It’s always a treat when the comedy greats reach far back into the archives and bring out a gem that hasn’t been seen in decades. Such is the case with the new DVD version of The Jazz Singer, not the famous Al Jolson movie, but the TV special starring Jerry Lewis.
Originally produced for NBC’s Lincoln-Mercury Startime series, the hour-long performance piece tells the story of a comedian on the verge of making it big. He’s estranged from his father (Eduard Franz), a respected synagogue cantor who refuses to accept his son’s profession.
When Joey (Lewis) scores a gig on a television special with a famous singer (Anna Maria Alberghetti), he decides to head home for a visit on his father’s birthday. His mother (Molly Picon) and uncle (Alan Reed, the voice of Fred Flinstone) are bowled over to see little Joey all grown up, but Mr. Rabinowitz is not so easily persuaded. He’s willing to accept his son only if he gives up the stand-up routine and comes home to be a cantor, like the five generations of men who came before him. The comedian faces the choice of a lifetime: Does he pick his family or his love of performing?
The television broadcast, which has been nicely restored for the DVD version from Inception Media Group, can be viewed in either color or black-and-white. No matter the choice, Lewis’ obvious talents continue to shine, even more than 50 years after the show first premiered.
The actor has a way of changing from hilarious to heartbreaking within a few seconds. And that’s probably why The Jazz Singer feels so important on DVD; this is that rare chance to catch the King of Comedy in a dramatic performance. You won’t cry your eyes out from the drama, but it’s definitely a more subtle work than Lewis is known for.
One can easily criticize the dated material, the chintzy sets and the somewhat manufactured dialogue. But that’s turning a 2012 lens on a show originally meant for an audience in 1959. Modern-day viewers need to head for their living room, maybe rustle up a TV dinner, and sit back and try to enjoy. These TV specials are preserved for nostalgic reasons; they aren’t meant to blow our minds away with deft acting, hilarious comedy and expert directing.
There are few bonus features on the disc, but a helpful featurette with Lewis’s son Chris adds some nice background information on the restoration. A behind-the-scenes photo gallery puts a nice bow on this TV treat that’s been more than 50 years in the making.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
The Jazz Singer
Originally aired as part of NBC’s Lincoln-Mercury Startime TV series; currently on DVD from Inception Media Group
Starring Jerry Lewis, Eduard Franz, Anna Maria Alberghetti and Molly Picon
Running time: 60 minutes