(The following review is based on a screening of the show on Amazon Prime. The program can be streamed for free to subscribers of the Amazon Prime service. For more on Amazon Prime, click the advertisement in the right column of this web page)
By Lee Pfeiffer
Although I don't have a scholarly knowledge of Jerry Lewis' career, having literally grown up during his heyday as a top boxoffice star, I thought I was fairly conversant in discussing both his successes and failures, of which there have been more than a few of each. Thus, I was surprised to learn that Lewis was releasing a rare 1959 NBC broadcast in which he starred as The Jazz Singer....yes, that Jazz Singer. The show was viewed by Lewis as his personal tribute to his idol, Al Jolson, who starred in the 1927 original feature film that became the first major "talkie". The concept is so corny it could be served on a cobb but there is no denying there is a timeless appeal to this story of a wayward son who opts to go into show business, thereby breaking the heart of his cantor father who wanted him to carry on the family tradition and sing in the synagogue. Danny Thomas had already starred in a 1952 remake and Neil Diamond would star in the 1980 feature film that earned scorn from critics but produced a hell of a top-selling soundtrack album.
The NBC broadcast is significant for a couple of reasons. For one, it represented a rare color presentation on NBC, the first network to go "all color" in the 1960s. At the time, however, a color television was a distant dream for most Americans and the vast majority of viewers undoubtedly saw the program in black and white as part of NBC's Lincoln-Mercury Startime anthology series. The show wouldn't last as it fell victim to more popular fare on other networks and it isn't known what the critical reaction was to the broadcast. The show was also significant in that it marked Lewis' first attempt at dramatic acting. Yes, there were those fleeting moments of pathos in most of his zany big screen comedies, but here Lewis plays it straight as Joachim Rabinowitz (aka "Joey Robbin"), who has been alienated from his father for five years due to his decision to perform as a "jazz singer". In reality, he is performing as Jerry Lewis, his act consisting of various shtick that includes crooning love songs, performing slapstick and telling jokes. (The latter two aspects of his act had to be included as, after hearing Lewis' warbling, no one would conceivably buy the notion that people would pay money to hear him sing. To coin the old phrase, "He couldn't carry a tune if it had handles!".) Joey impresses a famous singer Ginny Gibson (Anna Maria Albergehtti, who had just finished shooting Cinderfella with Lewis). Ginny arranges for him to secure a slot on her national variety show that could make Joey an instant star. In the interim, he makes a fateful decision to return for a surprise visit to his estranged father in order to celebrate his dad's 60th birthday. Initially things go well at the family gathering, but the old man (Eduard Franz) ends up chastising his son for not following in his footsteps and for ending a tradition of cantors that has lasted five generations. Once again estranged, Joey shows up to rehearse the all-important TV show appearance...only to learn that his father has collapsed and is gravely ill. His dying wish would be to have Joey take his place and sing at the synagogue. In order to do so, however, Joey will have to forego his one opportunity to gain fame and fortune. The plot creaks with cliches and age and you realize just how much Neil Diamond's rendition of "America" helped bail him out of tear-jerker conclusion. Nevertheless, Lewis performs admirably. He is never out of his depth in the dramatic aspects of the show and delivers a convincing performance that blends his usual zany gags with a genuine attempt to deliver a moving performance. The supporting cast is also good, including Molly Picon in full-blown "Jewish mother" mode. The quality of the broadcast is surprisingly crisp and clean, having undergone a restoration process.
This is not a TV classic but it is an interesting curiosity and any Jerry Lewis fan will want to experience this unusual, rarely-seen gem.
(The Jazz Singer is also available on DVD from the Jerry Lewis archives and includes a b&w version of the show as well as a featurette with his son Chris Lewis, who discusses the history of the broadcast and its restoration for home video. Click here to order from Amazon)