Poor little Donna Peyton (Donna Butterworth). Her rich father has just passed away and his will states that she must become the guardian of one of her eccentric uncles. She must choose between Uncle James (Jerry Lewis), an aged sea captain with a bad sense of direction and memories of WWII. Then there is Uncle Julius (Jerry Lewis, again), a professional photographer whose a bit awkward around his female subjects. Uncle Everett (Lewis) is a clown in the circus while Uncle Edward (Yep, Lewis) is a pilot with a great deal of panache, if not much skill in the sky. Uncle Skylark is an English detective living in America with his sidekick, Dr. Matson (Sebastian Cabot) while Uncle Bugsy (Lewis) is a goofy looking mobster. After visiting each one, she realizes that the best substitute father would be her faithful chauffer and lifelong pal Willard (Lewis). He's very nice and has always cared for the frequently forgotten child.
If Jerry Lewis is indeed a genius, and one can make a good case for his abilities both as a comedian and as a filmmaker, then The Family Jewels is one of his brain farts. Oh, it's a fine film, a clever combination of the many things that made the former nightclub performer an international superstar. We get slapstick, endless mugging, a child to root for, a similarly styled supporting character, and a gentle sweetness that is definitely missing from today's mainstream laughfests. Lewis didn't want to bombard his audiences with bad taste. Instead, he wanted to make movies that the whole clan could appreciate and The Family Jewels is definitely one of those. It's not on par with The Nutty Professor (and what could be - that film is a near masterpiece of comic timing) and it's definitely not as dull witted or worn as later efforts like Hook, Line and Sinker or Way...Way Out! No, it's right up there with The Errand Boy, Who's Minding the Store, and The Disorderly Orderly.
But there is also a level of obviousness here which does the elastic faced performers a disservice. Lewis loved the archetype, and when given the chance to play an aging sea salt or an effete gentleman, he will take it up several uncomfortable notches. In fact, the various costumes and disguises actually distract from our appreciation of the man. In a movie like The Ladies Man, he is merely playing a version of Jerry Lewis and it's amazing to watch how he works his own persona. With gag noses and buck teeth, it's kiddie matinee time. It's still funny and full of life, but it's pandering, like putting on a mask and making monkey noises. At least Lewis didn't descend into the kind of crude scatology that marks many of today's tired humor ideals. He's borderline, but never really crossing over. The closest we come is when food becomes a part of someone's face, or when a bit of physical shtick lands around the hind quarters. In fact, Lewis famously "quit" filmmaking when he saw one of his movies paired with Deep Throat on a theater marquee. He didn't want his name even remotely associated with something his audience would not find wholesome and acceptable.
Thankfully, this is one of the many films that Lewis directed as well as starred in and his daft deft touch is all over it. This is a man who manipulated celluloid better than any French New Waver or future post-modern moviemaker. He will do anything to wring a bit more enjoyment out of the material. When all the Uncles appear together, he's meticulous in making sure that everyone gets their moment and he always presents his little leading lady in the best possible light -personally and performance wise. He also uses the child as a reflection of his own unique ability to connect with the underage crowd. Kids always loved the larger than life "clown" and this is clearly one of the inspirations for this film. Again, if you want to see why people all over the world love and appreciate the wonderful work of Jerry Lewis, The Family Jewels is a decent place to start. It's not his best, but it shows off his unusual skill set quite well.