Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Strange Case of Dr. Jerry and Mr. Gillis (expanded)

As luck would have it, yesterday I happened to get my mitts on a copy of an old DC comic book from the early 1960s, THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS #18. I've been a fan of DC's BOB HOPE and JERRY LEWIS comics for as long as I can remember, but I only recently discovered that their DOBIE GILLIS title (an adaptation of the TV series starring Dwayne Hickman, Bob Denver, Tuesday Weld and Warren Beatty) was written and drawn by the same people. The chief writer of all these comics was Arnold Drake (whom you may remember as the screenwriter of THE FLESH EATERS) and the artist was Bob Oksner, whose style reminds me a lot of MAD's master caricaturist, Mort Drucker. The BOB HOPE and JERRY LEWIS comics were always dependably hilarious, so I thought I'd give DOBIE GILLIS a spin.

I was amazed by what I discovered.

The untitled story in DOBIE's 18th issue begins with Dobie and Maynard in their chemistry class at college, where Dobie is trying very hard to get his gorgeous classmate Lucinda to go out with him on a date. Lucinda feels no chemistry; she says she wouldn't go out with Dobie if he was the last man on earth -- and vines herself around the arm of handsome college letterman Steven. Maynard jokes that maybe Dobie can cook up something in class that will take the starch out of Steven's collar, and Dobie declares his beatnik friend a genius. His eureka: Perhaps he can concoct something like the potion in Robert Louis Stevenson's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE... Since he's already repulsive to Lucinda, maybe he can invent a potion that will make him irresistable to her instead! (You see where this is going?)

The next day in class, Dobie's fevered ingredient mixing causes an explosion in the classroom. When the dust clears, he has indeed become more attractive. He dubs himself "Mr. Handsome" and everyone in class is awestricken by him. Lucinda is ready to fall all over him, but Dobie hasn't just become Mr. Handsome; he's also become something of a... conceited, abrasive jerk! (It's also suddenly the 25th century, because Dobie's explosion actually knocked him out cold and he's only dreaming, but that's beside the point.)

Dobie... er, Mr. Handsome struts away from Lucinda and sets his romantic sites on Delora Delora, who has won the title of Miss Beautiful everywhere in the galaxy. He drops in on her without bothering to call first, reasoning that the two of them just "go together." Delora agrees to receive him because he's "so breathtakingly fabulous" and Mr. Handsome shoots back, in a very Jerry way, "That's a wise decision... it's not every day you receive a visitor like me. I mean, so good-looking and gentlemanly and all!" Press photographers descend on their meeting but are so preoccupied with snapping shots of Mr. Handsome that Delora mopes about being ignored. "I'm too much of a good thing," Mr. Handsome reasons, and he reassures her by promising to send a special 8x10 that she can admire when no one else is around.

In addition to all this, Dobie and Maynard call each other "Buddy" throughout this wacky MANY LOVES story, which ends with a visit to Venus where all the Venusian women are attracted to Maynard instead -- the shock of which causes Dobie to regain consciousness in the wreckage of his 20th century chemistry class.

Reading this comic, I quickly took note of its many parallels to Jerry Lewis' classic movie THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, which the IMDb tells me was first released on June 4, 1963. I assumed that the hit movie had inspired the plotline but was surprised upon checking Page 1 of the comic that it was dated March-April 1963 -- which means that it actually streeted a few months earlier than the film and was scripted and drawn a good deal earlier than that!

Adding further confusion (and interest) to the timeline is a news item that tops the "Inside Hollywood" text feature appearing on Page 19 of the comic. Get this: "Stella Stevens to Star with Jerry Lewis in 'The Nutty Professor.'" The third paragraph of the item reads, "'The Nutty Professor,' a Jerry Lewis production in which Lewis will play a Jekyll and Hyde type of character, is scheduled to go before cameras late in September with Ernest D. Glucksman producing and Lewis directing."

Given its phrasing, this item suggests that Lewis was still casting principal roles at the time the GILLIS comic was in production, so THE NUTTY PROFESSOR was either still in pre-production as the comic was being assembled, or on the earliest stages of shooting. The screenplay that Lewis co-authored with Bill Richmond already existed, of course. Don't misunderstand me; I'm not suggesting that either party ripped the other off, nor am I theorizing that Jerry Lewis got the idea of Buddy Love from a DC comic. What's interesting about this discovery is that Lewis's most notorious plot twist (which was greeted as something of a shocker at the time) -- and other little touches like his film's college milieu and the use of the endearment "Buddy" -- were somehow anticipated in the pages of DC's THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS months before THE NUTTY PROFESSOR reached theater screens... and by whom? By the same people who worked on Lewis's own comic! Did DC have access to an advance script of the film? Was it just a matter of kindred comic spirits pulling the same concept out of the ether at roughly the same time? You just have to wonder if the similarities between the two projects were coincidental... or accidental... or osmosis... or what?

Of course, Jerry Lewis wasn't the first filmmaker to get the idea to reverse the traditional roles of Jekyll and Hyde. In the underrated Hammer Films production THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1961), which was released in American theaters as JEKYLL'S INFERNO and HOUSE OF FRIGHT, Canadian actor Paul Massie played a bearded, bookish, bespectacled Jekyll who became a clean-shaven, handsome, pleasure-loving and ultimately sadistic Hyde. The film was scripted by Wolf Mankowitz and directed by the great Terence Fisher, and I personally forgive its few rough edges and place it with Fisher's most important work. That said, if the world's last print of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL was in a burning building with the last print of Lewis's THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and there was time to save only one of them, the Paul Massie Fan Club would probably cast a stern eye on the choice I'd be forced to make.

A strange footnote to all this is that DC never issued a NUTTY PROFESSOR tie-in issue of their popular ADVENTURES OF JERRY LEWIS comic. It's a peculiar omission considering that DC had used the title to present earlier tie-in editions of DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP, THE BELLBOY and THE LADIES' MAN (see below), also illustrated by Oksner.

I don't know what to make of this strange coincidence, but it just goes to show you: If you read comics, you might learn something. Or wonder something. Or something.

Speaking of JERRY LEWIS comics, I was pleased to be reminded, while examining some back issues of that beloved title, that he was among the very first "Monster Kids." Or maybe it was his nephew. I'm wary of probing too deeply into such questions, for fear I might end up writing THE BOOK OF RENFREW...

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