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The Nutty Director

The world (not including France, of course), is broken down into two distinct camps: those who hate Jerry Lewis, and those who love him. There is no in-between. I’ve always fallen into the latter, which is why it’s a treat to finally see Mr. Lewis receiving his due as a great film artist. (He is about to receive the L.A. Film Critics Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Will a special Oscar be next?) The recent release of some of his best films on DVD is another reason for Jerry Lewis fans to rejoice, and for those who find his brash brand of humor obnoxious and low-brow to take another look.

Arguably his masterpiece, and certainly his most personal and consistently funny film, The Nutty Professor (co-written by Bill Richmond), was a big hit for Paramount in 1963 (J.F.K. reportedly howled with laughter during a screening), and was the culmination of everything Mr. Lewis had been working toward as “the total filmmaker” since being mentored by the great Frank Tashlin. Tashlin had been one of the most innovative animation directors at Warner Bros. in the 1940′s before branching out into feature films and directing some of Bob Hope’s funniest films (such as Son of Paleface) and, later, the Martin and Lewis hits Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust. In Mr. Lewis, he found his Galatea, a malleable human cartoon, and never did the actor seem to be more made of rubber. Mr. Lewis’ antics, under Tashlin’s direction, became more physical and more distorted than ever, like Daffy Duck come to life. Tashlin’s films with Mr. Lewis in the late 50′s and early 60′s even looked like cartoons, using bright colors, loud, brassy music and outrageous slapstick sight gags.

Mr. Lewis would eventually direct himself, and as examples of fast-paced physical comedy, his first few films were right on the mark. So much so that, in The Bellboy, Mr. Lewis’ character dispenses with dialogue altogether, performing in pantomime, a modern-day silent comedian.

The sixth film Mr. Lewis directed, The Nutty Professor, borrows the familiar Jekyll and Hyde theme, updating it to a modern university setting, with Mr. Lewis as the nerdish, clumsy, bucktoothed science professor, Julius Kelp. The over-six-foot-tall Mr. Lewis achieved the effect of portraying Julius as small and weak by casting giant male actors to play against him. Kelp is sick and tired of being bullied by faculty and students alike, and to make matters worse, he finds himself falling in love with blond, pouty co-ed Miss Purdy, played by Stella Stevens.

Julius’ first attempt to “get physical” by pumping iron in Vic Tanny’s Gym leads to a hilarious, pre-computer animation sight gag that has to be seen to be believed. Having failed at body building, Kelp starts experiments to develop a potion that will transform him into a “he-man.” How the results of the experiment are revealed to the audience shows Jerry’s great talent as a comic director. Kelp approaches the hip, college hangout, the Purple Pit, in a series of subjective shots, where only his footsteps are heard.We see not the transformedprofessor,butthe shocked, horrified reaction of the people gathered there. The film’s twist is that the homely Julius Kelp has changed into the handsome Buddy Love-all the more surprising since Julius was last seen writhing on the floor after drinking his potion, seemingly turning into a buck-fanged monster.

Similar to Spencer Tracy’s 1941 portrayal of Mr. Hyde, which employed little makeup and relied on subtle gesture and attitude, Kelp’s alter ego Buddy Love is nevertheless a monster. He’s a self-absorbed, overly suave, greasy-haired lounge-singer swinger in an electric-blue Sy Devore suit.

For years, it has been commonly assumed that Buddy Love is meant to be a parody of Dean Martin-a theory which, when examined, does not hold much merit. Martin and Lewis had dissolved seven years earlier, and there was no particular reason for Mr. Lewis to harbor any animosity toward Mr. Martin. Both were huge movie and recording stars, as Mr. Lewis had actually recorded a hit album of standards, sung in a Jolsonesque style (he seemed to favor tunes by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, whose “That Old Black Magic” is Buddy Love’s trademark tune). Rather, the character of Buddy Love seems to be based on the showbiz types Mr. Lewis had encountered over the years, as well as a caricature of himself. Had Mr. Lewis wanted to lampoon Mr. Martin as Buddy, he could have used his incredible talent as a mimic to employ that unique amalgamation of Dean Martin–speak-South Carolina by way of Steubenville, Ohio-but he didn’t.

Some have observed that, eventually, Mr. Lewis himself evolved into Buddy Love, but aside from borrowing the Vitalis, Mr. Lewis was never as narcissistic and mean-spirited as Buddy. Who could imagine Buddy Love hosting a telethon for muscular dystrophy for over 50 years? It’s also been rumored that Mr. Lewis had a thing for former playmate Stella Stevens. Miss Purdy was her first major role, and Mr. Lewis did his best to build her up, lovingly filming her in extreme close-ups (and showing her legs as much as possible). He even named her character Stella and used the haunting Victor Young tune “Stella by Starlight” throughout the soundtrack. Miss Purdy struggles with her ambiguous feelings as the personalities of Julius and Buddy overlap, eventually preferring the goodhearted Julius. Alas, Stella Stevens would soon appear in one of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm films, much to Mr. Lewis’ dismay; in all likelihood, he remained competitive with his erstwhile partner.

The ending sequence of The Nutty Professor is possibly the highlight of the film, showcasing Mr. Lewis at his comic, moviemaking best. As the actors take their bows, the ever-clumsy Jerry/Julius actually trips forward and falls into the camera lens, abruptly ending the film. The DVD edition includes never-before-seen bloopers and outtakes, including a 17-year-old, pre–”This Diamond Ring” Gary Lewis, awkwardly attempting to order a drink in the Purple Pit. There is also audio commentary by Jerry and … none other than Steve Lawrence! Is it possible Mr. Lewis is thinking of teaming up with Mr. Lawrence? Lawrence and Lewis! Where would that leave poor Eydie?