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Saturday, September 09, 2017

The Nutty Professor

Jerry Lewis' death a few weeks ago brought many tributes about his comic genius. I must admit that I am not a fan, but to be honest, I don't know if I had ever seen one of his movies. Maybe I saw The Nutty Professor or Cinderfella on TV when I was a little kid, but I don't remember them. My impression of Lewis was as the arrogant and smug host of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, which seemed to me to be as much about him as the kids ("Jerry's Kids," indeed).

So I rolled up my sleeves and watched what is generally acclaimed his best film, The Nutty Professor, a take on the Jekyll and Hyde story. It's not terrible, and has moments of amusement, but it did not make me laugh once. What I found more interesting than the tired slapstick was the commentary on gender roles.

Lewis, who directed and co-wrote, plays Professor Julius Kelp (the inspiration for the Simpsons' Professor Frink, and a character type that Lewis played more than once). He is a hopeless nerd, a buck-toothed, socially awkward, accident-prone dweeb. But he is kind and good-natured.

When he is pushed around by one of his students (literally--the guy puts him on a shelf) he decides to try to improve his physique. There are standard jokes set at a gym. But as a scientist he is convinced that chemistry may change him. So he concocts a formula that turns him into the smooth, suave, arrogant, narcissistic Buddy Love.

Love arrives at the local college hangout and immediately begins to to seduce Stella Stevens, one of Kelp's admiring students. She is initially appalled at Love's egomania, but agrees to go park in her car. But when the formula starts wearing off, Love has to vamoose.

The Buddy Love character is the film's most daring creation. This was 1963, when Hugh Hefner was more famous than Betty Friedan. There has always been a maxim that beautiful women end up with assholes because decent guys are afraid to approach them (I've heard this from many Penthouse models). This is certainly true in The Nutty Professor--Stevens initially is reluctant, but because of his insistence and that he ignores her protests, she starts to like him. He also becomes a hit as a performer at the club. This is a less authentic plot point, as Lewis is not a very good singer.

In the end, we learn the lesson that we must like ourselves, or no one else will. It's a sweet ending, with a nice gag about Lewis' milquetoast father, Howard Morris, getting a hold of the formula.

I would like to add that Stevens is a sight for sore eyes. She was in the Marilyn Monroe/Jayne Mansfield mold (the first Playboy Playmate of the '60, natch) and has little to do here but stare wide-eyed. But she sure was a dish.

Lewis certainly was a giant figure in the culture, even if, like me, you hadn't seen one of his movies. After this one I'm not particularly interested in seeing any more. His comedy lacks subtlety and wit (the closest I came to laughing is when he is called into the college president's office and sits in an over-stuffed armchair and sinks). It is often joked that the French love him, so que sera, sera.

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