Rob Edelman: Jerry Lewis

Aug 28, 2017

Upon the death of the legendary Jerry Lewis, much was made of his comic genius, his career with Dean Martin, his Labor Day muscular dystrophy telethons, and his signature onscreen appearances in THE GEISHA BOY, THE BELLBOY, THE ERRAND BOY and, in particular, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. Yet there are other aspects of the life and career of Jerry Lewis that should not be overlooked. As with many comedians and comic actors, he was more than capable of offering powerful and unusual dramatic performances. One example is his on-target presence in a television reworking of THE JAZZ SINGER, which once upon a time was a landmark motion picture.

Celebrated as the first talking picture, this JAZZ SINGER, which stars Al Jolson and dates from 1927, actually is a silent film with several talking and musical sequences. But its phenomenal success was the catalyst for the eventual demise of the silent film era. In the years since, THE JAZZ SINGER has been remade twice as a motion picture, first in 1953 in an obscure version starring Danny Thomas and again in 1980 in a dreadful, unintentionally funny adaptation with Neil Diamond and, of all people, Laurence Olivier.

Well, there also is the Jerry Lewis version, which originally was broadcast in 1959 as a special on NBC’s “Lincoln Mercury Startime” TV series. This one, which has long-been available on DVD, is a treat to see as well as a slice of television history. The story told in this JAZZ SINGER is oh, so familiar. The title character is a young American, here called Joey Robin, who wishes to realize his dream of show business stardom. In this version, Joey has been singing and clowning in small nightclubs. As per the era, he is about to appear on a high-profile television show: a gig that surely will be his breakthrough into the big time. But Joey’s father is a cantor, and is mortified by the idea of Joey entertaining in clubs and on the tube. The cantor wants his son to do nothing less than follow the family tradition and sing only in synagogue. And thus, we have the classic tale of an immigrant’s son who yearns to realize his American dream, which of course is worlds away from the values of his father.  

This version is worth seeing alone for the presence and performance of Jerry Lewis, who at the time was celebrated primarily for his comedic talents. Yet here, he gets to sing as well as clown and he also is extremely convincing in his dramatic scenes, just as he was almost a quarter-century later as a Johnny Carson-type late night TV host in Martin Scorsese’s THE KING OF COMEDY.

It also is worth noting that the DVD features two versions of THE JAZZ SINGER. One is a black-and-white kinescope: a film that is shot off of a high-quality TV screen. The other is in color and, happily, this is not a colorized version. The program originally was broadcast in color, and the DVD features the restored version of the original color tape recording. It is, in fact, one of the earliest surviving examples of a color television program.

And that’s not all. The one DVD “extra” is a brief but informative documentary spotlighting the restoration process and chronicling the reasons why Jerry Lewis wished to do this particular project on television. Finally, what appears at the beginning of the program serves as a reminder that hype and exaggeration are nothing new on television. Keeping in mind that THE JAZZ SINGER was presented on “Lincoln Mercury Startime,” the show opens with a plug for “the brilliant new Lincoln for 1960... the finest Lincoln in 40 years!”

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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