The Jazz Singer (1927)

The Jazz Singer (1927)

The Jazz Singer (1927). 96 minutes. Directed by Alan Crosland. Starring Al Jolson (as Jakie Rabinowitz/Jack Robin), Warner Oland (as Cantor Rabinowitz), Eugenie Besserer (as Sara Rabinowitz), May McAvoy (as Mary Dale), Otto Lederer (as Moisha Yudelson), Richard Tucker (as Harry Lee), Bobby Gordon (as Jakie Rabinowitz at age 13), and Yossele Rosenblatt (as himself).

It occurred to me recently as I was watching The Jazz Singer that I had seen two of its musical sequences before: the famous “My Mammy” number that Al Jolson sings in blackface, of course, but also the “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye)” performance. The latter is shown playing on a television in the movie Goodfellas (1990) when federal agents arrive to search the home of Karen Hill (played by Lorraine Bracco). Karen’s husband Henry is a gangster, and the family home is frequently raided, but Karen has become inured to the presence of the agents. When they show up on this particular occasion, she greets them by name, gives them permission to look wherever they need to, offers them coffee, and sits back in the living room with her child to watch Jolson’s whistling performance while the agents dig through her belongings. I have often wondered why Karen watches The Jazz Singer at this moment. I suppose the film clip strongly highlights the incongruity of what is happening in her life: the investigation into her husband’s serious crimes taking place while something as lighthearted and frivolous as Al Jolson making bird sounds into his palms is shown on the television screen. Her behavior suggests a fair amount of cognitive dissonance.

If you have seen this scene from Goodfellas, you might be tempted to think that The Jazz Singer is all about levity and fun, but in spite of the “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye)” performance, the 1927 musical is actually a rather somber movie. It is also one of the most influential movies of the Golden Age, both in terms of its technical achievement (it was the first feature-length movie to use synchronized sound) and its show business-related plot. The Jazz Singer tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a Jewish cantor living in New York City and descendant of five generations of Jewish liturgical singers. Cantor Rabinowitz wants his son also to be a great cantor and is dismayed that Jakie prefers to sing jazz. After discovering Jakie performing in a saloon, Rabinowitz punishes his son, who runs away from the city and heads west.

Ten years later, Jakie is living as Jack Robin and working as a singer, when he is spotted by dancer Mary Dale, who invites him to perform in her show. Eventually she accepts work in New York as part of a show entitled April Follies and sends for Jack to join her there. He returns to the city and to his parents’ home and sings at the piano for his mother, but his father is outraged to find him there playing jazz and sends him away. Jack rehearses April Follies and is preparing for the dress rehearsal when family friend Moisha Yudelson arrives with the news that Jack’s father is gravely ill. Jack’s mother is convinced that if her son sings at Yom Kippur services, this will restore his father to health; but Yom Kippur is that night, and so is the opening of April Follies. Torn between the show that will provide his big break and his family’s religious tradition, Jack ultimately decides to sing at the synagogue. His father hears him and is filled with emotion, then dies. We might think that Jack’s career as a popular singer is over, but then we fast-forward in time and see that he has gone on to headline his own successful show, The Jazz Singer. In the final scene, he performs the blackface number “My Mammy” for his mother at a packed performance.

The Jazz Singer is worth seeing for its role in film history. Although it is mostly silent with pantomime acting and title cards that fill us in on dialogue and plot points, some special sequences feature singing and a bit of dialogue (Jack famously saying “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” in between numbers during a club performance, and bantering with his mother at the piano in one apartment scene); it is the first feature-length movie to use sound in this way. In many regards though, while it boasts cutting-edge technology, The Jazz Singer engages in some of the worst of silent-movie behavior: for example, wild gesticulation and lengthy shots of characters silently talking at each other. The movie does not have the timeless or otherworldly quality of other mostly silent movies of the era, including F. W. Murnau’s extraordinary Sunrise of the same year (which itself had a partial soundtrack of sound effects).

The Jazz Singer, as its title would imply, also engages with the burgeoning popular music of its time. It is worth noting that Jack is called “jazz singer” in this movie several times both as a compliment and as a put down: “You’re a jazz singer at heart!” his producer says, trying to persuade him to return to the theater for April Follies’ opening night. “I never want to see you again—you jazz singer!” proclaims Jack’s father when he hears him performing on the piano for his mother at home. I must admit, however, that despite these proclamations, it is hard for me to accept Al Jolson in the role of jazz singer. He seems to me to belong more to the American vaudeville tradition, both in terms of the material that he sings and in terms of his performance style. Songs like “My Mammy,” “Mother of Mine, I Still Have You,” and “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” are all tear-jerkers about family that seem at home in the theater with him crouched at the edge of a stage, which is indeed where we find him performing in the movie’s final scene. The blackface tradition that Jolson participated in is also a part of that theater culture.

Jolson does sing Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” in one scene, a song that has been recorded by many of the greatest jazz singers since its debut in 1926, but his performance of the song for Mrs. Rabinowitz at the piano is typical of his style: the theatrical projection; the trembling voice; the torso, shoulder, and head movement; the rolling eyes. The wierdness of Jolson’s performance style really comes across in one of the movie’s last scenes, when Jack sings “Kol Nidre” as part of the Yom Kippur service at the synagogue. His hand gestures and shaking torso seem out of place in such a solemn venue.

Those issues aside, The Jazz Singer resides near the start of the Hollywood tradition of stories about ambitious young performers who must overcome family difficulties to become successful in the entertainment industry. In particular, the movie is a fairly engrossing and influential depiction of a man who tries to reconcile his private family life with his professional life. The dramatic climax in which Jack is both pleaded with and commanded to make a decision between his faith and his career is genuinely and effectively tense and one of the most successful parts of the film. The result of this sequence in which Jack is forced to make a difficult decision between his identities is that a specific story about one man’s religious dilemma is transformed into a more universal situation that a mainstream audience could generalize and apply to itself. Accordingly, Jack’s conflict resonated widely with audiences, The Jazz Singer became the most successful movie of its time, and there were soon echoes of the film all across American culture for many years. My favorite play on the movie is the Warner Bros. cartoon “I Love to Singa” (directed by Tex Avery, 1936), in which a baby bird named Owl Jolson emerges from his egg singing jazz, much to his classical music instructor father’s chagrin.

Additionally, as a movie about family conflict, The Jazz Singer must be given credit for attempting to depict Jewish family culture and the assimilation process on screen, something that was a real part of Jolson’s life and the lives of so many other Golden Age Hollywood players but that was not often the focus of mainstream Hollywood productions. (Jolson’s father was himself a cantor.) Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of ethnic stereotyping going on. Some clichéd characterizations include the stern Jewish father who thinks of only the synagogue and considers all modernity to be an affront to his faith, the soft Jewish mother who lives for her boy, and the gossipy neighbor Yudelson who is always hanging around with news. Probably not coincidentally, as central character and romantic lead, Jack is also permitted to be the least stereotypical of the characters. As the rebellious son who Anglicizes himself partway through the movie, he serves as both an insider and an outsider to his family traditions and makes for an effective and accessible guide through the story for a mainstream audience.

Even though Jack lives as an assimilated outsider to his parents’ Jewish culture for most of the film, The Jazz Singer suggests that our cultural identities are inescapable. The structure of the movie tells us that even though Jack has taken a new name, distanced himself physically from his family, and avoided singing the religious services that his upbringing was richly characterized by, there is going to be a showdown in which he must choose between his family life and his professional life at some point: he will sing “Kol Nidre” on Yom Kippur or sing the blackface number he has been practicing for April Follies, and there appears for most of the movie to be no middle ground. Interestingly, Jolson’s famous (or infamous) blackface performances seem in a weird way to call upon this tension: can he master multiple ethnic identities and put them on and call them up at will? That might be what is necessary to his success both as assimilated performer in a minstrel-show tradition and as makeshift cantor. In this way blackface becomes a test of Jack’s ability to move freely among personae—but interestingly, it is not a freedom that his coworkers or his family seem to understand. For a time, it seems as if The Jazz Singer is working to share a hard truth both about how difficult it is to completely abandon where we come from, and also about the loss of freedom we encounter when we are forced to choose between family life and career, private selves and public selves, minority culture and mainstream America.

I say that for a time it seems that way: when Jack chooses to sing at the Yom Kippur service rather than at the theatrical performance, we might think that that is the end of his days on Broadway, but apparently, he goes on to have a successful career as a jazz singer anyway. In the end, the fantasy that this movie offers is that people with complex identities do not have to sacrifice who they are to be successful in the mainstream, that we can have everything: that parents are infinitely forgiving, that the public is infinitely forgiving, that show people are infinitely forgiving, and that all of that forgiveness intersects in a bountiful way just when we need it. It probably is no coincidence that the movie that ushered in a new age in Hollywood technologically also made use of the kind of all-conquering ending that would serve as the foundation for so much of sound film.