Hollywood Legends: “The Jazz Singer” (1980) Part III

JazzSinger1980-albumcover-goldSo far we have discussed the original “The Jazz Singer” (1927) with Al Jolson; as well as the very fine remake, “The Jazz Singer” (1952) with Danny Thomas. However there is one more version left to discuss, a version would be rather forgettable if it were not for the fact that scenes of it were filmed in the sanctuary of the Breed Street Shul, in Boyle Heights.

In 1980 there would be a second big-screen remake of The Jazz Singer, this time casting Neil Diamond in the lead role of the cantor’s son and the father played by Laurence Olivier. The film which got off to a rocky start due to studios and actors bailing on this project early on, though when the female lead dropped out of the film they re-cast the part with Lucie Arnaz, the spunky actor-singer daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

This was supposed to be a first glorious on-screen break in a feature film role for singer Neil Diamond. Though this proved to be a role in which he would fall flat.

When this movie was released Roger Ebert gave it one of his most epic thumbs-down rants of all time:

“The Jazz Singer” has so many things wrong with it that a review threatens to become a list. Let me start with the most obvious: This movie is about a man who is at least 20 years too old for such things to be happening to him. “The Jazz Singer” looks ridiculous giving us Neil Diamond going through an adolescent crisis.

The movie is a remake, of course, of Al Jolson’s 1927 “The Jazz Singer,” which was the first commercially successful talking picture. The remake has played with time in an interesting way: It sets the story in the present, but it places the characters in some kind of time warp. Their behavior seems decades out of date, and some scenes are totally inexplicable in any context.

For example: In the film, Diamond plays a young Jewish cantor at his father’s synagogue. He is married, he has apparently settled down to a lifetime of religion. But he also writes songs for a black group-and when one of the quartet gets sick, Diamond takes his place, appearing in a black nightclub in blackface. Oh yeah? This scene is probably supposed to be homage to Jolson’s blackface performance of “Mammy” in the original, but what it does in 1980 is get the movie off to an unintentionally hilarious start.

The bulk of the movie concerns Diamond’s decision to leave New York, his father and his wife and go to Los Angeles, where he hopes to break into the music industry. This whole business of leaving the nest, of breaking the ties with his father, seems so strange in a middle-aged character: Diamond is just too old to play these scenes. But no matter; the movie is ridiculous for lots of other reasons.

Ebert would then call out this production for being a string of mostly predictable story lines which plod on relentlessly, and blasts the rewritten lead role for dripping in narcissism. In fact he even goes on to make this biting charge against Neil Diamond himself:

But then Diamond’s whole presence in this movie is offensively narcissistic. His songs, are melodramatic, interchangeable, self-aggrandizing groans and anguished shouts, backed protectively by expensive and cloying instrumentation. His dramatic presence also looks over-protected, as if nobody was willing to risk offending him by asking him to seem involved, caring and engaged.

Diamond plays the whole movie looking at people’s third shirt buttons, as if he can’t be bothered to meet their eyes and relate with them. It’s strange about the Diamond performance: It’s not just that he can’t act. It’s that he sends out creepy vibes. He seems self-absorbed, closed off, grandiose, out of touch with his immediate surroundings.

As harsh as his criticism is, I have to agree; this is probably the most tragic productions and performances I have ever seen on film.

This performance would earn Neil Diamond a Razzie for the worst performance in a feature film; and remains marked as one of their 10 worst films of all time.

I’m told by my film director buddy David Herrera that the Neil Diamond version of this film quickly became film school comedy fodder. And a subject of ridicule for his use of modern-day blackface and that fight scene that this act ensues in the film. Herrera claiming that next to “Mommy Dearest,” it is one of the funniest unintentional comedies ever made. The film and the acting are just that bad.

In the opinion of many film makers, The Jazz Singer is considered the holy grail of Jewish entertainment history, a film with a yichus (legacy); which Neil Diamond royally screwed-up in.

Neil Diamond would later make this claim to explain his regrettable attempt at acting:

“I decided while I was doing The Jazz Singer that I’d rather be a really good singer than a mediocre actor; that I’d concentrate on my music, my records and my shows.”

Though this film, in my opinion, was made even worse by the fact that Neil Diamond’s attempt at cantoral musical performance is absolutely terrible and irredeemable.

The film features only about 30 seconds of a recitation of Adon Olam, which is rushed to completion by the character of the impetuous son; and about a minute-and-a-half performance of a rather soulless version of Kol Nidrei.

However, it was not for lack effort on behalf of the producers to make a first-class film.

Neil Diamond did actually train with a well-respected Los Angeles cantor in order to prepare for the part. He was coached for the part by one of the greatest cantors in the country, Cantor Uri Frenkel of Temple Ner Maarav in Encino; who also appears in the film, and who was a personal friend of Neil Diamond.

And for the most important musical score of the movie, the Kol Nidrei scene at the end, they had also hired the best backing vocals. The men’s choir seen and heard from the bimah, they were professional choral singers from the impressive choirs of congregations such as Sinai Temple and Temple Beth Am.

When released the remake film was a flop, however, the soundtrack went on to be a major success selling over 6-million copies. This soundtrack would become notable for releasing a few of Neil Diamond’s most lasting musical standards, among them being the film’s reprising featured song “America” – also known as “They’re coming to America.”

JazzSinger1980-albumcover

Now with the critical analysis behind us, let me state that visually there is something which does make this film a historical treasure, especially for Boyle Heights history enthusiasts.

Though in the 1980 Neil Diamond remake of The Jazz Singer the family again lives in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City just as the original film had, the synagogue scenes were likewise filmed in Los Angeles.

Now in order to evoke this sense of a young man returning to the heimish Jewish community of his family and youth, the producers chose to film the synagogue interior shots in the most old-school orthodox Jewish synagogue in Los Angeles; Congregation Talmud Torah – The Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles.

In the Kol Nidrei scene, it opens up with the camera focused on the lights of the shul’s seven branched menorah and then zooms outward to reveal a filled sanctuary. The entire floor level filled with men, the women are filling the balcony; according to the orthodox tradition. It is rather impressive to see this grant sanctuary dressed for the High Holy Days and filled to the ceiling.

And being that Orthodox Jewish congregations never film during Shabbat or Holy Days, in this film production we probably get the only good look of what a service inside the Breed Street Shul would have actually looked like.

When this film was released in 1980 the Jewish community had already migrated away over a quarter-of-a-century before, however, a small group of worshipers still returned regularly for services in the sanctuary; especially on days when a minyan was needed for Torah services, and on High Holy Days.

However, just a few years after this movie was made the synagogue building would be damaged and abandoned.

On October 1st, 1987, the Breed Street Shul was damaged by the Whittier Narrows Earthquake, the magnitude 5.9 earthquake compromised the structural integrity of the non-reinforced brick building. The grand sanctuary was damaged and subsequently red-tagged, just two days before Yom Kippur.

This tragic event would make the film footage from the sanctuary in the 1980 version all the more valuable, and even more memorable than the rather forgettable production it is taken-from.

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Hollywood Legends: “The Jazz Singer” (1952) – Part II

Poster_of_the_movie_The_Jazz_Singer_1952The first remake, The Jazz Singer (1952) was remade starring Danny Thomas as the jazz singing son, and the Eduard Franz as the pious cantor father. This production of the film also produced by Warner Bros. would closely follow the Al Jolson version. Danny Thomas playing a young Korean War veteran who is lunging for success in Hollywood. He returns to his synagogue in the end, where he sneaks into the synagogue’s choir section to surprise his family with his joining in the singing of Kol Nidrei.

The musical performance by Danny Thomas is outstanding. And truly impressive, when one considers that he wasn’t Jewish; Danny Thomas was a Lebanese Maronite Catholic.

Now what is interesting to take notice of is that this 1952 version of the film was filmed at one of the most fashionable Jewish congregations at the time. It was filmed at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, in their grand sanctuary of their second synagogue site located near Fourth and New Hampshire in the mid-Wilshire District, which as built in 1925; it was their synagogue site before their eventual migration more westward down Wilshire Blvd in later years.

Like other film versions of this story, this 1952 version was also filmed entirely in Los Angeles. It is this time depicted as a congregation Sinai Temple in Philadelphia. Again, having Los Angeles sites being staged as east coast Jewish communities.

Today the grand Moorish-Byzantine synagogue building shown in this film is the location of a Korean church, occupying a building which retains much of its Jewish character. Yet the building has seem some changes over the years as the church has made it their own. So it’s really thrilling to in this version of the film see this fine synagogue in its prime, captured through the fine lenses of a major Hollywood film production.

In this 1952 production of The Jazz Singer, Danny Thomas does an outstanding job; in this film he ends up delivering one of the best cantoral presentations to ever grace a Hollywood film. Danny had trained for this role under the tutelage of notable cantors; he was vocally coached for this part by Cantor Carl Urstein who was the musical director at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and Cantor Moe Silverman of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.

Danny Thomas is said to have sang cantonal music in other productions as well, at one time making a lasting impression with his rendition of Rabbi Israel Goldfarb’s famous melody for Shalom Aleichem. He had also previously played a leading role as a cantor in the movie “Big City” in 1948. He was so good at playing the part, a lot of people going forward just assumed he was Jewish.

Now even for to the untrained ear, the singing parts of the cantor father are remarkable and stand apart as phenomenal. Though Eduardo Franz played the father on-screen, the singing heard in the film was actually a musical voice-over performed by the very talented Cantor Saul Silverman of Temple Israel of Hollywood.


ODD HISTORICAL FOOTNOTES:

Jerry Lewis - The Jazz Singer (1959)

Jerry Lewis – The Jazz Singer (1959); made for television production.

This second version of the Jazz Singer in 1952 would be adapted into a taped television version for Ford sponsored show Startime and broadcast on NBC on October 13, 1959. In this version Eduard Franz would reprise his role as the Cantor Rabinowitz, and this time playing the role of a son who was only interested in singing jazz music and making comedy, played by the comedian Jerry Lewis (born Joseph Levitch). In which the movie ends with Jerry Lewis singing Kol Nidrei in clown-face make-up.


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Hollywood Legends: “The Jazz Singer” (1927) – Part I

IJazzSinger1927Postern the cannon of Hollywood Jewish films, “The Jazz Singer” is among the most beloved and celebrated. And now that we are in the Jewish High Holy Day season, having just celebrated the Jewish near called Rosh HaShanah and preparing for the day of atonement called Yom Kippur. And during these ten Days of Awe this film title has become one of the seasonal staples for Jewish fans of classic films, and it certain is one of my favorites as well.

Now because the film is so loved, everyone in Los Angeles seems to have a colorful story about it. There are even several different synagogues in the shadow of Hollywood which proudly claim to have been the location where this legendary movie was filmed.

So the big question I often get when standing in front of various old synagogue buildings across the city of Los Angeles is this: Wasn’t “The Jazz Singer” filmed here?

The question I sometime have to ask back is this: Which of the films are we talking about?

Some of the claims local shuls have about being connected to this movie are bubbe-meises. Though not all these claims should be so quickly dismissed.

There are three film productions, which would bear the title of this most famous of Jewish American stories. In these various productions we do get a few interesting peeks at some of the most lovely old Jewish sites in the city of Los Angeles.

In this three-party series we will virtually explore these together. And along the way learn a bit about the history of this all-American Jewish favorite holiday film.

– * –

In 1927 the ground-breaking film production of “The Jazz Singer” staring Al Jolson would make history as being the first talking-film with synchronized music on Vitaphone sound-on-disc; this is regarded as having brought an end to the silent film era.

In the story Cantor Rabinowitz wants his son Jackie to follow in the family traditions of becoming a hazzan – a musical leader of the ancient liturgical Hebrew prayers, at the synagogue in his New York’s Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side.

The conflict of our film presents itself right away when the father is alerted by a local and finds his son in a beer garden singing jazz tunes. The father confront his son for debasing his G-d given voice with such music, and decides to teach him a lesson with a whipping. That day the son makes a vow to his father as he clings to his mother for protection: “If you whip me again, I’ll run away—and never come back!” After taking his beating, the son then kisses his mother and leaves home, only returning while the family is away Yom Kippur services to grab a picture of his dear mother. That night the cantor also makes a vow in his heart and says to his friend at Kol Nidrei, “My son was to stand at my side and sing tonight – but now I have no son.” The cantor vows in his heart that his son is now dead to him.

The story is of a prodigal son of the Jewish American experience.

Then after a decade has passed and going by the assimilated name of Jackie Robins, he is finally given a big-break. Jackie would be offered the promise of success as a singer when after catching the attention of the musical theater crowd, and is then offered the lead role in a new musical.

In this film the son would return at one point to try to explain his love for modern music to his family, only getting himself ultimately banished by the appalled cantor. The cantor father banishing him with the stern line, “I never want to see you again — you jazz singer!

However, a couple of weeks after their fight the cantor would then fall seriously ill, just the day before Yom Kippur. And for the first time the Jewish congregation is left without anyone to lead the services for the Day of Atonement. And so they appeal to the young Jackie, whose father has been dreaming of his son singing Kol Nidrei in his place, musing that surely if Jackie would do this one thing he would surely be forgiven.

However, filling in for his father on Yom Kippur would mean Jackie sacrificing the opening night of his new Broadway musical, a move which he is told would end his entire entertainment career. He is advised that if he is a no-show, he will never work on Broadway ever again.

Jackie is then forced to choose between his Jewish identity and his career.

In the end, young Jackie would cancel the show opening. And he would return back to the synagogue of his family and of his youth, and would sing the grand liturgical opus of Kol Nidrei; written in Aramaic and ordered according the solemn procedures of Jewish law, it is said for the annulment of all vows in preparation for the day of atonement and forgiveness. Jackie ascends to the bimah and sings these profound melodies for the congregation as cantor, in his father’s place.

The yiddish prodigal son had returned, their bad vows are annulled and forgiveness is found.

The film concludes with the young man seemingly blessed with parnasa; as he ends up finding career success as an entertainer.

And most importantly, in this story we see that this Jewish American son is able to ultimately prove to his old world religious family that he has truly chosen the right path for his life; and even his non-Jewish friends also come to accept him “as jazz singer – singing to his G-d.”

It is one of the best stories ever told.

But where did the inspiration for this movie come from?

The story of The Jazz Singer was adapted from a short story written by playwright Samson Raphaelson titled, Day of Atonement. The story was based on the early life of Al Jolson (born Asa Yoselon, in the village of Srednike in Lithuania). Raphaelson, a native of New York’s lower eastside, had first seen Al Jolson in 1917 performing in blackface in Illinois, and was instantly absorbed by his stage presence. Noting that he had only ever heard such emotional intensity of singing among synagogue cantors, which he adventured to ask Jolson about. Raphaelson said: “He told me a little of his background. But I had already guessed it. I knew there was the spirit of cantors in him, the blood of cantors in him.” [See: How I Came to Write “The Jazz Singer” by Samson Raphaelson]

The play would be written in 1922, and first performed on stage at the Warner Theater in NYC in 1925. Due to the great success of the stage play, in 1927 it was announced that Warner Bros. was going to produce a film version of the story starting in June; with the filming with the actors beginning in the month of July. In the month of August the Vitaphone sound sequences were completed. And then on September 23rd it was announced that the film was completed.

The film was then released on October 6, 1927 at the flagship Warner Bros. Theater in New York City, the opening was planned to coincide with Yom Kippur, which the plot of this story largely revolves around.

It is this Yom Kippur – Kol Nidei theme which has made this a seasonal favorite during the High Holy Days.

Rosenblatt, on stage in the movie "The Jazz Singer." (1927)

Chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt performing in “The Jazz Singer” (1927)

Now it should be noted that Al Jolson was actually trained and coached in the Jewish cantoral musical style by none less than the great Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt himself, considered the greatest Jewish liturgical voice of all time. Cantor Rosenblatt was offered $100,000 by Warner Bros. to play the part of Jolson’s cantor father; a part which he turned down, because he felt that Kol Kidrei was too sacred for him to sing in this film.

Instead Cantor Rosenblatt takes a smaller roll in the film, in which he plays himself singing liturgical songs in a theater, which melts the heart of the strayed son and reminds him of his cantor father; all of this moving the narrative towards demanding a reconciliation.

Again it is important to note that Jolson was coached for this part by Cantor Rosenblatt himself. However, the story is told among professional cantors to this day that Al Jolson was actually a really difficult student to try to instruct; as Jolson just wanted to do it all his own way. And it is said that as a result the cantoral pieces Jolson he had recorded were actually rather dismal performances. And so when the movie was finally cut, it was said to have only presented the most essential and best pieces of the liturgical songs they had captured.

Still I think his singing is all together lovely.

Now it must be noted that even though the story is written from an east coast perspective – having scenes depicting places in New York and in Chicago – the movie was very much filmed in Los Angeles.

Interestingly, one of the first rumors I ever heard surround the film The Jazz Singer (1927) is that the movie was often said to have been filmed at the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles.

Even though this rumor is false, begin that the Breed Street Shul was the largest Jewish congregation west of Chicago, it is understandable why people would assume that the producers would have automatically chosen this site. However, the synagogue scenes for this production were actually filmed on a Warner Bros. Studios sound stage off Sunset Blvd., today the location of KTLA Television in Hollywood.

Nonetheless the often repeated claim of being the location where the famed The Jazz Singer (1927) was filmed is also retold by members of several other Los Angeles synagogues. Some of these claims are just assumptions and mistaken leads. While other claims are actually correct about a version of The Jazz Singer being filmed at their site, however they are often just mistaken about the version.

Due to the success of this film it would be remade several times over the years. And a latter version of this movie would indeed be filmed in Boyle Heights.

This is a topic we will further explore in this three-part series.

HISTORICAL CONNECTIONS: Even though The Jazz Singer (1927) was not filmed at the Breed Street Shul, the film does have a tangential connection to the cast of this film. In that year Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt came out to Los Angeles to play himself and sing in this feature film. Though he turned down the lucrative offer to actually sing Kol Nidrei for this Warner Bros. film, he did end up another offer to sing this liturgy for a Los Angeles synagogue that year. In that year of 1927 Cantor Rosenblatt was hired to officiate the High Holy Day for Congregation Talmud Torah – The Breed Street Shul; being paid $5,000 for three days of performance, which is what most people worked two whole years to make. [See: “Sounds of Jewish High Holidays in Classic Boyle Heights”]


The Warner Bros. and their Sunset Blvd. Studios, late 1920’s.

REMEMBERING SAM WARNER: Samuel Louis “Sam” Warner (born Szmuel Wonsal, August 10, 1887 – October 5, 1927) was an American film producer who was the co-founder and chief executive officer of Warner Bros. Studios. He established the studio along with his brothers Harry, Albert, and Jack L. Warner. Sam Warner is credited with procuring the Vitaphone technology that enabled Warner Bros. to produce the film industry’s first feature-length talking picture, “The Jazz Singer” staring Al Jolson.

This movie was a technical and financial challenge for Warner Bros. With a total price tag of $422,000 it was one of the most expensive films in the studio’s history, nearly bankrupting the Warners. It was reported that one of the brothers hocked his wife’s jewels to cover production costs. They really needed this film to succeed in order to save the studio.

“The Jazz Singer” ending up breaking box-office records, establishing Warner Bros. as a major player in Hollywood, and single-handedly launched the talkie revolution which ended the silent film era.

The world premier for “The Jazz Singer” was set to coincide with Yom Kippur, on account of the Kol Nidrei theme which runs through the film. However, Sam and his brothers would not attend the world premiere of this most famous film, which was set to open in their flagship theater in New York City.

Sam Warner died of pneumonia at the age of 40 years old, just the day before the film’s enormously successful premiere; so they left New York to return to Los Angeles to bury their brother in the family tomb at Home of Peace Memorial Cemetery in East Los Angeles.

Today is his yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing according to the Hebrew calendar.


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