Jerry Lewis is a comedic genius - acknowledged. He’s also been a devout philanthropist whose charitable investments, arguably, outrank most any other humanitarian effort undertaken in Hollywood – confirmed…and, greatly admired. The Nutty Professor (1963) is his finest hour as a comedian? Hmmmm. Lewis’ comedic take on Robert Stevenson’s literary classic, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (about man’s struggle to rid his soul of its demons) has its issues; chiefly its middle act, where the egocentric tug o’ war between Professor Julius Kelp (Lewis, at his most inept) and alter-ego, Buddy Love (Lewis, again, but at his most dapper) becomes mired in episodic, and not terribly prepossessing vignettes. Cumulatively, these play more like a very awkward montage, interrupting, instead of augmenting, the overall narrative arc.
Jerry Lewis’ admiration for MGM’s 1941 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, starring Spencer Tracy, is clearly evident in every frame of The Nutty Professor; particularly, Kelp’s first transformation from goofy, buck-toothed academic, to suave slickster with an attitude; the physical morphing done in primitive dissolves and cutaways, momentarily making their homage to the aforementioned source material; Kelp’s hands becoming gnarled and beast-like, his face covered in yak hair, a la the werewolf. What any of this has to do with being physically converted from the proverbial ‘stick in the mud’ to veritable stud muffin is anybody’s guess.
But The Nutty Professor is problematic in other ways too. Lewis’ goony scholar, instead of behaving refreshingly obtuse, is fairly annoying; his middle-aged fetishistic ogling of student, Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) almost pedophiliac in nature, further unhinged by Stevens’ inability to play this supposedly studious schoolgirl as anything more intellectually engaging than an addlepated, daydreaming and pig-tailed tart. That Stella Purdy could find the insanely overconfident Buddy Love even remotely eye-catching is a stretch of the imagination; for although he has the obvious raven-haired looks and moves of a swinging ‘hep cat’, he undeniably has the head of a complete ass.
Buddy’s not a player. He’s a sexist pig; his fervent belief in his own animal magnetism instantly making him the most unattractive clod in the crowd. The movie’s message - that beauty is only skin deep; that it does not equate to the true metal of any man (or woman, for that matter) and can never be a substitute for basic human kindness (the inner self far more resilient and telling than its outer shell) – is hopelessly submarined at every possible instance by the dulcet and intoxicating way others react to Buddy Love; gushing, swooning and generally falling instantly in love with his boorishness. It would seem like a very bad joke, except the film and Lewis seem to be illustrating an innate foible in humanity at large; too willing to overlook and find an excuse for just about any repugnant behavior - if the outer packaging is appealing.
There’s no denying the dual role was a departure for Jerry Lewis, who probably felt he had something as yet to prove in his post-Dean Martin career as a solo comedian. Lewis, who not only co-wrote the screenplay with Bill Richmond, but also directed himself (always a dangerous prospect), seems to have bitten off more than he can chew herein; the laughs not nearly as funny, the message (to be satisfied with one’s self) never quite as poignantly realized in the penultimate moment (and big reveal) near the end of the movie. Feather in some fairly sexist humor, and thoroughly misguided sight gag lunacy, most of it provided by Lewis – who relishes every opportunity to play the bumbling Professor Kelp as an ever-so-slightly deranged, bookish nerd (his only real friend is a talking mynah bird) and The Nutty Professor is teetering dangerously close to devolving into bad camp, instead of rising through the ranks as a stellar comedy.
The Nutty Professor comes at the tail end of an illustrious string of ‘naughty but nice’ comedies including 1958’s The Geisha Boy and 1960’s Cinderfella: sumptuous spectacles with Jerry Lewis appropriately cast as the undisputed master of some very slippery slapstick. In hindsight, it’s easier to see the actor/comedian still struggling to divest himself of these obtuse antics. Lewis’ exuberantly silly jive/Charleston improv as Prof. Kelp, listening to Les Brown and His Band of Renown at the senior prom, are juxtaposed with snotty jibes as Buddy Love, lobbed at the sycophants worshipping him at the Purple Pit; the comedy becoming more rancorous and thus, less pleasing.
Even from today’s vantage, where comedy is readily played out to inflict maximum embarrassment and still receives the hearty laugh, Buddy’s snide humiliations and pithy retorts just seem brutally condescending. Buddy’s arrogance doesn’t equate to confidence either. Rather, it’s being used as something of a shield: a sort of slap-down ‘do unto others before they do unto you’ defense mechanism against the world, lest the world get the upper hand as it already seems to in Prof. Kelp’s life; growing up with a henpecked father, Elmer (Howard Morris) a domineering mother, Edwina (Elvia Allman) and presently under the jurisdiction of a stern faculty president, Dr. Mortimer S. Warfield (the deliciously funny, Del Moore).
Jerry Lewis has always maintained his characterization of Buddy Love is not a wicked lampoon of Dean Martin. The unamicable parting of Martin and Lewis (one of the most popular comedy acts on radio and in the movies) in 1956 arguably enhanced both men’s careers in the subsequent decade. However, at the time, their split remained decidedly bitter. Alas, and despite Lewis’ claim to the contrary, it is virtually impossible not to think of the more amiable Martin when observing Lewis as Buddy Love at the Purple Pit; sauntering in with a boastful swagger, a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips, adopting a Martin-esque pose as he orders the bartender (Buddy Lester) to fix him an ‘Alaskan Polar Bear Heater’ – a virtual Berlitz course in the alcoholic arts, incorporating vodka, rum, brandy, gin, scotch and vermouth. Interestingly, there was no such cocktail at the time of the movie’s release; the concoction spouted off by Buddy becoming an accepted beverage featured in bars and nightclubs everywhere thereafter.
The cream of the jest for Jerry Lewis, effectively blurring the line between Buddy Love and Dean Martin, is his musical coup in the picture; belting out ‘We’ve Got a World that Swings’ to a throng of adoring bobbysoxers. Lewis also has great fun at the piano, playing Stella By Starlight (originally composed by Victor Young for 1944’s The Uninvited) in one of his lesser obnoxious moments. The Nutty Professor might have worked if Lewis had either gone for the extreme, to make Buddy Love evil incarnate (the contemporary essence of a Mr. Hyde) or tried to find his soft spot for Stella, thereby making her attraction to him about more than the physical and thus, creating a sort of empathy for the lovesick fop trapped beneath this exterior, who foolishly believes the only way he can get the girl is by becoming the man he thinks she wants. Alas, what’s here instead devolves into the tale of a sad, four-eyed chump, transformed into a socially repugnant roué; no man’s idol and, arguably, no woman’s dreamboat.
The Nutty Professor opens with a bang – literally; Professor Kelp blowing out the back of his classroom with a chemical experiment gone awry. The college’s dean, Dr. Warfield, is frankly fed up with Kelp. Indeed, Lewis’ take on the scrawny academic is bizarre. Kelp is so inarticulate as to render whatever biological brilliance he may possess a very moot point. How he ever imparts any wisdom on his class remains a mystery. And Kelp has zero clout with the kiddies, as it were; terrorized by football jock, Warzewski (Med Flory) after attempting some in-class discipline. Determined to ‘become a man’, Kelp joins the college athletics department. But his entrée into the realm of the anatomically gifted is a comedic disaster. The exercise pulleys snap, sending him flying across the room. Later, Kelp has his arms stretched to floor-length while attempting a barbell curl; a rather freakishly unfunny and grotesque sight gag.
Frustrated by his lack of progress in the gym, Kelp decides to employ his own mind over matter, concocting a chemical compound to transform himself into the loathsome, sex-crazed lady’s man, Buddy Love. In light of today’s readily debated hot topic of steroid abuse, the home-grown formula devised by Prof. Kelp has since taken on a decidedly different context. But the 1963 movie is hardly concerned with ‘bulking up’ or ‘trimming down’ (as is the Eddie Murphy remake from 1996), rather, in morphing one’s personality from meek and mannered into unbearable haughtiness, with a modest improvement in looks as a necessary caveat. Discovering this ‘other side’ to his relatively mild disposition, Kelp – now Buddy Love – wows the patrons at the Purple Pit; a local watering hole for the college crowd. In short order, Buddy sweeps Stella off her feet and away from a pack of football jocks. Their afterhours rendezvous at a make-out point overlooking the city goes awry when the formula begins to wear off, forcing Buddy’s hasty departure, much to his own chagrin and Stella’s utter confusion.
Although Kelp realizes he is not a very nice person when taking his serum he cannot deny he prefers the adulation Buddy receives while he is on it, as opposed to the way he is marginalized – even by his students – when just being himself. We move into the most awkward part of the film; a hodgepodge of snippets meant to illustrate Buddy’s burgeoning romance with Stella; his frequent trips to the Purple Pit becoming increasingly problematic as the formula appears to have less and less staying power as time – and Kelp’s abuse of the potion – wears on. It strikes Kelp that if this formula ever fell into the wrong hands it could have disastrous implications. So, on the advice of Jessica – his mynah bird – Kelp elects to mail a copy of the formula to his parent’s home; only to be opened in case of emergency.
As Kelp contemplates the need to preserve the formula for posterity, we regress into a tedious flashback illustrating the crux of his own insecurities; a garish scene in which Lewis plays Kelp as a child in a playpen, observing his mother, Edwina, emasculating her diminutive hubby/Kelp’s father, Elmer. Elmer cannot even eat in peace – poor bugger! Determined to be the man dear ole dad never was, Kelp takes another heaping dose of his serum and becomes Buddy Love once again. In the interim, the student faculty has elected Buddy should be a part of their senior prom’s entertainment. Naturally, Dr. Warfield is reticent about hiring an act he’s never seen. Thus, when Buddy shows up at his office uninvited, Warfield is a little put off at the start. However, Buddy thoroughly wins him over, ironically, by making an absolute idiot of him; encouraging Warfield to play Hamlet and egging him on to even greater heights of absurdity, donning him with a cloak and straw hat, using his umbrella as a sword, and dropping his pants down around his ankles.
Warfield has commanded Kelp act as one of the prom’s chaperones. Meanwhile, Warfield’s secretary, Millie Lemmon (Kathleen Freeman) is empathetic toward Kelp, mildly amused when he is stirred to partake in an impromptu Charleston. Having her suspicions about Kelp being Buddy, Stella encourages the professor to share a spin around the dance floor. However, as the students assemble to hear Les Brown and his band play, Kelp sneaks off to his laboratory for another hit of his serum. Too bad Jessica has taken to using his formula book for her cage blotter, having already pecked out the pages with the necessary ingredients. Remembering he sent a copy of the formula to his parent’s house, Kelp telephones his father and has him read the directions to concoct another batch. Arriving at the prom as Buddy, Kelp entertains everyone with his rendition of ‘We’ve Got A World that Swings’. But his attempt into a musical segue of ‘That Old Black Magic’ is interrupted as the formula’s wears off; thus revealing to everyone Buddy Love and Prof. Julius Kelp are one in the same.
Kelp offers a sincere, heart sore and forlorn apology for his masquerade; confessing he didn’t think enough of himself to believe he could be anyone’s idea of the life of the party without a little help from his chemistry-dabbling endeavors. His confession forces the class to reconsider what it is they found so gosh darn attractive about Buddy; especially since Kelp is the other half of the man they so obviously and greatly admired. Realizing the lengths to which Kelp has gone to impress her, Stella feels romantic. Shortly thereafter, we see she has decided to pursue Kelp as himself for herself.
Kelp’s class is interrupted by the arrival of his father, Elmer, dragging along a decidedly chaste and demure Edwina. Having drunk the formula himself, Elmer is now the head of the family, bossing around his little woman (bonneted and silent, no less), marketing the serum as a tonic for anyone interested in improving their social life, beginning with Dr. Warfield, who has already taken a few sips to sample and now casually proclaims to the student body, “It’s a gasser!” Armed with two bottles of the formula, Stella and Kelp sneak off together, a marriage license tucked under the arm. It’s going to be some honeymoon!
The Nutty Professor is undeniably a very nutty film. Only in hindsight do we suspect Jerry Lewis cared very little for actual continuity; the looseness of the plot, strung together on sight gags paramount in propelling this threadbare narrative to its inevitable conclusion. Again, nowhere is this more evident than in the movie’s middle act – a hapless cacophony of snippets seemingly excised from everywhere and mindlessly slapped together without much rhyme, rhythm or reason. As basic storytelling it’s sloppy at best, and as standard montage, it doesn’t fare all that much better.
True confession, I’ve just never been able to warm to this wicked satire of Robert Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Call me jaded, it just doesn’t amuse me. Jerry Lewis gives us Jerry Lewis, doing all his trademarked mugging for the camera. As Buddy Love he seems perhaps closer to being a derivation of Jerry Lewis – the man – albeit, more bitter, cynical and condescending than the real McCoy. My chief glitch with the movie is that Buddy isn’t likeable; even in a perversely wicked ‘corrupting influence’ sort of way. He’s just belligerent, rude and smarmy – in short, a creep in wolf’s clothing. Why this should appeal to Stella is beyond reckoning unless, of course, the gal’s into pain – emotional, physical or otherwise.
It would have been something if Stella’s growing adoration for Buddy had become the impetus to will Kelp back into his former self; as in his realizing he is only capable of genuine affection if he is himself, rather than this cheap imitation. But instead, the formula just wears off willy-nilly, usually at the most inopportune moments, forcing Kelp to flee into the night, ruing his lost opportunities to seduce Stella as his alter ego. It doesn’t work – at least, not for me – and the results are garishly unfunny except in fits and sparks.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray isn’t exactly stellar either. An acquisition from Paramount’s film library (thus, it’s their mastering we’re seeing here) The Nutty Professor suffers from an inconsistently rendered transfer. When everything snaps together we are treated to a relatively smooth and finely detailed image with eye-popping colors and ever-so-slightly too pink (or too orange) flesh tones. In medium shots and close-ups we get the sort of ‘wow factor’ expected from 1080p. But in long shots the image falls apart and become blurry. I’m really at a loss to explain these lapses; but they appear to be inherent in the source material and not a flaw in the mastering effort.
Still, as this film was photographed in Technicolor (generally, a grain concealing process) it remains fairly perplexing why long shots throughout should appear, at times, excessively grainy and very softly focused. Yes, there are several optical dissolves and zooms featured in this film, with a decided – if momentary - downgrade in color fidelity and predictable increase in film grain. But check out the prom sequence, a razor-sharp shot of Les Brown’s band serenading the student body, cut away to a medium shot of Kelp listening to the music (also very clean and crisp), but matched to a reverse shot of the band, only now looking as though it were created from a dupe rather than a master; the blood red bandstand becoming highly unstable with some built-in flicker and advanced levels of grain jarring one out of the presentation (and the plot, for that matter). I can’t figure out what went wrong here, but something is decidedly remiss. In projection these failing are more glaringly obvious. But I should also point out they were not diminished to acceptable levels when viewed on my 65inch monitor either.
On the whole, The Nutty Professor is a showcase for Henry Bumstead’s production design and Edith Head’s gloriously lurid costumes and – on the whole – you won’t be disappointed with how either register in 1080p. No untoward artificial sharpening and/or filtering to complain about; a definite plus. As The Nutty Professor was photo-chemically created and shown in theaters on actual film stock, this new remastering effort appears to have striven to preserve the actual look of that vintage film stock. I’m not exactly certain why the Paramount logo that precedes the movie is framed in 1.66:1; the credit sequence window-boxed on all four sides; especially since the rest of this presentation is in 1.77:1, but there it is. Why Warner Home Video continues not to utilize all of the BD-50’s bandwidth is, frankly, beyond me. I’m not going to get into the debate as to whether maximizing bitrate improves overall PQ. Let’s, for the sake of argument, say that it simply cannot hurt. At 25.92 Mbps, The Nutty Professor’s transfer has effectively thrown away 31GB of available space. Why?
Originally released in mono, Warner gives us the choice of a restored 1.0 DTS mono track or a new 5.1 DTS with a very conservative approach to spreading the acoustics across the three front channels. It’s an effective and unobtrusive upgrade and the preferred choice of viewing at my house; sounding ever so slightly more robust, particularly in Walter Scharf’s score. Extras include a fairly informative audio commentary from Steve Lawrence and Jerry Lewis and a new featurette ‘No Apologies’. Part Vegas-styled routine/part backstage pass into the aging comedian’s present day life, it’s too short to be comprehensive and too ambitious to be considered a junket. The other two featurettes, ‘Perfecting the Formula’ and Jerry Lewis At Work seem more interested in providing commentary about Lewis’ other movies, with The Nutty Professor as something of an afterthought. We get some deleted scenes, plus a blooper reel and a short, ‘Jerry At Movieland Wax Museum’, narrated by Lewis’ son. There’s also some test footage and the original theatrical trailer to sink your teeth into. Bottom line: if you’re a fan, you’ll want to snatch this one up. It did nothing for me, but I acknowledge I’m probably in the minority here.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)