Be a Clown
By David Skolnick
The Jazz Singer (Jerry Lewis Enterprises/Hubbell Robinson Productions, 1959) – Director: Ralph Nelson. Writers: Oliver Crawford, Ernest D. Glucksman, & Ralph Nelson. Adapted from the short story The Day of Atonement and play The Jazz Singer by Samson Raphaelson. Cast: Jerry Lewis, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Eduard Franz, Molly Picon, Alan Reed, Joey Faye, Barry Gordon, & Del Moore. Color, 52 minutes.
Jerry Lewis' artistic dream was to be taken seriously as an actor, and not just a comedian. He rarely, if ever, succeeded. Through its short-lived Lincoln-Mercury Startime series, laughingly introduced as “TV's finest hour,” NBC gave Lewis his first big opportunity at being a dramatic actor. The series, which lasted a single season, featured a well-known actor or director in each episode. The show's second episode, which aired October 13, 1959, has Lewis starring in The Jazz Singer. It was never shown on television again. But it was released three years ago as a DVD restored from a copy Lewis saved.
Hopefully the day will come when Lewis or his family will turn over a copy of the unreleased 1972 train-wreck movie The Day the Clown Cried, in which he is a washed-up clown who leads Jewish children to their death in Nazi Germany gas chambers. The world would be a stranger place if that occurs. (Read our article on that “lost” film here.)
The Jazz Singer is about a son estranged from his dying Jewish cantor father. The father is angry that his son got into show business rather than carry on the family tradition of being a cantor, who sings religious songs and leads prayers in synagogues. At the end, the son shuns a big opportunity at the last moment to sing “Kol Nidre” at the beginning of the Yom Kippur, the highest of holy days in the Jewish faith, service in his father's place. Pops is on his deathbed, hearing his son singing and is able to rest in peace.
I've never seen a good rendition of the story, primarily because it's corny, clichéd, and way too sentimental. Al Jolson made movie history in 1927 with what is considered cinema's first “talkie,” in the role Raphaelson wrote with Jolson in mind. Jolson's version has him sing a few songs, some in blackface, and about two minutes of synchronized talking, including his famous line: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet.” While groundbreaking, the film is not good. But the novelty of sound made it a tremendous hit and changed the expectations of moviegoers who demanded and got sound – no matter how primitive – on the Silver Screen. (This was the precursor to video killing the radio star.)
In 1952, the first remake was released with Danny Thomas in the starring role. I've never seen it, and neither have a lot of people, though it can be seen on TCM from time to time. Reviews of the film are generally unfavorable, which makes sense as the story is the same and there's no “talkie” novelty. Also, Thomas was not a movie star.
While I'm a huge Neil Diamond fan, his 1980 film version with Lucie Arnaz (who was such a bad actress that she peaked in her debut film, the terrible Billy Jack Goes to Washington) and Laurence Olivier (during his “pay me and I'll do anything” period) is awful. Diamond isn't an actor, but he could sing. The film is a disaster, though it included three excellent songs, “America,” “Love on the Rocks,” and “Hello Again.”
Well before Diamond donned the yarmulke and seven years after Thomas' version, Lewis starred in his rendition of The Jazz Singer on TV. I have no idea why anyone thought this was a good idea. Lewis isn't a credible serious actor – though he would make numerous efforts throughout his career to be one. For example, The Nutty Professor (1963) is considered a comedy though there's barely a laugh in the film. To Lewis, his Professor Julius Kelp alter ego, Buddy Love, an obnoxious ladies' man, is a dramatic role. He does a halfway-decent Frank Sinatra impersonation, but the film is flat, and is neither funny nor dramatic. It's only in The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese's 1983 black comedy with Lewis in the supporting role, which finally gives him success in a serious role – though the film is far from being a straight drama.
Lewis idolized Jolson, which probably explains how the TV show came about. Why he was allowed to do so is anyone's guess. Although Startime was taped, its use of cheap props, combined with bad acting, tiny sets, coughing sounds from those off camera, and flubbed lines, makes it seem as if it was done live. NBC obviously thought highly of the program, as they aired the show in color, which in 1959, is staggering. The Jazz Singer opens in a cheap-looking fake nightclub with about a dozen people in the audience watching Joey Robin's (Lewis) act, which combines attempts at comedy and singing. However, Robin's shtick is stale – he tells a joke about being in an airplane and uses his “nice-lady” voice every time he says the word turbulence, which is often. His singing, if it can be called such, is even worse.
In the audience is successful TV actress Ginny Gibson (Alberghetti), who's seen Robin's act three other times and loves it. She drags her show's producer, Harry Lee (Moore), to the show, and like the rest of us, Lee doesn't think much of Robin. Because the room is the size of a postage stamp, Robin hears Lee complaining, but thinks Gibson is also mocking him. In retaliation, he repeatedly insults Gibson until, embarrassed, she and Lee leave.
We then go to the home of the Rabinowitz's, Morris (Franz), a cantor – who played the same role in Thomas' 1952 film – and his wife, Sarah. The cantor is tutoring a boy who is singing a religious song in Hebrew. Morris and Sarah are Robin's parents and Mom can't stop talking about how much she misses her son, Joachim, who changed his name when he got into show biz. However, Joachim Rabinowitz aka Joey Robin is dead to his father. It's the same story as the other versions, but Robin, like the main character in the other film remakes, is not a jazz singer. We see a soft side to Morris, who has a picture of his son crudely hidden in a frame behind another picture. The home looks like it's made out of flimsy plywood, and likely is.
Back to Robin, whose behavior toward Gibson really ticks off his agent, Tony De Santos (Faye), who's likely working on a commission and isn't seeing much with his client playing tiny dive bars. Joey realizes he's made a big mistake and he and De Santos go to a classy hotel (this fake nightclub looks considerably better though the production budget wasn't wasted on props) to hear Gibson's act. She sort of sings an opera song, which is more a high-pitched yell with some melody. Robin gets Gibson to come over, and he apologizes for his behavior.
Gibson tells Joey and Tony she had a brother who fought in the Korean War. He was a huge fan of Joey, who performed for the troops in what was probably some sort of torture for prisoners of war. Gibson wants Robin to be on her next TV show, which, if he's good, will lead to instant fame and fortune. The show is based in Los Angeles, the Rabinowitz's hometown, and it just happens to be in time for Pop's birthday. Joey sends his mother a telegram that he's going to be in town and wants to surprise Dad, who he hasn't seen in five years, at his birthday party. The only person Sarah tells is her brother, Nate (Reed). For those not familiar with Alan Reed, I'll give you a three-word clue, “Yabba, Dabba, Doo!” Yup, Reed would go on to voice Fred Flintstone for about six years, starting less than a year after his performance in this.
Robin shows up to the party late, and he and his father embrace. But tension quickly returns as Robin tries to be funny. Dad says, “That it's a knife in my heart that my only son turns his back on tradition and becomes a clown.” He doesn't know the half of it. Lewis gives us one of his classic sad looks while garnering no sympathy from viewers. He's trying to be sincere in his acting, but just can't do it. Joey goes on to explain why he's a comedian and sings what his father calls “a jazzed-up version” of “one of our most sacred songs.” Morris proceeds to slap his son in the face. The overacting needle is off the charts, but at least we get a “jazz” reference in this version of The Jazz Singer. In case we missed it, Morris, in a fit of anger, says, “Better I should be dead then my song sing jazz holy songs in my house,” as he orders his son to leave. It kind of kills the party atmosphere.
We're next inside a synagogue and Morris isn't feeling too well. Morris tries to sing and collapses in dramatic fashion because of his failing health. The story then immediately jumps to Robin practicing a really high pratfall. Lewis gets some serious height on this pratfall, landing on a wooden floor, which has got to hurt. He does a little dancing, including tap, and after leaving the stage, he is praised by fellow performers and the crew working on Gibson's show.
Back in his dressing room, Robin imagines what a great success he'll be. The absolute worst part of this stinker is a dream sequence in which he marries Gibson with his parents right by his side. He's really dreaming if he thinks his cantor father and religious mother would approve of him marrying a shiksa. It's awful and seems more forced than the rest of the production. There doesn't appear to be any attraction to Joey on Gibson's part, and it's the only time the viewer gets the impression he's into her. Joey puts on heavy clown makeup, including a red nose, as he's going to perform “Be a Clown” on that evening's show.
Fred Flintstone, I mean Uncle Nate, appears in Robin's dressing room – apparently there's no security – to tell him of his father's health and even worse, there's no one to sing “Kol Nidre” on Yom Kippur, which just happens to be that night. Joey refuses to see his father, giving a speech to his uncle about how important his work is. His mother also easily slips into her son's dressing room, begging him to see his dying father. Lewis attempts to play this seriously, but comes off terrible. He tries to practice his song, but can't concentrate and runs off the stage. In full clown makeup, he goes to see his father at the family home. If his father is dying, why did the doctor just leave and why isn't he at the hospital?
Dad can't sing and asks Joey/Joachim to fill in for him. Moments later, Ginny and Harry arrive at the house with the latter demanding Joey's return to the TV studio as the show is going to air soon. Joey slips out of the house unnoticed. Harry tells Nate, “The show must go on.” In response, Nate said, “Where does it say, 'The show must go on?' What is this, an 11th Commandment or something? The show must go on?”
During a pause in the argument, Morris stands up and attempts to go to temple, but stops when he hears his son singing “Kol Nidre.” The synagogue must be 10 feet from the Rabinowitz house and the wind has to be blowing in the right direction because there's no other explanation for how Morris can hear his son singing so clearly from inside the temple.
The story ends with Lewis' character wearing a tallit (prayer shawl), a strange yarmulke that looks like an ice-cream-man hat and a red nose – though the clown makeup is almost completely gone – doing a terrible lip sync job to “Kol Nidre.” There's a large American flag prominently on display at the temple right behind him. I guess that's to show Jews are Americans. And that's it. It just ends.
At 52 minutes, it's easily the shortest of the four Jazz Singers. The original is 88 minutes, the Thomas version is 107, and Diamond's is a painfully long 115 minutes. The Lewis version is rushed and the story compressed. There shouldn't be too many complaints because with twice the time there's the risk of this being twice as bad, assuming that's possible. You can view it at your own risk at: http://vimeo.com/86241792