In his Senses of Cinema profile on Jerry Lewis’s directorial career, Chris Fujiwara notes that The Family Jewels is something of a transitional film between Lewis’s classical period and his diffuse, presumably more uncontrolled films. Considering that it brings back a reasonable facsimile of Dr. Julius from The Nutty Professor, it occasionally plays like the extended version of his film-capping curtain calls. In a storyline that dangles perilously over the edge of cutesiness at a number of turns, Family Jewels centers around a rich, recently orphaned girl, Miss Donna Peyton (Donna Butterworth, in a thankfully unsugary performance that’s half precociousness and half tomboy), who will inherit her family’s $30 million till if she successfully chooses one of her six uncles to be her new father.
Like Nutty Professor, the film’s premise seems to center around a very clear set of narrative rules, but they are all but undercut in the first scene by the notion that Donna’s most suitable guardian is her family’s chauffer Willard (Lewis, who also plays the film’s parade of six uncles). The two exchange hugs, kisses, in-jokes, and every other possible iteration of filial love to the extent that the film’s eventual plot outcome is as devoid of “suspense” as possible. This accounts for the vaguely funereal tone of the film, set clearly by the scene Fujiwara isolates: the desultorily contemptuous monologue spoken by Donna’s Uncle Everett (in clown make-up) about how much he loathes his audience, “squealing brats” all of them.
What he doesn’t realize is that the only member of his audience at the moment he’s venting (the other clowns dismiss him as a greedy bastard) is Donna herself, peeking through the curtains to get a better look at her uncle before introducing herself. Everett is only the second uncle on her tour through the country, but her dejection and her disillusionment over discovering that “family” is scarcely defined by bloodlines never really leaves her throughout the remainder of the film. (Though Jerry twice includes his son Gary Lewis and his band The Playboys, more recent statements by some of his children claiming him to be a neglectful father seem to be as much a reference point for Family Jewels.)
Rather significantly, the end of the aborted Uncle Everett visit is the same point in the film where Lewis, as a director, lets his comedic set pieces stretch out longer than he ever had up to that point, not only interrupting the narrative, but stopping it dead in its tracks and making it march backward (which, at one point, he literally does to a regiment of soldiers marching in a parade). Whereas Donna’s first visit with Uncle James at least led to a reminiscence from the crusty old sea salt and, therein, some semblance of ersatz bonding, the film’s remaining stops are all exercises in avoidance. Donna visits Uncle Julius, a fashion photographer, and is mistaken for a child model for his cereal ad shoot. For the next five minutes, Donna sits on a bed with three bikini-clad “mother” figures, who hold milk and bowls, while Julius crashes around his studio (at one point adjusting the f-stop of the film’s camera itself).
The next scene, easily the film’s longest, has Donna visiting her Captain Uncle Eddie, a DIY airline pilot who attempts to fly five members of a Red Hat Society-like gang of motorcycle ladies to Chicago in his WWI-era plane. While Lewis riffs on everything from in-flight movies to luggage storage, the movie ignores its protagonists (Donna and Willard) for an astonishingly languorous 10 minutes. It’s a risky, and often infuriating, structure—setting up a construction only to increasingly subvert it to the point of distraction—but it’s one that Lewis has often indulged in. With The Family Jewels, Lewis seems more willing than ever to acknowledge his own hostility toward being dismissed as a kids’ entertainer, and not as a serious artist.