The Day the Clown First Cried

'The Jazz Singer'

by Michael Barrett

27 January 2012

And if you can't sing, be a clown, be a clown.
cover art

The Jazz Singer


The Jazz Singer isn’t a lost masterpiece of TV drama, but it’s fascinating for many reasons. The oddest and most commercial reason is the chance to see Jerry Lewis in his first effort at serious drama, right in the middle of his reign as the movies’ wackiest comedian.

It’s an anodyne update of Samson Raphaelson’s play, which became the first talkie with Al Jolson, about Jewish assimilation into mainstream American life. The cultural conflict between generations and traditions is expressed musically. Will the son be a cantor like his father or break his father’s heart by going on the stage to perform secular vulgarities? The original version uses blackface as a curiously mixed signal of “Americanism” to which the son aspires. Being American means in some way emulating the African-American experience. True, it looks like a grotesque parody of same, but that element of identifying with and wanting to be “black”, which is equated with being a personal outcast as well as a vital part of culture, is at least an unspoken undercurrent, though modern viewers have trouble seeing beyond the surface make-up.
For the update, Lewis plays a stand-up comedian who also sings and dances. This is reasonable, since a jazz singer is one thing Lewis ain’t, and we hear a couple of songs to prove it. Nor is there evidence of illustrious cantorism from father or son. The nightclub act we see is no riot either, but he does nice acrobatic moves when rehearsing “Be a Clown”, and that’s where the make-up comes in. Instead of blackface, he’s got a clown face, a natural adaption for Lewis. His shiksa girlfriend is Anna Maria Alberghetti, his co-star in the much more maudlin Cinderfella. Eduard Franz is the stern father, and Yiddish theatre legend Molly Picon has nothing to do as the standard Jewish mother.

Although the program was shot and edited on color videotape, it’s staged and directed by Ralph Nelson very much in the style of a live broadcast. Only a couple of moments make it clear that it couldn’t have been live: a startling cut between two separate characters falling to the floor in different contexts, and a segue into a brief fantasy sequence.

The one-hour special was produced by Lewis’ company to air as a Lincoln Mercury Startime special on NBC in 1959. In a bonus on the restoration, Lewis’ son Chris implies that the program wasn’t a success because people weren’t expecting a serious Jerry Lewis. In retrospect, it’s obvious how this tale has personal resonance and fits with the Lewis persona’s hunger for love and acceptance along with the ambiguities of clowning.

Chris explains that his dad saved copies of every TV appearance and every interview he ever did, so for this item he had an original color tape, a black and white kinescope of the actual broadcast (either the kinescope people didn’t use a color monitor or didn’t use color film), and even a separate soundtrack. They were all necessary. Both the color tape (one of the earliest surviving color broadcasts) and the kinescope are presented. The latter shortens the credits and shows a preview of next week’s show, “The Turn of the Screw” with Ingrid Bergman—there’s one I want to see.

The Jazz Singer


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