FILM MARATHON: Movie Musicals #1: The Jazz Singer [1927]

“A jazz singer—singing to his God”

Mirroring the actual life of star Al Jolson, playwright Samson Raphaelson wrote The Jazz Singer about a young Jewish performer who was cast out of his own home for choosing jazz over the traditional synagogue hymns taught to him by his Cantor father. Gone for years to try his hand at entertaining, a fortuitous job on Broadway brings him back home to New York where an impromptu visit to the place he swore he’d never return brings back the memories of a mother’s universal love and a father’s bitter grudge. Originally set to star George Jessel as lead Jakie Rabinowitz/Jack Robin in a silent film adaptation, the upgrade to Warner Brothers’s new Vitaphone system meant the first ever use of synchronized sound and visuals in a movie theater. Asking for more money as a result and afraid that the movie’s budget might fall through, his Jessel’s departure led to Jolson’s arrival, playing the role he inspired. I’m sure a sense of that pain in reenacting fictionalized memories found its way onscreen too, leading the performance to be quite endearing and heartfelt.

What stands out the most for me is the technical artistry at work in 1927. The sheer fact this is the first ever ‘talkie’ is astounding, but I still never anticipated the format to be as precise as it is. For the first ten minutes or so, a score plays behind your regular silent film stock—dark vignetting noticeable in the corners—with two instances of singing by a young Rabinowitz (Robert Gordon) and his father The Cantor (Warner Oland) both of which are way off in their timing with the lips being shown. I thought this was the new technology, basically a soundtrack lain over the film as close as it could to give the illusion of synchronicity … why would I think differently since this was never attempted? Therefore, when we flash forward in time to the now adult Robin, played by Jolson, I was aghast at how perfectly matched his rendition of “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” was. You could see the difference in picture clarity as well, the frame becoming sharper and without fuzzy edges, the memory of title cards preceding it to explain what actors were miming all but forgotten once Jolson croons his first tune, ad-libs speech to the audience, and then finishes with a jazzy ditty. The new breed of cinema was born.

But The Jazz Singer isn’t all about its inventive gimmick, for lack of a better term. Even besides some expertly handled superimposition of Oland’s Cantor over that of Cantor Joseff Rosenblatt, as himself, (an interesting mix of Vitaphone for the latter and mistimed silent stock for the overlapped former), and over a mirror later in the film, there is a touching story of identity told. Jakie Rabinowitz is a fifth generation Cantor from the old country who has been raised in America with the knowledge of new musical forms. He does not want to be forced into his father’s religion when the church of theatre lies in front of his ambitiously outstretched arms. Even as a boy he found his way on stage at saloons to hone his voice, singing from his heart. It’s not that he wanted to rebel against his heritage; on the contrary, he simply wanted to honor it in his own way. The Cantor taught him that music was the voice of God and he took the teaching to heart if not the exact form of song. It is the old man’s inability to adapt and forgo his own prejudices that ruins the relationship with his son, not the boy’s desire to live a life from his dreams.

Right from the beginning, before the newly anointed Jack Robin had struck it big, his listeners could hear the sadness underlying his voice. May McAvoy’s Mary Dale knew it right away, the up-and-coming dancer bringing Robin into her circle of performers knowing he’d one day outshine them all and that her help getting him exposure would eventually propel her forward as well. Her experience earns a job in New York first, but she won’t forget the jazz singer she befriended, soon sending for him to join her in a run of The April Follies, he becoming the lynchpin to the show and her recommendation putting the entire performance on the line if he somehow didn’t come through. And, in fact, he finds himself conflicted upon a return home and the request to sing at the synagogue for the Day of Atonement once his father falls ill—the same day his show is to open. The decision then arises to whether Robin will choose the career he’s worked a lifetime to achieve of his mother, who’s heart would be crushed if unable to reconcile the love of a dying father and his son before it’s too late. Both modes of song lie within his heart, however, and the correct answer is impossible to discern.

I really like how the story ends—naturally, appropriately, and with a bittersweet love paving the way for an unconditional one. We don’t always get to have things both ways, but when the opportunity presents itself to serve one’s heart and soul together, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Jolson is fantastic in his silent moments with exaggerated motion and with sound, playing the role as he would on stage. Eugenie Besserer’s portrayal of his mother is an acting highlight, running the spectrum of emotions, sometimes within a single scene, and Oland’s stubborn father and Otto Lederer’s meddling family friend Moisha Yudelson do well to juxtapose with the ‘new world’ entertainers of McAvoy’s Dale. And, as far as the blackface goes, it does actually hold a thematic relevance to the story, not only serving as a form of performance of the time, but also a mask for Robin to hide behind. Say what he will about holding the career he’s made for himself above anything else, the tug of his past never truly leaves. He can paint his face and put on a smile, but that tinge of sorrow in his voice will always show through. Until he can reconcile his own heart, he’ll never be happy, no matter whether he chooses the stage or his heritage; they are both equally important in retaining his humanity.

The Jazz Singer 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

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