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I Bet You Didn't See... The Jazz Singer


This film is of its time.

Al Jolson, 1886-1950

Al Jolson, seen as one of the America's greatest entertainers of the 1920's, performed in blackface as part of his act. As a vaudevillian performer, this was a highly common and successful 'art form' of the time. While now, it is abhorred and incredibly insensitive, it must be remembered that this comes from the mid-19th century and would publicly decline by the end of the 1950's, with Jolson being one of the last big names to perform in this style. There is nothing to say that Jolson used it in a negative context. In fact, it bridged a gap between the White and Black communities. Jolson even petitioned Warner Bros. to make an all-blackface version of The Green Pastures in the mid-30's. The 1936 movie depicted Bible stories told through the eyes of African-American characters. Warner Bros. said no to Jolson, but went on to make what remains as one of only six features films from Hollywood’s golden studio era to feature an all-African American cast. This article from The Hollywood Reporter, the source of my information here, is a good read about Hollywood and Blackface.

Now, back to the movie.

The Jazz Singer is a piece of history every film lover should watch. And there is one reason for me saying that (because I say that about a lot of films!)...

It was the first commercial film with dialogue.

The mostly silent film follows the life of Jakie Rabinowitz. The latest son in a long line of Jewish Cantors (Jewish musician specially trained to learn worshipers in prayer and hymns), who decides at a young age he wants to go into show business. When punished by his father for singing on a stage at a local bar, he runs away and vows never to return. The song sung by young Jakie is clearly dubbed, but there is no credited singer. You can see the boy on stage (Bobby Gordon) is not singing.

Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goo' Bye!)

We next see him as Jack Robin, a singing star on the rise. He is invited to sing when at a restaurant and bursts into a rendition of "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face". After rapturous applause, we then hear the historic moment when Jack says "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" and introduces "Toot, Toot, Tootsie". This was a Jolson line he used a lot and got the crowds cheering. There were reports that the audiences in the cinemas roared with delight and cheered for more. It was the first moment someone had spoken to them from the cinema screen!

After being introduced to Mary (May McAvoy), a rising dancer, Jack goes on to perform on Broadway. Excited by the news, he heads back to see his parents. His mother (Eugenie Besserer) is delighted to see him, and he serenades her with"Blue Skies". Here, we have a longer dialogue where Jack tells him mother he will buy her a pink dress and move to a big house. However, his father walks in and berates him for "bringing your Jazz music into this house!" While Jack tries to win his father back by giving him a birthday present in the old way he was taught, it doesn't work.

Now Jack heads off to perform on Broadway, but his father falls sick and, despite all the protestations by his mother and his producer, is forced to decide whether to take over his father's role as Cantor in the Synagogue or be the headlining act on Broadway. I'll leave you to watch it to find out what happens...

We do see Jolson in his iconic blackface in the film, as I mentioned before. It is simply a matter of "this is Al Jolson starring". But Jolson was Jewish, and here it is celebrated. His whole act is celebrated because he is trying to be a bridge between two very different worlds. I can't say I didn't debate putting a picture up of Jolson on stage, as seen to the right of your screen, but while we don't do it now, it was an accepted practice back then. Also, this is Al Jolson. This was him performing and it is part of history.

For its historical value as well as the simplicity of its structure and the wonderful spectacle that is Silent Cinema, The Jazz Singer has a high rating on my list. It changed the course of cinema history.

Directed by: Alan Crosland

Screenplay by: Alfred A. Cohn

Based on: “The Jazz Singer” by Samson Raphaelson

Starring: Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland, Yossele Rosenblatt

Released: October 6th, 1927

My Rating: 9/10

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