I cannot hold back the tears of joy just thinking about the video treasure trove served up by Warner Bros. (in conjunction with Paramount Pictures) – a major coup for comedy fans – the much-deserved Blu-Ray release of THE NUTTY PROFESSOR: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION.
Confidentially, you don’t have to be a math major to conclude it's really the 51st
anniversary of this 1963 Jerry Lewis laff classic. But who's counting, and who cares? It's so great to see ya, Professor Kelp – and what a way to see ya!
Don't have to reveal the plot of this bizarre slapstick masterpiece either, save, of course, that it's loosely based on the 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and one filmed umpteenth times (due to its salacious scenario, but more likely to the fact that it's been in the public domain for over 100 years).
In an awesome nod to his cinematic predecessors, including John Barrymore, Fredric March and Spencer Tracy, Jerry's rendition remains in many ways the most poignant, focusing primarily on himself rather than his situation and/or victims. It's a stroke of genius, perfectly suited to the star and his protagonist(s).
The unbelievable psychological threads that sew up this tapestry (and ultimately keep the viewer in stitches) stunned the American press in 1963. It was, they admitted, surprisingly deep. Suffice to say, audiences got that (and Jerry) way before this movie was lensed – they saw in the love/hate relationship between Lewis and former teammate Dean Martin (check out That's My Boy, The Stooge and Artists and Models, if ya think I'm joking).
There are a lot of Freudian bridges burned and mended in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR – and they handily serve to underline its status as a work of art. After all, when friends discuss the modus operandi of a particular movie's roots, what happens to the characters, etc. – it's a testament to the picture's success and staying power. That these discussions have been now going on for more than a half century is almost unheard of. I vividly recall hosting a 20th anniversary screening, after which a pleasantly stunned writer/actress pal drolly commented, “So the French were right.” And how often do you hear that?!
Basically, the update has the socially inept (but brainy) college prof, Julius Kelp, yearning for acceptance in an ever-increasing world populated by jocks, cool entertainers and the materialistic demands their universe demands. Trumping it is Kelp's suppressed desire for sex – often unhealthily and inappropriately (but secretly) pointed toward his classes, filled with luscious coeds (personified by the likes of Francine York and Julie Parrish). The key intended female conquest, however, is Stella Purdy (musically punctuated on the soundtrack by Stella by Starlight, one of the many themes snatched from the Paramount songbook, which also includes the apropos That Old Black Magic). Stella is played with volcanic pulchritude by the gorgeous Stella Stevens, who never looked better than she does in this movie (and think about what I just wrote!); ironically, the only other movie that comes close in capturing her peak physical charms is 1966's The Silencers, the first Matt Helm spy pic, featuring Martin.
Kelp's passion sends him to the college psych department where's he's told inanely to build up his body. After disastrous sessions at Vic Tanny's (the 1960s go-to joint for muscle-hustle), Kelp buries himself in Jungian tomes that jarringly recall his awful childhood (flashbacks to Baby Kelp reveal little Jerry in an oversized crib watching his monstrous mother verbally castrate his ineffectual father – two bravura performances by Elvia Allman and Howard Morris).
Julius’ late night experiments result in a drug that turns him into campus heartthrob Buddy Love – and that's where the movie blasts off from psychological to psychopathic delirium.
Buddy Love could be possibly one of the most brilliant creations in all of cinema. He is a 100% fabricated version of horrific media-fueled social engineering. Men worship him, women pant for him. He's acclaimed for his looks, singing abilities, fashion sense: the absolute human evocation of cool. And, yet, he's none of these things; rather, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking GMO-post-war Madison Avenue end product of hype. His oily slicked-back hair, heavy facial makeup and pimp attire suggest a demonic hybrid of Russell Crowe and Boy George. His singing is of the novelty variety, along the lines of Dave Seville's Chipmunks; even his signature song is an atrocity, equating relationships with rhyming lyrics such as “atom bombs” and “false alarms.” Most shocking is that every woman continuously fantasizes jumping his bones despite the appalling truism that Love is an obnoxious, rude, discourteous, violent, misogynist bully. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR's rationale for all this is that it's Kelp's inner self getting revenge on everyone who's ever dished him dirt. And here's where all the after-screening talk began.
I've heard 'em all – every treatise on the Kelp/Love/Lewis personae, how and why they tick, click, clunk and sunk (umm, sink). The most repeated one is the also the most false: it's the movie where Jerry Lewis turns into Dean Martin. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Even Dino's few detractors never pegged him as an evil, manipulative force – unkind and cruel; in fact, his easy-going nature made him one of the most-beloved entertainers in all of show business. When cut-rate movie studio Jack Broder Productions concocted a 1952 Martin & Lewis rip-off (the notorious, but frequently amusing Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla), featuring M & L lookalikes Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, it was Lewis who had his high-priced lawyers on the phone, ready to stomp them to death like bugs. Dean interceded with a jokey competition-is-the-highest-form-of-praise rebuttal, insisting his partner cool it (“Let the kids make a few bucks,” he replied). The would-be case was dropped and Petrillo even made appearances as Lil' Jerry on The Colgate Comedy Hour. A more accurate version of the above NP theme was that Lewis turned into Dean's fellow Rat Packer Frank Sinatra, another giant of that era whom the comedian idolized.
Easier to accept is the hypothesis that in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, on-screen Jerry Lewis becomes off-screen Jerry Lewis (The French title translates to Dr. Jerry and Mr. Love). My take, for all it's worth, is way less complex. In my myopic eyes, the movie chronicles Newark, NJ's Joey Levitch transformed into Sy Devore-Hollywooded Jerry Lewis. As evidence, look at all the 1940s/1960s examples of anachronistic pubescent culture shock. I mean, what major Ivy League college in the mid-1960s would consider Les Brown and his Band of Renown (excellent as they are) as the epitome of trendy modernity? Yet, in LewisWorld, when he was of college age in the mid-1940s, you couldn't have signed a better bunch of hep cats. It's all part of the weird quantum effect that permeates throughout THE NUTTY PROFESSOR's impossible galaxy.
While it's (natch) Lewis' show, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, more than in any other Jerry romp, allows and encourages the human backbone of the picture – the high-octane character actor-guffaw-getters – to push the comedian to the forefront via their outstanding participation. We've already mentioned Allman and Morris, but only briefly touched upon Stevens. Unlike the females in other Lewis movies, Stevens is a prime narrative mover (and movingly so). Typical of Lewis is that even as Kelp, Stevens/Purdy admires and lusts the bungling teacher. Still, she's also an all-night clubber and sexually experienced woman with a mild bad girl side that surfaces in the off-limits nitery christened The Purple Pit. That said, we must wonder what exactly Stevens' college major is, since her demeanor clearly suggests it's Stripping and Lap Dancing with a minor in Cigarette Girl (nevertheless THE NUTTY PROFESSOR offers the best role any woman ever had in a Jerry Lewis movie – and, it must be said, Stella Stevens milks it for all it's worth). In perfect unison with my ‘40s/’60s am-I-reading-too-much-into-this theory are the depictions of other classmates, notably Henry Gibson, Marvin Kaplan, Norman Alden and Skip Ward, since average age of Kelp’s students appears to be approximately 35 (Lewis was 37 when production began). The remaining adult populace is dotted by terrific bits from Buddy Lester (as a tough guy bartender), Gavin Gordon, Doodles Weaver, Milton Frome, Dave Willock and Richard Kiel.
Two plum supporting players in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR rate special praise. As the Dean's office manager, Millie Lemmon, the great Kathleen Freeman gives perhaps her supreme Lewis turn. Her reactions, especially after she retrieves him from a laboratory that he has just obliterated, are priceless.
The main supporting actor kudos is reserved for the hysterical Del Moore as Dean Warfield. His terse-taskmaster-to-Kelp/stooge-to-Love is spectacularly realized, easily the actor/announcer's finest celluloid moment (check out the Shakespeare scene; Lewis can't hold back his own laughter, turning from the camera, biting his lip).
In 1971, Lewis authored a motion picture how-to book entitled The Total Filmmaker. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR proves him worthy of that moniker. Jerry is always in complete control and knows WTF he's doing from fade-in to fade-out. The framing, the cutting, anatomical visual time-and-space impossibilities (okay, sight gags), the lighting, the color, the use of sound effects (squeaky shoes, a pocket watch) all play a vital part in making every laugh count. One specific moment has had me chuckling since the movie's original release. It's an edit in the Dean's office, where Kelp is being reprimanded for blowing up the students. It starts as a genial but curt response from Moore, then abrasively jump-cuts to a low-angle, finger-pointing, jarring, berating rant. There's no reason on Earth why this cut should work; it goes against every rule of film editing. And, yet, it's one of the funniest uses of juxtaposition I've ever seen. To this day (this day, being last week), it still bowls me over.
The clever, wry script by Lewis and trusted cowriter Bill Richmond is nothing short of inspired. The infamous preachy stuff that Lewis has a deadly penchant to spew out in most of his self-directed pics for once genuinely works when coming from the snarly lips of Buddy Love. “Man needs you the most,” he tells Stevens after forcing himself upon her. “If ya want more, call for refills.” Astonishingly (remember, this is LewisWorld), Stella (both reel, and, likely in Jerry's dreams, real) does, responding that she's never heard a “more honest approach to two people being together.” Ouch.
Perfectly balancing this GOP Guide to Women's Studies is the sad, apologetic sincerity of Kelp: “You might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time you'll have to spend with you.” Lewis' dual role represents the pinnacle and victory of his seven-decades-long Chaplinesque pursuit. He's unabashedly fantastic as Kelp and Love, most prominently when the drug begins to wear off, segueing uncomfortably between the swinger and the schlemiel, in both vocal and body language terms. His inept attempt as a dancing chaperone at the college prom is one of the funniest scenes in the flick, while an ominous post-climactic capper (the big money marketing of Kelp's Kool Tonic) is as frightening a warning as anything in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Technical credits in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR are on par with all the director/writer/producer/star's Paramount pics. In other words, top-notch. The beautiful Technicolor photography of W. Wallace Kelley never looked better than in this flawless Blu-Ray. It's like owning a pristine 35MM print. Production values, including the amazing Purple Pit set and Kelp’s laboratory (percolating with rainbow-hued chemicals), are awesome. The audio is accessible in two versions: a re-mixed 5.1 stereo track or the original mono; purist that I am, I prefer the 1963 latter (both are neat sounding boards for Walter Scharf's peppy score). And we can't resist bringing up Stevens' wardrobe, which can only be described as Victoria's Secret Back-to-School ensemble.
Extras in this box set are lavish. They not only encompass the plethora of supplements from Lewis' personal archive (that were featured in the last Paramount DVD release), but contain a newly created documentary (Jerry Lewis: No Apologies) and paper materials (comprising 48 pages of storyboards, a 44-page collection of script notes, and Jerry's Being a Person book, which he originally penned for the movie's crew...oy, yeah, I know) that any Lewis fan will go ga-ga over.
There are also two other Lewis movies, regrettably on DVD only. At first glance their inclusion may seem curious choices, as they are 1961’s THE ERRAND BOY (okay) and 1960’s CINDERFELLA (not so much). In the complete context of the package, they work quite well, as all three Lewis movies are about personal change and transformation.
A fourth platter justifies singular reference.
In the 1960s, one of my most prized possessions was an LP (possibly a bootleg) of Jerry Lewis: Phoney Phone Calls. The record was distributed in 1959 when Lewis was about to hit his professional zenith; the fact that it also overlapped the then-incredible golden age of comedy record albums (spearheaded by the million-plus sales of discs by Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart, and paving the way for later triumphs by Vaughn Meader and, most notably, Bill Cosby) made it a win/win acquisition. Jerry's vinyl exploits are important in this collection, since his merciless treatment of receiving end innocents are ferociously reminiscent of his Buddy Love side in action. The CD in this set (I haven't listened to it yet) spans 1959-1972 (Lewis’ official 2001 expanded re-release), so there's stuff I’ve never heard. Another perk/incentive!
Finally, there's a sinister little-told sidebar to THE NUTTY PROFESSOR that involves the famed Hammer Films studio.
While the idea of a reverse effect on the Jekyll story was an innovative carrot for Jerry, it wasn't the first – or even second attempt to revise the Stevenson tale. 1960's Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, directed by Terence Fisher, featured a boring nerd Dr. Jekyll whose downing the dreaded drug makes him over as a suave, dandy and evil Victorian Mr. Hyde. That was the straight horror edition. More telling was the studio's earlier diddling with the story, 1959's The Ugly Duckling. What makes this Hammer Jekyll so intriguing was that it was an out-and-out comedy version, updated to modern London and starring comedian Bernard Bresslaw (best-known for his work as one of the Carry On crew). The aforementioned sinister element revolves around the disappearance of all 35MM prints and negatives of The Ugly Duckling – making it a “lost” Hammer Film, almost inconceivable since it's a movie from the late 1950s (a Hammer prime period). Rumors have run rampant as to Lewis becoming livid that his concept wasn't as original as he thought – that he somehow had all prints and negatives destroyed to squelch comparison. Perhaps outlandish, certainly crazy (actually, a complete 16MM print exists in the U.S. Library of Congress archive), but undeniably a Buddy Love moment.
THE NUTTY PROFESSOR: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION. Color. Letterboxed [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 HD-DTS MA (stereo remix); also original 2.0 HD-DTS MA mono. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment and Paramount Pictures Corporation and Jerry Lewis Productions. CAT # 1000477604. SRP: $49.99.