The Nutty Professor (1963)
“Please do not reveal the middle of this picture! Jerry’s a mousey chemistry prof who invents the greatest drink since Dracula discovered bloody marys.”
Director: Jerry Lewis
Cast: Jerry Lewis, Stella Stevens, Del Moore
Synopsis: To improve his social life, a nerdish professor drinks a potion that temporarily turns him into the handsome, but obnoxious, Buddy Love.
Julius Kelp, is a typical Jerry Lewis (The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy) figure of fun — a buffoonish, socially-inept and accident prone nerd with few friends, who is an easy target for bullies and frustrated figures of authority. In The Nutty Professor, Kelp is a college professor rather than the usual low-wage man-child type Lewis usually plays. He has unruly hair, prominent teeth and thick-lensed glasses perched low on his nose, and he talks in a high-pitched nasal voice that probably provided the inspiration for that nerdish scientist on The Simpsons. He has a passion for chemistry, but little control over his class of students, all of whom — with the exception of leading lady Stella Stevens, who was 27 when the movie was released — look to be well into their 30s.
In an attempt to overcome his social awkwardness, Kelp develops a potion which, in an unusually well-shot scene which looks like a possible homage to earlier Jekyll and Hyde movies, transforms him not into the usual hirsute, simian-like thug you might expect, but an ultra-cool dude named Buddy Love. However, Love is still a monster — only his wickedness is not apparent from his physical appearance. Love is one of those alpha-males who assert their authority through intimidation and sarcasm, and although he looks cool at first sight, a closer look reveals that there isn’t much about him that is attractive. His hair fairly drips with oil, and his face looks as though it’s permanently drenched with sweat. Whether that’s by design or otherwise is unclear, but it makes it a little tougher to see him as a source of effortless cool in the same way that the characters in the movie do. Love makes a move on Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens, whose character shows some Jekyll-and-Hyde traits herself, as she alternates between a Doris Day sweetness and a Mamie Van Doren vampishness), the pupil upon whom Kelp is sweet, and Purdy finds herself unable to resist his advances, even though she recognises him for the rogue he obviously is.
I’m not a great fan of Lewis, but of the movies of his that I have seen, this is probably one of the better efforts, largely because for large portions of screen time he forsakes his usual doltish persona for the diametrically opposed lounge lizard Buddy Love. Even as Kelp he manages to curb his usual self-indulgence, keeping most of his gags short instead of trying to wring every last laugh out from them. Highlights include the exaggerated sound-effects that accompany a monumental hangover suffered by Kelp after a night as his alter-ego, a slick piece of comic timing in which Lewis deftly negotiates a pair of doors that open simultaneously on either side of the corridor he’s walking along, and a sweet scene in which Kelp finds himself caught up in the dance music at the college prom. However, The Nutty Professor also has its darker moments which, while relatively tame, still bring back memories of childhood trauma — in particular, the close-up of those nasty, hopelessly snaggled teeth during Kelp’s first transformation.
(Reviewed 11th March 2014)