Preferred Citation: Horton, Andrew, and Stuart Y. McDougal, editors Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.


Six— The Ethnic Oedipus:The Jazz Singer and Its Remakes

1. The part of Jack Robin's father was first offered to Rosenblatt with the promise of a salary as high as one hundred thousand dollars. According to Rosen- soft

blatt's biographer, the cantor refused because of his religious convictions but eventually agreed to appear in one scene as himself only after laying down strict conditions, including a ban on makeup (Rosenblatt, 1954, 289). I thank Lewis Porter for calling my attention to this text, as well as for many other helpful suggestions.

2. For a more rigorous approach to the semantics of films such as The Jazz Singer , I recommend the much more detailed "coding sheet" with no less than twenty-seven categories that George Custen (1992, 237-39) developed for his work on biopics.

3. In a curious way, the documentary of a tour by the pop singer Madonna, Truth or Dare (1991), vaguely recalls many of the conventions of the Jazz Singer , including a conflict with working-class ethnic parents, a (mildly blasphemous) recuperation of the family's religious heritage into the star's performance, and the wary reconciliation with the father. The sexual capital of African Americans is also a crucial factor in this narrative—Madonna tours with a troupe of black male dancers and with two female singer-dancers, one of whom is black. And like 90 percent of white pop singers today, Madonna relies heavily on vocal styles and body language steeped in African American traditions.

4. In his book on Yiddish cinema (1991b), Hoberman discusses Der Vilner Balebesl and several related films in greater detail. For studies that contextualize The Jazz Singer with other American films about Jews, see Erens (1984) and Friedman (1982).

5. In 1982, the SCTV (Second City TV) troupe did a parody of the Diamond film on their NBC series, in which the father—played by "Sid Dithers" (Eugene Levy) with dread locks—is a Jewish recording executive who wants his son to make hit records. The son, played by Al Jarreau (who is African American), wants to be a cantor. In still another Jazz Singer parody, Krusty the Klown told the story of his estrangement from his orthodox Jewish father on a 1992 episode of The Simpsons: as in so many of the remakes, the program culminates with the father accepting his son's profession and enjoying his performance, even to the point of throwing a pie at the "camera" as the episode ends.

6. Lewis, who owns exclusive rights to his 1959 Jazz Singer , has expressed dissatisfaction with the program and has made it unavailable for public viewing. I have obtained most of my information on Jerry Lewis's Jazz Singer in conversation with Scott Bukatman, an ardent student of Lewis's work, who was given access to the program by Lewis himself.

7. I can only speculate that Warner Brothers decided early on to omit blackface performance scenes from the 1952 Jazz Singer after receiving complaints about Doris Day's blackface imitation of Al Jolson in I'll See You in My Dreams , released one year earlier in 1951. I'll See You in My Dreams , like the 1952 Jazz Singer , was directed for Warners by Michael Curtiz and starred Danny Thomas. This was not the end of blackface in the cinema, however. In 1953, Joan Crawford performed under cork in Torch Song . As far as I can tell, the tradition does not reappear until it reaches a socially conscious stage with Black Like Me (1964). Elliott Gould does a brief parody of blackface and Jolson in The Long Goodbye (1973), and there is a sentimental but vaguely sinister revision of the practice in Soul Man (1986).

8. As the author of an article that employs psychoanalytic methodologies in order to insist upon the phallic nature of the jazz trumpet (Gabbard, 1992), I feel continue

compelled to comment on the scene in which Goodman, at a crucial moment in his sexual development, hands his clarinet to the black musician Fletcher Henderson. Although there may be moments when a clarinet is only a clarinet, the long black instrument can perhaps be conceptualized here as a prosthesis for Goodman's sexuality, first charged with phallic qualities when Goodman learns to play jazz from black artists. Even though the mature Goodman never abandons the clarinet in his public life, he eventually becomes sufficiently confident as a sexual being to put the prosthesis aside. Handing the phallic instrument to Fletcher Henderson while Kid Ory is present brings to completion a process that began when Ory taught Goodman the full potential of the clarinet while twice mentioning Fletcher Henderson's name in conversation. Hollywood's racial codes may have demanded that a woman like Donna Reed-Alice Hammond should require a suitor more sophisticated than one tutored by blacks, who simply "play what they feel." According to his logic, Goodman can successfully approach her only after he has put his large black prosthesis aside.

9. Rogin (1992) tends to overstate the racism inherent in the original Jazz Singer 's imitation of black music. Rogin implies that African American jazz artists of the twenties—he specifically names Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, and King Oliver—played an urban, revolutionary music quite separate from Al Jolson-Jack Robin's songs of nostalgia for the old plantation (448). In fact, many of Rogin's canonical black jazz musicians performed exactly the kind of music that he lays at the door of Jolson and The Jazz Singer . During the 1920s and early 1930s, Louis Armstrong essentially built his popularity upon "coon" songs like "Sleepy Time Down South," "Shine," "Snowball," and "Shoe Shine Boy," while Fletcher Henderson recorded "Old Black Joe Blues," "Darktown Has a Gay White Way," and "Cotton Picker's Ball." In 1927 King Oliver recorded a song called "Aunt Jemima." While it is true that this repertoire was probably forced upon black entertainers by white impresarios, it is also true that this was the only system through which we can come to know these black entertainers. Rogin seems to suggest that a pure, uncorrupted, uncommercialized black music is somehow knowable without the apparatus of the culture industry.


Preferred Citation: Horton, Andrew, and Stuart Y. McDougal, editors Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.