Bright Lights Film Journal

Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis vs. Julius Kelp & Buddy Love

In a comment to my previous Jerry Lewis post, Tom Sutpen wrote:

Couldn’t agree more . . . except . . . Jerry Lewis has always steadfastly denied any Martin & Lewis implications in Nutty Professor; and even though one should always take anything a filmmaker says about their own work with a big grain of salt, I tend to believe him.I mean, if he wanted to conceal what the film actually is (an exploration of his own personality) he’d be more likely to claim Buddy Love as a grotesquely caricatured Dean Martin (I’m assuming, by the way, you’re referring to Martin & Lewis’s actual partnership, not their stage/screen personae . . . in that case you’d have to send out a search party to find such echoes in the ’63 film), just for the convenience, if nothing else. Instead, he’s gone out of his way countless times to dispel such comparisons.It’s what Prosecutors call a ‘Statement Against Interest’, and them things are always admissible.

Tom, I think your comment raises some interesting questions – too interesting to leave buried in the comments to last week’s posts.

In The Nutty Professor, Lewis’ take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Lewis plays two roles: the socially awkward, physically unattractive Professor Julius Kelp, and his chemically released alter-ego, the attractive, self-confident-to-a-fault Buddy Love. On the most superficial level, Love & Kelp replicate the dynamic that Lewis himself described as the essence of the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis relationship: “a handsome man and a monkey.” (See, Fujiwara.) If anything, Kelp with his buck-teeth and frog-in-the-throat voice is more monkey-like than the character Lewis usually played, generally referred to as “the kid.”

I’m hardly the first person to find echoes of the Martin & Lewis team in Love & Kelp. Andrew Sarris – no fan of Lewis – wrote in The American Cinema: “If the Nutty Professor is Jerry Lewis’s best picture, it is largely because of the recreation of Dean Martin in the Hyde-like Buddy Love, and the subsequent rebirth of the Martin-Lewis tension.”

There’s a reason why so many people think Buddy Love resembles Dean Martin. It’s because he does. To begin with, they’re both lounge singers. That’s a hard one to overlook. Buddy Love is suave, attractive to women . . . . Need we say more?

But if Buddy Love = Martin, the comparison is hardly flattering. Love is an unfeeling, self-centered jerk.

Also, as you point out, there were differences between Martin & Lewis’ “actual partnership” and their stage/screen personae. I would go further and say there were significant differences between their stage personae and what they did onscreen. In Martin & Lewis’ nightclub act – at least the excerpts from it that I have seen – it was Martin & Lewis against the world, two guys who were too hip for the rest of the room and who goofed relentlessly on everyone around them. They sang songs (e.g. “Side by Side”) about how much they loved each other.

Whereas in many of the films Martin & Lewis made together, the Martin character doesn’t even like the Lewis character. Martin, as often as not, plays a heartless cad who exploits the affection the Lewis character feels for him for money or some other form of personal gain. It is this latter Martin persona that reemerges in The Nutty Professor as Buddy Love. (To what extent this reflects some aspect of the real-life Martin/Lewis relationship, I don’t even want to speculate.)

You wrote that The Nutty Professor is an exploration of Lewis’ own personality, and there we agree in toto. But can’t it be both? Isn’t it possible that when Martin played the selfish cad in some of the Martin/Lewis teamups he was even back then playing a projected aspect of Lewis’ own personality? Wasn’t Lewis always the primary auteur with respect to what we saw on screen? In The Nutty Professor, as I read it, Buddy Love represents, among other things, Lewis’ own dark side, his inner egomaniac (cf. the unreleased project, The Day the Clown Cried, in which Lewis played a clown in a concentration camp who leads children to the gas chambers in order to save his own skin). Buddy Love is also a comment on the nice guy’s perpetual complaint, that the bad boys are the ones who undeservedly get all the pretty girls. But finally and unavoidably, I see Buddy Love as a comment on the Dean Martin part of “Martin & Lewis” – a simultaneous recreation and rejection of it.

Of course, Lewis would deny that Buddy Love had something to do with Martin. To admit it would be to admit the film is a personal attack on Martin. The break-up of the team was extraordinarily bitter, and that bitterness is probably reflected in The Nutty Professor. Years later, the two would reconcile and Jerry would write a book about how much he loved Dean. In any event, if Buddy Love is Dean Martin, he represents a distilled version of Martin, the personality aspects that Lewis most despised – in Martin and in himself.

Lewis’ statements to the effect that The Nutty Professor has nothing to do with Dean Martin may be admissible as evidence, but to me they’re not credible. As D.H. Lawrence used to say, “Never trust the artist, trust the tale.”