The Jazz Singer
THE JAZZ SINGER
Director: Alan Crosland
Production: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.; black and white, 35mm, silent with synchronized musical numbers; running time: 89 minutes. Released October 1927, New York. Filmed June through August 1927 in Warner Bros. studios, and on location in Hollywood, and the Lower East Side and in front of Shuberts' Winter Garden theater in New York City. Cost: $500,000.
Scenario: Alfred A. Cohn, from the story and play The Day of Atonement by Samson Raphaelson; titles: Jack Jarmuth; photography: Hal Mohr; editor: Harold McCord; sound: George R. Groves; music score and direction: Louis Silvers.
Cast: Al Jolson (Jakie Rabinowitz, later Jack Robin); Warner Oland (Cantor Rabinowitz); Eugenie Besserer (Sara Rabinowitz); Otto Lederer (Moisha Yudelson); Bobby Gordon (Jakie, age 13); Richard Tucker (Harry Lee); May McAvoy (Mary Dale); Nat Carr (Levi); William Demarest (Buster Billings); Anders Randolf (Dillings); Will Walling (Doctor); Roscoe Karns (Agent); Myrna Loy, Audrey Ferris (Chorus girls); Cantor Josef Rosenblatt (Himself, in concert number); Jane Arden, Violet Bird, Ernest Clauson, Marie Stapleton, Edna Gregory, and Margaret Oliver (Extras in Coffee Dan's sequence).
Award: Special Oscar to Warner Bros. for producing The Jazz Singer "which revolutionized the industry," 1927–28.
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Ellis, Jack C., A History of Film, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1979.
Oberfirst, Robert, Al Jolson: You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet, San Diego, 1980.
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Usai, Paolo C., Burning Passions: An Introduction the Study of Silent Cinema, Collingdale, 1999.
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Rogin, M., "Blackface, White Noise: The Jewish Jazz Singer Finds His Voice," in Critical Inquiry (Chicago), no. 3, 1992.
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Mulvey, Laura, "Now You Has Jazz," in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 9, no. 5, May 1999.
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As it is generally stated, The Jazz Singer's place in film history as the first talkie is an erroneous one. It was not the first sound picture— sound films are as old as the cinema itself—and it was not the first Vitaphone feature—that was Don Juan—nor was it the first alltalking Vitaphone feature—that was The Lights of New York. The Jazz Singer is important because it was the first film with sound to catch the imagination of an audience. As one contemporary critic, Welford Beaton, wrote, "The Jazz Singer definitely establishes the fact that talking pictures are imminent."
Unlike the sound films that had preceded it, The Jazz Singer boasted all the right components in the right mixture. It had a sentimental—silly, even by the standards of the day—story involving mother love, honor and a young man's striving for success. The film featured such songs as "Toot, Toot, Tootsie," "Mother o' Mine," "Mammy," and "Blue Skies," which were to become lasting successes. (Irving Berlin had written "Blue Skies" a year earlier, but it became a standard after it was featured in The Jazz Singer.) Above all, The Jazz Singer starred Al Jolson, a legendary performer, on stage from the early years of the century, whose presence somehow lent validity to the production and gave it something special. Robert Benchley, writing in the old humor magazine Life, jokingly summed up the power of Jolson's performance: "When Jolson enters, it is as if an electric current had been run along the wires under the seats where the hats are stuck. The house came to tumultuous attention. He speaks, rolls his eyes, compresses his lips, and it is all over. He trembles his lip, and your hearts break with a loud snap. He sings, and you totter out to send a night letter to your mother." And as if Jolson's presence was not enough, Warner Bros. wisely cast a major silent screen actress, Mae McAvoy, to play opposite him.
Supposedly based on Al Jolson's own life, The Jazz Singer first saw life as a magazine story, "The Day of Atonement," by Samson Raphaelson. Raphaelson—who was to become a prominent screen writer in the 1930s—adapted his story into a stageplay, which became a major success for its star George Jessel (who was initially cast in the film version, but backed out at the last minute apparently in a dispute over money). The story of The Jazz Singer concerns Jakie Rabinowitz who yearns to sing popular songs, but whose father, a cantor, wishes him to follow in his footsteps. Jakie leaves home, changes his name to Jack Robin (selecting a Gentile name in rejection not only of his father but also of his Jewish faith), and goes on the stage. As he is about to get his big break, opening as the star of a Broadway musical, Jakie learns that his father has been taken seriously ill. Realizing his true feelings and his place in his Jewish family, serious Jakie sings the "Kol Nidre" that night, delaying the opening of his show. The musical eventually opens, starring Jakie and his Gentile girlfriend, Mary Dale, and that night Jakie's mother realizes, "He is not my boy any more. He belongs to the world."
The plot is ludicrous, and was treated as such even by contemporary critics, many of whom complained that the story was "too Jewish." (Of course, it is worth noting that despite the awfulness of the story, The Jazz Singer has been twice remade.) What is exciting about the film is its use of sound—not only the interpolated dialogue and songs, but also the musical score and sound effects arranged by Louis Silvers (who skillfully blends elements of popular music with elements of serious music by Tchaikovsky, Debussy and others).
Jolson's first spoken words—"Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing yet. Wait a minute, I tell you. You ain't heard nothing yet. Do you want to hear 'Toot, Toot, Tootsie?"'—are electrifying in their intensity even today, some 60 or more years since they were first uttered. It is as if the viewer were participating in a very personal way, in a moment of historic significance. Similarly, there is something embarrassingly private about Jolson's remarks to his mother as he sits at the piano and sings "Blue Skies" to her. Jolson's apparently improvised ramblings are perhaps a little too real and, therefore, almost a little too artificial and stilted. The impact of this last dialogue sequence is further emphasized by its abrupt ending as Warner Oland (in the role of Cantor Rabinowitz) enters the scene. He looks at his wife and son, and through a title, shouts "Stop." The dialogue, the human voice, is stilled, and The Jazz Singer once again becomes a silent film with musical accompaniment.
Alan Crosland brings almost a documentary quality to many of the scenes, particularly the opening sequences in which Jakie, as a child, sings at a local saloon. (It is the voice of Jakie as a child, played by Bobby Gordon, that is the voice first heard in the film.) The director is obviously a highly competent technician, and gets the best from his players, even such notorious purveyors of melodrama as Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer.
The critics admired the film, but loved Al Jolson. One commented that "He is as solitary upon the heights of an art he has made peculiarly his own as Chaplin is upon his." Indeed, with The Jazz Singer Jolson heralded a new era which was to bring about the ultimate decline of Chaplin and his contemporaries, destroying one art form and creating another. Perhaps the one irony is that despite its place in the history of the sound film, the sound system utilized for The Jazz Singer—Vitaphone—was not the system that ultimately became standard in the industry. Vitaphone utilized sound on disc, and the future of the industry lay with sound on film.
The Jazz Singer
The Jazz Singer
Produced in 1927, The Jazz Singer brought sound film to Hollywood. Directed by Alan Crosland and starring Al Jolson, the film was based on the 1922 short story "The Day of Atonement" by Samson Raphaelson. This story of Jewish assimilation to American culture through popular music has been adapted as a Broadway play (starring George Jessel in 1925), two radio plays (both starring Al Jolson in 1936 and 1947), a televised production (starring Jerry Lewis in 1959), and two subsequent film versions (starring Danny Thomas in 1953 and Neil Diamond in 1980). The Jazz Singer not only illustrates the emergent sound technology of the 1920s, but also illustrates the mainstream acceptance of jazz music and comments on the acculturation process of immigrants to America.
The Jazz Singer recounts the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of immigrant parents in New York, who is expected to succeed his father, as well as many ancestors, as the cantor in their synagogue. But young Jakie has ambitions of fame and fortune as a jazz singer, expressing himself in American popular music instead of Jewish religious music. Jakie's intentions of singing popular music leads to his father's denunciation and sends Jakie (now Jack Robin) to a career on the vaudeville circuit. As Jack's career progresses he falls in love with Mary Dale, a star dancer and gentile. Jack's two worlds collide when he accepts a part in a Broadway revue (starring Mary) and returns to New York upon his father's sixtieth birthday. Jack's father has still not accepted his son, but seeing him results in his father falling ill. In the film's climatic scene, Jack must decide between the show's opening on Broadway or filling in for his dying father at the synagogue singing "Kol Nidre" for Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Jack fulfills his father's dying wish, and still manages to make it big on Broadway, bringing a sense of balance between his parents' old-world immigrant ways and his new Americanized life.
The Jazz Singer is often referred to as the first sound film, yet this is only partially true. The idea of synchronized sound and motion picture is as old as the movies themselves, but it was not until the early 1920s that a workable method of recording both image and sound came into use. Warner Brothers studio was the first to undertake sound film production, primarily as a last ditch effort to battle the larger studios who had, by the 1920s, solidified their hold on the movie industry. Warner's first efforts at sound film were variety programs with talking shorts, musical numbers, and staged productions using a sound-on-disc recording technology. Fox studios also entered the sound film market with its Movietone newsreels which presented news stories with a sound-on-film technology. Different studios could utilize different sound formats since each studio primarily exhibited at their own theaters. Warner's The Jazz Singer, however, was the first feature film to integrate the use of sound, both music and dialogue, into the story itself. The film is primarily a silent film with a musical soundtrack, but in several scenes, synchronized singing and dialogue are presented, most notably in the scene where Jack sings to his mother and after finishing one song says to her "You ain't heard nothin' yet."
The film's significance goes beyond its historical role in film technology to illustrate the mainstream acceptance of jazz music as an American art form. Even though the music in the film is not, strictly speaking, jazz music, its does contain elements of jazz style, such as increased syncopation and a blues tonality. More importantly, the film expresses the belief that jazz music is an Americanizing force since it is a uniquely American form of music. The original author of the story, Samson Raphaelson, wrote in the introduction to the published stage play that "in seeking a symbol of the vital chaos of America's soul, I find no more adequate one than jazz." Ironically, in order to perform jazz music onstage Jack Robin dons the costume of a minstrel performer, including blackface. Jack "becomes" black in order to become an American, and in the process reinforces nineteenth-century stereotypes of African Americans in popular culture. The film promotes both acculturation and the maintenance of ethnic identity as significant parts of economic prosperity and success, the American dream.
—Charles J. Shindo
Carringer, Robert L., editor. The Jazz Singer. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
Raphaelson, Samson. The Jazz Singer. New York, Brentano's, 1925.
The Jazz Singer
The Jazz Singer
The Jazz Singer (1927) is a landmark motion picture: Its immense popularity as a sound film ushered in the talking motion picture. Prior to the film's release, the actors were in silent movies (see entry under 1900s—Film and Theater in volume 1); they performed pantomime-style. When these silent films were shown to audiences, live musical accompaniment provided background sound. With the newly developed ability to synchronize sound with image, movies began to be released with synchronized music and sound effects. The smashing success of The Jazz Singer—which included a talking scene with several song numbers and a synchronized musical track—encouraged major film studios to convert their production facilities to sound stages. Theaters converted their projection equipment to accommodate sound. By 1928, it was clear that movies would no longer be silent.
The Jazz Singer, directed by Alan Crosland (1894–1936), was based on a short story, "The Day of Atonement" (1922), by Samson Raphaelson (1896–1983). Al Jolson (1886–1950) starred in the screen adaptation. Jolson was one of the early twentieth century's most popular and influential stage performers and singers. His presence in the film is largely responsible for the film's box office success.
The Jazz Singer is the story of immigrant integration into American culture. Its hero is Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of Jewish immigrant parents and the descendent of a long line of religious leaders, who is expected to succeed his father as cantor of the neighborhood synagogue. But Jakie has ideas of his own. Even as an adolescent, he yearns for success onstage as a jazz (see entry under 1900s—Music in volume 1) singer, interpreting American popular songs rather than traditional Jewish religious music. This desire puts Jakie at odds with his stern, unyielding father. The youngster sets out to win success on his own terms.
The Jazz Singer often is referred to as the first sound film, but this is not the case. By the early 1920s, a workable method of recording sound in synch with the image, and then amplifying the sound in theaters, had evolved. However, Warner Bros., the studio that produced The Jazz Singer, was the first to undertake sound-film production of feature-length films on a commercial scale. The studio's initial efforts were short, plotless films spotlighting the stage acts of musicians, singers, and dancers. The Fox studios also entered the market, producing its Movietone newsreels. Before the release of The Jazz Singer, Don Juan (1926), a silent swashbuckler featuring stage and screen star John Barrymore (1882–1942), arrived in movie houses with prerecorded music and sound effects.
The Jazz Singer, which was also remade in 1953 and 1980, capably integrates song numbers and dialog into parts of the scenario. After one musical sequence, Jakie utters a prophetic line: "You ain't heard nothin' yet." Given the rousing public response to The Jazz Singer and the new sound film industry that it spawned, this was no small boast.
For More Information
Carringer, Robert L, ed. The Jazz Singer. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
Raphaelson, Samson. The Jazz Singer. New York: Brentano's, 1925.
Jazz Singer, The
JAZZ SINGER, THE,
JAZZ SINGER, THE, a motion picture released by Warner Brothers in October 1927, was the first successful feature-length production to include sound, ushering in the end of the silent film era. Audiences thrilled when Al Jolson, in the title role, broke into song and proclaimed, "You ain't heard nothing yet!" Directed by Alan Crosland (filming Alfred A. Cohn's screen adaptation of Samson Raphaelson's play Day of Atonement), The Jazz Singer tells the tale of Jakie Rabinowitz, the young Jewish son of a New York City cantor who would rather "sing jazzy" than follow five generations of cantors. Jakie runs away from home to pursue his dreams of stardom; years later, under the name Jack Robin, Jakie returns to New York City. Conflict arises when Jakie must decide between singing "Kol Nidre" in place of his sick father on Yom Kippur and opening his Broadway show. Jakie decides to chant "Kol Nidre" for his father in the synagogue, postponing his debut. This decision does not hamper Jakie. The film ends with Jolson crooning "My Mammy" in blackface to his mother in the audience of his Broadway show. The film suggests that in America one can be both hugely successful and remain true to one's roots while also suggesting interesting connections between African American traditions and Jewish American identity.
Crafton, Donald. "The Jazz Singer's Reception in the Media and at the Box Office." In Post Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Edited by David Bordwell and Noël Carroll. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.
Saposnik, Irv. "Jolson, the Jazz Singer, and the Jewish Mother: Or, How My Yiddishe Momme Became My Mammy." Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 43 (1994): 432–442.
See alsoFilm .