Thursday, August 3, 2023

The Nutty Professor (1963): A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Stella Stevens.

The idea of changing oneself is nothing new. The Nutty Professor takes a horror story and reworks it into a comedy. Dominated by sight and sound gags, The Nutty Professor is not as funny as I thought it would be, but still has enough cleverness to enjoy.

Professor Julius Kelp (Jerry Lewis) is forever causing chaos at his laboratory and classroom. Nearsighted, slightly hunchbacked, with a thin voice and wild overbite, Professor Kelp is mocked and bullied by nearly everyone, administration and students alike. Only student Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) shows him any kindness.

Kelp decides he needs to make a change. After failing to bulk up at the gym, he turns to chemistry, creating a concoction that turns him into the suave, cool but highly obnoxious and arrogant alter ego Buddy Love. As Buddy Love, he is able to push around others and get his way, oozing charm and sex appeal. Stella, for her part, is both drawn and repulsed by Buddy Love: intrigued by his looks and singing but put off by his manner.

Unfortunately for Love/Kelp, the formula is temporary. Love could be crooning That Old Black Magic or wooing Purdy, but eventually Love's voice and mannerisms start reverting to Kelp's. Can Kelp keep up this double act or will the truth eventually be exposed? Will Purdy go for the smooth Love or the whacky Kelp?

At its heart, The Nutty Professor is a comedic take on Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. You have the somewhat mad scientist creating a formula that will completely alter him into a new being. Unlike the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, however, The Nutty Professor is more about whacky situations than dangerous ones. There is a nod to the Jekyll and Hyde transformation early on, when we see Kelp change almost into a wolfman-like creature.

Lewis, who directed the film, keeps up the audience's expectations by having a section where people react to this new figure but we don't see him for a while. It is not until we get to the swinging clue The Purple Pit when we see, instead of the monster we had earlier seen, the suave Buddy Love. 

Lewis does wonders with the sight and sound gags throughout The Nutty Professor. Early on, he has a clever sight gag when Kelp has to face the infuriated college president Dr. Warfield (Del Moore). The chair Kelp sits at is far too low for anyone, and seeing this extremely clumsy and timid man sitting there while his slow-burning president is shuffling papers is funny.

Other scenes, such as Kelp's disastrous efforts at bodybuilding or when as Love he gets Warfield do perform Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy in a comic buildup also work well. Lewis also masters audio gags, particularly when Kelp is clearly hungover.

Attempting to not be overwhelmed by sounds, Lewis exaggerates every sound Kelp encounters to where even a student using a liquid dropper becomes a pounding force tormenting him. This is a brilliant use of sound for comedic effect.  Lewis (who cowrote the script with Bill Richmond) should be commended for their cleverness.

The Nutty Professor also has great production design. The Purple Pit in particular is an excellent example of using bright colors that pop out. 

The film's two lead performances are quite good. Lewis, I figure, is something of an acquired taste. Here, he plays two characters and does each of them well. His Professor Kelp is now a bit of a cliché: the thin, reedy-voiced weakling who wouldn't intimate a fly. He does, however, make Kelp into an endearing fellow, someone that we feel for more than mock. Yes, he does funny things and is meant for laughs. However, Lewis' Kelp is also a sweet figure, whom we genuinely want to succeed.

We, like Purdy, can also marvel at Love's smoothness but be appalled by his arrogance. It's surprising to see someone usually mocked for shouting "HEY LADY!" being debonair and even doing some singing.

Stella Steven's Stella Purdy breaks the fourth wall often, as if inviting us into her confusion over both Kelp and Love. She does make Purdy into a caring figure, one whose confusion about Kelp and Love keeps her forever flummoxed. At times Stevens does come across as perhaps too dreamy about things, but on the whole she is a perfect foil for both of Lewis' characters. 

The Nutty Professor sometimes is a bit too obvious with some of its gags. For example, Kelp confusing a group of men standing around the bowling alley for the pins themselves is almost too outlandish to believe. We also do not question the inappropriate relationship between a student and teacher which makes up a large part of the plot. Still, The Nutty Professor is not a film one takes seriously. It's a nice romp, with a strong performances by Jerry Lewis and Stella Stevens.  


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