The Nutty Professor is widely considered to be his masterpiece.
I was quite happy when Paramount announced it would be releasing the 1963 Nutty Professor on 4K Blu-ray. Although opinions of Jerry Lewis’s body of work run the gamut from “low-grade trash” to “authentic American masterpieces,” we must give the man his due. Lewis was extremely popular in the fifties and sixties. Lewis was a very proficient filmmaker. (I consider the first time I read his book, The Total Filmmaker, to be a cathartic moment in my life. I was nine.) Lewis invented the modern practice of video assist. He needed a way to see his performance instantly on the set, without waiting for the rushes that evening. Lewis, as Gerald Mast pointed out in his seminal book, The Comic Mind, played with the soundtrack more than any other comic filmmaker of his time. Lewis (perhaps because of his association with Frank Tashlin, pioneering Warner Brothers animator who directed Lewis in seven films before Lewis starting directing himself) used a color palate in his sixties films that is near psychedelic.
Bring forth the 4K so that we may see bright colors and hear strange sounds!
The new Paramount disc does not disappoint. The colors pop. The transfer is immaculate. The soundtrack pristine and bright. The new disc has a wealth of extras, mostly ported over from previous editions. There is a short piece by Leonard Maltin (I’m beginning to think that Congress, recently and secretly, passed a law that mandates that all “legacy” disc releases must involve Leonard Maltin in some way.) Rounding out the package are a recording of Lewis and Tashlin discussing the film from 1962, an audio commentary with Lewis and Steve Lawrence, and an assortment of screen tests, deleted scenes, and trailers. The slipcase opens up to become a small replica of the film’s original poster! A digital code is included to download the movie onto whatever thing you use for THOSE KIND OF THNGS. LADY!
“Instruction Book for Being a Person... and Feeling Better” is a real thing. You can buy it on Amazon. I am not making this up.
For almost twenty years, the conventional wisdom on The Nutty Professor was that Lewis was sending up his old partner Dean Martin in his portrayal of the greasy, egotistical Buddy Love. Then, in 1981, Danny Peary suggests an alternate theory in his wonderful book Cult Movies. Peary thinks that the Buddy Love character is not Dean Martin, but a preview of the Jerry Lewis to come, the insufferable game show and talk show guest, the sanctimonious, egotistical, unctuous host of the annual telethon, gracing us with a song and his nonsensical hipster wisdom. Since Peary first published his book, this has become the accepted wisdom on the film with many pundits implying that this was their theory all along. The mind boggles.
I love the color palate of this film. I love the music. I love the sequence where Kelp returns to his classroom after a hard night of partying as Buddy Love and all kinds of common sounds are ramped up on the soundtrack to recreate Kelp’s epic hangover. I love Stella Stevens’ sweet performance. (She’s the best co-star Lewis ever had.) I love the transformation scene, especially the justifiably famous tracking shot where we get Buddy Love’s POV as he moves from Kelp’s laboratory to the student hangout, The Purple Pit. I love the end of the prom sequence when Kelp, exposed at last as Buddy Love, gives the assembled group of students and their teachers a bit of simple wisdom, “I think that the lesson that I learned came just in time. I don't want to be something that I'm not. I didn't like being someone else. At the same time, I'm very glad I was because I found out something that I never knew. You might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time you're going to have to spend with you.”