During the heyday of The Colgate Comedy Hour, when Martin & Lewis ruled, one of their many memorable live appearances particularly stood out. At the conclusion of the program, Jerry Lewis brought out his dad, notable Borscht Belt comic Danny Lewis, who ended the show with a Jolson medley. Backstage Dean watched with disdain, taking puffs from his ever-present cigarette. A grip approached the straighter half of the duo, shook his head, and asked, “Why?” Dean, in a brilliant retort, waved him off and replied, “That’s all right. Next week, I’m gonna bring my mother out and have her sew a dress.”
Now the reason I’m mentioning this at all is to hammer home the importance of Al Jolson and his connection to the mind of the Jewish entertainer. Every comic and/or singer who followed him considered Al a god; to those who played the Catskills, he managed to even transcend that lofty title. I personally recall every summer performer in upstate New York doing a Jolson impersonation/tribute. It was the law. That Jerry Lewis idolized the man is thus no surprise. His 1956 LP included a rendition of “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby”; it went gold, selling over a million copies. When Lewis peaked, becoming the hottest entertainer on the planet (ca. 1959), he pulled out all the stops to produce a color TV spectacular remake of the seminal Jolie movie, The Jazz Singer. I, too, have to admit the Jolson influence; decades ago when I created a comedy pilot, I opened the proceedings with a Jazz Singer homage – specifically the Jerry version. To his credit, Lewis, known as a show biz pack rat, never threw away nuthin’! God bless him. That’s why we have this newly-issued DVD from The Inception Media Group. How it came about and how it holds up will be discussed shortly. But first, leave us relate some background info.
Supposedly partially based on the life of Jolson, Samson Raphaelson’s play The Jazz Singer opened on Broadway in 1925; it starred George Jessel. Truth be told, it was a hoary melodrama even then (son of a cantor – not Eddie – defies his father by using his considerable talents to warble that blasphemous demon rum of music, aka jazz). When Warner Bros. decided to springboard the movie version for their talking picture process, Vitaphone, Jessel was pegged to star. His ridiculous ultimatums early-on bounced him out on his kreplach, which led to the Bros. Warner contemplating about the guy the schtick was based on in the first place…ummm…you-know-who.
Al Jolson, to put it mildly, was a royal pain in the ass. He frequently stopped his Broadway shows by dismissing the cast on-stage, crouching to one knee, and crooning “Mammy” for two hours, prefacing his decision with “Come on, folks, you don’t wanna see these other bums anyway!” Ah, what the unions could have done to him later on…At the dawn of the 1920s he was besieged by D.W. Griffith to star in a movie, but shrewdly kept the director at bay. As the up front money became too great to turn down, Jolson finally agreed. Whether this proposed cinematic foray was to be another test run for Griffith’s embryonic sound system (initially utilized in his 1921 pic Dream Street) is not known. Why? Because on the first day of shooting, Jolie was nowhere to be found. A subsequent telegram, delivered on the set to Griffith, explained that he had changed his mind and decided to embark on a much-needed vacation to Europe. Oh, yeah, and by the way, all monies paid were non-refundable. What a guy! His renowned generosity also came at a price. If a young upstart like George Gershwin wrote a ditty called “Swanee” especially for the singer, it could only be recorded and used if Jolson shared co-writing credit on the song sheets and record label. Thus when Warners brought Al to Burbank, his demands were such: a huge salary, a piece of the profits and a 10-year contract that couldn’t be broken even if his pictures ended up tanking (which they inevitably did). Jolson’s personal life was equally appalling, relegating Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success to Ferdinand the Bull’s success at sweet smelling.
Jolson’s amazing comeback, due to the 1946 Technicolor bio-pic, The Jolson Story, is another Hollywood legend. All of a sudden, he was red hot again – rivaling and outselling Crosby and Sinatra. The 1949 sequel Jolson Sings Again was the year’s top-grossing movie – partly the fortuitous outcome of a grueling live tour Al originated, which he christened “Living Trailers.” He’d appear in person at all theaters for five-minute mini-concerts to promote the picture; by contemporary standards, it added approximately five million to the take – much of it going the wily crooner. He died less than a year later; his funeral, in the midst of a torrential downpour, was attended by thousands. Many wags surmised the turnout was the industry’s making sure that he was really dead. His demise also gave birth to classic quote, attributed concurrently to Red Skelton and Billy Wilder: “Just goes to show you, give the people what they want, and they’ll come out in any weather for it.” Bizarrely enough the same quote (and from the same two sources) was again used to describe the final send-off for Harry Cohn eight years later.
In 1952, Warner Bros. decided to remake The Jazz Singer as a Technicolor special directed by Michael Curtiz. This ill-fated decision wasn’t helped by the majority of non-Jews in the cast. John Ford Irish mafia queen Mildred Dunnock played Mama Golding, but worse, Lebanese Danny Thomas, by the mere physicality of his proboscis essayed son Jerome. Thomas was a triple threat in those years: an actor, a singer and a comic…and generally lousy on all counts. Today he is best remembered for his spit take (although to many in the know, that’s the wrong spelling). In an earlier romp, 1951’s Call Me Mister, Thomas brought the merry goings on to a dead halt by entertaining the troops on a South Sea atoll during WWII. Here, like in The Jazz Singer, we are privy to his stand-up act (and privy is the word). It is so abysmal an experience that one can easily envision hordes of critically-wounded G.I.s gladly crawling through the jungle, IVs attached, in hopes of being captured by the Japanese for that far more desirable Burma march alternative. The one decent performance in the Curtiz picture is by veteran actor Eduard Franz, who plays Cantor Golding. Apparently, Jerry thought so too, as he repeats the role in Lewis’s version.
The NBC Lincoln Mercury Startime production is a lavish affair – at least for 1959 TV. It’s not really a total drama, as one has read but what we kind scribes refer to as a serio-comic excursion. Jerry really isn’t a jazz singer, but a nightclub comedian (who occasionally sings). It’s cool to see Jerry do his act, as he uses much of the humor that made up his later Vegas routines and live performances. His asides to over-enthusiastic fans and hecklers are worth the price of this disc alone.
For years I had thought that THE JAZZ SINGER was Jerry’s first official directorial effort (not including his feature-length home movie spoofs like Come Back, Little Shiksa). It isn’t – although his mark as overseer/supervisor is clearly evident. Not that the reins have been handed over to some hack. THE JAZZ SINGER is directed by Ralph Nelson – a formidable force from the era of live TV (Studio One, G.E. Theatre, Ford Star Jubilee, Playhouse 90). Jerry’s supporting cast is aces: Joey Faye, Molly Picon (as his mom), Barry Gordon, Alan Reed (who provides the best performance in this piece) and Lewis regular Del Moore. Anna Maria Alberghetti and Robert Hutton, both of whom at the time were involved with the Lewis/Tashlin flick Cinderfella, also prominently appear.
According to the excellent supplemental featurette, hosted by Jerry’s son, Chris, the show wasn’t shot live, but done as a videotaped production and then edited like a movie. Knowing Lewis’s penchant as a perfectionist, I find this hard to believe. The flubs, of which there are a few, sure make it look like a live broadcast. Joey Faye has a notable gaff, and in one outstanding moment, Franz, venting his ire, literally flips his lid (or, in this case, yamulke). It is Alberghetti, however, who comes off as the blooper champ. Her nail-on-the-blackboard scat jazz riffs sound like a Woody Woodpecker impression, but this takes a back seat to a choice verbal response upon meeting Jerry’s (here called Joey, Lewis’s real first name) mom, Picon. “Joey has talken so much about you,” she gushes in a language highlight worthy of Bela Lugosi.
There are also some tell-tale Lewis displays that constitute primo Jerry. After insulting Alberghetti during a set, he bemoans to Faye, “I’d like to apologize, but how do ya do that?” Also some cuts are of questionable taste. Papa’s Rabinowitz’s near-fatal heart attack is juxtaposed with Lewis doing an iconic “Hey, LADY!”-esque pratfall on stage. The best though is the finale. Terminally-infirmed Cantor Rabinowitz is determined to make it to the synagogue for Yom Kippur. As he struggles to get up, he hears strains of Kol Nidre. Who is that singing? Who else? Son Joey is doing his father proud at last. But be warned – this is a Jerry Lewis show. Come the next dissolve we see JL in full Judaic ensemble, talis and all, leading the grateful congregation…while still in quasi-Emmett Kelly makeup! No cut to the worshipers, questioning, “Who the hell is that clown?” They just accept it. I was laughing my tukis off, but, admittedly also applauding widely. If you love and/or respect Jerry, you understand; if not – you obviously don’t buy your clothes at Sy Devore’s.
The technical credits are, like all Lewis endeavors, state-of-the-art. Granted it’s 1959 state-of-the-art, ergo some 21st century q.c. problems. Early color television production was based upon an RCA-adapted process called the heterodyne process. It resembles (but is superior to) to early two-strip Technicolor, as it seems to only render green and red (remember those “tint” controls on your first color TV?). It looks okay, but age decomposition occasionally results in intermittent horizontal hue streaks across the frame. The deterioration of the original elements is further discussed by Chris Lewis and the head restoration technician in the aforementioned fascinating disc extra. While the picture remained fairly intact, segments of the soundtrack had disintegrated. Audio replacement was retrieved via a reel-to-reel tape Lewis had struck…just in case, and from a B&W kine. It’s wonderful to finally see this complete version in color, as prior to this DVD, the only evidence of its existence were tenth generation monochrome bootlegged clips (for comparison, a complete B&W kinescope substitute is also included). My only complaint is that the 1960 Lincoln car commercials weren’t incorporated but that’s just me nitpicking.
Next to a release of The Day the Clown Cried, this DVD evocation of THE JAZZ SINGER should have Lewis’s legions of fanatics rejoicing. 2012 indeed looks like it’s shaping up to be the Year of the Jerry; THE JAZZ SINGER is a good preamble to Olive Films’s upcoming Lewis Blu-Ray rollout, featuring four Lewis/Tashlin collaborations (Rock-a-Bye Baby, The Geisha Boy, Who’s Minding the Store? and the ultra-rare It’s Only Money) plus the funnyman’s Paramount swan song, Boeing Boeing. I’m walking on my ankles just thinking about it!
THE JAZZ SINGER: Color; Full frame [1.33:1]; single layer.
Inception Media Group. #IMG1044DVD; SRP: $14.95.