DVD Review: The Jazz Singer (1959)

The Jazz Singer DVDSTUDIO: Inception | DIRECTOR: Ralph Nelson | CAST: Jerry Lewis, Eduard Franz, Molly Picon, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Alan Reed, Del Moore, Barry Gordon
DVD RELEASE DATE: 2/7/2012| PRICE: DVD $14.98
BONUSES: featurette on restoration
SPECS: NR | 53 min. | Drama | 1.33:1 fullscreen | Dolby Digital 1.0

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

 

After the breakup of Martin and Lewis in 1956, Jerry Lewis (Boeing Boeing) became one of the most popular and highest-paid movie comedians in the world. Like most comics, however, he harbored a not-so-secret desire to be a dramatic actor. His first attempt in that direction was this misguided, but still fascinating to watch, TV adaptation of the 1927 Al Jolson classic.

The Jazz Singer movie sceneThe Jazz Singer aired as part of an omnibus 1959 NBC series called Lincoln-Mercury Startime (to which Dean Martin also contributed two variety specials). Although the title of the original play and movie was kept, it makes little sense, since Lewis’s protagonist forsakes a career as a cantor not to be a jazz singer but to be a comedian who sings (the “jazziness” of his songs is remarked on at one point to try to provide some sort of connection).

Simply put, the show is highly melodramatic and quite corny. Lewis has been quoted as saying that he was too young for the lead role, but it wasn’t his age or lack of dramatic skills that was the problem, it was that the source material — the Sampson Raphaelson play first adapted for the Jolson film — is a very dated piece of material. The conflict between an obstinate cantor (Eduard Franz) and his rebellious show-biz son (Lewis) was old hat by 1959; the story had been adapted a mere seven years before for an only moderately successful Danny Thomas film vehicle.

Still, this disc is essential viewing for nostalgia buffs as it represents a true rarity: a pristine copy of a late Fifties color broadcast featuring a major star. The dust jacket notes and a supplement on the disc featuring Jerry’s archivist son Chris Lewis trumpet the fact that both the color version of the program and a B&W kinescope also included on the disc came from Lewis’s archives. The fact that a blurry copy of the kinescope was uploaded to YouTube by a fan some months back was most likely the trigger for this official release of the program.

The color copy is the disc’s real selling point: it has been meticulously restored for its DVD debut and looks gorgeous, offering a crisp look at the color palette used for late Fifties network “spectaculars.” The nightclub sequences contained in the program show a more familiar Jerry, delivering gags and singing schmaltzy songs. He was then at the height of his comedic powers, as is evident in his collaborations with filmmaker Frank Tashlin (Who’s Minding the Store?).

The top-notch supporting cast, including Yiddish theater icon Molly Picon and Alan Reed (best known as the voice of Fred Flintstone) play their roles wonderfully, but the show is little more than a vehicle for Jerry. The sight of him in the final sequence, decked out in full cantorial garb and clown makeup, is an absolute stunner. Some may laugh at the image, others will cry, but no one can forget it.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”