Retelling Jewish American Story Through History of Cinema

Scholar Examines 12 Films From 'The Jazz Singer' to 'Avalon'

Look Who’s Talking: ‘The Jazz Singer’ marks the beginning of talking pictures and of Eric A. Goldman’s study of Jewish American cinema. This image was taken on the set of the first version of that film in 1927.
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Look Who’s Talking: ‘The Jazz Singer’ marks the beginning of talking pictures and of Eric A. Goldman’s study of Jewish American cinema. This image was taken on the set of the first version of that film in 1927.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Published April 18, 2013, issue of April 26, 2013.
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● The American Jewish Story Through Cinema
By Eric A. Goldman
University of Texas Press, 264 pages, $55.

Eric A. Goldman’s look at about a dozen Hollywood movies released between 1927 and 2009 can be recommended especially to readers who don’t flinch when they ponder his book’s title. For me, the very notion of postulating such a thing as “the” American Jewish Story — as opposed to, say, “an” American Jewish story (meaning any American Jewish story, of the author’s own choosing), or, better yet, multiple American Jewish stories — is already somewhat problematic. But in fact, Goldman is usually too thoughtful to be quite as categorical as his title threatens. Stories told in and by movies are basically what he’s thinking and talking about, and usually these are ones about American Jewish assimilation: characters stepping beyond ghetto and ethnic boundaries to contemplate such things as intermarriage and other forms of wider acceptance while repositioning historical memories and a sense of cultural identity.

I wish that the movies he picked for close examination, such as “The Young Lions,” “The Prince of Tides” and “Avalon,” were more engaging to me as art. I should admit that it was his book that finally induced me to catch up with the original, Al Jolson version of “The Jazz Singer” (at the age of 9 or so, I saw the 1952 Danny Thomas remake) and made me seek out Jerry Lewis’s strange 1959 made-for-TV version, with Molly Picon, no less, playing his mother.

Thematically, the original may not be much more nuanced in its social meaning than the 1956 film “Don’t Knock the Rock” was three decades later, and part of its impact may be dissipated if you decide, like me, that you prefer Jolson’s rendition of the “Kol Nidre” to his “Mammy.” But Goldman traces an interesting progression of autobiographical ethnic inflections from Samson Raphaelson’s original 1922 short story (“The Day of Atonement”) to his 1925 stage play with George Jessel (which, this newspaper reported, was “by a Jew, about Jews and designed for 100% Jewish consumption”) to the Warners and Jolson musical, over which Raphaelson had no say.

Though Goldman devotes a short section to all the “Jazz Singer” remakes, I wonder if he’s seen Lewis’s version, which he curiously claims was “directed by Ginny Gibbons and Ralph Nelson.” (Nelson is the credited director, and Ginny Gibson is the name of the character played by Lewis’s co-star, Anna Maria Alberghetti — a big-time “shiksa star whom the title hero fantasizes marrying, with his father’s approval). At least he’s hip to Lewis’s personal investment in the story, though he’s wrong in saying that his character breaks with his cantor father’s tradition “to become a clown rather than a singer”; in fact, he becomes a comedian who sings, donning clown make-up only once.

Although Lewis, pushing things to extremes, as he often does, winds up singing the “Kol Nidre” in part of that make-up, and an earlier sequence actually features a shock cut from the father collapsing during a synagogue rehearsal to his son taking a pratfall onstage. The violence of the cultural shift is obviously what gives the story flavor in any of its incarnations, but the fact that Lewis’s show-biz father failed to show up for his son’s bar mitzvah suggests that Lewis might have had this particular Oedipal trauma in reverse.

On the subject of American Jewish assimilation, it might be argued that the 1959 version produced by and starring Lewis, even though it isn’t especially good, offers at least as many cultural insights as the 1927 original. And for me, Elaine May’s 1972 film “The Heartbreak Kid,” which Goldman mentions only in passing, has much more to say than any of his own examples; it’s also far more durable as art.


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