The Jazz Singer - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1927

Director: Alan Crosland

Production: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.; black and white, 35mm, silent with synchronized musical numbers; running time: 89 minutes. Released October 1927, New York. Filmed June through August 1927 in Warner Bros. studios, and on location in Hollywood, and the Lower East Side and in front of Shuberts' Winter Garden theater in New York City. Cost: $500,000.

Scenario: Alfred A. Cohn, from the story and play The Day of Atonement by Samson Raphaelson; titles: Jack Jarmuth; photography: Hal Mohr; editor: Harold McCord; sound: George R. Groves; music score and direction: Louis Silvers.

Cast: Al Jolson ( Jakie Rabinowitz, later Jack Robin ); Warner Oland ( Cantor Rabinowitz ); Eugenie Besserer ( Sara Rabinowitz ); Otto Lederer ( Moisha Yudelson ); Bobby Gordon ( Jakie, age 13 ); Richard Tucker ( Harry Lee ); May McAvoy ( Mary Dale ); Nat Carr ( Levi ); William Demarest ( Buster Billings ); Anders Randolf ( Dillings ); Will Walling ( Doctor ); Roscoe Karns ( Agent ); Myrna Loy, Audrey Ferris ( Chorus girls ); Cantor Josef Rosenblatt ( Himself, in concert number ); Jane Arden, Violet Bird, Ernest Clauson, Marie Stapleton, Edna Gregory, and Margaret Oliver ( Extras in Coffee Dan's sequence ).

Award: Special Oscar to Warner Bros. for producing The Jazz Singer "which revolutionized the industry," 1927–28.



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"Flicker Veteran," in Cue (New York), 20 July 1935.

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As it is generally stated, The Jazz Singer 's place in film history as the first talkie is an erroneous one. It was not the first sound picture— sound films are as old as the cinema itself—and it was not the first Vitaphone feature—that was Don Juan —nor was it the first alltalking Vitaphone feature—that was The Lights of New York. The Jazz Singer is important because it was the first film with sound to catch the imagination of an audience. As one contemporary critic, Welford Beaton, wrote, " The Jazz Singer definitely establishes the fact that talking pictures are imminent."

Unlike the sound films that had preceded it, The Jazz Singer boasted all the right components in the right mixture. It had a sentimental—silly, even by the standards of the day—story involving mother love, honor and a young man's striving for success. The film featured such songs as "Toot, Toot, Tootsie," "Mother o' Mine," "Mammy," and "Blue Skies," which were to become lasting successes. (Irving Berlin had written "Blue Skies" a year earlier, but it became a standard after it was featured in The Jazz Singer .) Above all, The Jazz Singer starred Al Jolson, a legendary performer, on stage from the early years of the century, whose presence somehow lent validity to the production and gave it something special. Robert Benchley, writing in the old humor magazine Life , jokingly summed up the power of Jolson's performance: "When Jolson enters, it is as if an electric current had been run along the wires under the seats where the hats are stuck. The house came to tumultuous attention. He speaks, rolls his eyes, compresses his lips, and it is all over. He trembles his lip, and your hearts break with a loud snap. He sings, and you totter out to send a night letter to your mother." And as if Jolson's presence was not enough, Warner Bros. wisely cast a major silent screen actress, Mae McAvoy, to play opposite him.

Supposedly based on Al Jolson's own life, The Jazz Singer first saw life as a magazine story, "The Day of Atonement," by Samson Raphaelson. Raphaelson—who was to become a prominent screen writer in the 1930s—adapted his story into a stageplay, which became a major success for its star George Jessel (who was initially cast in the film version, but backed out at the last minute apparently in a dispute over money). The story of The Jazz Singer concerns Jakie Rabinowitz who yearns to sing popular songs, but whose father, a cantor, wishes him to follow in his footsteps. Jakie leaves home, changes his name to Jack Robin (selecting a Gentile name in rejection not only of his father but also of his Jewish faith), and goes on the stage. As he is about to get his big break, opening as the star of a Broadway musical, Jakie learns that his father has been taken seriously ill. Realizing his true feelings and his place in his Jewish family, serious Jakie sings the "Kol Nidre" that night, delaying the opening of his show. The musical eventually opens, starring Jakie and his Gentile girlfriend, Mary Dale, and that night Jakie's mother realizes, "He is not my boy any more. He belongs to the world."

The plot is ludicrous, and was treated as such even by contemporary critics, many of whom complained that the story was "too Jewish." (Of course, it is worth noting that despite the awfulness of the story, The Jazz Singer has been twice remade.) What is exciting about the film is its use of sound—not only the interpolated dialogue and songs, but also the musical score and sound effects arranged by Louis Silvers (who skillfully blends elements of popular music with elements of serious music by Tchaikovsky, Debussy and others).

Jolson's first spoken words—"Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing yet. Wait a minute, I tell you. You ain't heard nothing yet. Do you want to hear 'Toot, Toot, Tootsie?"'—are electrifying in their intensity even today, some 60 or more years since they were first uttered. It is as if the viewer were participating in a very personal way, in a moment of historic significance. Similarly, there is something embarrassingly private about Jolson's remarks to his mother as he sits at the piano and sings "Blue Skies" to her. Jolson's apparently improvised ramblings are perhaps a little too real and, therefore, almost a little too artificial and stilted. The impact of this last dialogue sequence is further emphasized by its abrupt ending as Warner Oland (in the role of Cantor Rabinowitz) enters the scene. He looks at his wife and son, and through a title, shouts "Stop." The dialogue, the human voice, is stilled, and The Jazz Singer once again becomes a silent film with musical accompaniment.

Alan Crosland brings almost a documentary quality to many of the scenes, particularly the opening sequences in which Jakie, as a child, sings at a local saloon. (It is the voice of Jakie as a child, played by Bobby Gordon, that is the voice first heard in the film.) The director is obviously a highly competent technician, and gets the best from his players, even such notorious purveyors of melodrama as Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer.

The critics admired the film, but loved Al Jolson. One commented that "He is as solitary upon the heights of an art he has made peculiarly his own as Chaplin is upon his." Indeed, with The Jazz Singer Jolson heralded a new era which was to bring about the ultimate decline of Chaplin and his contemporaries, destroying one art form and creating another. Perhaps the one irony is that despite its place in the history of the sound film, the sound system utilized for The Jazz Singer —Vitaphone—was not the system that ultimately became standard in the industry. Vitaphone utilized sound on disc, and the future of the industry lay with sound on film.

—Anthony Slide

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