The Jazz Singer – 1927

This movie is where Cheap Trick got their style, Elvis got his moves, and it has some of the best acting I’ve yet seen in a silent film.  Its also got some weird remnants of southern plantation culture.   Movies, like people, sometimes do dumb stuff while they’re growing up.

The Jazz Singer was one of three films nominated for “Engineering Effects” at the first academy awards presentation.  It lost.  The academy did recognize the importance of sound in the future of movies so they made a special award to Warner Brothers as the studio that took a risk on a new and unproven technology.

This film is often billed as the “first talkie”.  This is wrong.  Its really a silent movie with several interludes of synchronized sound.  Very little dialogue is audible.  Virtually all dialogue is handled by intertitles as with any silent movie.  The only part that is a “talkie” is when Al Jolson is singing.  Maybe it should be billed as the world’s first “singie”.  Second, there were several earlier short films that had synchronized sound.  This is, however, the first feature-length film released by a major U.S. studio to feature synchronized sound.  Whatever.  It was a big deal when it was released and it remains an entertaining window into some interesting history and timeless themes.

The opening of the film is a slice of everyday life in New York in the early 1900’s.  It soon becomes clear that this is a film about teenage rebellion and the clash of tradition with newer values of youth culture.  Wait.  The 1920’s?  And how!

We first learn that our hero, Jakie Rabinowitz, has been singing “raggy time” songs in a local saloon at the tender age of 13.  Jakie’s father is the cantor of a New York Synagogue so dad has to go down and make a scene.  When we get a close look at young Jakie, (played by Bobby Gordon who later in life directed the Dobie Gillis TV sitcom) we see that he is destined to become a style god of  the early 1980’s.

Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick tries to sport the young Jakie Rabinowitz look.

I was curious about the slogans on young Jakie’s buttons.  I tried in vain to zoom and enhance the image to make them readable.  I also searched in movie trivia sites to no avail.  Anyone with any ideas about what might be on Jakie’s buttons, please leave a comment.  Young Jakie packs up his buttons and leaves for good after receiving a whooping from Papa, despite protests from his loving Mama.

We next see Jakie several years later, played by Al Jolson.  He is clearly the most interesting guy in the room as you would expect from a man who was  known as The World’s Greatest Entertainer.  The first thing I noticed about Mr. Jolson as he took the stage was his charisma and how he seemed to be a slightly more restrained version of rock and roll singers who would come much later.  This guy really was an archetype.  (Note: after writing this I learned that Elvis Presley once named Al Jolson as an inspiration – not surprising)

Al Jolson does pelvic thrusts 8 years before the birth of The King.

Al Jolson does pelvic thrusts 8 years before the birth of The King. “Who’s your daddy?!?!”

After this performance, Jakie meets a pretty dancer named Mary Dale (played by May McAvoy) who offers to help him in his career.  He is soon in a traveling vaudeville show, honing his chops.  One day, he receives a telegram asking him to come to New York City to star in a production on Broadway.  Oh Boy!  It’s the bright lights, the big city, and MOTHER!  One of the things I really enjoyed about this movie is the acting showed a step forward from all other silent films I’ve seen so far.  There is still a fair amount of melodrama and playing to the rafters but there are also several excellent example of subtle looks and expressions as in the scene shown below.

This excellent interplay between an elder from Jakie's synagogue and a jazz baby is universal.

This little interplay between an elder from Jakie’s synagogue and a hipster jazz-baby silently speaks volumes.

When Jakie returns to New York, he learns that his father is in poor health but has not forgiven him for turning his back on his faith and becoming a jazz singer.  The plot thickens when we learn that his father the Cantor will not be able to sing the holy songs for Yom Kippur because of his deteriorating health.  Jakie is begged to sing at the Synagogue despite the fact that the opening night of his show is on the same evening.  This is Jakie’s big dilemma.  As viewers from the future, our dilemma is how to react to a white performer playing in blackface.

"Mammy!  Mammy!  The sun shines east, the sun shines west, but I know where the sun shines best!"

“Mammy! Mammy! The sun shines east, the sun shines west, but I know where the sun shines best!”

Personally, my first reaction was like smelling something rotten.  Even though I knew that Jolson performed in blackface and had seen him in other films on TV as a little kid, it was still shocking to see it in 2014.  Soon I saw a performer working in a tradition not of his making and giving his audience what they wanted.  Should Al Jolson in 1927 be held to the same standards of racial sensitivity as Ted Danson in 1993?  My second reaction was something more thoughtful.  I know that the black-face minstrel tradition dates back before the civil-war, has appalling racist origins, but was in wide (white) acceptance (read demand) at the time of this film.  If you are unaware of the complex history of this tradition, there are several good summaries online here, here, and here.  Tellingly, the New York Times review of the film from October 7, 1927 by Mordaunt Hall mentions being impressed with the dexterity of Jolson’s application of the blackface makeup.  There is no mention of any racial issue.

How will we feel about movies depicting space aliens as mindless destructive monsters after we establish good relationships with beings from other worlds?

What do you see when Jackie looks in the mirror?

What do you see when Jackie looks in the mirror?

Rather than spoil the movie’s resolution,  I’ll invite you to take a look at this excellent film. It runs about 90 minutes and the pacing is good for a silent film.  The version I saw was disc 1 of a 3-disc eightieth-anniversary special edition set that is available from Netflix.  The disc also has a cartoon parody of the film, some additional performance footage of Jolson in blackface, several semi-related short films, and a commentary track by Ron Hutchinson film historian and co-founder of the vita-phone project and  Vince Giordano musician specializing in music from the 1920’s.

You will enjoy this movie if you have any curiosity or interest in the music, culture, or history of the roaring 20’s jazz age.

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3 Responses to “The Jazz Singer – 1927”

  1. Thanks. Very informative. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

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  1. Wings – 1927 | A spaceship, a dinosaur, or a guy with a sword - June 11, 2014

    […] the Oscar for engineering effects at the first academy awards ceremony in 1929 beating out “The Jazz Singer” and “The Private Life of Helen of Troy“.  It also won the academy award for […]

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