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The Nutty Professor (1963)
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The Nutty Professor (1963)

For most movie lovers, the films of Jerry Lewis are an acquired taste but among devotees of the director/star, there is little, if any, disagreement over what is considered his most accomplished film. The Nutty Professor (1963) is one of those rare instances where even critics who usually dismissed Lewis's work found themselves captivated by this surreal brew of sight gags and social satire presented in vivid Technicolor. The film opens at the fictional Matthews College where science professor Julius Kelp is constantly clashing with the administration over his frequently disastrous experiments. Kelp, with his buck teeth, whiny voice, thick glasses and lack of social skills, is the epitome of the total nerd but that doesn't stop him from falling in love with a sexy blonde student, Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens). To realize his romantic fantasy, Kelp decides to transform himself via chemistry into the sort of man women find irresistible. The result is Buddy Love, a libidinous alter ego who becomes the star attraction at the Purple Pit nightclub where he is idolized by the local co-eds. Of course, there are side effects and Kelp is unable to control the constant transformations that have a chaotic effect on his life.

On the surface, The Nutty Professor is clearly inspired by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and was a project, according to Lewis, that he toyed with making for ten years. It wasn't until he completed The Errand Boy (1961), however, that he devoted himself completely to its development, taking much longer than usual to prepare and cast the film. Initially, he wanted the distinguished British actor John Williams, so memorable in Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954), to play the college dean. Williams, on the other hand, was unimpressed with Lewis as a director or actor and dismissed the film as trash so the role went to Del Moore, a TV and radio announcer whose first film appearance with Lewis was in Hollywood or Bust (1956). Lewis also turned to friends and frequent collaborators for other key contributions - producer Ernest D. Glucksman, cinematographer W. Wallace Kelley, art director Hal Pereira, character actors Buddy Lester, Milton Frome, Kathleen Freeman and David Landfield. He wasn't opposed to giving opportunities to new, up-and-coming talents like Henry Gibson (soon to become a regular cast member on the Laugh-In TV series), Richard Kiel (the enormous 7 ft. actor best known as Eegah [1962] and "Jaws" in The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977), Francine York, Julie Parrish and his own son, Gary, in a bit part.

Outside of Lewis's dual role, the most crucial casting was the part of Stella Purdy, the student who unleashes Kelp's rampaging id. Stella Stevens was still considered a relative newcomer when Lewis cast her in this film (she first attracted attention in the 1959 screen version of Li'l Abner as Appassionata von Climax). Her playful ping-pong between two stereotypes - the girl-next-door and sex kitten - was ideal for the role. The fact that she recently had been Playboy's Playmate of the Month didn't hurt her screen image at all. Lewis was so infatuated with the actress during filming that he once confessed to her in a personal note, "You are the reason men can't live without the pride and thrill of direction" (from King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis by Shawn Levy). His adoration also explains why "Stella by Starlight" is the opening theme song for the movie, performed by Les Brown and his Band of Renown (appearing as themselves in the movie).

The majority of The Nutty Professor was shot in the studio with some exterior location work done in Tempe, Arizona. Product tie-ins were also integrated subtly into the shooting through publicist Jack Keller who arranged placement for Planter's Nuts, North American Van Lines, Willys Jeeps, and Vic Tanny Fitness Centers. Lewis was particularly secretive about the scenes involving the "Hyde" personality - Buddy Love - and maintained a closed set during the filming of these sequences. When critics finally reviewed the picture, they saw Love as a blatant parody of Lewis's ex-partner Dean Martin. Despite a superficial resemblance to Martin's screen image as the boozing, womanizing lounge singer, Love is really much closer to the dark side of Lewis glimpsed in his live telethon appearances and Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983) - sanctimonious, narcissistic, confrontational.

In an interview with Axel Madsen (quoted in Cult Movies by Danny Peary), Lewis recalled, "It was a real Jekyll-Hyde situation at home as well as on the set. When I played the scientist everything was O.K. but when I played the other character things would get chillier at home. And to this day, my children have not seen the film. It's the only film my wife won't permit them to see. And I said to her, "Don't you want them to see my transformation, my best performance? And she said, "No...I don't want them to see Buddy Love." And this kind of shook me up and I said, "You're telling me I did a very good job." And she said, "You did a marvelous job playing the worst human being I've ever seen in my life."

No less daunting than Lewis's dual role was the actor/director's planned promotion for The Nutty Professor which was slated for a twenty-five city tour complete with Lewis making live appearances backed by his own orchestra. At one point Lewis even managed to gain entry into the White House for an unplanned appearance with President John F. Kennedy. When the tour officially ended in New York City, Lewis had been on the road for seven weeks and made more than 770 appearances including visits to local radio and television stations. His publicity gamble paid off and The Nutty Professor proved to be his most financially successful film to date.

Even better and more unexpected were the reviews. Critic Stuart Byron stated, "Lewis has really made his view of life into a true comic vision that can be discussed on par with Chaplin's, Keaton's, and Laurel and Hardy's" and Howard Thompson of the New York Times, a newspaper that was usually dismissive of Lewis's work, described the film as "a comical study, with an edge of pathos. The surprising, rather disturbing result is less a showcase for a clown than the revelation of a superb actor..." Among contemporary critics and film scholars The Nutty Professor continues to stand as Lewis's finest achievement. The TimeOut Film Guide labels it a "surreal off-the-wall masterpiece" and David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film believes the film "shows the somber side of Lewis's imagination usually obscured by sentimentality. It seems to reflect on Lewis's own appearance and the pain of all those disparaging asides in his partnership with Dean Martin."

Admittedly, The Nutty Professor is not without its faults. The closing speech Kelp delivers to the students at the senior prom dance is a maudlin and too literal simplification of the film's message to just be yourself. Not all of the jokes and comedic bits work (the scenes with Kelp's talking bird) and some are extended long past the point of amusement. Even Lewis's adoration of his lead actress occasionally leads to some embarrassingly excessive moments such as the fantasy sequence where Kelp imagines her posing provocatively in a variety of outfits (Tennis, anyone?). But even if you're not a Lewis fan, The Nutty Professor is more impressive for its visual inventiveness than its ability to inspire non-stop laughter. From the clever use of sound (a morning-after hangover scene) to wonderfully absurd sight gags (the stretched-arms-with-barbell shot) to the stylized performances, the film is closer in style and tone to a live action cartoon, which isn't surprising. After all, Lewis worked with director and "Looney Tunes" animator Frank Tashlin on eight pictures and his influence is felt throughout the most inspired moments in The Nutty Professor.

Producer: Ernest D. Glucksman, Arthur P. Schmidt
Director: Jerry Lewis
Screenplay: Jerry Lewis, Bill Richmond
Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley
Film Editing: John Woodcock
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Music: Louis Y. Brown, Walter Scharf, Jimmy McHugh
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Professor Julius Kelp), Stella Stevens (Stella Purdy), Del Moore (Dr. Hamius R. Warfied), Kathleen Freeman (Millie Lemmon), Med Flory (Football Player), Norman Alden (Football Player).
C-108m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford