Judge Neil Dorsett feels a special identification with this movie, for he too has been remade with Eddie Murphy in the lead.
"Wipe that lipstick off, baby, and let's get started."
One thing is true about Jerry Lewis—he makes an art out of telegraphing his gags. If you are not laughing at a Lewis joke twenty to forty seconds before it happens, you're not going to laugh at all. You see a glass of milk? It's going down. You see a stack of dishes, just start laughing as soon as you see it because why wait? It's gonna happen. Sure as eggs is eggs. You know it's gonna happen. He knows you know it's gonna happen. So it becomes a cooperative game of one-upsmanship, an elephant in the living room with Jerry always willing to go the audience one better—or if not that, at least one more—than their expectation, which he implanted on purpose anyway.
Facts of the Case
Julius Kelp (Jerry Lewis) is a professor of chemistry. Julius is, to put it extremely mildly, a nebbish—not only is he Jerry Lewis to begin with, but he's thickly bespectacled, possessed of terrible (openly false) teeth, and just generally at poor ease with himself. He is bullied by the dean, even by his own students, and when not actually conducting class he seems to have difficulty even finishing a sentence without trailing off into a pathetic slouch. He's attracted the sympathy of comely student Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) but is lost in his lack of confidence and begins a rigorous physical training program, which fails spectacularly (or perhaps more accurately, lack-of-spectacles-ularly), leaving the chemistry expert to resort to an elaborate version of a common shortcut: he turns to the bottle. Kelp concocts a potion designed to enhance his physical attributes, and like Jekyll before him, undergoes a hideous and pained transformation. But…what does he become? What kind of monster?
There are three pivotal elements key to vigorously enjoying The Nutty Professor: You have to like Jerry Lewis, you have to like latter-day big band music, and you have to be in some way tuned into the notion of a movie from 1961 that was deliberately old-fashioned in its own day, a part of the rebellion against rock-and-roll (note how old the college students are—impossible to tell whether this is parody of Hollywood, invocation thereof, or just the same old thing). Oddly enough, the first of these considerations is the least important; you can get through this picture without having any particular fondness for Lewis, since he divorces himself from the "Jerry" character entirely in this case. But if you don't like the music or the multilayered nostalgia (and pseudo-nostalgia) factor, it'll be tougher. Oh, and also you have to like color. Lots of color. If you want a black and white movie, I can state definitively that this ain't it. Now, this reviewer is well and truly enthused by (enthusiastic) swing band music, and is a sort of half-baked aficionado of that era's adult hip, so this is going to be a good review of this movie. I will state up front that a self-consciously modern sensibility is likely to find little to enjoy about this movie. It is a thing of the past. But then, so's every other movie on DVD.
Professor is a comedy of a particular older school—"It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry." The tale itself is essentially sad, although there is triumph on a character level for Kelp. But this triumph is at the cost of a struggle so deep for the man that it externalizes. Kelp already has his monster within him—without it, he wouldn't have been able to barb the student who returns fire by physically humiliating him at the outset of the movie. The movie knows it's about alcoholism, too, although this is largely sublimated—but it gives the game away when Kelp's pet myna bird confronts him with "Julius! In the afternoon?" The now-familiar relation between an abusive parent and the eventual chemical dependency of the child is also illustrated. But not in an after-school special kind of way; we are, after all, in this primarily for the laughter and fun that develops, for who can doubt that there will be a happy ending to such a classically styled movie? And besides, this isn't a movie about the destructive tragedy of alcoholism—note that the college students drink freely and with discipline—but about a learning experience undergone by a man on his way to full maturity and the woman who bonds with him by celebrating his very haplessness. And it's a light movie for cryin' out loud, so let's blow off the allegory and get to the funny. Such as!
Kelp is summoned to the office of Dean Hamius R. Warfield (played in high camp by Del Moore). Tentatively, nervously, Kelp makes his way from door to desk and positions himself by one of the chairs in front of Warfield's desk. The two stare at one another. Kelp continues to await permission to sit. Eventually, Warfield responds, gesturing slowly and ceremoniously…to the chair at the other end of the desk. When Kelp sits in the chair, its purpose is revealed as he sinks nearly to the floor in its springless cushion. More staring—glaring, really, on Warfield's part, while Kelp continues to shrink nervously into the chair. Finally, he rises, reaches onto Warfield's desk and takes a very small magazine, puts it in the chair so that he can sit higher, and sits back down—and it works.
Kelp, attempting to sneak into his own laboratory in the dead of night, has developed a soaker. He removes his shoes carefully and proceeds with his tiptoeing, and the same exact noise comes from his sock feet. Lewis looks defeatedly toward the camera, as if to say, "All you people knew that was going to happen, and you didn't tell me."
Having been relieved of his glasses by gymnasium rules, Kelp attempts bowling. After Kelp selects an appropriate ball, we then see a cluster of men standing and talking at one end of the alley in white pants and white shirts with a red stripe across the chest. I don't think I need to say more here.
Of course there are many more, but that's enough to establish that what we're essentially dealing with in Lewis—creator Lewis, that is, not performer Lewis—is a gag cartoonist writ large. That's what turns many people off about Jerry, and of course it is also what turns many people on about Jerry. And that's pretty much where I'm gonna leave it, aside from mentioning another few names in the movie: Buddy Lester was great as the bartender at the Purple Pit, the perennial Edith Head did the suits, Alice's Marvin Kaplan is visible for about a second and a half just before Buddy Love makes his entrance, a young Richard Kiel (in his "Kolos" days) makes a bit, and the musical stylings of Walter Scharf (on the score) and Les Brown and his Band of Renown (performing) are very strong elements to the movie. Special mention must be made of the Del Moore/Kathleen Freeman team we see in this picture; they exemplify the "uptight headmaster and his young-thinking secretary" bit better than anyone else did until Jeffrey Jones and Edie McClurg in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
The Nutty Professor has been brought forth as the linchpin of Paramount's Jerry Lewis special series, and boasts an amazing new transfer which puts even current movies to shame. Technicolor, my god, my god. What was Hollywood thinking to leave that process behind? Not every frame of this movie is a glorious symphony (or cacophony, depending) of outrageous color, but a whole damn lot of them are. The only way to describe it is to say that the film has the look of the Disney live-action features of the '50s and '60s only five times as intense. And the odd thing about it? Lewis says in one of the documentaries that he asked for such oversaturated colors primarily for a practical reason; when the prints faded from use, they would remain as colorful as most other movies are when they're new (he actually said this in reference to Cinderfella, but it's safe to assume the mentality was in place here as well). But it goes way beyond that; in The Nutty Professor, the color is almost a character itself. And man oh man does it look wow on this DVD. Everything's beautifully registered, from the background color of the Purple Pit to Stella's deep blue dress to the reveal that Kelp's punch-stained jacket sleeve is a perfect match for Stella's nail polish. Not to mention Buddy Love's outrageous tailored suits! The flesh tones don't suffer a whit from the saturated elements either. And the sharpness of the picture is dead-on too. This is, in truth, one of the best-looking DVDs I have yet seen. And things don't end with the picture, not by a long shot. The audio has been remastered in its original mono and also presented in a dandy Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which does a perfect job at being a multichannel remix of an older movie; it delivers great fidelity on the copious musical elements of the film and audio special effects while staying out of the way otherwise. And how about extras?
How about extras! Like Jerry's charity work, they beggar the word extensive. It's hard to believe Paramount managed to pack so much stuff onto a single disc and still come up with a dilly of a transfer. First off, alongside the main program there's an audio commentary from Lewis and uh, vaguely associated singer Steve Lawrence. Lawrence starts things off by providing the lyrics to the film's main theme, "Stella by Starlight," and the two proceed to view the movie with sporadic comments. While the two have a tendency to go silent, there's much to be gleaned from the track; although there's an uncomfortable moment where the two reiterate a discussion about Lewis's invention of the video tap word for word—a fact of which Jerry seems to be aware and Steve does not. There are also two documentaries, really too alike to be considered separate—it's really more like a long docu profiling Lewis's entire movie career (minus Hardly Working), with a chapter heading specifically for Professor following the main body. I'd recommend viewing them in that order. I watched the Professor segment first, and felt nonplussed when starting Jerry Lewis at Work when it turned out to be essentially more of the same (meaning same interview sessions—different parts, of course—and structure); I don't think I'd have felt that way going into the shorter piece from the longer one. Much attention is given to the video tap in the documentaries as well; and well there should be! Jerry Lewis created one of the most useful modern moviemaking devices with the video tap, and for every well-composed shot in a Hollywood movie after about 1975, and just about any movie today, we owe him a small debt. The documentaries take the time to dispel—or at least explain—the lamentable French stereotype that exists around Lewis, as well as the widely circulated story that Buddy Love's personality was derived of Lewis's former partner Dean Martin (although it's hard to separate Buddy's actual ivory-tickling from the Rat Pack as a whole). We also get to take a dive into Lewis's deleted scene vault—he brags about it on the commentary, so it's good to see it paying off here on the DVD. There's better than a dozen deleted scenes here and they're all bits. My favorite among them was an outtake from the bowling alley scene, where the nearsighted Julius goes down a row of balls attempting to select one before grabbing a small boy by the head and hefting him suddenly into midair. It's just a lame doesn't-have-his-glasses gag from a movie that already had more than enough of those, and it's easy to see why the technical quality of it got it axed, but it made me laugh nonetheless. The overlong theatrical trailer is also included, along with a smattering of other advertising materials. Whew! That's a lotta Jerry!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The French love Jerry, this I know
No matter how one might feel about Lewis, this movie is one of the biggest feathers in his cap. It's basically a very gentle drama with a lot of silly gags, brought to life with incredible technical expertise by the standards of the day. Sure, it's all just in the name of producing a basic crowd-pleaser from a top pop comic, but for an evening of family entertainment you could easily do a lot worse. And the DVD being so great a presentation, I can't help but give this disc my full support.
The Nutty Professor is found guilty of being quite a little toe-tapper.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence
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