Oct 09 2014

Jerry Lewis’s “Nutty Professor” And A Longing for the Rat Pack

Published by under writing & arts

You don’t have to be a Jerry Lewis fan to enjoy his 1963 masterwork, “The Nutty Professor,” just released in a 50th anniversary boxed set (one year late, for some reason). This film is the one Lewis production that strikes the right balance between obnoxious and entertaining. Although the story is predictably misogynistic (how could it not be in 1963?), its reliance on the Jekyll/Hyde plot and its depiction of the professor as a gentle uber-nerd give it a broad appeal. If for no other reason, the movie is worth watching for its Hollywood portrayal of college life at the time. This portrayal is notable because everything about college life–and life in America–will change a year later after JFK’s assassination and the arrival of the Beatles.

The most glaring thing that Lewis gets wrong in the movie is the music, featuring Les Brown and His Band of Renown. It’s middlebrow swing, more appropriate for a 1950’s nightclub than a 1960’s college hangout. It’s true that kids were still swing dancing to a lot of contemporary music, from Doo Wop to Rockabilly. You’ll see a lot of that in old footage of American Bandstand. But dance was changing too. “The Twist” debuted in late 1959 and, by 1963, was at its height of popularity, along with “The Pony” and soon dozen other steps in the go-go era. But Lewis didn’t want rock or even pop music–he wanted swing because that’s what he grew up with.

And that’s why the Jekyll character in the film is “Buddy Love,” a jazz-loving lounge lizard. This is the second thing Lewis gets wrong: college kids were increasingly drawn either to rocking boy bands, like the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers, or to the new breed of solo rockers, like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Pop-swing sensations, like Bobby Darin, were rare. In fact, Darin’s break-out hit was “Splish Splash,” a pop rock tune.

Most critics assumed that the obnoxious Buddy Love was a lampoon of Dean Martin. But a perusal of Lewis’s films will make clear that Lewis longed to be a night club performer in the style of his ex-partner and Sammy Davis, Jr., and other Vegas ”Rat Pack” stars. Starting with his first solo effort, “The Delicate Delinquent,” in 1957, Lewis sought opportunities to feature himself singing in his films. He took his singing very seriously, as he took himself very seriously. One of the major flaws of his solo film career was his refusal to give himself over wholly to the characters he played. Almost always, you’d see him wearing a pinky ring or a masculine ID bracelet, even when he was supposed to be portraying a down-on-his-luck nerdy janitor. His Vegas-style bling signaled to viewers that he was hip and not to be confused with the hapless character they were laughing at.


Buddy Love, then, was Lewis’s opportunity to show off his Vegas-style chops and his Vegas style. If you have any doubt about Jerry Lewis’s aspiration to join the Rat Pack, take a look at 1965’s “Boeing Boeing,” in which he co-stars with Tony Curtis as a woman-hungry hipster, again in the Vegas style: i.e., sharkskin suits, slicked back hair, heavy male jewelry. Increasingly in the mid- to late sixties, he sought non-idiot roles (1966’s “Three on a Couch” is another). These are painful to watch because in every one Lewis is trying too hard to prove himself in a then already-outdated middle-aged fantasy.



“The Nutty Professor” is watchable because it is one of the only films (“The Bell Boy” is another) that allows viewers to fully sympathize with the goofy nerd he portrays. Professor Kelp never breaks character. His sci-fi transformation to Buddy Love bridges that gap. Then Buddy Love swaggers onto the set and Jerry Lewis lives out his fantasy. If we were meant to disdain Mr. Love as a narcissistic knock-off of Dean Martin, Mr. Love would not triumph in the end. But he does triumph. Watch the film and you’ll see.

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Oct 02 2014

The First Floor is Done

Published by under House Love

I’ve been mostly missing from Face Book and totally absent from my blog for about three months because Jill and I have been finishing some major projects in the house. We wanted to get these done before Fall slipped into the hectic holiday season, so we put everything else aside and hunkered down. We do major projects every year but this year our projects had stacked up, in part because we had gone to some auctions and found stuff we had to have, like a huge stained glass window we thought we could install over our entry doors at the front of the house.

So here’s a list of what we’ve accomplished.

1) Painted the master bedroom.

2) Repaired the linoleum runner in the pantry

3) installed antique leaded transoms in the dining room:

4) Finished the woodwork in the first-floor hallway:

5) Installed a new pair of antique doors–with stained glass–in the front:

6) Installed a huge antique stained glass window over the entry doors:

7) Installed an antique tile backsplash in the kitchen:

8) Finished the tile of the dining room fireplace:

9) Re-finished the kitchen floor (no photo)

10) Installed a new faucet in the pantry (no photo).

11) Installed a new antique light in the first floor hallway where there had been no light:

12) Installed a new antique light on the second floor landing:

13) Painted the dining room. (No photo yet).

This work completes the final phase of our first floor. Which is to say that it’s done. People often ask us if the house is done. It’s a running joke. Well, sure, the house is done, more or less. But done done? That determination changes as Jill and I go to auctions and find cool stuff we want to install — like the stained glass we found recently. That said, we’re fairly confident that the first floor is done done. The next big project is the third floor bathroom. It will get a new tile floor, a new antique tub, and toilet. It’s a big job I’m not looking forward to. But one morning, without much forethought, I’ll find myself on my hands and knees in that bathroom, tearing out the cheap tile we’d put in as “interim,” my head filled with visions of how cool that bathroom is going to look . . . soon.

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Jun 16 2014

New England Spring

Jill and I spent two weeks in New England recently. We took our custom camper van–and the dogs, of course. Jill wanted to see a really old house–since New England is the place to see really old houses–so I took her to the Fairbanks House, which is the oldest timber frame building in North America, built in 1636. She was duly impressed but also kind of freaked out about it because “it’s so dark and damp and crooked inside and I can imagine how hard it must have been to live in that house nearly 300 years ago!” We looked up the European population of America at that time: about 1,200 people. That freaked Jill out too. The pioneers, they had to be some kind of crazy to come here and live as they did, isolated in a vast wilderness.

We stopped in Marblehead, MA, for a visit with some friends and got to watch some high-end badminton, which–if you’ve never seen–is quite spectacular and takes athleticism and much skill to do well. Lightning fast reflexes help. Badminton, you should know, is an Olympic sport. The best players are Asian. To get an idea of how popular badminton is in the world, just check out this You Tube video that’s gotten over 7 million views: Crazy Badminton.

Lobster is everywhere in New England–grocery stores, roadside stands, fish shacks–and cheap. We got it more than once, the last time at a roadside place and ate it in the van. We had to use our pliers to get into it. By the way, if you’re preparing lobster yourself and have a live one, put it in the freezer first to numb it, then kill it humanely, as shown in this helpful video: How to Kill a Lobster

We drove through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, which are lovely and surprisingly wild. There was still snow on the distant peaks. We didn’t have time to go north to see the notoriously dangerous Mt. Washington, highest point in the northeast, where the weather is unpredictable and deadly year-round. Jill really wanted to see a moose. At one pint she exclaimed, “Is that a MOOSE?” It was just a fisherman in casting in a river. Actulaly, early spring is the right time of year to see a moose but all we saw were the moose warning signs. As for other wildlife: it was too cool for the black flies but the mosquitoes were numerous. However, they weren’t aggressive: they would swarm and nose around us but rarely bit. I’m not sure what that was about.

Jill made the brave and ill-advised decision to stop for Thai food in Montpelier, VT. I know, you don’t buy Asian food in Vermont, especially when it’s made by a non-Asian cook. I was more than skeptical. But it was great food! I mean, truly memorable and reasonably priced. Vermont is a foody state and Burlington, its hipster hotspot, is a foody town. We hung out with the Preservation Burlington folk and ate well. Oh, and here’s a shout-out to Chris and Sara, a rabbit loving couple we look forward to seeing again.

We’re always looking for cool historic houses to visit. Jill picked out Shelburne Farms, just south of Burlington. It’s a circa 1900 estate that has some similarities to North Carolina’s Biltmore insofar as it was a wholly self-sustained community built around one wealthy man’s vision. The barns and outbuildings are spectacular. The mansion itself is, by comparison, understated but grand nonetheless. We had a very good brunch in the house and bought some of the farm-made cheese at the gift shop.

Once we crossed into New York (I know, this isn’t New England) Jill was determined to find one of the historic vacation camps in the Adirondacks. These “camps” were resorts created by the wealthy circa 1900-1920. We set our sights on a National Historic Landmark: Great Camp Sagamore. But it wasn’t east to find because there was virtually no signage for the place and it was four miles down a dirt road, off a two-lane blacktop. When we got there, we found it not yet open for the season. We were surprised to learn that it’s a very popular place, booked solid through the summer. We talked to the groundskeeper, a flinty mountain-man with a gray-stubbled face and a battered hat. He spoke through a cloud of black flies and didn’t raise a finger to bat them away–unlike us.

As part of my Preservation America project, we stopped in Rhinebeck, NY, so that I could interview the director of Wilderstein, one of our favorite historic mansions. It’s a high Victorian frame house with a grand tower and elegant wrap-around porch that overlooks the Hudson. It was the home of Daisy Suckley, FDR’s cousin and good friend–you may remember the recent movie made about her, “Hyde Park on the Hudson.”

By the time we got home, the van was as crowded as it could ever be: not only were there two dogs in the back but also a cool Arts & Crafts fire screen that Jill had found in a Maine antiques shop, as well as a painting and a rug we got at a flea market, a box of craft stuff and a bag of vintage clothes from a yard sale, a 1960s boat compass, assorted thrift store finds (including a new Marblehead baseball cap and a William Morris necktie), and a box of leftover pizza. Next year, I tell Jill, we’re going to Texas. Lord knows what we’ll bring back from that trip.

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May 28 2014

The World’s Biggest Antiques Market

A couple weeks ago, Jill and I traveled to the nation’s biggest antiques market, held in Brimfield, MA. It lasts six days and occurs outside in former cow pastures, under hundreds and hundreds of tents put up by thousands of vendors over hundreds of acres. Understand that Jill and I are antique fanatics. We’d been wanting to go to the legendary Brimfield show ever since we’d first heard about it over ten years ago. Our friend Scott, an antiques expert, gave us tips on how to manage the visit. If you don’t get advice or do some research in advance, you will miss the hot spots and easily get overwhelmed.

The way Brimfield works is this: two or more “shows” open every day. There are 23 shows. If you’re there for the opening of a particular show, you’ll get the best pick of stuff. The longer the show has been opened, the less good stuff you’ll find there. The challenge for us was threefold: we were on a budget, we were traveling in the camper van with both dogs (so we had no room to carry junk), and we weren’t really in the market for collecting more antiques (see “lightening our load” ) .

Jill and I love to shop and neither of us is good at resisting a bargain. But we were on our best behavior. Then we found an amazing oil painting for $1400 — way over our budget — and we were were swept away, like racing down a snowy hill on a toboggan. We really wanted that painting. But we didn’t need that painting. And we couldn’t afford that painting. We talked about it, pondered our options, and then, at last, we decided against it. This was a notable feat of self-control on our part.

Now liberated from a tremendous temptation, we were steeled to resist any other. We focused on small stuff. Jill found a Occupation-era Steiff kitten. Then we found a small antique Chinese carpet. And then we came upon a quirky unfinished oil painting that we felt we had to have. Everything we bought was relatively cheap–that is, a good bit below retail price. You’ve got to carry cash at a show like this. You’ve got to bargain. And you’ve got to be willing to walk away.

By the end of the day, we had been on our feet for 10 hours. Since we were exhausted and out of money, it made no sense to stay for another day, as we had planned. Some people stay for all six days–and bring big trucks to haul away their finds. We saw rows and rows of panel trucks and vans brought by dealers from all over the country. That cool old tea set you’ll find in an antique shop in, say, Atlanta probably came from Brimfield.

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May 01 2014

Baltimore’s Big Cave-in (in our backyard)

A short walk from our house, you’ll find Baltimore’s big cave-in. Jill and I often walked our dogs along that stretch of 26th Street. For years, it’s been clear that something was wrong beside the railway cut. The street had sunk several feet at the curb to the extent that the sidewalk was angled sharply up to the railway fence.

No doubt, you’ve read about the collapse by now. It’s national news. Helicopters have been hovering over our neighborhood for nearly two days straight. TV crews have been camped out to film the digging. And about six cops are on duty to make sure nobody does anything stupid.

One hundred years ago, the railroad cut a 30-foot-deep passage through our neighborhood to allow trains across town. Train travel remains heavy through the cut. Several times a day, we hear the trains screeching and whining as they pass. I can’t imagine those who live next to cut ever getting used to this racket.

For the record: neighbors have complained of the sinking roadway for nearly 20 years. It seemed obvious that the railroad’s old cut-through was responsible. But the railroad did nothing about it. Now, the city and the railroad are debating the issue. Was the city at fault for not repairing the roadway? Or was the railroad at fault for not reinforcing the cut-through? Maybe it was both.

The collapse swallowed 8 vehicles and has led to the evacuation of about 15 families. Fortunately, nobody was harmed. Still, it raises the issue of infrastructure in America. To be clear: the Baltimore landslide was not a natural disaster. Nature only advanced the inevitable collapse of a man-made problem–a severely compromised road.

Old cities like Baltimore have no resources to upgrade water mains, gas pipes, and roadways until they rupture, break, or explode. And big corporations like CSX railroad aren’t inclined to upgrade their railbeds and retaining walls until they have to because they answer first to stockholders who want a profit. The result is often catastrophic. Increasingly we see things like the Baltimore landslide happening all over the country. For example, a recent study showed that 67,000 bridges in America are “structurally deficient.”

Be that as it may, we love a spectacle, don’t we? This catastrophe has brought a carnival atmosphere to our neighborhood. What holds our attention is the fact that, right here in the midst of an old, established neighborhood, we see suddenly something that is as dramatic as a volcano’s eruption. It literally changes the landscape and so, for a time, we’re transported or upended, reminded that we can take nothing for granted. Not only is it unsettling, it is also invigorating (when nobody gets hurt) because we see up-close how powerful Nature is and how, sometimes, we humans are little more than ants hugging a leaf in a strong wind.

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Ron Tanner is an award-winning writer of fiction and nonfiction, author of A BED OF NAILS, KISS ME STRANGER, and other works. For more on his latest activity, click here. Or go to: