Respect for the Raphaelsons

Fans of American pop culture have long admired two famous Raphaelsons (or Rafelsons), from two generations, who left very different legacies. We’ve had occasion to mention them both several times, so inevitably, we feature their lives here in more detail.

The saga begins with Samson Raphaelson (1894-1983), whose short story “A Day of Atonement” was published just over a century ago (January, 1922) in Everybody’s Magazine. Never heard of that? You undoubtedly know it better by the title of its stage and screen adaptations: The Jazz Singer. The story was based on the life of Al Jolson, the son of a cantor, who’d been trained to sing for religious purposes but decided to embrace mainstream American culture by going into show business, rather than sticking with ancient tradition. It was meant to be about the dilemma of the immigrant experience in 20th Century America, in particular that of his own people, Eastern European Jews, who’d arrived in the U.S. by the millions by the time of his writing. Unfortunately, at the time he was writing, mainstream American pop culture meant blackface minstrelsy, something which in his time was taken for granted. He didn’t own it, he didn’t make it, he inherited it. It was the aquarium in which everyone swam at the time. Ironically, the very success and historical significance of the property meant that The Jazz Singer would be one of the few plays or films of its time to survive in popular memory, and as a consequence it’s become a kind of cultural scapegoat for a practice that was near universal at the time. Today, most discussion of The Jazz Singer tends to be about that aspect, which most people regarded as almost incidental at the time, rather than the conversation Raphaelson was trying to have. (To be clear: I am favor of critical discussion of blackface and stereotype. The error I’m talking about is singling out and isolating The Jazz Singer, which was only one of a thousand such platforms for that racist practice, and should be treated as such, not just in justice to Raphaelson, but for adequate perspective on the scale of the situation, which was vastly more pervasive than many people seem to think).

At any rate, in 1925 The Jazz Singer was a hit on Broadway starring George Jessel. Jolson was approached, but passed on the part for the stage production. When Warner Brothers adapted it for the screen, Jessel was initially to star, but his asking price proved too great, so Jolson was finally able to jump into the role, no doubt lured by the fact that it would be one of the first films to feature SOUND. Contrary to the way it is commonly described, the film is neither the first talkie, nor even a complete talkie anyway (as was common during the transitional period, it’s part silent and part sync-sound).

Raphaelson’s second Broadway play Young Love (1928) starring Dorothy Gish, came and went, but then he struck it big again, by becoming a successful Hollywood screenwriter. But not on the path one might assume. That is to say, he didn’t go on to write Jolson’s subsequent movie vehicles in the late ’20s and early ’30s, a telling detail, I think. His primary association was with the great comedy director Ernst Lubitsch, for which he wrote or co-wrote or adapted the screenplays for the classics The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Broken Lullaby (1932), One Hour with You (1932), Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Merry Widow (1934, produced but not directed by Lubitsch), Angel (1937), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and That Lady in Ermine (1948).

In 1934 Raphaelson returned to Broadway, and for the next 20 years he would bounce back and forth between the theatre and Hollywood. His subsequent plays The Wooden Slippers (1934), Accent on Youth (1934), White Man (1936), Skylark (1939), Jason (1942), The Perfect Marriage (1944), and Hilda Crane (1950) mostly did respectable business during their original runs, and almost all of them were later adapted into films and live television productions.

Raphaelson also co-wrote Suspicion (1941) for Alfred Hitchcock, and the Freed Unit musicals The Harvey Girls (1946), Ziegfeld Girl (1946) and In The Good Old Summertime (1949, based of course on The Shop Around the Corner), as well as the pre-code classic Servants Entrance (1934), The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937), Green Dolphin Street (1947), and Main Street to Broadway (1953), among others.

A grad of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Raphaelson had worked as a journalist and an ad man before becoming a professional writer in the ’20s. At college, he met his first wife Rayna Simons, to whom he was married from 1918 to 1922. The pair lived in Berkeley during their marriage. The left-leaning Ranyna was to leave him for Hearst reporter William Prohme. The Prohmes lived in China for several years, covering the unrest there, and getting drawn more deeply in the Communist movement. Rayna died of encephalitis in Moscow in 1927. (How weird — I was only just reading about this condition yesterday, as a result of Liza Minnelli’s appearance at the Oscars this past weekend.) Rayna Prohme is immortalized in the books From Union Square to Rome by Dorothy Day, Personal History by Vincent Sheean, and Red Year by Jan Shapin.

Raphaelson then married Broadway chorus girl Dorothy Wegman (1904-2005), a veteran of the Jolson shows Bombo (1921) and Big Boy (1925), as well as Topics of 1923, Ziegfeld’s American Revue a.k.a. No Foolin’ (1926) and Rio Rita (1927) with Wheeler and Woolsey, also produced by Ziegfeld. Did you do the math on her life span? Nothing wrong with your eyes or my typing fingers. She lived to be 101, making her the second-longest-lived Ziegfeld Girl, after Doris Eaton. Wegman also wrote a novel based on her experiences working for Ziegfeld, called Glorified (1930) — as in, “what is done by Ziegfeld to the American Girl”.

We’ve already mentioned that Raphaelson has been an ad man before his writing career. After his time as a playwright and screenwriter, his main focus was photography. In addition to engaging in the art himself, he wrote several articles on the topic. We mention these pursuits because both of them were carried on by his literal progeny. His son Joel Raphaelson (1928-2021) was a major mucky-muck at Ogilvy & Mather, based out of Chicago. Joel’s son Paul Raphaelson (b. 1968) is a highly respected art photographer especially known for his urban and industrial subjects, and with whom I share much in common: longtime connections with Providence and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and…respect for his grandfather. Hi, Paul!

But of course, there is another very well known Raphaelson, and we won’t overlook him.

The “New Hollywood” writer/producer/director Bob Rafelson (1933-22) was Samson’s first cousin, once removed (not his nephew, as is sometimes given out. And, yes, the spelling is different; what do you want, a medal?) With partner Bert Schneider, Rafelson formed Raybert Productions, which enriched the lives of millions by conceiving and producing the hit sit-com The Monkees (1966-68), as well as the Pre-Fab Four’s gonzo psychedelic movie Head (1968). The Monkees (both the show and the group) is one of my favorite cultural products on earth; I’m fairly in awe of the mind that would conceive it. In the context of this post, I have a further thought. There is something kind of “Jazz Singer” about the generational divide between Tin Pan Alley era Samson and rock and roll era Bob. That’d be my hook for the bio-pic! I share it now so y’all can’t steal it!

Anyway, one of Rafelson’s top collaborators on Head was Jack Nicholson, whom at the time was mostly associated with low-budget AIP films. After Easy Rider, which Rafelson helped produce, became a hit in 1969, Rafelson went on to write, direct and produce the Nicholson vehicles Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), and to produce and direct the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981). He also produced Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), and wrote, produced and directed Stay Hungry (1976) starring Jeff Bridges.

Throughout most of the ’70s Rafelson was considered one of the major players in New Hollywood. That all seemed to change when he was fired after a few days shooting of the Robert Redford picture Brubaker (1980) over issues of artistic control, amid accusations of erratic behavior. The critical failure in America of The Postman Always Rings Twice seems to have fed his further alienation from the center of power. No longer a producer, he directed several more films, interestingly, many of them in the same neo-noir, crime thriller vein as Postman. There were two more with Nicholson, Man Trouble (1992) and Blood and Wine (1996), in addition to Black Widow (1987), Mountains on the Moon (1990), Poodle Springs (1998), and No Good Deed (2002). He also contributed a short to the anthology film Tales of Erotica a.k.a Wet (1996, with Melvin Van Peebles, Susan Seidelmen, and Ken Russell), and directed an episode of the 1995 Showtime TV series Picture Windows. Rafelson passed away in July, 2022.

Rafelson’s wife, Toby Carr Rafaelson was art director and/or production designer on some of his early films, as well as such things as Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More (1974), Nicholson’s Goin’ South (1978), Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard (1980), Tony Richardson’s The Border (1982, also with Nicholson), and Under Fire (1983).

Bob’s son Pete Rafelson is a songwriter, best known for “Open Your Heart” with Madonna. So you see it is true: All Roads Lead to Tin Pan Alley.

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For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; For more on classic comedy and early film history, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube