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The Jazz Singer (1927)

06 Jun

The_Jazz_Singer_1927_PosterThe Jazz Singer is one of those films I’ve intended to see a for a while, mostly for historical reasons, because I’d read that it wasn’t actually very good. Now that I’ve finally seen it, on the whole I agree. The movie is probably 70 or 80% silent, with some singing interludes and two scenes of brief dialogue. As a pure silent movie, it wouldn’t have been remembered at all. Not that the singing and talking makes it a better movie, but it does make it a more interesting one.

Jakie Rabinowitz (Bobby Gordon) has been trained by his father, Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland), to be a cantor like him at their local synagogue in a New York ghetto. But when Jakie is caught singing in a saloon, he beats him and Jakie runs away from home, saddening his mother’s heart (Eugenie Besserer).

Jakie grows up to become Jack Robin (now Al Jolson), a jazz singer struggling to make it big. He has a non-Jewish girlfriend, Mary Dale (May McAvoy), who does a novelty ballet act and he seems poised for success when he returns to New York and visits his mother and father. His mother is delighted, but his father still cannot forgive him. However, when Cantor Rabinowitz falls ill, his wish is that his son will sing in his place on the Day of Atonement, which happens to fall on the same day that Jakie is making his Broadway debut. There is about a half-hour of hand wringing until he makes his decision, feeling torn by conflicting identities as a Jewish man with a tradition and a history and as an ambitious, modern singer.

It’s pure melodrama, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, except it strings us out too long at the end and the acting is on the whole pretty hammy, especially Jolson. The Jazz Singer was not his first film. He tried to make silent movies before without success and he also appeared in a short talkie film in 1926 called “A Plantation Act” where he sings several of his famous songs in his trademark blackface. It was one of many short talkies that were released by Warner Bros., using the Vitaphone system where sound was recorded on a record and played simultaneously with the film (if the needle didn’t skip or some other catastrophe occur to mess up the synchronization a la Singin’ In the Rain). Originally, Warner Bros. was planning to use the system for sound effects and musical accompaniment, but decided to risk an actual talkie feature.

Warner Oland shows Al Jolson the door while Eugenue

Warner Oland shows Al Jolson the door while Eugenie Besserer watches sadly

The Jazz Singer is actually not even the first talkie film. There had been different talkies made throughout the years, but never with any success. The sound was poor, the synchronization was poor and audiences never liked it. But The Jazz Singer was a hit and everyone knew that it had changed everything as studios rushed to make their own talkie features.

It actually took until Warner Bros.’ third talkie feature to make a film that was 100% sound. The Jazz Singer is still mostly silent, which ends up being distracting now, though it electrified audiences at the time. The transition between silent to song to talking works seamlessly, but as soon as Jolson speaks after the song, the silent spell is broken. It is a jolt when the film immediately returns to silent mode. This happens twice, with two scenes where Jolson speaks – though there are songs sprinkled throughout the entire movie, both contemporary songs and traditional Jewish songs.

He speaks his famous line, “wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” and later exchanges a bit of dialogue with his mother while playing the piano and singing for her. Most of this dialogue was supposedly ad-libbed and it is when Jolson seems most natural (relatively speaking). At least it sounds better than some of the stiff, stilted way people spoke in many early sound films. However, Jolson is still over the top, which he evidently learned to control by the time he made Hallelujah, I’m a Bum. He rolls his eyes and widens his eyes and cries when he sings “Mammy.” His style of singing turns songs like “Mammy” into mini melodramas. Was this his standard performance style during vaudeville?

Al Jolson was perhaps the biggest star of the early 1900s and I remember being taken aback the first time I saw him in a film (The Rose of Washington Square). Supposedly seeing him live was unlike anything, his charisma and energy. On film, he looks like too much, like he’s going to burst out of the film. There’s also the barrier of blackface. He uses blackface in a very deliberate way in The Jazz Singer. The point of the film seems to be that as a jazz singer, he is still “singing to his God,” but he has to remain Jewish and not lose touch with that side of him. The blackface represents the modern jazz singer. The film actually builds to the moment we see, and then hear him sing, in blackface. Oddly, it’s almost presented as a liberating moment when he has become most fully himself.

al-jolson-in-the-jazz-singer-(1927)-large-pictureI find the popularity of Al Jolson a fascinating subject. He has a weird kind of magnetic energy and charisma. His style is hammy (or melodramatic?), but his songs have a way of lodging themselves in my head (even the way he sings them). He puts me off and yet he still produces this odd little emotional thrill. It’s unique. I can’t help but wish I could have seen him live, simply to gage how much my reaction is because of the passage of time and how much is lost on screen.

My great-grandfather saw Al Jolson on vaudeville and absolutely loved it when sound came in. He never talked much about the silents with my grandmother. I think it’s because he loved music and what he called “singin’ and dancin’ films.” Silent movies had nearly every genre, but the one thing they couldn’t provide was singing. The Jazz Singer not only talked, but it sang and I think that is what really made the film so electric at the time. People who had never seen Jolson suddenly could. And they could hear him sing.

Random note: there is a brief Myrna Loy sighting in the film. She plays a chorus girl and gets one piece of dialogue (via intertitles). Supposedly, William Demarest is also in a bit role, but I did not find him.

“Toot, toot, tootsie!” – We get the first bit of spoken dialogue in the film, but when the song is done, everything goes back to silent.

The second instance where Jolson exchanges some dialogue with his mother, but as soon as his father comes back, we are once again back to silent. Symbolic, perhaps?

Al Jolson demonstrating how to sing a mini melodrama.

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23 Comments

Posted by on June 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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23 responses to “The Jazz Singer (1927)

  1. Grand Old Movies

    June 6, 2016 at 11:45 am

    I’ve had the same reaction to seeing Al Jolson on film: he’s WAY too intense and attention-hogging, but he mesmerizes. (There are stories about him appearing in musical plays, in which he’d come out on stage, summarize the plot, and then offer just to sing for audiences, who always greeted his suggestion enthusiastically; though I imagine Jolson’s fellow actors, deprived of performing, felt differently.) I have the same reaction when I see Eddie Cantor on film: he’s unsubtle and hammy, underlining every joke with an eye roll (and he also uses blackface frequently, which, as the phrase goes, is ‘problematic’). I can only surmise that audiences who attended vaudeville in the early 20th century, mostly immigrant and working-class, responded to this energy and unashamed emotionality in a way to which people today cannot connect.The Jazz Singer remains, above all else, a fascinating artifact of Jolson’s performing style: no matter what you think of him, he brings a real jolt of showmanship whenever he sings and you can hear him.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      June 6, 2016 at 12:09 pm

      Yes, I know what you mean about the jolt of showmanship. His songs are definitely the most interesting part of the film and I’m glad we have the record of his work. What an incredible ego he must have had to stop the show like that and simply sing! Those poor fellow performers! But I can see how people who only came to the show to hear him sing might be glad get the opportunity to hear him sing even more. Sometimes I even feel that way about musicals, wishing there were more songs and less plot.

      I have not see Eddie Cantor yet, though he’s on my list of performers (along with W.C. Fields) who I would like to see more of to get a sense of their work.

      I wonder if we are slightly embarrassed by emotion now and are unwilling to let ourselves go as much. Or else they were getting something akin to what people get when they attend rock concerts now, with incredible personal charisma and individual energy taking the place of the rock music?

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      • Eric Binford

        June 6, 2016 at 2:17 pm

        I’m a huge fan of W.C. Fields. I recommend his movies. I find Cantor a bit dated.

        Liked by 1 person

         
  2. B Noir Detour

    June 6, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    My father loved Jolson, my mother hated him. He was the Sinatra of his day, though his charisma does not hold up well today. The Jazz Singer to me is most important as one of the last ethnic films before the 30s brought WASP dominance to Hollywood imagery, produced by Jewish Americans craving assimilation. The blackface symbolizes Jewish desire to be more American in its strange, racist way.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      June 6, 2016 at 2:42 pm

      It’s interesting you mention that it’s one of the last ethnic films. It does stand out as being one of the few movies I’ve seen from the time that deals with a reconciliation between traditional Jewish heritage and wanting to be “modern.” My brother was most interested in that side of the story when he watched it and thought the time spent in the synagogue and the traditional songs made the film feel rather unique. You’re right, it’s not something we’re used to seeing later.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • B Noir Detour

        June 6, 2016 at 3:29 pm

        Ethnic Jewish images don’t really come back until the late 60s with Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand, who make it cool to be Jewish again. Ditto Italians via Godfather.

        Liked by 1 person

         
        • christinawehner

          June 6, 2016 at 5:26 pm

          You know, I haven’t seen any Woody Allen yet, incredibly enough. I was thinking of starting with Annie Hall or the Purple Rose of Cairo.

          Liked by 1 person

           
          • B Noir Detour

            June 6, 2016 at 5:27 pm

            Go with Purple Rose then Broadway Danny Rose to get his whimsy and his mania.

            Liked by 1 person

             
            • christinawehner

              June 6, 2016 at 5:41 pm

              I’ll have to see those, then – thanks so much!

              Liked by 1 person

               
              • B Noir Detour

                June 6, 2016 at 5:42 pm

                My mom says go with Sleeper, an early whacky sci fi romance of much goofiness. Personally, I love his fake documentary Zelig. And Annie Hall is delightful. So hard to decide!

                Liked by 1 person

                 
                • christinawehner

                  June 6, 2016 at 10:03 pm

                  “Wacky sci fi romance of much goofiness” sounds delightful! Though they all do. I might have to try them all…maybe starting with Sleeper and Purple Rose and moving on (just checked and my library didn’t have Zelig :().

                  Liked by 1 person

                   
                  • B Noir Detour

                    June 7, 2016 at 11:53 am

                    Both Zelig and Sweet and Low Down are mock documentaries and I love them. But less easy to find than his many comedies. Midnight in Paris is a recent great one.

                    Liked by 1 person

                     
  3. Eric Binford

    June 6, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    Not a big fan of the film. It’s an important film, though. I real curiosity. I do love The Jolson Story & Jolson Sings Again. Anyhow, it is much better than the 1952 remake, starring Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee. I do have a soft spot for the 1980 remake, starring Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier (I like Diamond).

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      June 6, 2016 at 2:49 pm

      Wow, I had no idea it was remade so often! It is a real unique film: it doesn’t quite feel like anything I’ve ever seen before. I’m glad I saw it, but it’s hard to imagine watching it again for fun.

      The Jolson Story is high on my list of movies to see. It’s rather intriguing that Jolson provides his own vocals, even though someone else plays him. Seems like a good way to go.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Eric Binford

        June 6, 2016 at 3:05 pm

        I really want to know what you think of Larry Parks imitating Jolson. I thought he did a great job. Neil Diamond received harsh criticism, but I enjoyed the movie. Ok so I’m biased, but I love his music.

        Liked by 1 person

         
        • christinawehner

          June 6, 2016 at 5:35 pm

          You make me very curious to see the Diamond remake! My mom was actually a Neil Diamond fan, so I grew up listening to him as a child and am favorably disposed to enjoy him. 🙂

          I’m hoping to get a chance to see The Jolson Story soon. I’m actually quite excited about that one!

          Liked by 1 person

           
  4. FictionFan

    June 6, 2016 at 5:09 pm

    I liked the Neil Diamond version too – he’s a great singer even if the film wasn’t totally wonderful. But the bit where his dad, Laurence Olivier, rips his clothes and disowns him is fab! Jolson’s voice kinda works for me, but his face doesn’t…

    Liked by 2 people

     
    • christinawehner

      June 6, 2016 at 5:40 pm

      With so many positive review of the Diamond version, I’m definitely going to have to check that one out. And Olivier is always a treat to see.

      Did you see The Story of Al Jolson…where they use his voice, but have another actor play him? I think I know what you mean about his face; some of his expressions can be rather alarming….though he seemed to calm down in later films like Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.

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      • FictionFan

        June 6, 2016 at 5:47 pm

        Ah, now, perhaps I have, because I was surprised when I watched the clips you gave that he didn’t look at all like I thought. So maybe I’m confusing him with the guy in The Story… was Mammy in it too? I have a kind of visual memory of Mammy that sounded like this one but didn’t look like it.

        Liked by 1 person

         
        • christinawehner

          June 6, 2016 at 10:08 pm

          I believe Mammy is in it (based on the trailer), though I haven’t seen Story yet. I think Story might be in color, too. I’m actually very curious to see it, though. Having Jolson provide is own voice while using a different actor seems like a very interesting way to go.

          Liked by 1 person

           
  5. roberthorvat

    June 14, 2016 at 2:58 am

    When The Jazz Singer was released in theatres in 1927, the whole of the motion picture industry was turned on its head. Sits proudly in my classic movie collection Christina.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      June 14, 2016 at 9:04 am

      It is quite the extraordinary movie! It’s prompted a huge interest in that time when movies switched over from silent to talkie. I don’t think I ever properly appreciated before what a huge change that was!

      Liked by 1 person

       

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