Blu-ray: ‘The Nutty Professor’ 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition

Whether you believe Jerry Lewis is a comic genius, a braying clown, a shrewd show-biz pro who carefully cultivated a popular stage and screen persona, a hopeless egotist with a cringing need for attention, or simply a comic with a gift for manic physical humor that clicked with audiences in the fifties and sixties, most people agree that The Nutty Professor was his greatest film as a director and his most interesting variation on the child-man figure he had transformed into Hollywood gold.

Lewis’ fourth film as a director is a reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde brought into the modern world by way of Lewis’ cartoonish take on the institutions and social cultures of contemporary life. His Jekyll is nebbish college professor and chemist Julius Kelp, the child-man of his previous films grown up from boy to adult, no more capable of the social world but clearly educated and perhaps even brilliant. His adenoidal juvenile voice has tempered into something oddly lived in and the spasmodic, childlike body has slowed and slumped into a walking shrug, acknowledging his inability to take on the world on its own terms. Julius is smitten with Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), a curvaceous co-ed who sits up front of every chemistry class and looks up wide-eyed at every lecture. It’s not clear if she likes him, respects him, or just feels bad for him, but there is something about this harmless social grotesque that makes her care for his plight. Attraction is another matter, however, so Kelp goes on a self-improvement kick at Vic Tanney’s gym (one of many glaring product placements in the film; Lewis was a pioneer in this aspect of production, a dubious achievement to be sure). When that fails to produce measurable results, he falls back on his specialty: better living through chemistry.

Where Stevenson’s good doctor is a humanitarian and moralist who unleashes the suppressed id within as an experiment and gets addicted to the rush, Kelp’s experiment is a bit more self-centered and pointedly directed. He concocts a formula specifically to transform him into his imagined ideal of what women want: the confident, popular, aggressive ladies’ man that the shy, stammering, socially awkward Julius can never be.

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Videophiled Classic: ‘The Nutty Professor’ – The two faces of Jerry Lewis

NuttyProfessor50AnI 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.

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