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Movie Crash Course: The Jazz Singer

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So this is a film whose reputation proceeded it.  Everyone knows this as “the first talkie”, many may have seen clips of Al Jolson singing “Mammy”.  You may even know of the plot because you’ve seen Neil Diamond’s remake (I did, and I was also really into the soundtrack album when I was about eleven).  So watching this was more of an academic exercise for me.

But just in case, a recap: The Jazz Singer is the tale of Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor on the Lower East Side. As a boy, his father is grooming him to serve as the synagogues next cantor, but Jakie’s heart is more into jazz and ragtime.  When his father catches him singing in a local beer hall, he drags him home and – while Jakie’s mother protests – whips him with his belt, and a defiant Jakie runs away.

Ten years later, Jakie is in San Francisco, and gets his big break when he sings at an amateur cabaret. Up-and-coming showgirl Mary Dale is in attendance – conveniently along with the producers of her current show – and they offer him a job with the company.  Under the name “Jack Robin”, Jakie’s star rises until he is given a lead role on Broadway alongside Mary.  He joyously returns to New York, and stops in to surprise the folks.  Mama is overjoyed to see him – but Papa is less so, and stubbornly throws Jakie out again, insisting Jakie is betraying his faith by shirking his duties as cantor.

Jakie copes by throwing himself into rehearsals, excitedly preparing for opening night. But the night of the final dress rehearsal, Mama desperately visits the theater with news – Papa is gravely ill, and will not be able to sing in the Yom Kippur service the following day.  Would Jakie consider skipping the show and singing himself, to make his dying father happy? Mary and the producers argue that the following day is the opening night, and skipping it would be career suicide.  …What on earth will Jakie do?

….As is no surprise, things are resolved at the end.  I rolled my eyes a bit over how conveniently they do, however; as well as how convenient was Jakie’s rise to fame.  The scenes with “rehearsals” and “performances” are all pretty unrealistic; I’ll grant I have a unique perspective as a former stage manager, but there were moments in the “final dress rehearsal” sequence that made me want to throw things (the rehearsal does not grind to a halt after the lead’s big number so everyone can crowd around and tell him how great he is!  It just doesn’t work that way!).

Apparently, though, this was a fairy-tale spin on the star Al Jolson’s own life. Like Jakie, Jolson was the son of a cantor who had emigrated from Lithuania to New York when Al was a boy. There is no record of Al’s father objecting to his career, however; he had already been on the vaudeville circuit for several years when aspiring writer Samson Raphaelson happened to catch one of his shows.  Raphaelson was captivated by Jolson’s style, immediately recognizing that he was singing “like a cantor”.  Subsequent chats with Jolson lead to Raphaelson first writing a short story inspired by Jolson’s story, and then the play which ultimately became The Jazz Singer.

And perhaps this is why the film’s depiction of Jewish characters was more sensitive than I was expecting. I was pleasantly surprised that Papa’s strict adherence to tradition was believable – he was strict, sure, but the film happily avoided depicting devotion as ignorance.  The Rabinowitz family is pretty up-to-date in terms of other habits. There’s a poignant scene midway through Jakie’s “rise to fame” when he takes time to attend a concert performance by another canter singing “Jewish Sacred Songs”, and spends several minutes sitting in an audience reverently listening to someone sing the Kaddish.  Even a “comic relief” running gag about presents people bring to Papa’s birthday party deals more with duplicate gifts than it does with “wow, they’re giving Papa weird things”.

….But on the other hand, two of Jolson’s big numbers have him in blackface.  It should be noted that this is a direct nod to Jolson’s own career – white performers in blackface were highly common in vaudeville at the time Jolson got his start, and Jolson was himself in blackface during the performance Raphaelson first saw.  Jolson was also an early fan of jazz and ragtime, and chose to use blackface as a way to sort of introduce them to white audiences.  However – even though Jolson apparently meant well, it’s still jarring to watch today.

(I was also surprised to note, during a post-film Youtube browse, that Neil Diamond included some blackface in his remake. It’s for a very different reason – but still feels  tacky.)

What this film is best known for, though, is the sound.  Other, earlier short films dabbled in using sound, as recording technology developed and improved. The Jazz Singer marked the first time it was used in a full-length film.  But it seems the producers hedged their bets a little, relying on intertitles for the dialogue throughout.  Instead, they used sound for all the songs – Jolson’s jazz performances, the Kaddish and the Kol Nidre in Papa’s synagogue.  There is some recorded dialogue = Jolson had a habit of chatting with the audience in between verses during his shows, and improvised some patter during the songs.

Everyone knows about the “you ain’t heard nothing yet, folks” line, but it was a rendition of “My Blue Heaven” sequence that had me riveted, delivered when a just-come-home Jakie is entertaining Mama.  Midway through the song, Jolson starts talking to Mama, played by actress Eugenie Besserer; the dialogue was wholly improvised, with Jolson promising her a series of lavish gifts.  Besserer says very little aside for flustered gasps and giggles (Jolson’s patter gets a little creepily flirtatious, given their characters’ relationship), and she doesn’t seem to have been miked well. But it felt real in a way that I haven’t yet seen in any of these films yet – simply because of the sound.

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