THE NUTTY PROFESSOR wasn’t Jerry Lewis’s biggest hit. Eleven of his sixteen pairings with Dean Martin did better box office, as did six of his solo efforts made before this came out in 1963. His 4th time doing triple duty as star, writer and director, it did do quite well, $11,400,000 taking 23rd spot for the year; none of his subsequent pictures earned as much, let alone were anywhere near as clever or amusing. Even those who don’t have a warm spot for the multi-talented, patience-dissolving manboy consider this signature picture his all-round best. Even when the star’s self-exorcising nears the kill-switch, there’s the sparkle of leading lady Stella Stevens.
Teaching chemistry at a university, ‘Prof. Julius Kelp’ (Lewis, 37) is several clumsy stumbles beyond nerdy, his internal goofitude not helped by his external appearance, festooned by dental work stolen from a beaver. He takes matters in test tube by devising and ingesting a serum that transforms him into an egotistical lounge lizard he dubs ‘Buddy Love’. As brash Buddy (whose ‘handsomeness’ features enough hair gel to qualify as an oil slick) he crassly courts student ‘Stella Purdy’ (Stevens, 24), who naturally responds to a jerk who treats her like doodoo. Who is the real
Jerry Julius and will he turn loathsome in interviews can he save sweet Stella from Buddy’s brand of Love?
Though a variation of the Kelp character had been deployed by Lewis five years earlier (1958’s Rock-A-Bye Baby) and would turn up in The Family Jewels (1965) and The Big Mouth (1967), the genesis for the plot came from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde”. The canard bandied for a while had Buddy as Jerry’s backhand at ex-partner Dean Martin, but Lewis vehemently denied that (and cool cat Dino wasn’t a dick like Buddy): it’s easier to discern the smug alter ego as part & parcel of the gifted but taxing comic himself. At any rate, until he pushes a maudlin finish on the cheerfully gaudy show, Lewis’ undeniable skill and timing get a good number of laughs out of both incarnations. *
He directs well, better than his other total-control travails, gets sharp work from the supporting players and ensures a gleefully extreme color palette to the sets, costumes and props. Topping the cake was casting the smart & sexy, saucy & funny Stevens, whose self-assured & self-kidding comedy chops are a delight. Though she later scored well in The Silencers, The Ballad Of Cable Hogue and The Poseidon Adventure this remains her defining film role.
Co-written by Bill Richmond. 107 minutes, with Del Moore, Kathleen Freeman, Howard Morris, Elvia Allman, Med Flory (a fave), Norman Alden (ditto), Milton Frome, Les Brown (and his ‘Band of Renown’), Skip Ward, Marvin Kaplan, Henry Gibson (debut, 27), Buddy Lester, Murray Alper, Celeste Yarnell, Seymour Cassell, Roger Torrey, Doodles Weaver and Dave Willock. Look sharp for Richard Kiel and a quick glimpse of Cliff Robertson—just hanging out?
* Remade, with
Love’s Lewis’s imprimatur, to big success in 1996, with Eddie Murphy. Even though Der Jerr acted as executive producer (for Murphy’s sequel as well) he couldn’t resist re-dusting his track medal: “I have such respect for Eddie, but I should not have done it. What I did was perfect the first time around, and all you’re going to do is diminish that perfection by letting someone else do it.” You can’t fight Shitty Hall.