Tag Archives: Blackface

The Jazz Singer (1927)

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.



Posted by on June 6, 2016 in Movies


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What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing – Brian Seibert

11/15/2015-Cover of the book ìWhat the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancingî written by Brian Seibert. Published by Ferrar, Straus and Giroux. NYTCREDIT: Sonny Figueroa/The New York TimesI have become addicted to watching tap dancing clips on youtube. It’s owing to Brian Seibert’s fascinating book, What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing. What makes it so addictive is that virtually all the tap dancers – not to mention the specific dances – that Seibert writes about can be found on youtube. The other affect the book had on me is to change the way I watch a tap dance. I’m now trying to listen as well as watch.

Seibert writes of how difficult tap dancing is to trace as a developing art form, partly because the early practitioners of tap dance were minstrel performers – white and black men – in blackface and it was their assertion that they were presenting an authentic representation of dancing done by slaves on the plantation, of which we have some written accounts, but not a lot of details. The question Seibert asks is how representational it really was. We don’t know. All history of tap dancing is inescapably mired in racial politics and issues of identity and imitation. Tap dancing both reinforced and sometimes slyly challenged racial attitudes. We do know that tap dancing is a blend of African dancing and Irish clogging, though no one knows exactly how or when the two traditions blended. It could have even been as early as the slave ships, were many of the sailors were Irish who brought black slaves to America and forced them dance on board ship for exercise.

There is so much in the book, it’s almost impossible to summarize. It’s comprehensive and covers history, appreciation, social commentary, mini-biographies. I learned a lot about American minstrel shows, vaudeville, even Hollywood. I learned that most dancers did not dub their own taps. When you watch Gene Kelly dance his iconic “Singin’ in the Rain,” you see him tap, but you are really hearing his dancing assistants. There were people who actually worked at Hollywood dubbing tap (often black dancers without the same opportunities as white dancers).

Bill Robinson doing his famous staircase dance

Bill Robinson doing his famous staircase dance

He talks about how tap is unique in that it is both dancing as a visual art and as an aural one. It is both dance and music and came to be intricately related to jazz, with dancers using their feet like a drum in interaction with the music. It is also an art form of “stolen steps.” Dancers would watch each other dance and try to “steal” a particular step they were doing, often putting a twist on it to make it their own. There was trading steps, too.

He also refers to the wit of someone’s tapping, the musical intelligence, skill, musicianship and range of their steps and dancing. For example, dancers like Fred Astaire and Bill Robinson had great wit. He’s not as much of a fan of Gene Kelly as a tap dancer, who he considers to have a limited number of steps which he does not use sufficiently creatively.

If you listen, it’s actually true. I still like Gene Kelly (who was more than a tap dancer – Seibert admits he could have been successful in ballet, too), but he’s not as interesting to just “listen” to as other dancers.

But this brings up an interesting aspect of tap dancing. Tap dancers can tend towards either focusing more on their tap, the sound they are making, or more on the visual aspect of dancing. The first is more musically interesting to hear and the second is more visually compelling. This is why Fred Astaire was such a success on film: without sacrificing the tapping element of his dance, he was also wonderful to watch, using all of his body or props as an extension of his body. There is also the tension between emphasizing improvisation versus choreography.

Brian Seibert is extremely thorough, exploring the origins, the era when tap reigned on Broadway and Hollywood, it’s relative demise in the late ’50s, it’s revival in the ’70s – largely brought about by persistent women who coaxed many dancers to pass on their wisdom. These women – Brenda Bufalino, Jane Goldberg – are largely overlooks now, though through their efforts, many men – masters at their art – who had never been hugely famous before were now celebrated and  were able to pass their tradition on, with dancers like Gregory Hines making tap more popular in the 1980s and his chosen successor, Savion Glover, still going strong today.

Star HooferThe entire book was interesting, but because of my interest in classic movies I couldn’t help but be most fascinated by his section on tap dancing in Hollywood. One of the great thing about the book is that I learned about the people who you see in movies, but never really know. For example, I knew the Nicholas Brothers. They show up in movies, danced amazingly, did incredible splits, but now I know who each brother is, Fayard and Harold, and can appreciate them as individuals. It really makes all the tap dancing teams come alive as real people.

Here is a sample of some of the dancers through history.

Peg Leg Bates: He lost the bottom half of his leg in a machine accident while working as a child, but this did not prevent him from becoming an accomplished dancer and going to New York City. He never appeared in any movies, but appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show nearly twenty times. Because of his wooden leg, he was able to create a unique sound, contrasting the deeper, stronger resonance of his wooden leg with the lighter sound of his other leg.

Bill Robinson might have been the most famous tap dancer in the 1920s and was certainly the most successful and famous black entertainer of the era. He was known for his staircase dance, which he perfected on vaudeville and taught a version of to Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel. He style was often compared to smooth, running water – he mostly tapped on his toes and not his heel – with a brilliant regularity and symmetry of rhythm.

John Bubbles is one of the great tap dancers, though not as well known since he didn’t appear in many movies (he was the original Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”). He is not the first dancer to use his heel, but he definitely used it more and brought more syncopation to tap dancing. He wasn’t a solo act, though. He was part of the duo, Buck and Bubbles. Ford “Buck” Washington played the piano and he danced and sang and they often did comedy bits together.

The Nicholas Brothers were never given a part in any film, but they appeared in quite a few, enough to make them one of the more famous tap duos in history. Fayard Nicholas was the eldest (he is the taller brother), who taught his brother, more conscious of his arms and elegance and who did more choreography. Harold is the youngest who learned quickly and had a natural charisma that tended to overshadow his brother slightly.

Fred Astaire, of course. This is a great example of how he used props and interacted with his surroundings to create a highly visually compelling and original dance, while still tapping great (this is one of the examples Seibert cites).

Gene Kelly from An American in Paris.

Baby Laurence (Laurence Jackson) was almost really a jazz musician and worked as a floor show with some of the great jazz musicians: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, was inspired by Art Tatum, Charlie Parker. We don’t have any video recordings of his younger tapping days, but he did record this album.

Gregory Hines brought tap to a wider audience again in the 1980s and also made  a number of movies, showing he could act even when he wasn’t dancing. For his films he did what he called improvogrphy, a combination of choreography and improvisation. This dance is from White Nights, which he starred in with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

I was not familiar with Savion Glover before reading this book, but he is the most famous tap dancer of our era, a supreme dancer who made tap cool again, though Brian Seibert seems to both admire him and have some reservations about the direction Glover has taken tap dancing…perhaps a little too inward, a little to protective of tap dancing as he sees it and not as inclusive of people who see tap dancing differently. This clip doesn’t appear inward, though I’m not sure how typical an example it is. But he looks like he’s having a ball.



Posted by on January 6, 2016 in Books


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