In the current film fan environment, Jerry Lewis is often thought of as something of a joke. And not in the way he would have intended. Ask most people these days what they know about Lewis and they’ll probably mention the annoying, nerdy, high pitched voice he often employed for many of his characters, the slapstick performances he gave during years of Muscular Dystrophy telethons and, more often than not, the oft-repeated (and true) cliché that “they love him in France.”
There’s a new Blu-ray out, true believers, that proves that Lewis is not just a joke from a bygone era. The Nutty Professor is a remarkably silly movie, yes, and the title character does employ that same nasally nerdy voice that people often associate with Lewis’ many characters, but if there is any single work that could successfully re-educate film fans on what Jerry Lewis can do, this is it.
For one thing, The Nutty Professor was not only a starring vehicle for Lewis, the comedian, it was also co-written and directed by the star and shows, intentionally and deliberately, two drastically different sides of him.
Lewis came up with the idea for The Nutty Professor years before he was given the opportunity to make the film. He openly thanks Robert Louis Stevenson for the inspiration of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in which a kindly, reserved doctor by day takes a strange potion to become a monster by night. Instead, Lewis brings us Doctor Julius Kelp, a young, socially inept college professor who is every bit as likely to fall flat on any attempt at courting the ladies as he is to cause a major explosion in his classroom due to his absent-minded mishaps.
And while these misadventures are often very funny, they can also be quite annoying, as Lewis’ Kelp character is the very embodiment of Lewis’ high-pitched, obnoxious nerd character with the funny faces and teeth Austin Powers might recoil from. There are moments in the first half-hour of The Nutty Professor during which the film hardly feels quite worth it. Kelp is an extreme caricature of the stereotype nerd, a cartoon character as opposed to a believable human being. Lewis, as director, however, knows exactly when to rein this in and employ a little something critics used to call “character development” to show just who this Kelp character really is.
Sure, the Nutty Professor himself is stuffed into a closet by his students and pushed around by a gym instructor, but Lewis, for all his comedy timing, imbues within Kelp a certain forlorn humanity that the audience can easily relate to. Kelp seems to realize that he is an inept cartoon character and he desperately wants to change from his skinny, short, shy, nerdy, bespectacled and weird persona into someone talented, cool, tall, in-shape and successful with the ladies. Thus, much like Dr. Jekyll before him, Dr. Kelp creates a formula to turn himself into just what he wants to be.
This new person is, of course, “Buddy Love”, who is everything that Kelp (and most people’s impression of Lewis) is not. Love is confident and sexy. He’s able to sing and play jazz piano for the wildly impressed crowd and he is simply a knockout to the ladies. Jerry Lewis? Yes. Jerry Lewis most assuredly pulls this transformation off perfectly and as much as we start to believe Kelp as a more realistic geek (once his character is developed), we can believe Love as the ladykiller side of Jerry Lewis.
The only problem is that Buddy Love is also remarkably obnoxious, especially as compared to the misunderstood and sweet Julius Kelp.
This is quite a setup for what turns out to be a very funny and well-made film. Lewis directs The Nutty Professor with an amazing balance between the surreally comedic, the realistic, the science fictional and the deeply touching. There are also many scenes of absolutely screwball comedy and even one or two moments of horror… yes… horror. Amazingly, once the film really finds itself after just a few minutes, this balancing act really works and The Nutty Professor is a great, great success as a classic film comedy.
Paramount’s new 50th Anniversary Edition of The Nutty Professor is absolutely packed with extras, including a funny and informative commentary with Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence, four documentaries, promos, trailers, deleted scenes, bloopers and screen tests. If that’s not enough for you (and I wouldn’t blame you for wanting more), the ultimate collector’s edition version (which isn’t really that much more expensive) also includes as extras, three more Jerry Lewis films on DVD, The Delicate Delinquent (1957), Cinderfella (1960) and The Bellboy (1960) along with an audio CD called Phoney Phone Calls 1959-1972.
You can guess what is on that last disc, but you won’t be expecting what you hear. Physical copies of the storyboards, portions of the script and other more physical extras help fill out the box.
Still, there are those who think they know exactly what to expect from Jerry Lewis in any film. To a partial extent they might be right, but no final judgment could or should be made without a solid viewing of The Nutty Professor which shows Lewis at his most multi-talented (to date). The writer is Jerry Lewis. The director is Jerry Lewis. The star is Jerry Lewis. Buddy Love is Jerry Lewis. Julius Kelp is Jerry Lewis. Jerry Lewis is The Nutty Professor.