Guilty Pleasures: ROGER SMITH

gulityThe Nutty Professor – Jerry Lewis (1963)

I first got to see The Nutty Professor as a toddler in Johannesburg in the sixties. South Africa had no television back then (the rabid Calvinists who formulated Apartheid liked to keep a tight lid on what their flock were exposed to) and suburban Jo’burg had few cinemas, but there was a drive-in theater a few blocks from my house, and the Jerry Lewis comedies ran and ran and ran until, with their tramline scratches, tape splices and torn sprocket holes, they began to resemble something from the American underground.

I have a clear memory of the buck-toothed Professor Kelp, with his Coke-bottle glasses and Three Stooges hairstyle, up on the giant screen, his manic voice – like a helium-enriched screech – blaring out of the speakers into the hot African night.

In the early seventies Jerry Lewis came to Johannesburg to do a few performances of his one-man show. This was big news for us, as Apartheid-era South Africa wasn’t a popular destination for international performers. My father parted with some serious green and we trooped off to the gigantic Coliseum cinema – an art deco fiasco in downtown Jo’burg – where we sat upstairs a million miles away from the guy at the microphone. What a disappointment. Lewis seemed as bored as his all-white audience, trotting out tired gags, his mind – it seemed – already on the plane home.

After that, with no access to the TV exposure Americans had of his increasingly lounge-lizardy progress through the seventies, I forgot about Jerry Lewis until I saw Martin Scorsese’s 1983 masterpiece, The King of Comedy. Robert De Niro was sublime as Rupert Pupkin, the wannabe stand-up comic, but it was Lewis, playing the talk show host, Jerry Langford – kidnapped by De Niro and Sandra Bernhard – who stole the show. Langford is the victim, but he is hardly sympathetic: arrogant, jaded, world-weary and spoilt. Not unlike the guy I’d seen on stage ten years before. I couldn’t help but agree with reports that Jerry Lewis was so good because he was playing himself.

After watching The King of Comedy I tracked down a VHS copy of The Nutty Professor and I was astonished at just how accomplished Lewis the writer-director-performer had been. This comic take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde reprises the klutz familiar to all Lewis fans and there’s a lot to like – not least the costumes by Edith Head who did the great Hitchcock films of the fifties, To Catch a Thief and Vertigo – but it is a third of the way in that the movie becomes something truly memorable, rising above other Lewis vehicles like The Bellboy and The Patsy.

Uber-nerd Professor Kelp, bullied by jocks in his class and nursing a serious crush on a student played by Stella Stevens, concocts a potion to make himself more manly. Stevens and her letter sweater gang are hanging out a local nightspot, The Purple Pit, drinking milk and listening to Les Brown and his boys delivering some Welkish elevator jazz, when the music grinds to a halt and the cigarette girls drop their cigarettes and Stella Stevens’s jaw gapes and there he is, Kelp’s predatory alter-ego, Buddy Love, veiled by cigarette smoke, dressed in a powder-blue tuxedo with black trim, and a white vest over a pink shirt; hair slicked back with enough oil to rival Exxon Valdez.

The band recovers and Buddy oozes over to the bar. After humiliating the barman and dispatching a barroom brawler with a sucker punch, he checks his appearance in a hand mirror he keeps in his tux jacket. But all this is just foreplay. The big moment comes when he approaches the bandstand and stops the music saying to the pianist, “Tubby, you go rest your thumbs, I’ll drive.” And drive he does, launching into a show stopping version of That Old Black Magic, while Stella Stevens fondles the lid of the baby grand and simpers fetchingly.

Of course the movie charts a predictable course: Buddy romances Stella who falls under his spell, but as he performs at the annual student dance the potion starts to wear off. His real identity revealed, Professor Kelp admits his mistakes and begs for forgiveness. When Stella confesses that she prefers Kelp over Buddy Love, the ending is happy.

But the character of Buddy Love remains intriguing. At the time of its release, six years after the famous Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin split, many said that Lewis was ripping off his old sidekick, Dino. But if Buddy Love resembles any of the Rat Pack, it is that mean spirited cocksman, Frank Sinatra. Even Lewis’s rendition of That Old Black Magic seems a calculated pastiche of the famous Sinatra phrasing, with none of Dino’s trademark “relaxayvoo” styling. And, by all accounts, Dean Martin preferred the company of a book to a blonde in bed and it was Lewis who was the legendary lothario.

So, I reckon that Buddy Love and Jerry Langford are gems mined straight from Lewis’s own psyche, and bloody watchable for that. Grab a copy of The Nutty Professor and decide for yourself. And why not make it a Jerry-thon and snag The King of Comedy, too?

Roger Smith
Roger Smith was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and now lives in Cape Town. His thrillers Mixed Blood, Wake Up Dead and Dust Devils are published in seven languages and two are in development as movies in the U.S. His books have won the Deutscher Krimi Preis (German Crime Fiction Award) and been nominated for Spinetingler Magazine Best Novel awards. His fourth novel, Capture, will be out in mid-2012. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook and his website.