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.