Jan 11

The Jazz Singer (1927)

It is fitting that the first movie review posted on this website is about the world’s first talking picture. Produced by Warner Brothers and directed by Alan Crosland, The Jazz Singer was released onto the silver screen in 1927. Although I’ve been avidly watching movies for the past 27 years, this was my first time watching Crosland’s seminal film. Having now seen it, I can safely say that it belongs on every film enthusiast’s bookshelf. Despite its age, the film’s themes are timeless, exploring the importance of being ourselves while still honoring our roots, even though our heritage might not have anything to do with who we are. Being Jewish, I’ve thought about the relevance of religious and racial heritage to present-day identity. The Jazz Singer proved to be right up my alley…

Based on a play by Samson Raphaelson, The Jazz Singer tells the story of Jackie Rabinowitz, a young boy enamored with jazz music, aspiring to one day become a stage performer. However, there’s a tiny complication: Jackie was born into an orthodox Jewish family. And, wherever you find religious heritage, there are responsibilities. Jackie’s father (Warner Oland), from a long line of cantors, wishes his son to uphold the family tradition. Unfortunately for Jackie, his father isn’t about to be convinced otherwise. A title card explains: “Cantor Rabinowitz, chanter of hymns in the synagogue, stubbornly held to the ancient traditions of his race.” Jackie’s mother (Eugenie Besserer), on the other hand, is as unconditionally loving as her husband is small-minded: “God made her a Woman and Love made her a Mother.”

Unwilling to bend to his father’s expectations, Jackie runs away from home. We next see him as an adult (Al Jolson), living the dream as a cabaret jazz singer. Only now he’s no longer Jackie Rabinowitz, going by the less ethnic-sounding Jack Robin. Through a series of events, Jack is eventually reminded of his heritage, and becomes conflicted: should he honor his roots, or pursue his calling? The film subsequently follows Jack as he struggles between the two options. The “child seeks approval from parents” plot has certainly been done and redone; yet, the film held my interest as a strong version of this storyline, and was of particular interest since it is one of the first film incarnations of this well-known plot.

Soon celebrating its 85th birthday, The Jazz Singer remains an engaging film throughout, and at points surprisingly affecting. A number of themes were thoughtfully addressed: the conflict between religion and modern values, art as a legitimate profession, duty to family, and the challenge of staying true to ourselves in the face of adversity. Although The Jazz Singer is technically the first talkie, sound is still used sparingly. It may not boast the technical trappings of modern film, but it certainly makes up for it in other areas: strong performances, inventive editing, and careful usage of sound.

Al Jolson is a very charismatic lead, making his character easy to cheer for and sympathize with. Of note, Eugenie Besserer delivers one of the most powerfully moving performances I’ve seen captured on film. Although she seems slightly out of her element in scenes where she speaks aloud, she is right at home in her silent scenes. In particular, there is a scene where Jack’s father, enraged by his young son’s impertinence, drags him into a room for a beating. As he shuts the door behind him, Jack’s mother rests sobbing against it. With every strike, her body flinches. Though silent, I could swear I heard every snap of the belt.

Harold McCord’s spirited editing serves to highlight the actors’ performances, helping lift them off the screen. Rather than distracting from the performances, the film boasts clever usage of title cards that enhance key moments. In one scene, Jack is about to board a train on way to his next performance when he learns that he has scored a gig on Broadway. At an increasingly rapid pace, the camera alternates between closer and closer shots of Jack, and larger and larger font-sized title cards, reflecting the dawning realization: New York City = seeing mother again! (Who said Freud was wrong about sons and their mothers?)

Sound is used sparingly, and not indiscriminately. We hear music: Hebrew prayers and jazz numbers. This is certainly an interesting choice, as song represents the issue at hand here: should we sing to the tune of our past heritage or our present calling? We also hear speech. Jack treats his mother to a private piano performance in her apartment, and the first dialogue sequence featured in a full-length motion picture follows. However, this moment is short-lived. The film reverts to title cards as Jack’s traditionalist father enters the room… Soundless fury ensues.

One aspect of the film that will likely shock modern audiences is the use of blackface. In the early days of theater and film, Caucasian actors playing African-American characters applied “blackface makeup” to their faces. The practice eventually fell out of artistic favor as society matured. While I am not an expert on the history of blackface and cannot comment on the socio-cultural significance of its usage in 1920s America, it did strike me that the blackface scene at least served an artistic purpose in The Jazz Singer. This is in stark contrast to D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), where Caucasian actors played African-American characters alongside African-American actors for no apparent reason.

While blackface was used in The Birth of a Nation to support clearly racist ideologies, the scene where Jack applies blackface makeup in his dressing room works on an allegorical level, as he is surrounded by both his actual and showbiz families, each vying for his allegiance. With streaks of black makeup on his white skin, Jack is divided, torn between his Jewish and his artistic selves. The question is presented: which is Jack’s true identity, and which one is the mask?

The Jazz Singer’s resolution may leave contemporary audiences feeling unsatisfied, which is probably why I started to imagine how a modern retelling of the story might conclude. Perhaps today’s Jack would successfully reconcile his two selves by delivering a traditional Hebrew prayer with a jazzy twist. Since The Jazz Singer ends with the somber Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) anthem, Kol Nidre, perhaps the remake could simply switch the holiday to a more cheerful one. Simchat Torah meets Jazz Fest anyone?

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