The Ethnic Oedipus:
The Jazz Singer and Its Remakes
Apart from its initial popularity, The Jazz Singer (1927) ought to have held little appeal for remakers: the novelty of introducing talking and singing to a mass audience must have worn off rather quickly; changing racial attitudes ought to have made a narrative involving blackface obsolete if not off-limits; the title's reference to jazz should have discouraged studio bosses once jazz ceased to be a popular music in the 1950s; the emergence of the state of Israel in 1948 drastically altered the issues of Jewish assimilation that are crucial to the film's plot, as J. Hoberman (1991a) has argued; and the personality of Al Jolson weighs so heavily upon the 1927 film that any re-creation would seem to be impossible without him. Finally, in an article that was the inspiration for this paper, Michael Rogin (1992) has shown that the original film dramatized several subjects that Hollywood abandoned after the 1920s, most notably the rags-to-riches ascent of American Jews who broke out of the ghetto, some of whom "invented Hollywood" (Gabler, 1988).
Yet filmmakers repeatedly return to The Jazz Singer . Warner Brothers celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the film's release with a 1952 remake directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Danny Thomas; playing a dramatic role for the first time in his career, Jerry Lewis appeared in a Ford "Star-time" production directed by Ralph Nelson for NBC television in 1959; and Neil Diamond played the title role in a 1980 film directed by Richard Fleischer. There are also several films that seem to have much in common with the first Jazz Singer even if they do not bear the same title. Films such as The Jolson Story (1946), The Benny Goodman Story (1955), St. Louis Blues (1958), and even La Bamba (1987) raise questions about biopics and remakes in general and about the pivotal role of The Jazz Singer in particu-
lar. Almost by accident, the 1927 Jazz Singer provided filmmakers with a uniquely American template for dealing with oedipal and ethnic issues.
In arguing that a number of films are unconscious or unacknowledged remakes of The Jazz Singer , I am cautioned by the exchange between Seymour Chatman and Barbara Herrnstein Smith (Mitchell, 1981) that was first carried out in the pages of Critical Inquiry . Chatman posits a binary model of story and discourse, arguing that a "deep structure" or "basic story" can be transposed from one "discourse" to another, regardless of form, mode, or media. As an example of a basic story he cites Cinderella , which has existed "as verbal tale, as ballet, as opera, as film, as comic strip, as pantomime, and so on" (Chatman, 1981, 18). Smith seizes on this example to charge Chatman with subscribing to a "versionless version" of Cinderella that resembles a Platonic ideal: "unembodied and unexpressed, unpictured, unwritten and untold, this altogether unsullied Cinderella appears to be a story that occupies a highly privileged ontological realm of pure Being within which it unfolds immutably and eternally. If this is what is meant by the basic story of Cinderella , it is clearly unknowable—and, indeed, literally unimaginable—by any mortal being" (Smith, 1981, 212).
After quoting several folklorists who have assembled international catalogues of Cinderella stories, Smith finds that no rules exist to distinguish versions with most elements of the "basic story" from versions with only a few. As folklorists pile up more and more Cinderella stories from around the globe, Smith begins to suspect that if one of the folklorists had continued long enough, "all stories would have turned out to be versions of Cinderella ," and that Cinderella would turn out to be basically all stories (216). Like Raymond Bellour (1979), I occasionally suspect that all films are versions of the Oedipus story, and after recently immersing myself in musical biopics, I sometimes believe that all Oedipus stories are versions of The Jazz Singer .
Smith is right that the term "basic story" is so highly contingent as to be of questionable value, especially if narratologists do not rigorously examine the "hierarchies of relevance and centrality" (217) that they construct in order to arrive at basic-ness. Smith ends her essay by asking for a more thorough theory of narration that is more attentive to the cultural contexts in which narratives take place: "[I]ndividual narratives would be described not as sets of surface-discourse-signifiers that represent (actualize, manifest, map, or express) sets of underlying-story-signifieds but as the verbal acts of particular narrators performed in response to—and thus shaped and constrained by—sets of multiple interacting conditions" (222). On the one hand, my attempts to establish common threads running through the first Jazz Singer and its various remakes is not a search for basic-ness among texts composed centuries and continents apart. I will be looking rather at films produced in one country by a single industry over the relatively short span
of fifty-three years. Furthermore, identifying the kernel of the 1927 film is somewhat different from positing a basic Cinderella since there is already a fully realized version of The Jazz Singer in contrast to some stripped-down, unembodied, Platonic version of Cinderella . On the other hand, a psychoanalytic reading of the Jazz Singer texts suggests that the strongly marked oedipal elements in the films constitute something like a universal core. But the oedipal tensions in the film and its remakes are inseparable from obsessions with popular music, ethnicity, assimilation, and reconciliation that are quite specific to America in general and to Hollywood in particular. Furthermore, the oedipal and racial dynamics of the films are deeply entwined not only with optimistic narratives of assimilation through music but also with the specifics of each era in which filmmakers (and critics) operate. As Smith might argue, it is impossible to separate out a "deep structure" of oedipal themes from the "surface-discourse-signifiers" unique to each text. Smith might also argue that any paraphrase of The Jazz Singer says as much about the paraphraser as it does about the film. So, I lay a few cards on the table at this point and declare my commitment to a flexible model of psychoanalysis that acknowledges the impact of cultural change on American obsessions as they are repeatedly played out in popular narratives. I also assert that the first Jazz Singer occupies a special role in American cinema, in effect establishing a set of conventions for narratives about race and oedipal conflict in which the hero transcends his ethnic background through success as a popular entertainer imitating African Americans. An especially large number of subsequent films have been based closely enough on these conventions to be called remakes.
For my purposes then, the defining plot elements of The Jazz Singer (1927) are as follows: 1) in 1920s America, a boy from 2) a working-class 3) Jewish family with 4) strong feelings toward his mother wants to 5) sing popular songs or "jazz," much to the chagrin of 6) a father who is a cantor and who insists that his son follow in his footsteps. The father disowns the boy only to 7) forgive him on his deathbed. Helping the son in his singing career is 8) a young and attractive gentile woman who is more advanced in show business and who soon becomes the love interest for the son. A not incidental element in the story is the polysemous moment when the son 9) masquerades as an African American male just as he must simultaneously confront his romantic ties to the shiksa and the oedipal crises in his own family. As Rogin (1992) has argued, the blacking up of Jack Robin (Al Jolson) endows him with a more overt sexuality at the same time that it eases his path to assimilation by concealing his Jewishness. At the optimistic, multiculturalist conclusion, the son is able 10) to combine his commitment to "jazz" with his love for his family and their heritage by singing Kol Nidre with vaudeville body English. (Compare Jack's gesturing at the synagogue
with the comportment of the eminent cantor Josef Rosenblatt who stands motionless when he sings in The Jazz Singer , unwilling to make any concessions to show business beyond appearing in the film.)
Obviously my scheme of ten elements can be expanded and numerous subcategories can be teased out of each element. I have not, for example, mentioned any secondary characters, any details of the son's progress toward stardom, or any effects of the film's racism and sexism. I have tried rather to identify the crucial constitutive elements of The Jazz Singer that are most likely to be restated in subsequent films and most relevant to my theses about the role of music in fables of Oedipus and assimilation. My scheme has the further advantage of lending itself to the following table, in which I have marked with an x each element that a remake shares with the original.
I have deliberately omitted the reference to America in the 1920s, the first element on my list above, because all of the films take place at different times in America: like most remakes, the first three take place in the same present as when they were made, and the four biopics are anchored in the life history of a famous individual. There also appear to be no films resembling The Jazz Singer that center on women, unless we include films like Coal Miner's Daughter and Sweet Dreams , in which a lower-class, rural milieu might supply the heroines' ethnicity. Given Hollywood's insistence on gender hierarchies, any female variant of The Jazz Singer would almost certainly have to focus on the moment in which the heroine upsets the apple cart by surpassing her male lover. The various versions of A Star Is Born , in which the success of a female star results in the suicide of her husband, may provide a better example of what happens to The Jazz Singer when its gender roles are reversed.
I have also omitted the reconciliatory conclusion, the last element on my list, because I consider this to be the sine qua non for any remake of The Jazz Singer: virtually all of the films on the table exhibit some version of it. If, to use Rick Altman's terminology, the table summarizes the semantics of the film and its remakes, The Jazz Singer 's conclusion is essential to the film's syntax (Altman, 1986). To distinguish it from the "fairy-tale musical" and the "folk musical," Altman describes the "show musical" as a narrative about a show business couple whose onstage romance and backstage love affair culminate in a final production number (Altman, 1989). For Altman, the semantics of the show musical involve the production of a play, a revue, a film, or some kind of show while the syntax involves the dovetailing of a love plot with the success of the show. As a film from the early stages of the show subgenre—Altman (1989) places the film first in his chronological listing of show musicals—The Jazz Singer splits the finale into two small production numbers instead of one large one: after Jack receives his father's blessing at the old cantor's deathbed, he sings his jazzy Kol Nidre in the
synagogue; a title card then explains that "the season passes—and time heals—the show goes on" just before Jack is seen on the stage of the Winter Garden theater singing "Mammy" under cork while his mother and Mary Dale, his gentile lover, look on adoringly. As David Desser (1991) has argued, "[A]n overdetermined form of mother love represses the intermarriage component" (399), one of several elements in the conclusion that could easily disrupt the film's utopian view of assimilation. "Success in the American mainstream, a breakthrough into stardom, a breakout of the ghetto, 'naturally' brings with it the WASP woman. Intermarriage becomes secondary to assimilation" (Desser, 1991, 399).
Significantly, Jack Robin's final return to the stage, along with the reaction shots of doting Jewish mother and shiksa lover, is not in Alfred A. Cohn's original shooting script for The Jazz Singer . Nor can these scenes be found in the principal sources for the film—Samson Raphaelson's 1922 short story, "Day of Atonement," and his play, The Jazz Singer (Carringer, 1979). The shooting script ends with Jack in the synagogue where he may have ended his show business career by walking out on the opening night of a Broadway show. Although Raphaelson wrote "Day of Atonement" with Al Jolson's own story in mind (Carringer, 1979, 11), the story ends with the hero actually choosing to remain a cantor. The triumphant but slightly incoherent "Mammy" finale was added to the film by Warners, if only for the sake of a more upbeat ending. Like most show musicals, nearly all of The Jazz Singer remakes are more economical, placing the weight of the reconciliation primarily in a concluding stage act: the protagonist may in fact return to the synagogue or its equivalent, but the final stage performance is more clearly motivated, with the father usually surviving to enjoy the show along with the rest of his son's adoring fans. What the father eventually comes to understand is what the hero and the story (in most of the remakes) have been saying all along, "that Jack's jazz singing is fundamentally an ancient religious impulse seeking expression in a modern, popular form" (Carringer, 1979, 23). Or as the film itself states in its first title card, "[P]erhaps this plaintive, wailing song of jazz is, after all, the misunderstood utterance of a prayer."
This kind of oedipal reconciliation may be unique to American popular culture. In contrast to the reassuring ending of America's The Jazz Singer , Hoberman (1991a) has found a turn-of-the-century Yiddish tragedy from Poland that foreshadows the plot of the film even though Raphaelson probably had no knowledge of it when he wrote "Day of Atonement." In Der Vilner Balebesl , later filmed in Yiddish as Overture to Glory (1940), a talented cantor's desire to see the world leads him to a successful career as an opera singer and eventually into the arms of a Polish countess. When he returns home to his village, however, he finds that his wife has gone mad and his child has died. "In Europe, the fruits of assimilation were seen as madness, ruin, and death. In America, of course, it was a different story" (Hoberman 1991a, 64).
Robert B. Ray (1985) has placed Hollywood's paradigm of reconciliation alongside "American myths of inclusiveness," part of the fundamental belief that options are eternally available in the New World: "Often, the movies' reconciliatory pattern concentrated on a single character magically embodying diametrically opposite traits. A sensitive violinist was also a tough boxer (Golden Boy ); a boxer was a gentle man who cared for pigeons (On the Waterfront ). A gangster became a coward because he was brave (Angels with Dirty Faces ); a soldier became brave because he was a coward (Lives of a
Bengal Lancer )" (58). Similarly, a jazz singer who abandons his family for the stage can also lead the congregation in prayer on the most solemn of holy days, then return to the stage as a great success and still have the love of his mother and a beautiful shiksa. (See figures 12, 13, and 14.) (Although the myth implies that limitless possibilities are open to all Americans, the vast majority of American films suggests that Hollywood is willing to extend such wide-ranging freedom only to white males, even if they are Jewish.)
Even after the upbeat ending was added to the 1927 Jazz Singer, there was still the tragic possibility that Jack Robin could lose the stage career he so desperately sought; both his manager and Mary Dale follow him to his parents' apartment to caution him firmly about walking out on an opening night. In the remakes, however, the jazz singers face no such crises; rather, the heroes of the 1952 and 1980 versions arrive at their respective synagogues with little anxiety about career-ending absences on Broadway. In the 1952 version, when the summons to sing Kol Nidre comes on the same afternoon as the hero's important opening night, a quick call for the understudy is issued, and the heroine expresses only sympathy when the Danny Thomas character departs for home; no title card or expository dialogue is necessary to explain the jump from Danny singing in the syna-
gogue to Danny singing in the theater. In the 1980 version, Jakie Rabinowitz (Neil Diamond) has just ended a rehearsal by telling his musicians to take the day off for Yom Kippur when his father's friend arrives with the plea that Jakie replace his ailing father back home: singing Kol Nidre has no effect whatsoever on the progress of the singer's career. Whereas the cantor in the 1927 film declares his love for his son but never articulates his acceptance of Jack's vocation as a singer, the father in almost all of the remakes comes to accept and actually appreciate his son's music.
As many critics pointed out, the path to reconciliation in the 1952 remake is so smooth that little tension remains to drive the narrative. Edward Franz, who plays Danny Thomas's father in the 1952 version, is not a poor cantor in a Lower East Side ghetto, but the well-heeled leader of a congregation in an affluent section of Philadelphia. Not only is the cantor thoroughly assimilated into urban society; he also appears to be quite comfortable with popular culture, at one point singing every word of a rapid-fire soap commercial that his son recorded for radio. The father's demand that
his son follow in a family tradition of several generations of cantors takes on the marks of a neurotic symptom, a familiar convention during Hollywood's romance with psychoanalysis in the 1950s (Gabbard and Gabbard, 1987). Coming to his senses on his sickbed just before his son sings Kol Nidre, the cantor himself delivers the film's message that the popular entertainer can express a divine spirit. After giving his blessing to Jerry's show business career, the cantor adds, "Only I want you to remember that wherever you sing, always lift your head high and raise your voice to god, the
way you did in the temple." Even the problem of intermarriage is solved by having Peggy Lee, Danny Thomas's love interest, drop a line about attending a seder to hint that she too may be Jewish.
Although Laurence Olivier's cantor in the 1980 Jazz Singer leads a less affluent congregation on Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and although he is never overheard equating popular music with religion, he is entirely won over when Jakie shows the old man a photograph of his grandson, "Charlie Parker Rabinowitz." The reference to the canonical jazz saxophonist and composer seems motivated primarily by the anachronism of the film's title and by the vestiges of white appropriation of black culture that seem obligatory in a Jazz Singer remake. The largely perfunctory citation of Charlie Parker may also have stemmed from Diamond's desire to shore up his dubious claim to hipness. In the decidedly unhip conclusion of the film, Olivier is caught up in the crowd's semi-Dionysian abandon while Diamond sings "Coming to America," a hymn to assimilationism so unproblematic that the Democratic Party adopted the song for its national convention in 1988. Diamond's American melting-pot jingoism is expressed symbolically in the finale by his red, white, and blue outfit set off by a scarf worn like a prayer shawl.
If the 1952 and 1980 films tilt toward easy reconciliation, Jerry Lewis's 1959 television production retains a sense of the tragic possibilities in the story of the ethnic Oedipus. Lewis plays a clown, rather than a singer, who is about to appear in his first national TV program when he is called back to the synagogue. With no time to wipe off his makeup, the son arrives at the last minute to sing Kol Nidre in clown face as his father expires and the film ends. Scott Bukatman (1991) has attributed the bizarre, nonresolution of the program's ending to Lewis's own "unresolved conflicts of identity" (192). Whatever his reasons, Lewis remained true to the original spirit of Raphaelson's story and play, both of which emphasized the assimilating Jew's dilemmas rather than his successful negotiation of career and oedipal conflicts. Like the authors of the 1952 remake, Lewis appeared to be uninterested in the original film's appropriation of black culture.
Even accounting for the inevitable changes that characterize the vast majority of remakes, the 1952 and 1980 Jazz Singer s respond powerfully to agendas unknown to filmmakers in 1927: as Smith (1981) would argue, each new Jazz Singer was radically refashioned as its "narrators" formulated new stories to accommodate the profound changes in American culture. Danny Thomas appears in uniform at the opening of the 1952 remake, a GI faced with the problems of adjustment reminiscent of those in successful predecessor films like The Pride of the Marines (1945), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and The Men (1950). Although the film was also made in the shadow of several problem films that dealt with anti-Semitism, such as Gentlemen's Agreement (1947) and Crossfire (1947), hatred of the Jews is
hardly an issue in Curtiz's film. In fact, the film is so careful to avoid Jewish stereotypes that the principals might as well be Episcopalians.
The 1952 film also omits any reference to African Americans, either real or mimicked through blackface. My research has turned up nothing to indicate that Warner Brothers made a conscious decision to eliminate any reference to blackface, and almost without exception the reviews of the film make no mention of the omission. By 1952, the civil rights movement may have been sufficiently successful with its consciousness-raising to have made the practice forbidden, even in a film that must have quickly brought to mind Al Jolson, the best-known of all blackface performers, whose long and highly visible career had ended with his death just two years earlier.
Richard Fleischer's 1980 version was motivated primarily by the personal fixations of Neil Diamond, who insisted on script changes throughout production in order to bring the story more in line with his own life story (Wiseman, 1987, 256). The most significant omission is the protagonist's mother, so essential to the oedipal hysteria of the original and most of the remakes. Blackface, on the other hand, returns. Diamond and Fleischer may have intended a tongue-in-cheek homage to the 1927 film when they inserted an early scene in which Jakie Rabinowitz reluctantly puts shoe polish on his face in order to replace the missing member of an African American singing group that is performing his songs in a black nightclub. At least initially, the scene is played for laughs as Jakie tries to conceal his misgivings with the black makeup. At the dawn of the era of Reagan and Bush, however, the sequence is especially disturbing in its invocation of racial stereotypes that were soon to become more pervasive than they had been during previous decades. If in 1927 blackface authorized sexuality and emotional vulnerability, in the 1980 Jazz Singer blackface appears to authorize violence against obstreperous blacks and the fantasy of loyal retainers fighting alongside the white hero: after an angry black man in the audience notices that Jakie has neglected to put color on his hands ("That ain't no brother; that's a white boy!"), he rushes the stage and sets himself up for a sucker punch from the hero. As members of the soul group come to his aid and the entire club breaks into pandemonium, the film activates clichés from bar fights in westerns as well as from myths about the natural inclination of black people to violence. The film also upholds Hollywood's old racial hierarchies by suggesting that a group of black singers is dependent on a white man for their music. Although there is no question that whites in general and Jews in particular have made substantial contributions to the evolution of jazz and black popular music, the film acknowledges the crucial role of African Americans in jazz history only in the name of Jakie's son.
If each of the three titled remakes departs substantially from the semantics and syntax of the original, the four biopics in table 1 line up more agreeably with my characterizations of the 1927 film. On the one hand, this
phenomenon may be related to the need for self-identified remakes to update their plots in order to separate themselves from the original. The frequently hagiographical biopics, on the other hand, tend to be more conservative and consequently fall back on well-established conventions. The Jolson Story (1946), for example, represents a self-announced biography of Jolson after a progression of Jazz Singer texts—story, play, screenplay, and final film—each moved closer to Jolson's own story. Almost all of the semantic elements of the 1927 film reappear in The Jolson Story , although the syntax begins to break down in the film's final third, which chronicles the star's temporary retirement, his separation from his wife, and the beginnings of his comeback. The reconciliation with father comes quickly and easily even before the young Asa Yoelson changes his name to Al Jolson: after the child runs away from home, he is taken to a Catholic boys' home where his parents arrive to see him singing "Ave Maria." When the elder Yoelson complains, "[S]inging without his cap on," an Irish priest strikes the principal ecumenical note of all The Jazz Singer films when he says, "It's not so much what's on the head as what's in the heart, is it, Cantor?" The father's smile indicates his agreement and concession to his son's wishes; with the film less than fifteen minutes old, the man becomes the ardent follower of his son's career, thus setting an example for the 1952 and 1980 titled remakes. On one of the boy's visits home, the father even tells his son that he need no longer wear a yarmulke. Jolson's real father passed away when Jolson was quite young (Goldman, 1988). The oedipal aggressiveness of the first Jazz Singer surely became less appealing after so many Jewish fathers had died in the Holocaust, perhaps motivating the makers of almost all the post-1945 Jazz Singers to allow the fathers to live on and achieve satisfying reconciliations with their sons.
In addition to anticipating the much greater attention to career progress that characterizes the subsequent remakes of The Jazz Singer, The Jolson Story goes farther than any of the films in exploring the significance of blackface. For reasons that are never really explained, Jolson first blacks up while appearing in a variety show that features a blackface performer. When the white minstrel man is too drunk to perform one night, Jolson spontaneously replaces him; coincidentally, Lou Dockstader, the leader of a well-established minstrel troupe, is in the audience. Jolson's desire to work in blackface appears to grow out of his interest in African American music, but the film offers no evidence that the young Jolson has previously heard blacks in performance even though he begins improvising and syncopating his vocal solos early in his career. Only after he has joined Dockstader's minstrel show does Jolson arrive in New Orleans and wander into a gathering of blacks to hear a fairly slick version of Dixieland jazz. Jolson has a revelation, that the staid repertoire of the minstrel troupe can be transformed by actually playing black music in blackface. He tells Dockstader
that he wants to sing what he has just experienced: "I heard some music tonight, something they call jazz. Some fellows just make it up as they go along. They pick it up out of the air." After Dockstader refuses to accommodate Jolson's revolutionary concept, the narrative chronicles his climb to stardom as he allegedly injects jazz into his blackface performances. This of course allows the audience to appreciate Jolson's foresight in predicting the popularity of jazz, but it also suggests that this ethereal music—picked out of the air by simple black folk—needs the genius of someone like Jolson to give it solidity and validity. After the brief scene in New Orleans, African Americans are never seen again, nor is there any subsequent reference to jazz and Jolson's appropriation of black music. In the scenes that follow, however, the blacked-up Jolson is granted license to play the trickster, impishly but endearingly rewriting stage shows as they unfold in front of audiences. Whereas blacking up allowed a certain freedom of sexual expression for Jolson in the first Jazz Singer , in the Jolson Story it becomes associated with harmless mischief.
Once we accept a semantic change from singing to playing the clarinet, The Benny Goodman Story becomes an almost transparent reworking of The Jazz Singer . The hero never puts on blackface, but he does have critical encounters with black musicians in which their proximity seems to act upon his sexuality and emotional expressivity. The mythological characteristics of African Americans that Jack Robin puts on along with burnt cork are acquired by Goodman when blacks are simply nearby. When the young Benny plays his first job with a white dance band on a riverboat in Chicago, he is introduced to a young woman who is about to become his first date until she ridicules him for wearing short pants. Almost immediately he wanders into a performance by the black intermission band led by New Orleans trombonist Kid Ory (played by Ory himself) and notices that the musicians have no music. "We just play what we feel," explains Ory. "Playing the way you feel," muses Goodman. "Say, could I sit in?" Immediately, the young clarinetist becomes an accomplished improviser, presumably finding in African American music the perfect means for overcoming his wounded feelings.
Donna Reed is later introduced into The Benny Goodman Story as Alice Hammond, the gentile woman from New York society whom the mature Goodman (Steve Allen) eventually marries. Their romance is off to a slow start until Benny has returned to Chicago at the pinnacle of his first great success. Standing next to Fletcher Henderson, the black bandleader whose arrangements contributed mightily to Goodman's success, Goodman is reintroduced to Kid Ory, who offers the praise, "You have the best band I ever heard anyplace." At this moment, Alice walks in, and Benny is about to approach her in earnest. Reversing the situation of his first sexual humiliation, Benny quickly thanks Ory for his compliment and then hands
his clarinet to Henderson, adding, "Fletch, could you hold this, please?" Now a more fully sexualized individual, Goodman no longer needs black musicians to tutor him about feelings, although the film does seem to relate their proximity (and easy dismissal) to his romantic energies.
For all the patronizing and marginalizing of black jazz artists in The Benny Goodman Story , the film does in fact acknowledge the contribution of Henderson as well as Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton (both played onscreen by themselves) to Goodman's career. The appearance of Wilson, Hampton, and Buck Clayton with Goodman at the re-creation of the triumphant 1938 Carnegie Hall concert that ends the film is a dramatic change from the mimicking of black performers that concludes the 1927 Jazz Singer . The end of The Benny Goodman Story , with its several black performers, is one of the most inclusive of the many reconciliatory finales in the cycle of show musicals. As in The Jazz Singer , this unorthodox performance by a jazz musician is presented as a gamble that might endanger his career. Appropriately, the romance plot culminates at this concert when we are told that Goodman is asking Alice to marry him by means of a clarinet solo, a proposal she accepts by nodding her head. This wedding proposal doubles the marriage of jazz and classical music symbolized by a Carnegie Hall concert attended entirely by socially prominent New Yorkers, who depart from their usual behavior at concerts by tapping their feet in rhythm. Goodman's adoring mother is seated next to the clarinetist's fiancée at the concert, recalling the reaction shots of Jack Robin's mother and lover at the end of The Jazz Singer .
The Benny Goodman Story is of course another film about successful assimilation by a Jewish musician. Its perhaps unconscious debt to The Jazz Singer suggests that the 1927 film had definitively established the rules by which such a story should be told, even one alleged to be true. Although there is no Kol Nidre at the conclusion of the film, The Benny Goodman Story also follows The Jazz Singer in forging a rapprochement between Jewish culture and the mainstreams of American culture. The word "Jew" is never uttered in the film, though the accents of Benny's parents provide one of several obvious references to the family's Jewishness. At another point, Mrs. Goodman has a brief moment of hesitancy about Benny's courtship of the upper-class, gentile Alice, in which she tells the younger woman, "You don't mix caviar and bagels." Generally, the film displaces anxieties about social class and ethnicity into a conflict over musical tastes—a conflict that is of course much more easily resolved both here and in the many Jazz Singer narratives in which music is the preferred path to assimilation. Since Alice prefers classical music to jazz, her admiration for Benny grows substantially when she discovers that he is capable of what the film identifies as an expert reading of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.
But there are a number of subtle signs that Benny has also retained his
Jewish heritage in his "hot music." At several transitional moments in The Benny Goodman Story , Benny plays a melancholy tune alone at night on the rooftop of his building. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Goodman's music would be able recognize the tune as "Goodbye," a song written in fact by Gordon Jenkins that became the closing theme for the Goodman band. When played solo by Goodman (who dubbed in all clarinet solos for Steve Allen), the minor melody of the song also bears the signifiers of Jewish folk music. Even more strikingly, the final Carnegie Hall concert features a performance of "And the Angels Sing" with the famous trumpet solo by Ziggy Elman that quotes from the Jewish klezmer tune, "Der Shtiler Bulgar," part of an earlier version of the song entitled "Frahlich in Swing" (Sapoznik, 1987). With the echt WASP Martha Tilton taking the vocal chorus on "And the Angels Sing," Jewish is married to American even if klezmer does not quite accomplish the mixture of the sacred and the profane that ends The Jazz Singer .
A case can be made that remakes of The Jazz Singer can involve non-Jewish groups so long as they are sufficiently marginal. With slight semantic changes, St. Louis Blues (1958) and La Bamba (1987) address many of the same questions as the original 1927 film. In the former, Nat King Cole plays W. C. Handy, the African American man who was the first great popularizer of the blues. Handy's father is a minister who strongly disapproves of secular music and insists that his son pursue a respectable career as a school teacher. Although the hero's mother is dead, he is frequently indulged by his Aunt Hagar (Pearl Bailey). Like all the mothers in the Jazz Singer texts, surrogate mother Aunt Hagar inevitably sides with the boy in his oedipal struggles with father.
In St. Louis Blues , the young W. C. Handy is fascinated by the work songs he hears from black laborers and begins writing songs that show the influence of these songs: even when the protagonist is black, American cinema is able to find an otherness in black music. Handy is soon playing and singing his songs in a cabaret whose featured performer is the sensually purring Eartha Kitt. Her otherness from Handy's strict Christian background puts her in much the same relationship to the hero as Mary Dale bears to Jack Robin. Kitt is certainly more outside the protagonist's tribe than was Peggy Lee in the 1952 Jazz Singer . In the final moments of St. Louis Blues , Handy appears in a tuxedo—in some sense, a cultural disguise—and sings the title tune before a symphony orchestra while his father stands backstage, accepting at last his son's vocation. Although the film's religious crisis is displaced into issues of social class and the sacralization of the concert hall, the ending resembles that of other Jazz Singer remakes in its suggestion that the son can be true to his artistic convictions and to the demands of his father.
In La Bamba , Ricardo Valenzuela (Lou Diamond Phillips) grows up playing rock and roll in Southern California in the 1950s, and his highly sup-
portive mother takes an active role in his career. Although the boy's father is dead, the protagonist has a relationship with an older brother that adumbrates the conflict between father and son found in earlier Jazz Singer films: in fact, the film creates additional oedipal tension by indicating that Ricardo feels affection and later sympathy for the woman who is married to his brother, a former convict given to violent outbursts. Before he crosses over to success under the name Ritchie Valens, the Mexican American hero has already established a relationship with Donna, a blonde girl whose father strongly disapproves of the young man's ethnic and lower-class origins. Significantly, Ritchie has grown up in America listening to rock, specifically to black artists such as Little Richard, and never learned to speak Spanish. When his older brother takes him on a trip to Tijuana he hears a norteña band playing the old folk tune "La Bamba." The trip was arranged by the brother to take Ritchie to a brothel for his first sexual experience, part of the brother's attempts to acquaint Ritchie with the cultural heritage that Ritchie regards ambivalently (like the jazz singer's bar mitzvah?). In the film's multicultural solution, Valens sings the Spanish words to "La Bamba" while transforming the song with a rock beat and stage mannerisms borrowed from black rhythm-and-blues performers. As an assimilated Hispano-American, Valens draws his sexual power from blacks and his ethnic legitimacy from the Mexican band that he first heard in a bordello. The film ends when Ritchie dies in a plane crash at the height of his popularity, still adored by his mother and his blonde girlfriend and recently reconciled with his brother. Like the various jazz singers before him, Ritchie has successfully negotiated his ethnic and oedipal crises before the end of his short life.
By adding the "Mammy" finale to the originally scripted ending for The Jazz Singer , Warner Brothers helped cement a tradition that we now call the classical Hollywood cinema. Hoberman (1991a, 65) quotes one reviewer who attributed the revised ending to the persona of Jolson: "No audience would really expect to see Al Jolson give up show business—even in a film." A more general explanation of the change has been offered by Carringer (1979): "The story is transformed from a fable of adjustment (how the new generation finds its place in a cultural tradition) to a more characteristically American fable of success—open revolt against tradition, westward movement, the expenditure of energy, triumph, and the replacement of the values of the old by the values of the new." (27) I would qualify this characterization by adding that the resolution of oedipal tension must accompany the revolt against tradition if the fable is to be sufficiently appealing. Furthermore, the hero's appropriation of black American music may also be an essential part of the original Jazz Singer 's lasting influence: as Rogin (1992) has argued, Jack Robin does not sing the jazz of "The New Negro" and urban sophistication: instead he sings of a nostalgic return to
the mythological plantation with its infantilized black slaves. Jack Robin puts on a mournful demeanor with the burnt cork that is highly inconsistent with the cheerful opportunist we first meet at Coffee Dan's, where Jack practically dances as he eats his breakfast. Along with everything else it offers, blackface gives Jack a dimension of solemnity and filial piety that are otherwise absent in his single-minded pursuit of assimilation. The hero's return to the stage at the end is substantially less abrupt because of Jack's impersonation of a mournful and loyal momma's boy: the crime of Oedipus becomes less abhorrent. And by simultaneously hiding his Jewishness and putting on the satyr's mask, Jack can move closer to his gentile love object. If the upbeat finale of The Jazz Singer is crucial to the film's syntax, so is the borrowing of emotional and sexual capital from African Americans. This exchange of sexuality is especially significant in a culture that stereotypes blacks as hypersexual at the same time that it characterizes Jewish men as undersexed.
In this sense, the 1952 and 1980 remakes are not as close to the original as are The Benny Goodman Story and, to a large extent, St. Louis Blues . In the W. C. Handy film, the hero's final success resolves the oedipal crisis with his father; although Benny Goodman's father is absent at the end, the culture of the father is never abandoned as the son moves into gentile society. The regular proximity of Goodman to black musicians like Wilson and Hampton allows him to make this move without losing his soul, just as in St. Louis Blues , the devotion of W. C. Handy to the folk art of "simple" African American working men preserves his authenticity even as he stands in his tuxedo before a symphony orchestra. And as in The Jazz Singer , black vernacular music provides both protagonists with an acceptable context for their sexualization. By contrast, Danny Thomas and Neil Diamond have only the most tenuous connection to black culture both inside and outside their respective narratives. (Both Steve Allen and Nat Cole had substantial ties to jazz artists.) It has not been my intention in this essay to valorize films that exploit the "surplus symbolic value of blacks" (Rogin, 1992, 417) or for that matter the surplus symbolic value of gentile women. I am interested rather in how a seemingly unique film like the 1927 Jazz Singer can become a paradigm for American success stories, regardless of what they are called.
I thank Lewis Porter, Christine Holmlund, Ilsa Bick, Scott Bukatman, Robert Eberwein, and Louise O. Vasvari for their many helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
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