Jerry Lewis in the “Jazz Singer”

12 04 2010

From “Life with Father” by Krin Grabbard (in Enfant Terrible!: Jerry Lewis in American Film By Murray Pomerance)

The narrative of father-son tension was undoubtedly what attracted Lewis to the original Jazz Singer. As in all versions, Lewis’s rendering of the story does not confront anti-Semitism. The only problem remaining to face a Jewish entertainer is opposition from is father, thus placing even more weight on the oedipal narrative. But in Lewis’s version, little else remains from the original or even from the various remakes.

There is no appropriation of African American performance or sexuality, no prolonged flirtation with Mother, no boffo musical numbers, and no triumphant return to show businesss at the end. The closing moments, however, first when Joey visits his ailing father and then when the cantor hears his son singing across the street in the synagogue, are extremely similar to scenes at the end of the 1927 film.  At least for men, these are the scenes in the original film that twenty-first-century Americans still find extremely moving, in spite of the archaic quality of the film.

Looking for a dramatic situation that was close to home, Lewis may have found the story of a Jewish son coming back to his father an ideal vehicle for his aspirations as an actor. By giving his character the name with which he was born, Lewis registered his desire to make at least a portion of the jazz singer’s story his own. (The casting of Alberghetti may reflect Lewis’s marriage to an Italian American woman.) Although Jerry’s father left home to pursue a career in show business and not the other way around as in the Jazz Singer narratives, Jerry surely had his father in mind when he remade the film that made a movie star out of Al Jolson, the entertainer on whom Lewis’s father modeled his career.

A few years earlier, in 1956, Jerry Lewis had recorded “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby,” a song closely associated with Jolson, for a Decca LP. Like Jolson’s Jack Robin, Jerry Lewis surpassed his father by becoming a star. And like the old cantor in the “Jazz Singer” narratives, Danny Lewis was quick to give his son advice, often with a degree of assertiveness that was too much for the son. Jerry Lewis himself told an interviewer that his parents had been so poor that they could not afford to give him a bar mitzvah. Shawn Levy has speculated that the 1959 “Jazz Singer” is “the bar mitzvah he never had.”


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