If “The Nutty Professor” represents the pinnacle of Jerry Lewis’ work as a comic actor and filmmaker, then “The Family Jewels” comes across as a middling, chaotic effort that represents Lewis at both his most masterly and his most self-indulgent.
Newly available through Warner Archive Collection’s Manufactured on Demand program (the film was previously released on DVD by Paramount but had gone out of print), this 1965 multiple-identity comedy features Lewis in seven roles, ranging from over-the-top silliness to mawkish sentimentality, with a lot of goofy wigs, rubber noses and fake buck teeth thrown in for good measure.
With Lewis fully in charge (along with directing and starring, he produced and co-wrote the script with Bill Richmond), the story plays out as a series of character skits and extended set pieces that give the star more than ample room to exercise his most inspired and wacky comedic chops as well as to indulge his most annoying tendencies toward farcical extravagance.
The tale marginally focuses on 10-year-old Donna (Donna Butterworth), the orphaned daughter of a fabulously wealthy industrialist. Her father’s will stipulates that she choose one of six eccentric uncles (all played by Lewis) as her guardian in order to inherit the family’s $30 million estate.
And so little Donna makes the rounds in the company of her loyal, affectionate bodyguard-chauffeur Willard (also Lewis, playing the film’s most obvious father figure) to assess the parental fitness, or lack thereof, of each loony uncle.
This gives Lewis a chance to don multiple disguises and personas (not unlike Alec Guinness in 1949’s “Kind Hearts and Coronets”) and to chew the scenery – BIG TIME.
The rogue’s gallery of uncles includes a morose clown who despises children; a kindly but confused sea captain; a bumbling fashion photographer; a wayward pilot of a rickety aircraft; a Holmesian private detective assisted by the brainy Dr. Matson (Sebastian Cabot), and a gnarly gangster who tries to kidnap Donna to get his hands on the family loot.
As a director, Lewis shows great mastery of form, and he’s not afraid to take chances by departing from the plotline and exploring subplots with extended set pieces. This results in some inspired moments (as when the gangster uncle sheds his “funny face” to reveal a truly ugly face underneath).
But it also results in an uneven comic tapestry, with sidetracks that seem to plod up dead ends and with elaborate skits that just fall flat.
But with “The Family Jewels,” Lewis never manages to achieve the levels of sustained insanity and hilarity that he hit so brilliantly two years earlier in “The Nutty Professor.” This is Lewis in a minor key – still taking risks and striving harder than ever to be loony and yet hoping to be taken seriously as more than just a nightclub comic and wacky kiddy performer.
- Dennis King