I have a complicated relationship with Jerry Lewis, who reigned supreme as the prince of popular culture during his heyday with Dean Martin and went on to be hugely popular as a solo act in films directed by Frank Tashlin, Norman Taurog, and then in films that he directed himself. As a performer he can be brilliant or cringingly spastic and infantile and as a director he was far more than a punchline to a swipe at French cinephilia but less than the complete genius some of his supporters might claim. He had a habit of slathering a gooey sentimentality to the kind of anarchy and chaos that the Marx perfected, yet at his best (and sometimes even his worst) he barbed his humor with an unsettling cynicism. And he could be inventive, even downright surreal.
It all came together beautifully in The Nutty Professor (1963), Jerry Lewis’ almost universally acknowledged masterpiece, and The Nutty Professor: 50th Anniversary (Warner, Blu-ray) gives the film its Blu-ray debut in a special edition.
Lewis directed, produced and co-wrote this bizarro take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, turning his familiar child-man figure into nerdy college chemistry professor Julius Kelp, a buck-toothed social misfit with Lewis’ adenoidal voice aged to a curious adulthood and spasmodic, childlike body slowed and slumped into a walking shrug. When this Dr. Jekyll reaches deep inside to release his Mr. Hyde, he unleashes Buddy Love, a creepy lounge lizard as confident, popular, aggressive ladies’ man, a monster so self-absorbed and full of contempt for his adoring fans that his popularity itself is a perverse joke. While the standard take in 1963 was that Love was a rather nasty satire of his former partner Dean Martin, most fans realize that Buddy is really Lewis’ flip side writ big and pushed to extremes.
Where Lewis’ films with Tashlin and Taurog drop his befuddled, anarchic innocent into vaguely real-world settings, Lewis creates utterly artificial worlds in his own directorial efforts. The college classrooms and offices and labs are dollhouse versions with pastel walls and candy-colored props (the test tubes and vials filled with jelly bean liquids must have caused a national shortage for food coloring), and the costume design fills the frame with splashes of bright, bold colors, like flowers blooming in the midst of the school. The nightclub The Purple Pit is a velvet bachelor pad fantasy gone haywire, just like the object of his affections: college girl Stella Purdy, played by former Playboy centerfold Stella Stevens. She’s a marvelous strange conundrum, a sexually-aware young woman who, wearing girlish pigtails and college sweaters by day, is genuinely concerned with the way Kelp is bullied in class and, in sleek, adult fashions at night, is the party girl of the campus hanging with the very crowd that bullies Kelp.
What makes it all work is the edge that Lewis brings to the cartoonish psychology of his Jekyll and Hyde pairing: Kelp’s addiction to being Buddy and the sheer social sociopathy of Buddy, which plays to me like Lewis’ own comment on the way the public willingly puts up with boorishness and a naked demand for attention as part of the pact with talent. Plus Lewis takes pleasure in two superb set pieces: the initial transformation, which adds candy colored lights and Halloween effects to the metamorphosis horror sequence, and Buddy Love’s entrance, a first-person POV long take that builds the mystery by showing only the reactions of those seeing Buddy for the first time. It’s cynical, outrageous, and hilarious, without all that squirmy boy-man comedy of immature adults from his other work. And it remains my favorite Lewis film.
The four-disc box set features The Nutty Professor on Blu-ray and DVD in a new, beautifully mastered edition with a clean, clear, sharp image and colors that pop, the way that Lewis intended, plus two additional Lewis films on DVD, a bonus CD and other bonus goodies. New to disc is the 20-minute featurette “Jerry Lewis: No Apologies,” which catches up with Lewis at age 87, while the commentary by Lewis and his friend Steve Lawrence (who comes off as a kind of sycophant or yes man, adding little to the conversation beyond a constant stream of praises) and other featurettes, archival clips, deleted scenes and outtakes and other supplements are carries over from the earlier DVD special edition.
Also features DVD re-releases of films previously available as singles: Cinderfella (1960), directed and written by Frank Tashlin, the best of Lewis’ directors and the filmmaker who most influenced his own directorial style, and the Lewis-directed The Errand Boy (1961), both with commentary by Lewis and Steve Lawrence. There’s also a bonus CD of “Phoney Phone Calls,” recordings of prank calls that Lewis made and recorded between 1959 and 1972 and originally released to disc in 2001.
The box also features booklets with reproductions of storyboards, a cutting script with Lewis’ notes, and a recreation of his self-published illustrated “Instruction Book for Being a Person” that he wrote and handed out to the cast and production crew of The Nutty Professor, and “A Personal Message from Jerry Lewis” written for this release.