While not a true science-fiction film per se, The Nutty Professor provides yet another comedic take on a man of science.
Jerry Lewis’ comedic film The Nutty Professor takes a decades old sci-fi story, and reinvigorates it as a college-themed youth film, proving that sci-fi could be injected into almost any type of film and be successful.
This may be the best trailer Sci-Fi Saturdays has looked at to date. Not only does it tease the film itself, it spoofs another famous trailer as well. The trailer tells the audience that it’s OK to talk about the beginning of the film, and the end of the film, but please don’t spoil the middle of the film. This is a direct reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s promotions for Psycho (1960), which urged that audiences would not be admitted late to the film, and that they should not spoil the twists at the end of the film. The earliest “spoiler alert” in cinema history! It also teases that something horrific will occur to Jerry Lewis’s nerdy professor. It seems like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sort of moment. It also tantilizes the men in the audience specifically by showing scenes of the beautiful Stella Stevens in all manner of dress, including a swimsuit. A sure fire way to get at least one portion of the audience to show up!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The Nutty Professor provides Jerry Lewis with one of his greatest roles ever. Professor Julius Kelp (Jerry Lewis), an accident prone, nebbish college professor, has trouble with his experiments, his class and his life. Dr. Warfield (Del Moore), the Dean, worries that Kelp’s accidents will end up killing a student. He reiterates to the professor that no more unauthorized experiments will be condoned on campus.
Having been beat up by a jock that he told couldn’t skip his class, Kelp is shoved into a storage shelf. He is helped out by Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), a beautiful young co-ed, that Professor Kelp has a crush on. He becomes tongue-tied around her, and even fantasizes about her when she’s leaving class.
Deciding he needs to get into shape, Prof. Kelp attends a local gym to get fit. After some problems with the equipment, and an accident with the dumbbell stretching out his arms, Kelp realizes that this regimen is doing him no good. He decides to use his chemistry skills to concoct a potion to turn him into the perfect man. One that can “get the girls!”
When drunk, Kelp’s potion causes him to writhe on the ground, sprout hair from his arms, and begin to turn him into a wild creature. When his final form is revealed, it turns out he has become a slick, lounge-club hipster, who calls himself Buddy Love (Jerry Lewis). Buddy is everything Julius is not: confident, suave, handsome, and in control.
Buddy develops a relationship with Stella, who doesn’t really like the abrasive playboy, but can’t seem to take her eyes off of him. Especially when she realizes that there’s something familiar about him. After several close calls where the potion begins to wear off, and Buddy reverts into Julius, he begins dosing himself even more frequently. His final transformation is just before his appearance as guest of honor at the Senior Prom. Unfortunately he spills his potion, only having a small amount for the evening.
Performing as Buddy Love, Prof. Kelp begins to revert in the middle of his act in front of the whole faculty and student body. He is embarrassed and apologizes to the Dean about his actions. In a heartfelt moment, Kelp provides very insightful knowledge on his self loathing, realizing finally that he’s better as himself than he is when pretending to be someone else. Stella realizes the truth and proposes to him right there. They marry and Julius vows to never recreate the formula. In a comedic twist, his father shows up, having concocted his own version of the formula off notes Julius sent home for safekeeping. Julius and Stella walk out on him ignoring the fact he is selling bottles of the formula to eager students; even though Stella has two bottles in her rear pockets!
“You might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time you’re gonna have to spend with you.” – Prof. Julius Kelp
History in the Making
The Nutty Professor is a classic Jerry Lewis comedy that is sci-fi adjacent. It seeks to adapt Robert Louis-Stevenson’s classic story Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, itself a sci-fi adjacent type of film, but more classically categorized as horror. This setup provides Lewis, who also co-wrote and directed the film, with much room for his broader brand of comedy. Being the dorky, yet sweet Professor Kelp afforded Lewis many chances for pratfalls, goofy dialects and bizarre behavior. His other character, Buddy Love, was not a monster in the traditional sense of Stevenson’s story, but an alter ego of Kelp’s desires and frustrations.
Whereas The Absent Minded Professor was a comedic film similar to The Nutty Professor, it’s comedy was situational and created from rather thin versions of characters. Lewis comedy provides more nuance, choosing to set up “bits,” or reasons for his character to perform in a funny situation. His Julius Kelp is a much more rounded character than Fred MacMurray’s professor. While Kelp may seem more stereotypical, I believe that Lewis’ characterizations of this goofy professor actually served to inspire future nerdy characters. Kelp also has a strong story arc with his character, and provides a heartfelt conclusion for his character, all while maintaining some uproariously funny moments hat only Jerry Lewis could deliver.
Much like The Absent Minded Professor, Jerry Lewis’s professor contributes to future portrayals of scientists and professor. But unlike Fred MacMurray’s more straight portrayal of distracted scientist Ned Brainard, Lewis’s is much more farcical. Between the nerdy bowl-like haircut, the buck teeth, and awkward glasses, Julius Kelp becomes more of a caricature of science professionals rather than a real scientist. Buddy Love too is a caricature, exaggerating the lounge-lover persona and coming off in a corse and jerky manner. Therefore Ned Brainard exists on one end of the genre-spectrum for portrayals of scientists, while Julius Kelp in on the opposite side.
As mentioned previously, The Nutty Professor is much more of a horror film than a science fiction one. While many lists include Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a sci-fi film (along with other classics such as HG Well’s The Invisible Man) I think that the amount of science in these stories is superficial enough to make them non-inclusive, in a science-fiction setting. However, The Nutty Professor is a really good film that uses comedy to subvert the genres of sci-fi and horror. I wanted to make sure that it was provided in context of the 1960s, showing the maturation of filmmakers being able to spoof existing styles and tropes, and use science-fiction in popular film types of the era. In this case, the college comedy..
One such trope spoof that is sold extremely well, between the trailer and the film itself, is the question of “what does Jerry Lewis turn into.” If you watched the trailer above, you see that it begs audiences to not reveal the middle of this movie. While this is a spoof of similar ads for Psycho it also creates mystery and excitement to find out the answer. As Julius Kelp begins to transform, Lewis uses a great fake out, showing a hairy, monster-like arm, suggesting he will actually be turning into a Mr. Hyde sort of character. The transformation goes even further to show a mop-topped Morlock-looking creature, before revealing that the “creature” passers-by are reacting to is Buddy Love. Lewis subverts audiences expectations to garner a larger laugh.
The best part of this film, apart from the portrayal of Kelp/Love is the thematic element of self respect. Most sci-fi and horror films of the era played more on the plot elements rather than thematic social elements. There were always exceptions, but most audiences expect a goofy comedy film when going to see a Jerry Lewis picture. Ostensibly that’s what was made, but there’s much more to this film than initially meets the eye.
Professor Kelp is apparently unliked, but the person that dislikes him the most, is himself. He lacks any kind of self-confidence. Only through the use of the potion, and the arrival of his is ego-personna Buddy Love, does he become able to talk to women, or perform songs on the piano. In the end, when all his schemes come crashing down, he makes an effort to apologize to those he may have tricked or wronged. He comes to the conclusion, as the quote above states, that you need to be good to yourself. Because, if you don’t like you, how can anyone else be expected to.
This is a really great message for this or any film, but what makes it seem so much stronger is the fact that audiences expect a goofy comedy (which they get), but Lewis sideswipes everyone with a heartfelt message, delivered in a non-goofy way. Another subversion of expectations!
The Science in The Fiction
I talk about this picture being sci-fi adjacent, which I think is pretty applicable. In my mind, the genres of sci-fi, horror and fantasy all share the space of a circle, each having a one-thirds slice. These three genres often share the most overlap, with sci-fi/horror or horror/fantasy hybrids being the most popular. The plot of this film relies on science, but it is not part of the environment, as a one would see in a a time travel film, or a film set in space. Even with those types of films, the plot could easily be translated into a non-sci-fi genre. Science-fiction is often the delivery method and setting, but not entirely crucial to the plot. For example, while Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is a sci-fi horror film, it could have easily removed the sci-fi elements to become just a straight horror film.
The Nutty Professor isn’t quite the same way. The science elements of the professor creating and drinking the formula can’t be removed, but they could be changed to a fantasy potion for example. Baring that element, from a genre standpoint, this film becomes a college comedy, with horror elements, inserted for comedic purposes. The Absent Minded Professor functions in a similar way, minus any horror aspects. It’s mostly an academic comedy, with sci-fi adjacent genre elements in it.
The Final Frontier
Just as The Absent Minded Professor seems to have been an influence on characters such as Dr. Emmett Brown (from Back to the Future), Julius Kelp too influenced other characters. Anyone who has watched The Simpsons for any amount of time is familiar with Professor Frink. Voice artist Hank Azaria based his character on Julius Kelp, and the rest is history. At one point Jerry Lewis even had a cameo voicing Professor Frink’s father.
The film has also been remade several times, once in 2008 as an animated, direct-to-video version, but probably more famously reworked as an Eddie Murphy vehicle from 1996. There were many things that were changed about the storyline, such as Murphy’s character being called Sherman Klump, and being overweight. However, his alter ego was still Buddy Love and he was obnoxious. This was followed by a sequel called Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, showcasing more of Murphy’s comedy in portraying al of his family members. Neither film was as good as the original.
Comedy sci-fi films would continue to gain prominence over the next several decades as enough actual science-fiction tropes were created to begin spoofing easily. They also didn’t need to be strictly comedy films, and would become more sci-fi based films that also happened to have comedy. The Nutty Professor showcased an individual actors talents in a way that also opened the genre up to a larger audience.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.