1963's The Nutty Professor is one of the most nakedly autobiographical comedies the movies ever gave us, not to mention the model for just about every superhero picture of the past ten years. Jerry Lewis's chemistry professor Julius Kelp is a hapless, myopic nerd known by his students for blowing up classrooms and seizing up before the opposite sex, and recognised by Simpsons fans everywhere as the inspiration for that series' Professor Frink. One night, however, everything changes: Kelp downs a potion that transforms him into super-slick Buddy Love, life and soul of the party - played by Lewis after the fashion of his long-time performing partner Dean Martin, or the supercool stud Jerry Lewis surely wanted to be. As Stella Stevens' love interest Miss Purdy declares: "Sickening, isn't he?... But he's got something, and I'm going to find out what it is."
A nerd's fantasy, perhaps - with a dash of Jekyll and Hyde nightmare - yet what's noticeable (and surprising) is just how at home Lewis is when he's playing the lounge lizard; arguably more so, in his jazz stylings, than he ever appears as the dweeby Kelp, where props (thick glasses, buck teeth) go a long way towards defining character. The scenes where the potion starts to wear off - with Buddy stranded at the piano, in full view of the room - encourage a reverse-angle reading of the same scenario: if every Julius longs to be a Buddy Love, isn't it also possible that within each bluff Buddy, there's a Julius Kelp just waiting to be exposed? (Told you there was a drop or two of abject horror in there.)
The bigger revelation yet is Lewis the filmmaker, and here you have to concede the French may just have a point. As a director, he thinks in sequence shots (the lab, the Purple Pit, the prom) and proves supremely playful with sound, as in the cinema's greatest hangover sequence, while retaining the inventiveness with colour of a Tashlin, Chuck Jones, or indeed any other pop artist of the time. On a comic level, Lewis shows an admirable willingness to take risks that might alienate (and duly have alienated) sections of the audience, allowing whole minutes of silence to tick away in the Dean's office, throwing in - out of nowhere - a formative scene of trauma that only bolsters the film's claims to case study, and making no great efforts to conceal the fact this entire plot derives from a maladroit teacher's latent desire to seduce one of his students. (Perhaps it's no surprise the French loved it so.) You could imagine Adam Sandler doing something with this premise, if he had someone other than Dennis Dugan pushing him; as it was, we got Eddie Murphy in the late 90s remake, who couldn't handle mining his psyche, and took refuge in fatsuits and fart gags.
The Nutty Professor screens on Channel 4 today at 1.05pm.