TV remake of Al Jolson movie screens at Toronto Jewish Film Festival.
There’s long been a joke about the French inexplicably loving the films of Jerry Lewis.
But maybe they’re onto something. Although a number of politically incorrect comments made by the Hollywood legend over the past decade have not helped his image, Murray Pomerance of Ryerson University thinks film enthusiasts should take another look.
“So many people who have negative things to say about Jerry Lewis do not pay close attention to his art,” he says.
An especially sensitive side to that art will be on display on Saturday as the Toronto Jewish Film Festival screens The Jazz Singer, a 1959 televised remake of the first talking picture, which starred Al Jolson.
The film was unseen for decades until it was released on DVD last year. It was one of two films Lewis long refused to discuss. The other was the controversial The Day the Clown Cried from 1972.
Much like its largely silent predecessor from 1927 — and an earlier remake from 1952 — The Jazz Singer centres on a cantor’s son who deviates from traditional family expectations. Pomerance, who edited the book Enfant Terrible!: Jerry Lewis in American Film, was deeply touched by the sincerity in Lewis’s performance.
“It intersects in many ways,” he says. “It’s Jerry Lewis and his own feelings toward Judaism, toward his own father — a Borscht Belt comic — and a sense of allegiance to the family tradition.”
Also on display is a sense of maternal hunger, where the mother instructs her child to give up his career. “That kind of sacrifice is absent from most of his comedic work, where he’s not giving anything up to anyone but himself.”
As the story goes, Lewis, as Joey Rabinowitz, ultimately relents, giving up his showbiz career to perform the sacred “Kol Nidre” before Yom Kippur in place of his absent father. But showbiz and what’s happening in the synagogue are not that unrelated, adds Pomerance. “He’s still standing on a stage, still playing a role and the Kol Nidre is still scripted. It’s not improvised.”
Rob King, who teaches film comedy at Columbia University, says The Jazz Singer, produced three years after the breakup of Lewis’s 10-year partnership with Dean Martin, testifies to a crazy moment in Lewis’s career: “The split unleashed all of his ambitions. There’s an impetus in his career to become the total entertainer, which was not unlike Al Jolson. “What you’re seeing in Jerry Lewis is someone whose career overlaps with a number of ends. It’s the end of the studio era, it’s the end of Vaudeville, and both of these ends required him to come up with a new kind of comedy.”
American critics of Lewis would disparage his frenetic mugging, his spasmodic comedy.
“It required a dynamic pace, a real genius which was unparalleled in any previous style of comedy,” says King.
The same year as The Jazz Singer, Lewis signed a $10-million, 14-picture contract with Paramount Pictures to write, direct, produce and edit his own films. He made a case for himself as an autonomous filmmaker — “unprecedented since Orson Welles,” notes King — and in the early 1960s released a string of films like The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor and The Ladies Man, the latter a deconstructionist experiment in big-budget filmmaking that later influenced Jean-Luc Godard.
When Martin sings, it seems effortless, but with Lewis, who is now 87, every breath, every tap dance is meticulously learned, says Pomerance. “In typical Jewish fashion, Lewis wants you to know that he learned the lesson.”
This article was originally published by the Toronto Star on April 12, 2013. It appears here in a slightly edited form.