Klutzy, yet kindly chauffeur Willard Woodward (Jerry Lewis) lives for looking after nine year old heiress Donna Peyton (Donna Butterworth). But, as per her late father’s will, Donna must spend time with each of her six wacky uncles before eventually choosing one to serve as her surrogate daddy. Since guardianship comes with a hefty hunk of the deceased billionaire’s fortune, they’re all vying for the job.
Will it be salty sea captain James Peyton (Lewis, again)? Obnoxious circus clown Everett Peyton (also Lewis)? Julius Peyton (it’s that man Jerry again!) a goofy photographer with an eye for pretty ladies? How about crackpot Captain Eddie Peyton (guess who?), the eccentric aviator. Or maybe “genius” detective Skylock Peyton (mister versatile strikes again) who winds up trussed up alongside sidekick Dr. Matson (Sebastian Cabot, a.k.a. Bagheera in The Jungle Book (1967)) by a mystery interloper. Donna’s sixth uncle, “Bugs” Peyton (sick of him yet?) is a notorious gangster, missing and presumed dead. But who is that shadowy, knife-flinging stranger seemingly out to kill Willard?
From its charming cartoon credits to Pete King’s sprightly score and the stylish costumes designed by the great Edith Head (note how Donna has a cute little outfit that corresponds to each situation), The Family Jewels showcases the lush production values Jerry Lewis enjoyed at Paramount Studios. Sadly, this was their last collaborative effort and later Lewis movies showed a marked drop in quality as a result. Here he remains at his zanily inventive best, imparting a storybook feel to this episodic but highly entertaining children’s fable.
As a morality play it’s none too subtle and obvious whom Donna will choose as her new dad. Heck, she wishes Willard was her daddy right from the earliest scenes! Yet the script, co-authored by Lewis and Bill Richmond, displays a childlike sincerity and features some insightful episodes. Things turn momentarily downbeat when Donna’s dreams of living with a circus clown turn sour upon meeting Everett, a monster who loathes “those squealing brats” he entertains. As usual with Lewis, it is tempting to theorise each wacky caricature marks an attempt to exorcise his more negative personality traits.
Yet when addressing her assembled uncles, Donna shows a surprising amount of tact and kindness, suggesting the need to accept human beings as they are, foibles and all. Aside from Everett, none of them are necessarily bad guys. They team up to assist Willard in rescuing their imperilled niece, although their efforts prove more hindrance than help. Even Bugsy winds up engrossed in Donna’s childish games, easily outfoxed by the clever girl.
Lewis coaxes an engaging and very natural performance from Hawaiian born Donna Butterworth, in the first of only two movies she made - the other being opposite Elvis Presley in Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966). She shares great chemistry with Jerry, especially her relationship with lovable Willard, which might otherwise have come across mawkish and sentimental.
In keeping with the kid-friendly tone, the film features Lewis’ most cartoonish sight gags. Only the gas station segment drags too long and deviates from the primary plot. The others are laugh out loud hilarious, including James’ loopy seafaring story about disarming a torpedo (“It was a Russian torpedo” he says observing a painted swastika!) or when Willard marvels at a wall full of photographs of beautiful women that stretches as far as the eye can see.
Pick of the pack is undoubtedly Captain Eddie’s (who has the funniest voice) antics, wherein he takes a group of dotty old ladies (en route to their Chicago motorcycle club!) into the wild blue yonder. This sets in motion a series of inspired sight gags, including an in-flight movie that lurches with the wayward plane. If you’re a Jerry Lewis phobe, see this or The Nutty Professor (1963) and you might just be converted.