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Jerry Lewis' The Nutty Professor is now considered his most popular picture, for its interesting central idea plus the popularly-held notion that it contains a critique of the comedian's former show biz partner Dean Martin. Although they don't approach the near-surreal intensity of his films by the great director Frank Tashlin, the comedies signed by Lewis continue with the cartoonish exaggerations and eye-popping visuals. Lewis's peculiar brand of comedy ranges all over the map, but in this show he gets extra mileage by sticking to a central theme... borrowed from a famous horror story.
After yet another explosion in his chemistry lab, buck-toothed and awkward Professor Julius Kelp (Lewis) receives a stiff warning from his boss Dr. Warfield (Del Moore). Feeling a special attraction to the luscious student Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), Kelp tries without success to improve his physique in a gym. But he fares much better when he applies his scientific genius to the problem. A secret potion has a dramatic effect on Kelp's appearance, until he emerges not as a monster, but as the oily show-biz swinger, Buddy Love. This transformed Kelp is an instant hit at the nightclub hangout The Purple Pit, especially when he entertains singing at the piano. He intimidates the bartender, sucker-punches a student and comes on to Stella with an insultingly narcissistic attitude. Stella is infuriated by Love's offensive pitch, yet feels attracted to him on some level. It would appear that Stella could bet putty in Love's hands, but there's a hitch. The potion's effects are erratic, wearing off just as Buddy is rounding second base, or singing at the piano. That's when Julius Kelp's adenoidal voice sneaks back, forcing Love to make some unplanned, embarrassing exits.
In the disc extras Jerry Lewis says that his inspiration was Spencer Tracy's 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His formula for The Nutty Professor was to drop the Good vs. Evil dichotomy in favor of Funny vs. Not Funny. That's not exactly how the movie works, as the 'evil self' that the gawky Julius Kelp changes into is meant to be just as funny in a more complicated way -- Buddy Love is a slimy lounge-lizard type, ready to be the head rat in his own rat pack. In 1963 I remember a cousin telling me that the 'monster' Jerry turns into was a purposeful jab at Dean Martin. Primed by 1,001 gossip columns, people still believed Lewis & Martin hated each other and that the movie was a Lewis slam against his previous partner.
Lewis was surely aware that audiences would jump to that conclusion, but his Buddy Love character is not at all like Dean Martin. Martin was by all accounts a charming and friendly fellow, and within the pressure envelope of stardom, a gentleman. Lewis' Buddy Love often resembles insult comedian Don Rickles, lacking the "I'm kidding -- or am I?" twinkle that Rickles puts into his eyes when performing. Buddy Love considers himself hipster royalty entitled to abuse everyone he meets. Attracted by Stella Purdy's legs in The Purple Pit, Buddy makes with a terminally offensive come-on is -- he simply reminds her how incredible he is, and suggests that her only possible choice is follow his every suggestion, starting with the invitation to "plant one on these lips, baby."
Who is Buddy Love? He's an exaggeration of one facet of Jerry Lewis, minus the Telethon-show biz-friend-to-orphans public persona. Nobody was ever as horrible as Buddy Love, we hope. The most disturbing (honest?) thing about The Nutty Professor is that Stella Stevens' Stella Purdy can't help but be attracted to Buddy Love. He's so sincere when he sings those old standards! His horrible behavior must mask some deep insecurity! This doesn't ring false -- there's plenty of evidence to suggest that many women are practically programmed to be aroused by
Like Buddy, Jerry is an undeniable multi-talent. He and his cameraman W. Wallace Kelley throw a battery of staging and lighting techniques at the picture, emphasizing Kelp's awkwardness and Love's ultra-cool style. The transformation scene has great fun with horror conventions, especially when the face of the shape-shifting Kelp-monster keeps popping up in wild colors. For Love's first public appearance Lewis uses a great POV moving shot with various passersby reacting in surprise and shock. The only time we see Jerry forced to second-guess his direction is with Buddy Love's debut entrance into The Purple Pit -- he's must use an ugly optical zoom for the first reveal. The overall direction of The Nutty Professor is a model of comic economy.
Co-writers Lewis and Bill Richmond's basic story idea is bulletproof, so much so that goofball sidebar diversions don't slow the show down. Kelp has 'five minutes of fun at the gym", the final gag being a set of barbells that literally stretches his arms to the floor. Coming from a different cartoon dimension than the rest of the movie, the joke is less Tashlin than Tex Avery. The bits with Kelp's manic parents (Howard Morris and Elvia Allman) also seem a little disconnected. But Lewis' handling of the Kelp-Purdy-Love relationship really compels; it's alternately tender and disturbing. Stella Stevens surely captured the erotic imagination of every male over six years old. She contributes the necessary bait for Kelp and Love's attentions, convincingly playing both innocent-comic and suspicious-conflicted.
Del Moore is effectively broad as a straight foil for the jokes, while everyone's favorite Kathleen Freeman once again proves lends sincerity and heart to a Lewis film. The bits and notable faces around the periphery must have been actors Lewis liked or thought had the professional stamina to stick with his demanding direction. And Les Brown and his Band of Renown deliver the '40s era Big Band sound that Lewis preferred.
The kids I grew up with LOVED this movie and it remains a strong nostalgic favorite. Various biographers and fans persist in claiming that Jerry Lewis' talent as a cinematic genius has not been rewarded with the recognition it deserves, a charge I've never understood. My entire adult life I've been reading paeans to Jerry's genius, even from people not 100% sold on Jerry's comic style. Lewis will just have to make due with the consolation of fabulous riches, fan adulation and a legacy of lasting hit pictures.
Warner Home Video-Paramount's 50th Anniversary Blu-ray Boxed Set of The Nutty Professor is as deluxe as home video presentations get, and this one was produced with Jerry Lewis' personal input. The immaculate HD main feature replicates the eye-popping hues of original Technicolor prints; the audio track showcases Les Brown's big band music. Viewers are given a choice of original mono or a remixed 5.1 surround track. A single-disc Blu-ray edition is also available for purchasers not interested in the deluxe box.
The Blu-ray contains extras new and old. The commentary with Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence was recorded at Arizona State University. Steve sings during the titles and Jerry starts out with a joke or two, but the conversation soon turns informative. Jerry Lewis explains the genesis of the video tap/video assist innovation that he came up with in 1956. It wasn't until later that it was completely built so that takes could be played back on videotape; in the beginning Lewis tried to perform while monitoring himself on TVs spread around the room. A new widescreen featurette Jerry Lewis: No Apologies combines footage from a personal appearance with pieces of a new interview. Jerry mostly discusses the challenges of keeping up with everything at age 87. He can't blaze around as he once did, but he looks better than he has in years.
The other material is mostly from older Paramount DVDs, and is presented in a flat 4x3 format. Perfecting the Formula is a nicely assembled making-of show. These older interviews must be from the early 2000's, when medication for heart disease caused Lewis to gain weight and his face to bloat -- we're happy he's put that problem behind him. Jerry Lewis at Work is a partial history of his solo career and his taking over the directing reins of his pictures (notably from Frank Tashlin). A series of Deleted Scenes include a bit where Julius Kelp grows twenty feet tall and another in which he's a Scarface-like mobster. The last deleted clip shows Stella Stevens heating up The Purple Pit with her sensual reaction to Les Brown's music. Also on view are some promotional sketches with Jerry & Stella, some Bloopers and a short piece with Jerry at the Movieland Wax Museum.
Test footage shows Jerry trying out the Julius Kelp approach. In B&W his makeup looks quite a bit like Fredric March's Mr. Hyde from the 1932 horror film. Another audition test gives comic straight man Del Moore a real workout. The original trailer uses a clever Hitchcock-like gag to implore audiences "not to divulge the secret of the middle of the movie."
Also included are DVDs of Lewis' features The Errand Boy and Cinderfella, directed by Frank Tashlin. The first makes Jerry a runner in a movie studio run by Brian Donlevy. The other feature is a fractured fairy tale that goes in a softer direction than usual, and features Anna Maria Alberghetti and Judith Anderson.
A fourth disc is a CD called Phoney Phone Calls 1959-72, which should further popularize the recurring vogue for annoying phone pranks. A fifth disc in the deluxe boxed set is a DVD of the Nutty Professor feature film.
Adorned with a giant image of Julius Kelp in full goofus mode, the gift box contains several interesting pieces of swag arranged by Lewis himself. A 96-page "Being a Person" book is something Lewis had published and given to cast and crew of The Nutty Professor. From descriptions, it sounds like a gesture to patch up resentments on the set. Also present in published form are a 48-page book of storyboards and a 44-page item described as a cutting script, complete with the director's personal notes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Nutty Professor 50th Anniversary Blu-ray
1. Lewis says in the extras that he based Buddy on the awful inflated egos he'd run into in show business. I guess I can picture Lewis shrinking in silence from a pushy, self-involved Alpha male monster... maybe when he was starting out. My only Jerry Lewis story comes from my childhood. My step-grandfather was an electrician in Las Vegas for a few years, and was often backstage working a breaker board or whatever during shows. Whenever Jerry Lewis arrived backstage, he'd steamroll his way through to avoid being grabbed for autographs, chit-chat, any kind of personal contact with anybody. I suppose that if one has that problem in public for twenty years, some kind of adjustment would be required.
Lewis' solution, at least for his Vegas work in the early 1960s, was to order up mass quantities of cigarette lighters imprinted with his caricature and name. To anybody who tried to talk or even faced him, Lewis would slap a lighter in his hand and just keep walking. A free souvenir! I heard about this when I visited once -- old 'Granpa Ted' had a box with at least twenty of the things. I saved one (pictured).
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