I can bemusedly remember more than a few trips out to the high school football fields as our designated evacuation point for fire drills. The other times we ended up out there was more likely than not due to the chemistry department setting them off with some supernal explosion of their own devising. You can only imagine it being a giddy badge of honor among these grown-up nerds.
In full disclosure, I must admit being indebted to Disney’s Absent-Minded Professor for creating my paradigm for the mad scientist. Jerry Lewis takes this readily available archetype to set up an analogous comic cocktail — albeit to the utmost extremes — marrying it with one of his own creations: Julius Kelp.
The Nutty Professor‘s gloriously campy color schemes are all the better for this wonky Jekyll and Hyde riff. Rooms look like they’re all but made out of cardboard and as such, every interior and visible prop feels expendable. School officials (Del Moore) and secretaries (Kathleen Freeman) are either high-strung or chatty cartoon characters.
In one exemplary moment, Lewis all but railroads the usually fastidious chancellor into doing an impromptu rendition of Hamlet on his office table. A modicum amount of ego-schmoozing effectively makes a complete mockery of the man with typical Lewis lampoonery.
Likewise, the interminable supply of handsomely-clothed, virile male co-eds all look like they either play quarterback or shooting guard for their respective sports teams. And all the pert young women are a similar picture of All-American, bright-eyed ideals.
Considering these elements, The Nutty Professor is derived mostly from performances more than being gag-driven; the jokes come organically out of character. I’ll fall back on my normal diagnosis of Lewis comedies, namely, the plot too often gets in the way.
Kelp is a walking stereotype, but he’s also an endearing Jerry Lewis creation, complete with outrageous buck-teeth, googly glasses, a lexical vault full of spoonerisms, and probably the worst excuse for a haircut in the history of the movies. If we can risk being facetious momentarily, these are all very calculated decisions. It’s a visual statement made all too obvious; this man is a loser.
The childishly simple premise digs into these same themes. Although there might only be one or two isolated occurrences we can think of, Kelp attempts to combat a bully in his class who pushes him around. Since it’s not altogether overwhelming conflict, we must consider this to be partially his own inferiority complex speaking.
It doesn’t help a pretty student like Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) simply reinforces all of his inadequacies. Because she is yet another paradigm with her hairbows and schoolgirl charms. She is caught between the dorky loser and the vain, devilishly handsome lady killer. The question remains: Where do her values lie?
If I haven’t spoiled the punchline already, there is an obvious road the zany tale must traverse. Around his new fitness regimen, Julius acquires a carload of books from the library; his results spawn a most curious potion. One would think he’s transforming into a werewolf or something. Actually, it’s far worse: Enter Buddy Love (also played by Lewis).
If you don’t hear the imaginary notes of “Love Potion No. 9” performed by The Coasters or The Searchers (depending on your preference), then your brain isn’t as formulaic as mine.
Regardless, Kelp’s alter ego soon finds himself waltzing into the local collegiate watering hole, the aptly christened Purple Pit. There Buddy Love makes his self-assured debut, hair plastered down, smoking a cigarette, and owning his outrageous duds. He catches everyone gawking on the street, and it’s much the same on the inside — showcasing a Lewis POV shot allowing us inside his conceited head.
It’s easy to consider The Nutty Professor a vanity project on a cursory level. Because Jerry Lewis is always at the center of this universe. Take the moment he’s supposed to be the devilishly handsome Love and literally, the whole club comes to the standstill. It’s absolute absurdity.
But in some ways, this perspective just doesn’t take because although Lewis is at the center of everything, he’s willing to look like a dorky, bumbling, idiot just as much if not more so. Someone who can do that has to be at least somewhat comfortable in their skin or at least content with putting on the charade of an utter doofus.
It relies completely on his dual role and Lewis’s own capacity — having the world constantly revolve around him — self-promoting himself and simultaneously tearing himself down. The tightrope walk is a compelling one.
Some have posited Buddy Love is a not-too-subtle shot at Dean Martin as the former compadres were still broken up after a fairly acrimonious split. Lewis instead denied these assertions by suggesting it was a knock on all the vainglorious phonies he had met on his long stint in show business. It seems just as likely The Nutty Professor could even function as a dialectic to examine Lewis’s own persona.
One can only imagine, in some outrageous universe, where the fulcrum between Lewis’s own worst and best selves would fall along the spectrum of his two cinematic creations. On one side, he has this image as a klutzy uncouth man-child and yet we must reconcile this with his authoritative vision as a director and a subsequent product of the same show business machine.
He was the one who could brazenly claim so much fame, success, and accomplishment at such an early age. It’s difficult to envision a world where circumstances didn’t go to his head even a little bit. And if there is not already a piece of Love in him, then at least we can acknowledge there is a risk of such a persona cropping up.
If The Bellboy had a family-friendly moral tacked on at the end, then The Nutty Professor is much the same with a few more lines devoted to a theme. Because the inevitable happens and the worlds collide — Jerry or Love or Kelp is ousted as his true self, after masquerading in front of all these people. What a horrible ordeal to slog through.
However, he finds some words. They go like this: “You might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time you’re gonna have to spend with you. If you don’t think too much of yourself, how do you expect others to?”
It’s a compelling message even if the preceding content is all over the spectrum. Along with the science-fiction, we have the audience-appointed fairy tale ending with the guy getting the girl. There need not be more explanation. The Nutty Professor rumbles through all our expectations.
I do find it strangely compelling having all the main players bow in the end credits. It’s like the curtain call in a play where everything is far more intimate. Of course, Jerry Lewis puts his lasting mark on this one by falling into the camera and shattering it. We would expect nothing less.