#604) The Jazz Singer (1927)

#604) The Jazz Singer (1927)

OR “I Never Sang For My Father”

Directed by Alan Crosland

Written by Alfred A. Cohn and Jack Jarmuth. Based on the play by Samson Raphaelson, as well as his short story “The Day of Atonement”.

Class of 1996

The Plot: Jakie Rabinowitz (Bobby Gordon) grows up performing ragtime at a local beer garden, much to the disgrace of his father Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland). After a falling out, Jakie leaves home, breaking the heart of his mother Sara (Eugenie Besserer). 10 years later, an adult Jakie (Al Jolson) is a jazz singer in California performing under the name “Jack Robin”. With the help of dancer Mary Dale (May McAvoy), Jakie finally gets his big break in show business, performing in a Broadway revue. Upon his return to New York, he reunites with his mother but continues to be a disgrace to his father, who wanted him to carry on the family’s tradition of being a cantor. But all of this family drama takes a back seat to the revolution of synchronized sound!

Why It Matters: The NFR focuses solely on the film’s “landmark technological achievement” as “the first feature film to include sequences with synchronized spoken dialogue”.

But Does It Really?: I only knew two things about “The Jazz Singer” before watching it: It was a game-changer for sound films, and it has a blackface number. The former item solidifies this film’s place in the NFR, while the latter helps you understand why no one talks about this movie at length anymore. For the first three-quarters of the movie, I enjoyed Jolson’s performance and the film’s unapologetic melodrama, but then you get to the goddamn blackface, and a modern viewing is instantly derailed. The Jazz Singer” will always have a place in the annals of film history, but for obvious reasons, it’s remembered more as an antiquated relic than as a piece of entertainment.

Everybody Gets One: The son of a rabbi, Asa Yoelson started his showbiz career singing with his brother Hirsch as “Al & Harry”. By the 1900s, the renamed Al Jolson was a hit on the vaudeville circuit, his career jump-started by his blackface numbers. By the 1910s, Jolson had reached Broadway and was dubbed “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”. His 1916 musical “Robinson Crusoe Jr.” inspired writer Samson Raphaelson to write the story “The Day of Atonement”, about a young jazz singer with parallels to Jolson. The story was eventually adapted to the play “The Jazz Singer”, and the film rights were purchased by Warner Bros. with George Jessel set to reprise his stage performance as Jakie. Once the decision was made to record “The Jazz Singer” with sound, Jessel asked for more money, and the role was handed off to Jolson instead.

Wow, That’s Dated: We all know what I’m gonna talk about here. Keep reading.

Seriously, Oscars?: “The Jazz Singer” was a runaway hit, becoming a contender at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. The film lost its sole nomination (Adapted Screenplay) to “7th Heaven“, but Warner Bros. received one of the first special Oscars for producing “The Jazz Singer”, “the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry.”

Other notes

  • Before we go any further, a quick history of sound on film, and where “The Jazz Singer” fits into this. The idea of synchronizing sound with film was as old as the medium itself (see “The Dickson Experimental Sound Film“), but the soundtrack was always played on a separate device from the film, leading to synch issues. The two major methods created and refined in the ensuing decades were “sound-on-disc”, in which a special phonograph player would automatically sync to the film projector, and “sound-on-film”, in which the image of the sound-wave was reproduced on the actual celluloid. Even with the advancements made by the early ’20s, the major studios failed to see the appeal of sound film other than as a gimmick. Sam Warner of Warner Bros. was able to convince his young studio to experiment with sound in their films after purchasing Vitagraph Studios, creators of Vitaphone, the most efficient of the sound-on-disc systems. After a series of experimental shorts, Warner’s first sound feature was the 1926 swashbuckler “Don Juan”, essentially a silent film with an added-on soundtrack of score and effects. “The Jazz Singer” took things one step further: although most of the film is still presented as a silent film (intertitles and all), the audio for Jolson’s songs was recorded live on set. “The Jazz Singer” was the first feature with synchronized dialogue (albeit only in two unplanned scenes) and – more importantly – was the first sound film to be a hit at the box office. Sound-on-film would eventually surpass sound-on-disc as the winning format, and “The Jazz Singer” had its Vitaphone soundtrack transferred onto the film itself in the 1930s.
  • On the surface, it’s hilarious that a 41-year-old man named Al was the biggest thing in jazz, but watching him in this movie, I get it. By the repressed standards of the early 20th century, Jolson is a rock star; his energetic movement and unconventional singing voice easily captivating his audience. Add to that the amplification of seeing (and hearing) him on a big screen, and it’s pretty easy to understand how “The Jazz Singer” became so popular. Plus, he’s not too shabby an actor, never overplaying the character’s more dramatic moments.
  • Of course, we must also acknowledge the problems of a White man popularizing a music genre created for and by Black artists. It’s a big quagmire, and I leave the more nuanced discussions for someone more cultured than myself. Suffice it to say that I blame this movie for “La La Land”.
  • Although only Jolson’s songs were to be recorded, Jolson ad-libbed some lines in-between his first two numbers. Sam Warner opted to keep these lines in the final cut, inadvertently making film history, with Jolson’s remark “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” becoming the first line of synchronized dialogue in feature film history.
  • This is easily the most Jewish movie to come out of Hollywood in its time, and the last one we’ll get for another 40 plus years. I appreciate the infusion of Yiddish words like “shiksa”, as well as the running gag about everyone getting Jakie’s father a prayer shawl for his birthday. Plus there’s an appearance by Yossele Rosenblatt, widely considered one of the greatest cantors of his day, singing Kaddish.
  • Jolson continues the improvisation during his “Blue Skies” number, in which he sweet talks his loving mother. It starts as cute and then goes on long enough to be weird. Norman Bates wasn’t as close with his mother.
  • There’s plenty of classic music and popular songs interspersed throughout the score, but why are they playing Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” overture during the scene where Jackie fights with his dad? Related note: Is this movie where “I have no son!” comes from?
  • Everything goes smoothly in this film for the first hour or so, but then we get to the blackface number. Actually, the trouble starts before the blackface number. We get an extended dramatic scene in Jakie’s dressing room which takes place while he’s applying the blackface makeup to himself, and it drags on forever. Similar to the “White people stole jazz” discussion, there is a lot more to unpack here than I cover in a movie blog. As a White male I know that I am not directly responsible for the actions of a movie made 60 years before I was born, but I can still use “The Jazz Singer” as a reminder that we can always do better.
  • We get a brief reprieve from the blackface for a dramatic scene at his parents’ house where Jakie must choose between his career and his family. I was genuinely tense waiting for Jakie to make his decision, so this movie must be doing something right.
  • [Spoilers] In the play, Jakie chooses his family, and sings Kol Nidre at the Yom Kippur service in place of his dying father. In the film, he makes the same choice, but then we get a tacked-on ending where he performs another blackface number (“My Mammy”) at the Winter Garden with his mother in the front row. So…there were no consequences for his decision whatsoever? Takes the wind out of this movie’s sail if you ask me.

Legacy

  • “The Jazz Singer” was an instant box-office sensation and, while it didn’t kill silent movies overnight, it did signal that “talkies” were here to stay. Hollywood immediately took notice, reshooting silent films with sound, and adding soundtracks to finished films. Think of “The Jazz Singer” as the first nail in the coffin for the silent era, with the remaining nails following closely behind.
  • Jolson made a series of musicals for Warner Bros. in the ’20s and ’30s, including “The Singing Fool” and “Say It with Songs”, but these revue-style films quickly lost their audience in favor of bigger, grander Depression-era escapism. Jolson remained a popular figure on the stage, on radio, and at USO tours abroad before his death in 1950.
  • “The Jazz Singer” has been remade three times: a 1952 film with Danny Thomas, a 1959 TV movie with Jerry Lewis, and a 1980 film with Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier. The latter was so awful even Olivier got bad reviews!
  • As for references, “The Jazz Singer” still gets mentioned primarily for its place in Hollywood history. Look no further than “Singin’ in the Rain“.
  • One of the more direct parodies comes, as it often does, from classic era “Simpsons”. Jackie Mason voiced Krusty the Clown’s estranged rabbi father, who disapproves of his son’s career in show business. 
  • As for the film’s technological achievements, well..we still have sound in movies, so that’s pretty good.

Further Viewing: The plot of “The Jazz Singer” is tweaked for the 1936 Merrie Melodies cartoon “I Love to Singa”, with a swinging Owl Jolson and his disapproving father. I recall it being on Cartoon Network a lot when I was a kid.

Listen To This: Al Jolson makes the National Recording Registry with his 1920 rendition of “Swanee”, a song that remained synonymous with Jolson for his entire career. The NRR website offers this recording, as well as an essay by Cary O’Dell.

11 thoughts on “#604) The Jazz Singer (1927)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: