Classic Cracker: The Nutty Professor (1963)

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It’s very easy to forget just how funny Jerry Lewis could be. Whether that is due to rumours regarding his behaviour behind the scenes, the sour taste left by the bitter end to the friendship with Dean Martin, or the fact that he has played some impressively loathsome roles in his old age, I couldn’t really say. Maybe it’s just that he belongs to a different age, and modern viewers assume that he has nothing to teach them. I beg to disagree.

The story of The Nutty Professor is a very simple one. Martin is nerdy and nervy Professor Julius Kelp, a man who seems awkward in just about every situation, including his teaching role. But he knows science, which enables him to create a potion that changes his appearance, improves his confidence, and brings out traits he didn’t even know he had. His alter-ego names himself Buddy Love, and he’s the kind of guy who walks into the hottest joints in town as if he owns them. But he’s also the kind of guy who treats others quite badly. Finding a balance between the two personalities would be nice, but can the Professor manage it? And how will he manage to attend the prom as both a chaperone AND a star guest?

Taking on three main duties here, Lewis directed and also co-wrote (with Bill Richmond) this star vehicle, and he excels in all three roles. While the focus is obviously on the comedy, the film would feel much longer than it is if that was the only selling point. Instead, viewers also get some darker moments, even the first main transformation sequence borders on proper old-fashioned horror, and there’s an interesting look at the thin line between acting cool and acting inconsiderate and boorish. It’s also a big bonus to have the lead character surrounded by such a great selection of talented performers. Stella Stevens is adorable as the main object of affection for the lead characters, Del Moore is wonderful as the Dean who tries to keep Professor Kelp from blowing up the building, and Kathleen Freeman is welcome in a small role. Howard Morris and Elvia Allman also do very well, playing the parents to Kelp, first appearing in a flashback that may seem superfluous and irritating until it becomes relevant further down the line.

I can see why some might end up hating this movie. The schtick from Lewis when portraying Kelp is the sort of silly slapstick and overdone gurning that could easily put viewers off, especially those who think that’s all that Lewis can do. There’s also that flashback scene, which features Lewis playing himself as a baby. It’s a low point, admittedly, but not one to dwell on as soon as the film kicks back into gear. I love it all, from the pratfalls (including a sequence showing Kelp trying to improve himself through more traditional means) to the laughable abruptness of Buddy Love. And one day I might even sit and watch it while sipping on an Alaskan Polar Bear Heater.

DIRECTOR: JERRY LEWIS
WRITER: JERRY LEWIS, BILL RICHMOND
STARS: JERRY LEWIS, STELLA STEVENS, DEL MOORE, KATHLEEN FREEMAN, HOWARD MORRIS, ELVIA ALLMAN
RUNTIME: 107 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★½

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