Movie: The Nutty Professor (1963)

I’ll confess: I have been holding a bias against Jerry Lewis without actually watching any of his movies.

I’m afraid his legend precedes him.  The clips I have seen of him shamelessly mugging.  The way we look down on the French for how much they supposedly love him.  His notoriety for being one of the most difficult people to deal with in Hollywood.  Despite his best intentions, his presence on his annual telethon was easy to take potshots at.  I even suspect his on-screen buffoonery opened the door for Adam Sandler to conquer all media, so I’ll blame him for that, too.

Then two things happened: I saw a clip of The Nutty Professor in Earth Girls Are Easy, and I received a free DVD of that Jerry Lewis movie.  So, all I had to lose were roughly 90 minutes of time and possibly some dignity.

Now that I have seen this movie, how can I ever look in a mirror again, knowing I laughed, and laughed a lot, watching a Jerry Lewis film?

Lewis stars as the titular character in a picture he also directed and co-wrote.  I have heard he was a perfectionist, and I felt that in the editing and timing of some of the bits here.  It isn’t like the seams are showing, more so I felt like I watching somebody perfect their art.  Yeah, I just talked about Lewis’s “art”, and I know you want to punch me, but there isn’t anybody who wants to punch me for that more than me.

The plot is a Jekyll and Hyde affair, as Lewis’s impossibly bumbling chemistry professor creates a potion that temporarily transforms him into Buddy Love, a smooth-talking Casanova who specializes in a different kind of chemistry.

Love is seriously grating, as he’s a lounge lizard and a bully.  He also gives Lewis a couple of moments to sing which are…that.  These moments eventually turn comic; however, while he is performing as Love, I couldn’t help but be reminded of his telethon persona, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

The laughs start early in the movie and I laughed at myself the first time I laughed at one of Lewis’s lines here.  After causing yet another in a serious of explosions in his class, he is summoned to the dean’s office, where he proceeds to ramble about his academic history.  One incident he relates is when he was in “pre-med botany” and he caused an explosion there as well.  Just let that sink in.

There’s also some deeply funny and surprisingly inventive visual gags.  The punchline of his attempt to lift a heavy weight at a gym is priceless.  Another gag where he tries bowling, but without wearing his glasses, is nearly as good.

Also, there’s some notable gags only involving sound.  One of these has a hungover Lewis trying to teach his class, but every little sound is drastically slowed-down and over-amplified.

The movie even looks pretty good, though it is largely the over-lit set-bound affair I was expecting from a major studio effort of that era.  There are moments where it goes beyond what it absolutely necessary, such as the scene where the transformation first occurs.  To my considerable surprise, the scene wouldn’t be out of place in a Hammer horror picture, and it does an especially noteworthy job of putting Technicolor to good use.  Speaking of horror, there’s also a flashback to Lewis’s infancy, but we see his adult professor in a proportionately sized crib.  Thanks for that nightmare fuel, Mr. Lewis.

I had always heard that, if there is one movie of his to watch, this is the one.  Having seen it, I can heartily concur, even without having seen any of his other work.  Heck, I may still not bother seeing any more of his pictures.  Might not hurt to quit while I’m ahead.

Dir: Jerry Lewis

Starring Jerry Lewis, Stella Stevens

Watched on DVD