Classic Jerry Lewis…if you like that.
By 1963, Jerry Lewis had made his separation from comedic partner Dean Martin and seemingly wanted to poke fun at him and their Rat Pack buddies in The Nutty Professor, possibly Lewis' best known film. From the total nerd to the suave swinger Lewis makes a fine stab with his performance, but the laughter is uncomfortable at best. They may love him in France, but I never got the joke. However, there are a couple more serious notes in this supposed madcap comedy that do rise above its basic nature. Paramount has now released the classic first Nutty Professor with an excellent picture and sound on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Julius Kelp (Jerry Lewis) is a squeaky voiced chemistry professor with poor eyesight and buckteeth, and blows up his classroom and laboratory regularly. When he is tired of being picked on, he tries to work out at the gym. Seeing no progress, he turns to what he knows; namely science. With better living through chemistry he develops a formula that makes him everything he is not—suave, arrogant, obnoxious, and yet musically talented. This alter ego Buddy Love becomes a big hit at the early '60s hangout The Purple Pit and develops a lopsided relationship with student Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), as Buddy has the confidence Julius lacks in approaching her. As is true in film, the truth must come out, and it will as Julius copes with what he has wrought on himself and those around him.
Jerry Lewis specialized in nerdy characters and slapstick comedy, and puts it on display often in the film. At times the physical comedy works for him. Later as Buddy Love he becomes, well, Dean Martin. Perhaps an obnoxious and conceited one, but that seems to be the image he is going for. Here is perhaps the best acting in the film, as Lewis is cold, arrogant, even violent, but can turn on the charm and tinkle the ivories with the best of them. The transformation to Buddy Love without benefit of special effects (unless eight pounds of Brylcreem counts as a special effect) is pulled off masterfully. His interludes as Buddy are less played for laughs but worked for me in a way that the over the top comedy attempts did not. I did enjoy a couple of the supporting cast, such as the immortal Howard Morris as Kelp's father and Kathleen Freeman as the young-at-heart secretary.
Ironically, the film works more on a dramatic level than a comedic one. Julius Kelp is a tragic figure, not a funny one. His speech at the end of the film is heart-rending and put the last footprint on any chance of this being a real comedy. The geek Lewis perpetuates as Kelp is in contrast to his performance as Buddy, who seems to be his overreaction to being bullied and shown disrespect. Buddy is the outcast desperately trying to be what he considers cool and significant. In an interesting aside, Lewis is said to have hated portraying Buddy as he didn't like the character, which makes sense since Buddy is inherently unlikable.
This is also a direct take on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, as is obviously played the first time Julius makes the transformation. Why the deformed and hairy monster can go on to become the slicked down lounge lizard in the sharkskin suit is never given any sort of explanation or reason to accept.
Enough about the film; I'll go into what it lacks below. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the picture quality on this decidedly aged film. After a faded and grainy Paramount logo at the beginning I wasn't expecting to see the vibrant Technicolor jump out of the screen on the opening scene. But jump it did; with vivid and bright colors leaping out to nearly overwhelm the senses. There was hardly a bit of grain or film defect to find; the cleaning up process here was top drawer. Detail is reasonably sharp and defined; and even some places that could have proved troublesome did not show shimmer or ringing. For a 1963 film, it looks incredible. And Paramount gave it the anamorphic treatment to boot. First rate work.
Paramount also gave the film a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the soundtrack. While it doesn't have the fidelity and clarity of a brand new track; it is miles beyond the original mono elements. The score comes from all corners, there are some discrete effects to the rear, and the front opens wide to the front channels. For a remix from old mono elements, color me impressed.
Paramount didn't exactly overwhelm me with extras, but they did provide something: a 10-minute featurette on their films of the 1950s. From Sunset Boulevard to Cecil B. Demille, quite a few films get a showcase to show what the studio was up to during that era. And there were a lot of good films to be reminded of. In full frame, the picture quality varies from some very grainy and scratched up black and white to some splendid color and detail. My only complaint is really that there is nothing else to go with it for bonus features. In fact the menu says "Special Feature"; the first time I've seen that used singularly on a DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Knowing where to start with what I found wrong with the picture is the most difficult thing. Jerry Lewis' comedy has not aged well with the viewing audience. I find it often repetitive, predictable and obvious. His characters are whiny, needy, and are often hard to endure. Some people still love him, especially the French; but I don't get the draw.
Parts of the film are laughable…laughably bad, that is. His "kids" in his classroom are pushing 40. They actually look older than their professor! And why these "kids" find Buddy irresistibly cool is beyond me. The girls sigh and say, "He's like too much" at this arrogant jerk. That might have something to say about how the relationships between men and women are portrayed. Buddy takes Stella out to a moonlit parking place, and she is repulsed and attracted at the same time, and seemingly "no" means "yes." Stella herself gives a confusing performance as the shy student on campus and the vamp vixen at night off campus. If I were feeling charitable I'd claim that her character and Jerry Lewis himself were going for pure satire, but if that is so the other elements of the film dilute it to oblivion. The cartoonish attempts at slapstick try very hard to plug the film as madcap comedy, and there are so many that it grows repetitive and boring. Tie on the dramatic speech near the end and it seems to be a confused mess. Getting in touch with your inner nerd seems to be the only message I could sieve out of it.
I know there are Jerry Lewis fans out there, and I won't be surprised to get letters disagreeing with my opinion of the film. Those people should run right out and buy this disc because I was truly impressed with the picture and sound. But if you've never seen it, or if you've only seen the off-color remake by Eddie Murphy, you probably should just rent it or leave it alone.
The Nutty Professor is convicted of numerous problems with the story and characters, and exceedingly poor casting for the students. Jerry Lewis is free to continue doing his telethon. Paramount is commended for their work on the transfer and soundtrack on this 37-year-old film, but asked to provide more than one small bonus feature in the future.
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