Jerry Lewis presents... The Nutty Professor (1963)

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you've probably noticed that a lot of my movie discoveries have come from my mom and my sister -- my mom will recommend something or mention someone I should check out, and then I wind up watching it with my sister (which can be good or bad). The same goes for my love of Jerry Lewis. Besides always mixing him up with Jerry Lee Lewis, I never had an encounter with the guy or his work, especially since my main source of films is TCM and they don't show Lewis's movies nearly enough, maybe once every few years. Then came the magical day when my mom recorded a documentary, Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis, a wonderful piece that I would recommend to everyone. My sister and I were transfixed, laughing hysterically at every film clip we saw. The channel that was airing the documentary also held a marathon of a minor portion of Lewis's films, including the one that many consider his best: The Nutty Professor. It's not often that my sister and I discover a classic film together; usually we make individual discoveries and then share them with the other. But Jerry Lewis has become sacred ground for us, much like Singin' in the Rain and White Christmas, our two favorites being Cinderfella and the one I'm going to blabber on about today, The Nutty Professor. I know that not everyone is aboard the Lewis train -- I totally get it. He can be loud, obnoxious, and unnecessarily silly, normally qualities I would hate. But like Chaplin (gasp!), there's a big heart behind Lewis's filmmaking, something I hope to explain in this post alongside all the hilarity he induces.


The Nutty Professor is Jerry Lewis's incarnation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, an obvious fact that the director/screenwriter/star made no attempt to hide -- he actually exploits the audience's expectations for the story throughout the film, allowing for areas of predictability and moments of divergence. It's even clear in the advertising for the movie that this is Lewis's intent, as posters ask
audiences not to reveal the middle of the movie instead of the end. (I have no doubt Lewis had a hand in this since he liked to control everything that had to do with his films. This is the man who commissioned Norman Rockwell to do the poster illustrations for Cinderfella, after all.) The Nutty Professor is the tale of Julius Kelp, a nerdy science professor with a heart of gold. Nothing goes right for him --
his lab experiments keep blowing up the classroom, infuriating the college dean Dr. Warfield (Del Moore); a student bullies him when he doesn't let the guy leave class to attend football practice; his crush on another student, Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), goes unnoticed. Finally deciding he's had enough, Kelp invents a formula that allows him to be Buddy Love, a handsome, stylish,
and smooth-talking jerk. Although Stella hates everything Buddy embodies, she finds him oddly irresistible, and her continual dates with him lead Kelp to keep taking the potion until one fateful night at the college dance. In front of everyone, Kelp's potion wears off and his alter ego is revealed. Stella understands, though, and the two wind up happily ever after.

Of course, there's lots of fun stuff in between all that. Jerry Lewis is incredible at sight gags and slow camera reveals, such as when Kelp opens a door and suddenly hears a noise. He looks around and appears surprised as he shuts the door and exposes a stunned Stella flat on her behind with her books strewn on the floor. One of my favorites is Kelp's attempts to bulk up at a gym. He watches a big muscular guy easily lift a weight and then tries it himself. Will
he fall on his face? Fall backward? Try for minutes on end to lift it from the ground? No, his arms stretch clear to the floor. This would be funny enough, but Lewis cuts immediately to Kelp asleep in bed, the camera zooming out to show that his arms are still weirdly elongated, which is helpful when he gets an itch on his foot and doesn't have to move to scratch it. These kind of camera shots are popular with Lewis, and I think they feed into informing his characters quite interestingly. We see one thing and assume it will go one way and then it swerves in an unexpected yet delightful avenue. Predictable Lewis's gags are not.

And it's predictability that Lewis tries to avoid in this retelling of a famous classic. He holds off on the introductions of Kelp and Buddy Love, building some slight tension to what you already know is inevitable. We see Kelp performing a demonstration throughout the opening credits, but his face is obscured. When the classroom literally goes up in smoke, Dr. Warfield's
secretary (Kathleen Freeman) finds him embedded in the floor, covered by a door. He's a complete mess, as he will be for the majority of the film, and everyone towers over him, emphasizing how life has kind of beaten him down. When he goes to Dr. Warfield's office after the explosion, Del Moore gives him the most withering look as he sinks into a chair that practically swallows him. (This is fixed when he puts a slim book on the cushion, which suddenly makes him the right height -- too funny.) You immediately feel bad for Kelp, a feeling that never goes away as he get pushed around and tries to find some form of companionship, whether it's just a friend or it's more serious like with Stella.

It's understandable why Kelp would turn to science to try to solve his problem, especially after the disasters at the gym. Believing he's found the right formula, Kelp drinks it only to find himself spiraling into the conventional sci-fi thriller. There's lightning, dark shadows, and a beastly transformation as Kelp grows copious amounts of hair on his arms and head. Test tubes
spill over, creating a giant puddle of rainbow colors that the professor thrashes in, while quick close-ups show his blinking eyes and hideous teeth. He looks every bit like we would expect him to, and this is enforced when the camera assumes Kelp's point of view as he walks the streets to get to the Purple Pit, a nightclub that all the college students go to. Everyone stops and stares in what we assume is horror... until Kelp
makes it to the Purple Pit, the camera switches perspective and zooms in, and we get the shock of meeting Buddy Love. Perfectly coiffed, sleekly dressed, perpetual cigarette in hand, Buddy makes his way around the room as rudely as can be. He bullies a bartender, punches out a student, and steals Stella away from her friends. The real kicker is when he takes over the piano and performs "That Old Black Magic," his face contorting in a parody of the crooner style. The whole club is mesmerized, and frankly I am too every time I watch it. Buddy Love's got moves, guys. You can check out his debut here.

Lewis likes to wink at his audience, for sure. He'll look directly into the camera, as will Stella Stevens, as if to say "Do you believe this?" At the end of the film, when Stella and Kelp finally get together, during their kiss words pop up on the screen saying "That's not all, folks!!!" I don't have confirmation, but I think this has two influences that belie Lewis's awareness of pop culture
and how it affects the viewer. The most obvious influence is Looney Tunes, which famously used "That's all, folks!" at the end of some of their cartoons. There's also the cartoonish influences from popular Lewis director Frank Tashlin inherent in Lewis's own directing. Come to think of it, The Nutty Professor's ending is full of nods to the audience. Earlier
in the flick, we see via flashback that Kelp's father (a brilliant Howard Morris) is even meeker and unassuming than Kelp is, which is helped by his very forceful mother (Elvia Allman). In the present day, the professor sends a copy of his formula to his parents for safekeeping. You basically forget about this little plot point until after the dance -- everything is back to normal, Kelp and Stella are in love, he's gotten braces and styled his hair differently... and
then his parents burst in. His father is now loud and brash and bossing around his mother, thanks to the formula. Kelp's dad has decided to market the product as Kelp's Kool Tonic, which worries his son to no end. Stella tells him it's not their problem anymore since they're going off to get married. They turn their backs to the camera and start to walk off into the proverbial sunset when Stella subtly winks to the audience as we see that she has two bottles of the tonic in her pants pockets. Instead of closing the book on the story, Lewis ends the picture with the words "the beginning," and you really do feel like it's just the beginning for Kelp. He finally got the girl, he's getting his self-esteem together, and life will only get better for him. It's a great optimistic ending.

An interesting component of Lewis's work is his integration of music. Practically every film he's directed and/or starred in, music has a function. Like the sight gags, it shows off another facet of the Lewis character. In Cinderfella, it creates an unforgettable moment between the Cinderella character and his princess, as well as a fun sequence in a kitchen as Cinderfella does his chores. The Errand Boy presents one of the
funniest pantomimes set to a great Count Basie tune. The Nutty Professor utilizes the talents of Les Brown and his orchestra in a wonderful two-minute scene at the college dance. Kelp is a chaperone along with the rest of the teaching staff, all of them standing in a line as they stoically watch the students. Kelp, however, just can't help himself. He lets loose with a sequence of charmingly dorky moves,
a goofy smile on his face as he thoroughly enjoys himself. He really does dance like no one's watching, probably because no one ever pays him the least bit of attention. It isn't until Dr. Warfield's eye happens to wander Kelp's way that he's noticed, and naturally Dr. Warfield has to dampen his cloud by making him stop, seeing as how it's "unprofessional." It's another way of demonstrating how sweet and
likable Kelp is in comparison to Buddy, whose musical talents are used to manipulate others into flocking around him. No one much likes Buddy when he first shows up, especially Stella. He almost loses her with his snobbish insults, but once he starts singing "That Old Black Magic," everyone in the Purple Pit is drawn to him. Every night, he arrives at the nightclub and the students practically beg him to perform. It's another part of his cool cat persona, leading many to wonder if Lewis was taking a potshot at his old partner, Dean Martin. Lewis denies this, saying it was "a conglomeration of every unkind, nasty son of a bitch I had seen all of my life, the man who says 'Waitress, where the hell is my coffee?!' The man who doesn't open the door for a lady, the man that takes the cab in the rain from the woman who had her hand on the handle..."


As I said before, Jerry Lewis put plenty of heart in his films. His characters are typically loners, vulnerable guys whose innocence protects them from recognizing the evil in their world. They spend their days trying to please others, while in moments of quiet they find small ways to please themselves because no one else bothers to spend time with them. These characters often have one defining scene that exemplifies the totality of their situation. For example, in The Errand Boy, he finds a stuffed animal that magically comes to life and they have a sincere little heart-to-heart. The Delicate Delinquent has him singing "By Myself" as he walks empty streets. For The Nutty Professor, this penultimate moment of vulnerability comes at the dance when his charade is uncovered. It's surprisingly raw, watching Buddy slowly devolve back into Kelp as he exposes his emotions. Here's just a snippet:
"I think that the lesson that I learned came just in time. I don't want to be something that I'm not. I didn't like being someone else. At the same time I'm very glad I was 'cause I found out something that I never knew: you might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time you're going to have to spend with you. And if you don't think too much of yourself, how do you expect others to?"

If you wanted to see just one movie from Jerry Lewis, I think The Nutty Professor is your best bet. It gives you all the highlights of the Lewis persona, and it's a very good directorial effort from him too. I didn't even hit all the good stuff, including the marvelous Stella Stevens. Some might say the Lewis filmography only goes down from here, but I say that's totally up to your tastes. Comedy is too subjective -- you may see The Nutty Professor and hate it, but love The Ladies' Man or The Patsy instead. Whichever way you go, I hope that at least some point in your life you give Jerry Lewis a chance. I think you might be surprised.



Stuffed in a cabinet by a student, Kelp gets an offer of help from Stella


I'm sure we all leave the gym looking like this at some point.
I love that he's drinking milk out of a measuring tube. It's the little things...
Kelp and I both leave the library with too many books.


The Purple Pit is a fantastic set. Adore all the different purples.





Contrary to what she tells Buddy, Stella has become a "smitten kitten" for him.
While waiting for the doorway to clear, Kelp imagines Stella in a variety of poses...




Kelp's awesome pet bird, Jennifer. Notice the "Home Sweet Home" sign?

Not the most convincing baby...



Kelp's hangover after a night of being Buddy just about does him in.


Stella Stevens does a lot of languishing... beautifully, I might add.


I'm not even going to explain it to you. You'll have to see the film for yourself to figure this one out.










With love,
Michaela

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This is my contribution to the See You in the Fall Blogathon, hosted by Steve at Movie Movie Blog Blog, a blogathon celebrating physical comedy in films and TV. You can catch all the pratfalling, disaster-making, floor-sliding fun here.

Comments

  1. When I'm not laughing at this film I'm generally in awe of either the bizarre parallel universe it takes place in, the surprisingly expressive film making on display (colours! especially, purples!), or the climactic speech from Jerry Lewis, a masterpiece of unearned sentiment.

    Great post, obviously a real labour of love!

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    1. Thank you so much! I'm a huge advocate of Lewis's work, and knowing all the negativity it seems to receive, I really want to be sure that I'm making it clear what's so great about his movies and why they deserve a chance. They're not just for the French! Good point about the expressive filmmaking, by the way -- I think Lewis had the best teacher in Frank Tashlin, but he also had his own marvelously creative ideas that are sometimes ignored in favor of his acting.

      Thanks again! It's always heartwarming to find another Jerry Lewis fan!

      Delete
  2. Very thoughtful entry about a delightful movie. I'm one of those people who, as you pointed out, is not a huge Lewis fan, but I think this is definitely one of his more admirable entries. Thanks for contributing to my blogathon!

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    1. Thanks for having me! I agree, this movie is one of Lewis's best, maybe even #1. I have a hard time watching the 1996 remake with Eddie Murphy now that I know what the source material was.

      Delete
  3. I share your appreciation for Jerry Lewis and applaud your excellent article. One of the things I admire about Lewis and his films is his use of great character actors, a sign (I'm sure) of his admiration for them and an opportunity to provide work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yay, another Lewis fan! Yes, he certainly had a great gang of regular character actors: Del Moore, Kathleen Freeman... Even if they weren't his usual people, Lewis always had a good supporting cast, from Ed Wynn to Dame Judith Anderson. I have a fun story actually: Lewis really wanted Anderson for the stepmother in Cinderfella, but the studio balked when they heard her price. Lewis told them it'd be worth it, although it took up a big chunk of the budget. Later when the film came out, it did way better business than anyone expected. Turns out, Anderson had a play touring and she sang the movie's praises everywhere she could, causing more people to go. Lewis was right, she was worth the price!

      Thanks so much for the comment!

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    2. Wonderful story about Dame Anderson. What a gal!

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  4. Well I'm glad I'm not the only one who confused Jerry Lee with Jerry Lee Lewis!
    I've actually on seen the remake of this which I hated, but I think that has more to do with Eddie Murphy than anything else. But clearly I should learn to be less judgemental as I've missed out on a gem.

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    1. Even though I was probably about 9 when I first saw the Eddie Murphy version on TV, I thought it was terrible. I'm not sure why that version is constantly shown and not the far better original (in my state, anyway). If I remember correctly, they're both pretty reflective of the era they were made in, so that contributes some big differences as well. I hope you get a chance to check out Jerry Lewis's version sometime!

      Thanks for reading!

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  5. I haven't seen this film, but it certainly looks very stylish. And what a great character name: Julius Kelp!

    Thanks for the mention re: Jerry Lewis documentary. I'd really like to see that.

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    1. It's fabulous, both the film and the documentary. The doc really focuses on everything, from Lewis's movies to his time with Dean Martin to the present day. You also get to hear interviews with people who enjoy Lewis's work, like Alec Baldwin, Carol Burnett, and Carl Reiner. Good stuff!

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  6. My mom always talked about watching Jerry Lewis in afternon sessions, and The Nutty Professor was the first I ever saw with him. It is indeed, hilarious. And the gym sequence is my favorite, without a doubt! Unexpected and adorable (and, to me, also relatable, LOL)
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Cheers!
    Le

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that's why I love Lewis so much, he's very relatable. We all do dorky things, and he's an exaggeration of that. The gym sequence is definitely a highlight!

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  7. Nice blog and photos from the movie! I first saw the Nutty Professor at a drive-in theater in the 1960s. Loved it ever since!

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    1. Thank you so much! I would love to see this movie with an audience, especially at a drive-in -- how fun!

      Delete

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