My previous claims that the revolving credits on Jerry’s movies signaled a conscious effort to improve the product are probably false. Just as Colonel Parker learned that a good Elvis movie would earn no more money than a bad one, so must the Paramount executives have surmised that the draw for a Jerry Lewis movie was Jerry alone. In the early sixties, people did not ask someone who had seen a movie if it was any good. The question was whether or not they had liked it. And Jerry’s fans generally liked Jerry’s movies. They probably didn’t differentiate between the good and the bad ones, and it is quite possible that they would not know the difference anyway. As I sit here from a historical and aesthetic distance, with almost all of his movies at my fingertips, it is easy to invent a quality curve upon which to arrange them from best to worst. but watching the movies in real time, in real theaters, with a real audience, the only measure of quality was the laughter. Still, I believe Jerry himself was concerned with his legacy, and did everything he could to raise his status as a 20th Century Movie clown to the heights of a Keaton or Chaplin. He didn’t want to be remembered as an Art Carney or Soupy Sales.
To ensure this, he needed a masterpiece. When most of us remember Jerry Lewis, we think of bits from several different movies. For myself, I get all the black and white images mixed up with “The Bellboy,” and the color pictures are just an eponymous blur. But there is one movie that cannot be confused with any other, and that is “The Nutty Professor.” The script, which Jerry wrote with Bill Richmond, is never rushed. Each scene is narratively tied to every other scene, and is played out in real time. There are no hysterical fits of speeding through expositional material to get to the next gag. Instead of a laugh for every five gags, there are five laughs for every single gag, because oddball events that grow out of realistic situations are funnier than finding joke fortunes inside of crazy quilt ping pong balls exploding o the dance floor.
More to the point, Jerry is actually directing a movie here, not just overseeing camera set-ups before jumping in front of the camera to spazz out. He takes special care with Stella Stevens, a future beauty who hasn’t yet bloomed, and Jerry captures her flowering with a sensitive delicacy almost unknown in teenage ingénue roles. Compare her performance with Tashlin’s clumsy handling of newcomer Suzanne Pleshette in “Geisha Boy.” Tashlin was brilliant at satirizing over-ripe sex symbols such as Jayne Mansfield in “The Girl Can’t Help It,” but innocent nymphets are not his bag.
Which brings us to a touchy point. Although Jerry was just ten years older than the 26 year old Stella Stevens when they shot “The Nutty Professor,” there was something pervey in the relationship between their characters. Perhaps it is just because he is the professor and she his student that makes their after-class kissing so creepy. In 1963, we weren’t used to seeing such brazenly erotic activity in the school halls…not even between faculty members, let alone between a professor and student. Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita,” which was restricted to persons 18 years old and older, shied away from overtly sexual behavior between Humbert Humbert and his nymphet, and Peter Sellers’ Quilty, the lecherous drama teacher who may be responsible for Lolita’s pregnancy, is portrayed as a degenerate child molester. But Jerry, since he has so often been portrayed as a stunted child, is applauded when he achieves his matrimonial goals with the girl. (For the record, James Mason was 53 years old when he played Humbert Humbert to Lolita’s 17 year-old Sue Lyons, and Peter Sellers was 38.)
Jerry Lewis often plays orphaned or abandoned characters in search of a family. Such quests are usually wholesome enough, even when tainted with hints of non-biological incest. The strange thing about “The Nutty Professor” is that Jerry has no interest in being accepted into the familial structure of his peer group, the faculty. Instead, he wants to achieve alpha male status within the student community. I have seen such phenomenon played out in real life, most explicitly with David Mamet while he was at Harvard. And like Jerry, he ended by marrying the student he pursued.
Since Jerry is an incarnation of the asexual clown, he is allowed a closer proximity to young girls in scanty pajamas than would be considered decent for a more virile man. In the early days of nudie cuties, directors such as Russ Meyer were free to follow such characters as they filled their eyes with naked women by peering through the windows they washed or peeping through the trees at sunbathing nudists. “The Ladies Man” plays like a Russ Meyer movie in which the girls keep their clothes on. But the male gaze is a leering gaze nonetheless, and the boys in the audience are castrated by the inaction of the asexual clown through whose eyes they gaze.
There is no such innocence in Jerry’s incarnation as Buddy Love. One of the most disturbing things about “The Nutty Professor” is the tenuous distinction between the voyeur and the rapist. Since Jerry operates within the sanctified limits of family entertainment, there is no danger of the adolescent audience causing any sex riots in the theaters. What disturbs is that virtually everyone in the school, from students to faculty (including the reliably sexless Kathleen Freeman) is wild for Buddy Love. The danger of negative charisma is never addressed, and this school could be a microcosm for the cult of personality that nearly destroyed Europe less than twenty years prior to this movie.
But Jerry was probably just taking a rib at the Elvis cult. Elvis, who was putting out two or three movies every year, was nine years younger than Jerry, and his most immediate rival in terms of audience demographics. Both, however, were more closely allied with the Sinatra world of entertainment than with the emergent Beatlemania. Television would continue to be hosted and dominated by the Wall generation even when they began to draw their guests from a new Top 40 radio that had nothing to do with the old Hit Parade. In “The Nutty Professor,” Jerry Lewis creates an alternate sixties universe in which swinging chicks go just as wild over an older man singing “I’m In the Mood for Love” with the Les Brown orchestra as they had when Elvis was still singing “Treat me Nice.”
Maybe the old timers thought they were going to get a second wind. What they got was the revenge of the nerds. Jerry was a nerd before the word even existed. He was one of those idiot savants who could memorize a hundred technical manuals yet not know how to hammer a nail. He was the skinny kid who got sand kicked in his face by some Charles Atlas wannabe. Yet he always prevailed in the end. Even those who hated him at first sight were his friends in the end. Stella Stevens tells the professor that dating a guy like Buddy Love was exciting, but when a girl is ready to settle down, she would choose someone like the professor. I looked at the screen in bewilderment, translating her words to, “Boyfriends are fun, but when a girl gets serious, she marries her dad.”