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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.

 

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936) – Murder, Mystery, Opera and even Racism

charlie_chan_at_the_opera_importThere is something very satisfying about a movie that is 90 minutes or less. The dialogue, the action, everything is economical and has a purpose. It is particularly satisfying when you want something for after dinner or during a work week and time is precious. It has a story to tell, it tells it, and comes to its conclusion.

Charlie Chan at the Opera is slightly more extreme in its brevity. It is only 66 minutes long, but manages to tell a complete story that takes place during one night at the opera.

In the opening credits it reads: “Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff,” so you have a pretty good idea what the highlight of the film is going to be.

It is a dark and stormy night….literally, while inside an asylum, a man (Boris Karloff) cannot remember who he is and nobody seems to know. But he spends his evenings at the piano, singing some very Wagnerian sounding opera. But when a newspaper is brought in with the picture of Lilli Rochelle, who is returning to opera after having been away for seven years, he remembers who he is and busts out of the asylum.

A manhunt is underway. Meanwhile, Lilli Rochelle (Margaret Irving) receives a death threat and goes to the police, who bring in Charlie Chan (Warner Oland). Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest) is not impressed with Chan, but soon discovers that behind Chan’s genial smile and polite manners is a mind as sharp as Sherlock Holmes.

It is thought that the murderer will try to kill her during the opening of the opera and that the mysterious man who escaped from the asylum might be the man who sent the death threat. There are plenty of other suspects, however. Lillie Rochelle has been carrying on a long standing affair with the baritone of the opera, Enrico Borelli (Gregory Gaye). He has a jealous wife, second soprano Anita Borelli (Nedda Harrigan), Lilli has a jealous husband, Mr. Whitely (Frank Conroy) and there is a young couple that wants to see Lilli before she starts her opera.

charlie-chan-a-l-opera_49299_31996

Boris Karloff and Warner Oland

Charlie Chan is assisted in his detection by his Americanized son, Lee Chan (Keye Luke), who sneaks into the opera house dressed as a supernumerary (the guys who hang out in the background of an opera to create a crowd). He is also more dubiously assisted by Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest), who seems easily distracted from the clues that really matter.

Charlie Chan at the Opera is generally considered the best of all the Charlie Chan movies. It is highly informative of attitudes during the 1930s to consider the Charlie Chan movies. Very popular in his day, in the 1980s, many people felt that Charlie Chan was hopelessly stereotypical and called him a “Yellow Uncle Tom” and felt that the character should be laid to rest forever.

There definitely are stereotypes and slurs. In the movie, Inspector Kelly makes several offensive comments, always getting Chan’s name wrong and calling him everything from “Chop Suey” to “Egg Foo Yung.” However, Inspector Kelly is rather a buffoon, so it is not obvious that we are to take him seriously. Oddly, he is playing his racism for laughs.

Regarding the idea that he is an Asian “Uncle Tom” because he is subservient and genial, I see what they are getting at, though it is also a part of his method. He’s pulling one of Hercule Poirot’s favorite tricks, in that by acting “foreign,” people underestimate him; he uses their racism against them.

Warner Oland and Keye Luke

Warner Oland and Keye Luke

Also emblematic of the times is that the Charlie Chan character was almost always played by a Caucasian actor. Warner Oland actually made a career out of it. I’m not sure that he ever played a non-Asian role (except during the silent era), even when he wasn’t playing Charlie Chan. Oland was Swedish and somehow Hollywood felt that made him more qualified to play the part. Hollywood has a curious history of casting Swedes as Asians. In Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen, he cast the Swedish actor Nils Asther, and Myrna Loy, who had Swedish ancestors, frequently played Asians in her early career.

Interestingly, according to Yunte Huang – who has written a book about the character of Charlie Chan and the real man that the author, Earl Derr Biggers, based his character on – Charlie Chan used to be extremely popular among Asians and Asian-Americans. In China, they made many movies with the character and modeled their portrayal of him after Warner Oland’s. Chan was considered at the time to be a refreshing alternative to all the movies involving Asians as evil criminals, like Fu Manchu. Keye Luke later defended the films by arguing that they should be remembered because they still are great mysteries.

Boris Karloff is pretending to sing and  wielding his knife in the fake opera

Boris Karloff is pretending to sing and wielding his knife in the fake opera “Carnival”

One fun part of the movie is, of course, opera. I am an opera fan (though more of an Italian opera fan) and there is something about an opera house that just begs to be used as a setting for mystery and murder (think The Phantom of the Opera). For the opera that Lilli is making her return, Oscar Levant was hired to write a pseudo-opera. Levant is probably best remembered for being in films like An American in Paris and The Bandwagon, where he always plays the piano and indulged in his own unique brand of trenchant wry humor. He was a pianist, composer, actor, writer, wit, hypochondriac and good friend of George Gershwin. The opera he wrote snippets of is called “Carnival” and sounds and looks very Teutonic. Boris Karloff is clearly lip-singing in the film as he plays the role of Mephisto in the opera. He also gets to wear one of the most outlandish headdresses I have ever seen.

All in all, it makes for a fascinating watch. William Demarest does his comedy, Boris Karloff plays insane and Warner Oland solves the murders.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2014 in Detective Movies, Mystery

 

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