Judge P.S. Colbert was recently thrown out of a bar for ordering a Sierra Mitzvah.
Our reviews of The Jazz Singer: 25th Anniversary Edition (published November 11th, 2005), The Jazz Singer (1927) (Blu-ray) DigiBook (published February 7th, 2013), and The Jazz Singer: Three-Disc Deluxe Edition (published November 8th, 2007) are also available.
"I have no son."—Cantor Morris Rabinowitz
On the evening of 13 October 13 1959, the world saw a different side of Jerry Lewis. The veteran funnyman was at the peak of his career and well on his way to becoming the most commercially successful filmmaker in history when he chose to make his dramatic acting debut on a segment of NBC's Lincoln Mercury Startime anthology series, the third filmed adaptation of Samson Raphaelson's melodramatic warhorse The Jazz Singer.
It's the same old story…more or less. Lewis plays Joseph Rabinowitz, who breaks five generations of family tradition and (more importantly) his father's heart, by choosing the life of a singing comic over that of a cantor in the synagogue. He's been gone five years, when he returns home for a surprise visit on his father's birthday.
Initially, the cantor is elated, thinking his boy has at last "come to his senses." But the prodigal son—now going by the professional name of Joey Robbins—instead brings exciting news: His New York nightclub act has attracted the attention of superstar Ginny Gibson (Anna Maria Alberghetti, Cinderfella) and she's offered him a guest shot on her upcoming TV spectacular. This information so enrages his father that Joey is immediately banned from the house.
But the old man has been keeping a secret—he's dying—and now on the very eve of the broadcast, Joey learns his papa has taken a turn for the worst. With time running out, the errant son must decide between going to his dying father's side or staying to perform on a show that will surely launch him into the big time.
Maudlin? Yup. Mawkish? Definitely. Stagey? Perhaps. Though this pioneering color video production was culled from multiple takes, it has the look and feel of live television, which is not a compliment. Set by director Ralph Nelson (Soldier Blue), The Jazz Singer's plodding pace results in several scene transitions which have all the grace of a junior high school production.
Not seen since its original broadcast, The Jazz Singer—long thought to be lost forever—appears today through the grace of Lewis' personal archives, via second-generation 2 inch color tape, with a great deal of the audio missing. This problem was solved by melding the tape with another item from Lewis' collection—a 16mm black and white kinescope featuring the complete soundtrack. Not surprisingly, this 1.33:1 full frame presentation is functional at best, resembling a "colorized" production from the 1980s. The cobbled together Dolby 1.0 mono track is likewise serviceable. Subtitles would have been helpful, but haven't been provided. An informative and entertaining ten minute short (hosted by Jerry's son, Chris Lewis) details the complicated restoration process undertaken. The kinescope has also been included, though it's pretty rough watching.
Now here's the tricky part: How to explain why I loved this program so? The cast is definitely key, with exemplary work from Lewis, Eduard Franz (The Ten Commandments) as Joey's father, Molly Picon (Fiddler On The Roof) as Joey's Yiddishe Momme, Del Moore (The Nutty Professor) as Ginny Gibson's heartless producer, and veteran character actor Alan Reed—most famous as the voice of Fred Flintstone—stealing the show as Joey's Uncle Nathan.
What ultimately seems to carry this production is a sense of reverence for the material. Lewis has always maintained a strong pride in his Jewish heritage, and this story in particular held a special place in his heart. In short, this Jazz Singer was first and foremost, a labor of love, and the feeling is quite contagious.
Like jazz itself, Jerry Lewis is an acquired taste. Though reasonably priced, this restored relic will most likely appeal only to Jerry Lewis fanatics and television history buffs. The merely curious should check out rental options. Then again, this is but a bite-sized hour. Who knows? You may be pleasantly surprised.
A full and unconditional pardon is hereby granted.
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