Paralysis in Motion: The Nutty Professor (1963)
The Nutty Professor is entirely devoted to Professor Julius Kelp’s attempts to surmount his deficiencies as a man. Unable to contend with his own desires, the inadequate professor develops a potion which transforms him into a swinger, the significantly named Buddy Love. The film is a fantasy of metamorphosis: where the nasal-toned and easily cowed Kelp is colourless and bland, constantly attired in a white lab coat, hair combed forward over his face, Love is the embodiment of cool with his flashy jackets, slicked-up hair, throaty voice, and insouciant attitude. Love clearly represents a macho Kelp, a Kelp in control of situations, of others, and especially of women. Kelp need never acknowledge the disparity between his sexual desire and his sexual competency because desire is displaced onto another character who performs in his stead. Love desires and can ostensibly achieve satisfaction, while Kelp neither admits desire not attains fulfilment.
Professor Kelp is easily bullied, not merely by his superiors, but by the students themselves. In a reversal of accepted power relations, one aging football-player type resists Kelp’s authority by interpellating him as a child (“Naughty, naughty, naughty”) and stuffing him into a closet. Whatever damage is sustained by the ego can only be exacerbated by the well-intentioned words offered by Stella, student and love-(Love-) interest: “He’s a typical bully that loves picking on a small man.” Kelp’s first attempt at self-transformation at a local gymnasium is marked by his utter inability to master the simplest piece of equipment, and his weakness, myopia and dysfunction are evident to all. The presentation of Kelp continually involves the humiliations which follow upon his incapacity to perform as a strong and commanding figure of masculine competence.
Following his failure at body-building, Kelp retreats into the rational abstractions of formulae and scientific analysis, finally to produce his metamorphic and metonymic potion. The substitute ego thereby constructed, the regrettable Buddy Love, is a model of “masculine protest” and over-compensatory behaviour. Kelp’s transformation, presented as a technicolour excess of masochistic self-victimisation, does more than affect him physically, it alters his entire subjective experience. The first appearance of Love is perceived through an exaggeratedly extended subjective tracking shot foregrounding the central perspective of the self-centred Buddy Love. Love’s gaze is duplicated by Lewis’s camerawork, and thus character and filmmaker seize overt control of the space, the gaze and the spectators, both diegetically and within the space of the theatre itself. A two-shot trajectory is thus traced from Kelp’s position of passive and even masochistic repose, the camera craning upward in a cold movement of abandonment, to a new sadistic power immediately signified by Love’s clear domination of the cinematic apparatus as well as those around him. The transition is also marked linguistically, as Love re-appropriates the position of the adult which was stripped from the ineffectual Kelp: “You’re all very, very nice little boys and girls,” Love tells his enthusiastic fans.
It represents only the smallest act of will to recognise The Nutty Professor for what it is: a phallic allegory in which Love represents Kelp in an erect, active and threatening state. When Kelp is summoned to meet with the dean of the university, he is swallowed by the chair into which he slowly but inexorably sinks; in a later scene Love perches on the back of this same chair, upright and faintly shocking. One theory of psychosexual development clarifies the conflict embodied by this split persona: “based upon the fact of the bisexual constitution of human beings, it asserts that the motive force of repression in each individual is a struggle between the two sexual characters;”1 in this case, the passive Kelp and the hyper-masculine Love.
The repression of the passive/feminine and the consequent exaggeration of the active/masculine is clearest in the relationship with Stella. Where Kelp expressed embarrassment, Love is overbearingly confident:
Love: Just a minute, sweetheart. I don’t remember dismissing you.
Stella: You, rude, discourteous ego-maniac!
Love: You’re crazy about me, right?
Over-compensation takes the form of an aggressively active controlling force. “Here you are, baby”, he tells Stella, “Take this, wipe the lipstick off, slide over here next to me, and let’s get started.” There are no niceties here to disguise the hostility directed towards the figure of “feminine passivity”, Stella.
The Nutty Professor is acknowledged to be a profoundly personal work; its roots, however, are clearly evident in Lewis’s earlier career. Speaking of the success of Martin and Lewis while acknowledging their lack of originality, Lewis said, “Now, the psychologist would say, ‘No, there’s more to it; there’s some stuff underneath.’ And the stuff underneath was the key. These were two guys who were in love with one another. They adored one another. One that could show it, and one that couldn’t.” Thus, the same passive male/hypermale dialectic operates from the beginning, in the very team-up with his hypermale partner, the handsomest guy in the world, Dean Martin. (Jerry here is “the monkey,” his very vulnerability rendering him literally subhuman.) Although critics and audiences in 1963 perceived Buddy Love as a parody of ex- partner Dino, it is clearly more accurate to say that Dean’s character was always representative of the hypermale side of Jerry.
The patient in analysis constructs a self-centred discourse in an attempt to produce, centre and analyse the repressive mechanisms at work within the psyche. Repression continues to function within the analysis, of course, and is displaced onto the analyst who is imagined to be objective and therefore possibly threatening. The subject resists this recognised authority in order to protect the fiction of psychic coherence and control. Lewis positions his characters within a similar model of simultaneous submission and resistance, as is demonstrated in The Nutty Professor, the most linear and most confessional of his films. The self-love and self-loating attached to both Kelp and Love suggest the ambivalence involved in the act of constructing a satisfying subject position, and the resemblance between Buddy Love and Jerry Lewis is striking and undeniable.2 And yet the disintegration of narrative structure is present even in this most structured of Lewis films, and results in failure to explore the numerous ramifications of the Kelp/Love dichotomy in favour of an incessant repetition of the basic situation of metamorphosis and regression. Considered as a confession, The Nutty Professor alludes to much more than it actually reveals: the digressions, repetitions and circuitous paths of association continually enact the fact of resistance within the text. This discursive structure, combined with thematic material organised around desire, sublimation and masculinity, suggest the film as a text involving this concurrence of confession and repression which characterise the psychoanalytic situation.
The Nutty Professor is interesting, however, not simply for its clinical perfection as an illustration of the masculine protest, but for its analysis of the status of the male in culture which points to the inadequacy of the male characters. This is demonstrated through the failure of the alter-ego. Kelp’s transformation to Buddy Love is temporary: the effects of his potion do not last even a single night. Love/Kelp is repeatedly forced to abandon Stella, in the first instance at the very moment of conquest (their kiss). The climactic scene depicts the regression of Love to Kelp on stage and in performance. Kelp’s ardour thus remains ultimately unfulfilled, even through the substitute figure of Buddy Love, and the text thus stages of metonymy of desire: that which is always approached, never attained.
The spectator awaiting the promised resolution of this narrative will finally be presented with three endings in succession: Kelp and Stella embrace, each happy with the other as he/she is; Kelp is presented wearing braces and neatly groomed hair, while Stella carries two bottles of potion; the characters group for a cinematic curtain call, and Lewis appears with Kelp’s hair, teeth and demeanour, and Love’s flashy clothing. The endings present, first, the status quo; then Kelp as Love; and finally Love as Kelp. The surfeit of resolutions of the Kelp/Love dichotomy unsuccessfully masks the fact that there is no resolution at all: the passive mal and the hyper-male can not find a stable balance within a single subject. Language masks its own inability to produce the object of desire but, the mask being imperfect, the elision is fleetingly revealed.
Reprinted from Comedy/Cinema/Theory (ed. Andrew Horton), with kind permission from Scott Bukatman and the University of California Press.
The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, USA 1963, 107min, colour)
Director: Jerry Lewis
Script: Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond
Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley
Sound: Charles Grenzbach and Hugo Grenzbach
Music: Walter Scharf
Editing: John Woodcock
Cast: Jerry Lewis (Julius Kelp/Buddy Love), Stella Stevens (Stella Purdy), Del Moore (Mortimer S. Warfield), Kathleen Freeman (Millie Lemmon), Med Flory (Warzewski), Howard Morris (Elmer Kelp), Henry Gibson (Gibson), Elvia Allman (Edwina Kelp), Milton Frome (Sheppard Leevee)
Producer: Ernest D. Glucksman and Jerry Lewis
The Nutty Professor is screening as part of the ‘Jerry Lewis: The Total Filmmaker’ program at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival (28 July – 14 August 2016). Find out more and purchase tickets here.
- Sigmund Freud, “A Child is Being Beaten”, in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier Books, 1963), p. 129. We may assume that the title of this collection does not refer to the film’s split protagonist. ↩
- Although many critics saw the character as a parody of Dean Martin, the tuxedoed and Brylcreemed figure of Jerry Lewis was familiar to television audiences through his frequent television appearances, including his live 1963 telecasts for ABC. ↩