An update of the Jekyll and Hyde story for the early ‘60s, The Nutty Professor is widely regarded as Jerry Lewis’ masterpiece. Skeptical? Just watch the DVD’s making-of documentary; Lewis biographer James Neibaur, Lewis’s son Chris, and Lewis himself spare no superlatives. Another featurette, included on all the recent Lewis DVD reissues, has the same talking heads assessing his ‘60s films in equally glowing terms. On the commentary track, where Lewis yucks it up with singer Steve Lawrence (who has nothing to do with the film), Lewis calls The Nutty Professor “his baby.”
For this “labor of love,” Lewis directs himself in a dual role: a professor who discovers a formula that transforms him into a lounge lizard hipster surpassingly popular with teenagers (if you can call them that: these are college students ready for an incipient mid-life crisis). While Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story explored the disintegration of Victorian morality, Lewis’s version centers on the concept of cool, which had only recently detached itself from bohemia to become one of the ad-man’s most potent weapons for making consumers feel inadequate. The professor’s formula, inspired by ads in a fashion magazine, enables Professor Julius Kelp (Lewis) to act out a caricature of comfortable sociability; his hipster alter-ego has all the smug phoniness of the sallow, smiling faces one finds in the lifestyle ads that had just begun to emerge in the ‘60s. But this obvious anti-commercial lesson is complicated by his hipster-other’s charisma, which illustrates what made those ads effective in the first place.
Kelp’s absurd buck teeth make him seem a cross between Porky Pig and Columbo, as he stammers self-denigrating asides and tortuous circumlocutions worthy of John Kerry. With a bowl haircut, ill-fitting pants, and a stoop, Kelp is beyond ludicrous, a real impediment to your sympathy for him. But Lewis is gifted at punctuating broad shtick with surprising nuance in gesture and facial expression, ensuring that we can’t laugh away whatever we see of ourselves in the nerdy dork on the screen. When Kelp is confronted by his implacable boss, Dr. Warfield (played by frequent Lewis straight man Del Moore), Lewis exposes just how painful introversion can be. We can’t quite align ourselves with the condescending Warfield, but neither can we fully empathize with Kelp, who conspires with the bully in making himself small.
Our ambivalence continues during the setup of Kelp’s love for one of his students, pig-tailed Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens, stunning in a series of candy-colored outfits). There’s something repulsive in his attraction, because it’s so patently desperate. Even before Kelp fantasizes about her in a series of iconic outfits—a tennis uniform, a bathing suit, a fashion model, a prostitute—we understand that Stella is purely superficial, quite beyond the utterly interior Kelp. But, as pathetic as this doofus persona seems, the cool cliché he becomes as Buddy Love is worse.
A sequence of scenes takes us through Kelp’s proto-psychedelic laboratory transformation into Buddy Love, a hysterical send-up of Rat Pack machismo long rumored to be patterned after Lewis’ erstwhile partner Dean Martin, but more reminiscent of pseudo-gangster Frank Sinatra (or perhaps a hyperaggressive Potsie Webber). Love is introduced with a long tracking shot from his point of view, showing us the flabbergasted faces of assorted passersby reacting to him (is he monstrous? is he ridiculous?). The payoff comes when we see that he’s both of these, a smoke-blowing, greasy-haired, leisure-suited hepcat.
Hepcat is the appropriate word, as the ideal of cool Love represents was already obsolete as that dated term by the time The Nutty Professor was released. It’s no accident that the teenagers are all obviously adults and that their hangout, the Purple Pit, is more like the Stork Club than, say, American Bandstand or Hullaballoo. They’re a Madison Avenue conception of youth, dressed like Brooks Brothers mannequins and dance the box-step to lounge renditions of show tunes, while smoking up a storm and drinking colorful cocktails. Buddy’s own concoction, the Alaskan Polar Bear Heater, is an elaborate recipe that produces his most hilarious dialogue.
More than a mere joke, this Byzantine beverage parallels the professor’s formula, which, together with the advertising-derived milieu of the Purple Pit, reminds us that Kelp’s metamorphosis is a consumerist fantasy run amok. His potion is the quintessential consumer commodity; it allows him to enter the magic universe depicted in ads and feel complete mastery there, but only as he embraces the crude stereotypes that limn that world: zero-sum male braggadocio, passive female availability, and the overriding belief that selfish individualism liberates.
Pattering in lingo (“Crazy!”), Buddy Love immediately establishes himself as a self-infatuated creep. His moves on Stella as they dance are hampered by smoke from his ever-present cigarette, as he seems imprisoned by the aura it’s supposed to give him. While Stella never really buys into Buddy’s attitude, she nevertheless is compelled by him; she comes when he calls, and she lusts for him when he’s gone. “You’re impossible,” she tells him, in response to her own contradictory feelings. In this, she models our own ambivalent response to him, and the advertising-fantasy life he embodies. She’s flattered by his condescending attentions even as they humiliate her. She seems addicted to him despite his surliness. Likewise, we’ve been prepared through Kelp’s humiliations to enjoy Love’s triumphs; but just as there was something ultimately unsympathetic in the professor’s squirming, there’s something truly repugnant in Love’s alpha-male act. We can’t stop watching him, and can’t help wishing we could.
Our having been of two minds about Kelp/Love throughout mimics Kelp’s own duality. The film’s double ending mirrors this as well. The two separate endings subvert each other and cancel each other out, seeming to abrogate ambivalence altogether. It offers the feel-good bromides necessary for closure while encouraging us simultaneously to yearn for freedom from such formulas, and, by extension, from lavish, seductive, manipulative entertainment product like the movie we’re watching. We can enjoy the movie and be superior to it at the same time (which is precisely how the current crop of self-mocking ads wants us to feel). This is what the ending implies it means to be a “somebody”. But to be free from nuanced ambivalence is to become supercilious and insufferably short-sighted, it’s to become, in short, a crass caricature. So we come to see the film itself is the formula, making impossible Buddy Loves of us all.