Genre: Drama and Musical Running Time: 1 hr. 28 min.
Release Date: October 6th, 1927 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Alan Crosland Actors: Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland, Eugenie Besserer, Otto Lederer, Robert Gordon, Richard Tucker
photo-dramatic production (a term relegated to the earliest of motion pictures), “The Jazz Singer” begins with an overture, brimming with strikingly somber yet moving music. The slower, solemn bellows of hymns and prayers won’t be the focus of this groundbreaking film, however. In the first of many amusing moments, upbeat, lively, “raggy time” songs are belted, here from the stage of a saloon.
This is much to the chagrin of Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) of the New York Ghetto, who has specific expectations for his young son, Jakie. For five generations, the Rabinowitz men have been cantors, and Jakie is obliged do the same; he mustn’t misuse the voice God gave him with such offensive things as jazz. But instead of preparing to recite Kol Nidre at the synagogue that evening, Jakie is raucously singing and dancing at the saloon, which catches the attention of influential – and highly orthodox – community leader Moisha Yudleson (Otto Lederer), who swiftly tattles. This leads to yet another whipping of the poor child, who finally has enough and runs away (causing the cantor to disown his only son).
“In every living soul a spirit cries for expression …” As was understood by his mother (Eugenie Besserer), Jakie knew all the hymns and prayers in his mind, but they didn’t resonate in his heart. And so, years later, he becomes Jack Robin (Al Jolson) – a jazz singer in Chicago. Nationwide touring and fame aren’t too far behind, what with his vocal talents – and neither is cute admirer and fellow performer Mary Dale (May McAvoy), who provides him with a shot at stardom.
Twenty minutes in, the immortal phrase “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” is exclaimed, along with a small string of utterances that practically trail off unintelligibly before the next song begins. But this was enough for audiences in 1927 – words were finally spoken onscreen. It wasn’t actually the first film to have audible talking, but it was by far the most impactful (credited as the first feature-length film with a synchronized music score [with lip-synched speeches]). And with this technical marvel came the fame and recognition that would cement “The Jazz Singer” in the annals of cinema. It’s not a great work of art, but its historical significance can’t be ignored, particularly as its contemporary critical and financial successes ushered in an end to the silent era.
Mere moments into the first song, “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face,” a few segments of the verses are spoken rather than sung – so it’s not too much of a stretch for Jolson to speak lines of dialogue here and there as well (at one point, he even has a conversation with Besserer, though it’s contained within a piano bit via an extended pause). But it’s still a shock to hear such resounding words, especially when the scene was introduced with intertitles. And having the phrases line up with the movement of lips must have been as awe-inspiring back then as every innovative new phase of moviemaking was – and is – from that point onward, including the very first color and 3D films.
As with many projects that star professional crooners, the narrative is broken up by musical numbers (none that feel overlong), which demonstrate the top biller’s skills, but do little to progress the story. Nevertheless, the premise is simplistic enough that all of the major themes are entirely graspable – including the nature of rigid religion and rebellion (without being preachy), the recognition of outdated traditions (old versus new), a hint of intolerance, and sacrificing beliefs/values/career to appease stubborn loved ones. Famously, “The Jazz Singer” climaxes with a contrived yet powerful conflict: Jack must decide to perform in the debut of his new show, “April Follies” (the chance he’s been dreaming of) – or to sing at the synagogue on the Day of Atonement, taking the place of his ailing father (a chance at spiritual redemption). It’s a touch overdramatic, but momentous nonetheless, and almost striking enough to make modern audiences look past the controversial blackface dress rehearsal and closing shots.
– Mike Massie