I have a complicated relationship with Jerry Lewis, who reigned supreme as the prince of popular culture during his heyday with Dean Martin and went on to be hugely popular as a solo act in films directed by Frank Tashlin, Norman Taurog, and then in films that he directed himself. As a performer he can be brilliant or cringingly spastic and infantile and as a director he was far more than a punchline to a swipe at French cinephilia but less than the complete genius some of his supporters might claim. He had a habit of slathering a gooey sentimentality to the kind of anarchy and chaos that the Marx perfected, yet at his best (and sometimes even his worst) he barbed his humor with an unsettling cynicism. And he could be inventive, even downright surreal.
It all came together beautifully in The Nutty Professor (1963), Jerry Lewis’ almost universally acknowledged masterpiece, and The Nutty Professor: 50th Anniversary (Warner, Blu-ray) gives the film its Blu-ray debut in a special edition.
Lewis directed, produced and co-wrote this bizarro take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, turning his familiar child-man figure into nerdy college chemistry professor Julius Kelp, a buck-toothed social misfit with Lewis’ adenoidal voice aged to a curious adulthood and spasmodic, childlike body slowed and slumped into a walking shrug. When this Dr. Jekyll reaches deep inside to release his Mr. Hyde, he unleashes Buddy Love, a creepy lounge lizard as confident, popular, aggressive ladies’ man, a monster so self-absorbed and full of contempt for his adoring fans that his popularity itself is a perverse joke. While the standard take in 1963 was that Love was a rather nasty satire of his former partner Dean Martin, most fans realize that Buddy is really Lewis’ flip side writ big and pushed to extremes.