Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Nutty Professor (1963) - The Duality of ... A Comic

The Nutty Professor 1963 DVD case
"The Nutty Professor" (1963).

Make no mistake, there is an awful lot of Jerry Lewis in "The Nutty Professor" (1963). Either you like that, or you don't. He overdoes it, as he always does, but it works - gloriously, at times - despite being so over-the-top that Jack would have to climb the beanstalk to reach Jerry's level.

The Nutty Professor 1963 DVD Stella Stevens Jerry Lewis
Jerry Lewis directs Stella Stevens in "The Nutty Professor."

You see the show-business schmaltz creeping in, and you instinctively put your fingers up in the sign of the cross to ward it off - but then you wind up liking it in spite of yourself. Forget about his later years, Jerry Lewis in his prime was the biggest talent in Hollywood, and this was his greatest film.

The Nutty Professor 1963 Buddy Love
Buddy Love singing.

A film that has career performances from Jerry Lewis and Stella Stevens can't be bad, my friend. And this is a terrific film that says ... something. Exactly what will depend on how you read the ending. But rest assured, somebody does get the girl.

The Nutty Professor 1963  Jerry Lewis Stella Stevens
Stella Stevens is magnificent.

In brief, this is a take on the classic "Jekyll and Hyde" story, updated to modern times and with a romantic twist. Rather than craft a horror film featuring an unstoppable man-killer, Jerry (writer, director, star) creates a ladykiller. Lewis hits a lot closer to home with his version that examines the rules of attraction. Legend has it that Jerry met an odd character on a train and based the character of Julius Kelp on him, then went through seven script drafts before teaming up with Bill Richmond and going through two more drafts. Specifically, Jerry plays the nerdy physics professor of the title who, driven to desperation to get the woman of his dreams, comes up with a potion that turns him into 1963's version of an unstoppable lady killer. Name: Buddy Love.

The Nutty Professor 1963  Jerry Lewis Buddy Love Stella Stevens
In fact, Stella is beyond magnificent.

Philosophers can ruminate all they want about the duality of man, but Lewis cuts straight to the heart of the matter: the duality of himself. On the one hand, there is the product of all his hard work and experience, the slapstick comic that had partnered with Dean Martin and become one of the most celebrated (especially by the French) acts of modern times. Successful, secure, with an assured future, just like the Professor Kelp of the film. But it was this "Jerry" that Jerry wanted to leave behind, the eternal juvenile who kids might love, but adults could never take seriously.

The Nutty Professor 1963 Jerry Lewis
Unbelievably, the lab scenes are some of the most colorful and vibrant.

On the other hand, there is Buddy Love, the ultimate adult who doesn't make anybody laugh but whom everyone takes seriously. Buddy is the man Jerry seemed to be striving for, the one who wanted to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor by people heretofore accustomed to laughing at the mere sight of him. Buddy also is the one who makes all the girls swoon, whereas in Jerry's mind, the professor is completely unattractive. So the choice is clear... maybe.

The Nutty Professor 1963 Jerry Lewis
The awesome Kathleen Freeman, in her prime.

Stella Stevens, as the object of (everyone's) lust, is the ultimate prize. Stella plays Stella Purdy, a character name that she came up with herself. She never looked better than she does here - legend has it that she and Jerry were dating at the time. Well, maybe in "Playboy," but that's another story. Anyway, she repeatedly indicates her interest in the Professor in the usual subtle female ways, but he hasn't the self confidence to make a move. And remember, this is 1963 - he has to make a move. No move, no girl.

The Nutty Professor 1963  Jerry Lewis Stella Stevens
Stella Stevens is awesome.

Enter Buddy Love. He is that perfect symbiosis of everything that men thought attracted women - suave, arrogant, master of the situation. And in the bar scene, those are exactly the qualities that do matter. And that's a great thing to have in a man (Stella agrees, note the bottles of potion she slips away with at the end) - but not if it's the only thing he has going. And that's Buddy, all hat, no cattle.  He's really an atrocious prick beneath all the hair creme and silk shirts. So who gets the girl? Ah, now there's the rub. Remember, Jerry wrote this, and there's an element of wish fulfillment here.

The Nutty Professor 1963 Jerry L ewis Buddy Love
This is Jerry - for real - as he no doubt imagines himself

The film's colors are striking. Buddy's suits are almost psychedelic, they are so vibrant. The Passion Pit, the local nightclub (this is some campus, to have the old Copacabana as its hot spot), is all shocking blues and reds. Even the chemicals splashed on the floor when the professor makes his transformation look like modern art, wavy yellows and greens. This delightful film takes advantage of Technicolor in that special way that some 1960s productions managed and few have since.

The Nutty Professor 1963 Jerry Lewis
This is Jerry as he wants us to see him.

As for Buddy Love, I think he is more Frank Sinatra than Dean Martin. But above all, he is young John Travolta (of a dozen years later). I actually think that Travolta might have copied some of his mannerisms from this film - stud muffin tough guy mixed with an endearing edge of goofiness and pathos that draws the girls in like catnip. The way Buddy Love looks down sometimes when he thinks he's being shamed - pure Travolta. Or, Travolta is pure Buddy Love. Though Buddy dressed a whole lot nicer.

The Nutty Professor 1963 Jerry Lewis Buddy Love
Ah, Stella Stevens, we all feel a bit like Kelp when faced with such loveliness....

The supporting players are terrific. Kathleen Freeman has one scene, at the prom, where she can't keep a straight face at Jerry's "Professor" antics that is a riot. And the Dean, played by Del Moore, gets his moment as "Hamlet." And let's not forget Les Brown and his Band of Renown thrown into the mix, along with a very young Henry Gibson and Howard Morris along for the ride.

The Nutty Professor 1963 Jerry Lewis
"Buddy" leading a band - wow, what an acting stretch here, huh?

"The Nutty Professor" truly is a delight. One of the best aspects is looking at Buddy Love and realizing how different our view of male attractiveness is today - but not female attractiveness. Did I mention that the beautiful Stella Stevens makes the whole thing work? I haven't seen that many adoring gazes since Nancy Reagan was First Lady. Forget the remake, watch this when you get the chance.


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