Shul’s Out: The Jerry Lewis “Jazz Singer” Surfaces

While the name “Jerry Lewis” is most closely associated with comedy, the cinematic Everyman has also made some impressive forays into serious fare.

There is, of course, his fantastic, Oscar-nomination-worthy turn as talk show host Jerry Langford, kidnapped by stalker Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) and pal Masha (Sandra Bernhard) in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983). Then there  are impressive turns in Funny Bones (1995), as the comedy legend father of struggling funnyman Oliver Platt, and Arizona Dream (1994), playing  the betrothed-to-a-much-younger-woman uncle of Johnny Depp. Sadly, few people have seen his legendary 1972 film The Day the Clown Cried, in which he plays a circus clown with the job of escorting children to their deaths in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.

One of Jerry’s least-seen dramatic efforts came on a 1959 segment of the NBC series Startime, in which Mr. Lewis stepped into the shoes previously filled by Al Jolson and Danny Thomas, and later filled by Neil Diamond.

Yes, the comedy giant played the cantor’s son in a TV version of The Jazz Singer. He’s Joey Robbins (nee Rabinowitz), who would rather tell jokes and sing popular jazz tunes than follow in his father and other relatives’ footsteps by singing “Kol Nidre” during the high holy days at the synagogue. To make matters worse, Joey falls for a shiksa (Anna Maria Alberghetti, who would play opposite Lewis a year later in Cinderfella).

Talk about not being true to your shul!

It took some unearthing, but the DVD of The Jazz Singer is, in fact, a reality. Directed by Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field, Charly), the program stays true to Samson Raphelson’s original story which was filmed in 1927 with Jolson as the first talking picture. There are some politically incorrect moments here. But the entire program is fascinating for what it is and who is in it.

The last few months have been something of a Jerrypalooza, what with The Geisha Boy, Rock-A-Bye Baby, Boeing Boeing, It’s Only Money, and Who’s Minding the Store coming out on DVD. Down the road a bit, you will be able to add to the “Jerry Love” with Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis, which ran on the Starz Networks late in 2011. The film offers a fond tribute to “The Total Filmmaker” with archival footage, great film clips and insight into his films and moviemaking by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Billy Crystal, Carol Burnett, Eddie Murphy, Carl Reiner, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino and Jerry Seinfeld. This loving look at the man and the movies was produced by—who else?—Jerry Lewis.

  • Tito Pannaggi

    I just saw Lewis’ “The Nutty Professor” (1963). Today I see the similarity between Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey when he is silly, but when he is cool he is extremely like David Letterman.

  • Irv Slifkin

    tito: early in Letterman’s late night career, Jerry was the solo guest on one of his shows. It was one of the great hours of TV you’ll ever see. I think there were other guests scheduled, but Letterman tabled them to have Jerry on for the entire program. Not sure if it is on YouTube.

  • Joseph Glaeser

    I’m 63 years young and I was too young to see any Jerry & Dean fist run movies. When they made it to TV I thought they were fantastic and really funny, especially the tall, skinny guy.
    From that time on I’ve been a fan of both. It hurt when Dean passed and I know it’ll hurt again when Jerry goes, so keep on enjoying him while you can.

  • Jack West

    The Total Filmmaker was my favorite book on film making, I read it twice more than any other book. Just a note to Mr. Glaesar, I’m 65 and I saw all their first run films in theaters.

  • Gary Vidmar

    Jerry Lewis in THE JAZZ SINGER…more disturbing than SALO, A SERBIAN FILM and THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE put together. Needless to say, I’m not a fan, and any film Lewis made would have been more entertaining without him, and Eddie Murphy was even able to prove it.

    • John Small

      I won’t say your coment is the dumbest one I’ve ever read here, but it surely ranks among the top 10. Eddie Murphy doesn’t have a fraction of the comedic talent of Jerry Lewis.

  • tim

    Eddie does’nt have half the talent and could not sing to save his life.

  • Kenneth Henderson

    I know many people dislike Jerry Lewis and that voice he puts on but the show is interesting as an experiment for getting material from tapes in color from that time. There were three Chrysler shows with Fred Astaire that came in color on those on 2inch tapes. I put the color tape quality on the DVD as on a par with NTSC VHS I have had to work with that are a few years old in look. Had the tapes been on a PAL system they might well be superior by far.

    The 1927 The Jazz Singer is not the first sound film and material is available from as early as 1923 in full sound. Look up Lee DeForest on Wikipedia, for example.

  • MrMovieClassics

    “The Geisha Boy, Rock-A-Bye Baby, Boeing Boeing, It’s Only Money, and Who’s Minding the Store? coming out on DVD.” ….. and on Blu-ray as well!!! The very first wave of Lewis films released to Blu, all from Olive Films. Thanks Olive! Keep ‘em coming!!!

  • Bruce

    Jerry, in my opinion, was only funny when he was controlled. Most of his movies were just plain dumb, and you know good comedy is serious business. The “Nutty Professor” was an exception, but so was the little seen film version of a broadway play starring Jerry: “Visit to small planet.”

    I’ve yet to see this very funny film on DVD.

    • Jgriffin

      Is there any news about when and where we can get the DVD of Visit to a Small Planet?

  • June

    I have an old album of Jerry Lewis singing Jolson hits. He surprised me with his singing…..I don’t care for his movies or that kind of comedy, but I have enjoyed that album.

  • marxlover

    I grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Jerry was at his peak with his solo comedies. To a kid between ages 8 and about 13 or 14, there was just nothing funnier than Jerry Lewis. As I watched these same movies later in life, and with more of a critical eye, I could see the many “holes” in his type of comedy. However, I look back at those early years with much fondness & nostalgia. Jerry made me laugh. Also, even Jerry’s worst movies have their share of brilliant comedy moments to them.

  • Raymond

    THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED hasn’t been seen since it’s original release in 1972,mainly because of its controversial and shocking themes involving children being sent off to die in a Nazi Concentration Camp during World War II. It was the deepest performance Jerry Lewis ever did,and it was one of his most darker and disturbing films of that period that was mixed with heavy hitting drama and some light comedy.

  • Jgriffin

    Is there any news about when and where we can get the DVD of Visit to a Small Planet?