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Jazz Singer, The (DVD Review)

6 Feb, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Street 2/7/12
$14.98 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Jerry Lewis, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Eduard Franz, Del Moore.

For all its importance as the technological/marketing innovator that put talking pictures over more than any other single movie, Al Jolson’s corn repository The Jazz Singer wasn’t that far away from being an instant museum piece when it opened in 1927. Warner Entertainment’s 2007 DVD of it is among the best ever, though for this huzzah, you have to credit its bonus extras dealing with how sound came to the movies in the first place and its explanation of how a huge gamble by Warner Bros. proved to be an industry-altering sensation. What’s harder to explain is how Samson Raphaelson’s play about a Jewish Cantor’s son with taboo show biz in his blood kept on being regurgitated more than Newt Gingrich’s December-January campaign hopes.

Late in 1952, Warner (again) even gave its Danny Thomas/Michael Curtiz remake a Dec 30 L.A. opening — presumably to qualify for Oscar nominations that never germinated. This version is viewed today (that’s assuming that it is, despite its “on-demand” DVD availability) mostly for the opportunity it affords pop music fan fanciers to see Peggy Lee preserved in Technicolor. Still, this is more than you can say for 1980’s notorious Neil Diamond-Laurence Olivier variation in which the latter famously shouts, “I hef no son” over progeny Neil’s music-maker career choice — in a screen disaster I had the misfortune to find as the movie pick on three of four over-the-Big-Drink Qantas flights during my 1981 trip to Australia (San Francisco to Honolulu; Honolulu to Sydney and then back). When the flight attendants with drink carts came around at what must have been something like 4 a.m. in terms of my body’s time, I didn’t think twice about taking a swan dive into the sauce, if not the Pacific.

But as curiosities go, both of these follow-ups are swamped when viewed against this Jerry Lewis NBC-TV version intended as homage to Jer’s childhood idol Jolson — a variation that’s been too obscure in recent years to be notorious, though it certainly was at the time when I watched it live. It aired on a Tuesday night about a month after I entered seventh grade — the evening of the afternoon when White Sox pitcher Bob Shaw got the win over Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers 1-0 in the fifth game of a World Series that the Dodgers would end up winning in six. As a result, it was a doubly tough day for Jews once the nation’s TV critics began lobbing stink bombs the next morning — and a tough one for Lewis, who was still a major theatrical box office attraction with his sporadically brilliant directorial career yet to come. This hitherto (in recent times) skeleton in Jer’s closet had been considerably ballyhooed in the days before it aired on the network’s “Showtime,” an anthology series of live dramas and musical specials that in just three months would broadcast a rather amazing variety hour with Lewis’s ex-partner Dean Martin that combined Dino’s own musical disciplines with those of Andre Previn and Fabian. (Could we have the DVD on this one? Please?)  

But remember this. If 32 years separated the Jolson and Lewis versions, it has been 53 years since the Lewis take has been widely seen in any format beyond bootleg copies. Thus, we can and should view this color videotape from the Lewis archives as the archeological find it is, and if mawkish is still Singer’s middle name, so be it. For fans, the show gets off to a good start because we see Lewis playing the former Joey Rabinowitz (now changed to by Joey Robbins) in a nightclub act that’s reasonably zany yet not the full octane (read: walking-on-the-sides-of-his-feet) Jer. In other words, probably something akin to what Lewis’s own nightclub act was at the time. The updated story hook finds Joey whatever-his-name-is being considered for an appearance on a network TV special hosted by a glamorous songstress (Anna Maria Alberghetti, who gets one specialty number of her own). Unimpressed by this is Joey’s father (Eduard Franz, repeating his role from the Thomas/Curtiz movie), though mom (Molly Picon, four years before she played Frank Sinatra’s mother in the screen version of Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn) tries to hold the family together.

Lewis stalwarts will appreciate the casting associations: Alberghetti would be the star’s romantic focus in the following year’s Cinderfella, and Del Moore’s casting as her aggressively rude associate predates his humiliation by the Buddy Love half of Lewis’s split personality in 1963’s The Nutty Professor. Playing the young Joey is Barry Gordon, captured in that child-actor period between 1955’s No. 6 Billboard hit “Nuttin’ for Christmas” and his memorable 1965 performance as Jason Robards’ nephew in A Thousand Clowns. You want more? There’s also Alan Reed in a small role; he was later the voice of Fred Flintstone.

Live-TV veteran Ralph Nelson directs, and he must have been thinking, “I won an Emmy for the original Requiem for a Heavyweight; what the hell am I doing here?” If the DVD gets bonus points for also including a black-and-white kinescope version and a technical primer that features Lewis’s son Chris, the main selling point beyond the vehicle itself is, of course, the color videotape presentation — one of the earliest, to my knowledge, that still exists of a TV show (or at least has been made available). I can only think of predating Ernie Kovacs and Fred Astaire primitive color TV treasures that have surfaced in recent years, but maybe some reader can add to the tally.

Lewis goes for pathos at the end: Sporting heavy clown makeup right after his father’s death because Joey hasn’t had time to get out of his work clothes. This is reminiscent of the 3 Ring Circus Jer (1954), when Lewis (again in circus clown-ish mode) tried to combine tears and laughter — and overshot the sentiment. Even so, this beats my initial impression of the Singer cover-art makeup, which I briefly took to be the remnants of a blackface act. Given that Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue also came out in fall of ’59, this wouldn’t have been too cool — though even as it is, this is the kind of historical juxtaposition that crystallizes why this particular production (as grateful as I am to see it again and own it) would have never had a chance after, say, 1929.

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