency leads to the film feeling half-baked and cobbled together which is certainly not something you could say about Our Hospitality. Things kick into gear when Willie takes a steam train home after getting a notice that he can now claim his family’s property (the film is set in the mid-1800s). Keaton seems to get inspired by train gags and he packs numerous ones in early on. Fortunately he also follows these up with a variety of other environments and set pieces. He meets a girl on the train and she just happens to be a Canfield, so when she brings him home for dinner the rest of the menfolk in her family are none too pleased. This leads to a variety of missed opportunities for the Canfields to kill Willie to via gunshot and slides right into some hair raising chase sequences on cliffs and rapids. The film’s most famous bit is Willie’s rope swing timed perfectly to save the girl as she plummets over a waterfall. Sure that’s a dummy going over the edge of the water, but that’s still Keaton tied to the rope and flying headlong into the gushing water. It’s not just impressive, but the absurdity of Willie being able to pull this off adds laughs to the excitement.
And there lies the big difference in these two films – Keaton give us a full story with subtle humour that ramps its way up to bigger more absurd laughs through character and action. Lewis sticks pretty tight to one main style and keeps pushing it without any fine tuning and regardless of situation. There’s still plenty for me to explore in Jerry Lewis’ “oeuvre” and I certainly plan to do so – both The Family Jewels and The Bellboy provide enough elements to show the creative comedic mind behind Lewis’ goofiness. However, Keaton remains one of my movie heroes and Our Hospitality is yet another of his perfectly formed comedic creations. I’ll track down The Nutty Professor (Note: I have since seen it) at some point, but it’s probably best I didn’t see it as a comparison point to Keaton. That’s just not a fair fight.