Saturday, April 16, 2016

Stubs - The Jazz Singer (1927)


The Jazz Singer (1927) Starring Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland, Yosselle Rosenblatt (credited as Cantor Rosenblatt. Directed by Alan Crosland. Written by Alfred A. Cohn (scenario) and Jack Jarmuth (titles). Based on the play The Jazz Singer by Samson Raphaelson, which is based on his own short story "The Day of Atonement". Produced by Daryl F. Zanuck. Black and White. U.S.A. Silent/Sound, Drama, Musical

On April 25, 1917, a young University of Illinois graduate Samson Raphaelson attended the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr. in Champaign, Illinois and was immediately impressed with the show’s star, who was singing in blackface, Al Jolson. Raphaelson could not take his eyes off the Russian-born Jew on stage, telling Everybody’s Magazine in 1927: "I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson—his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from a tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song." He compared the intensity of the experience to the one Raphaelson had seen with synagogue cantors.


Al Jolson in Robinson Crusoe Jr., the play that inspired Samson
Raphaelson to write the short story "A Day of Atonement."

So moved was Raphaelson by the experience that he eventually wrote the short story, A Day of Atonement, basing its lead character Jakie Rabinowitz on the life of Al Jolson. He would later adapt his own short story into a dramatic play, The Jazz Singer which ran on Broadway for 303 performances starting on September 14, 1925, had a Jewish Vaudeville comedian in the lead role, George "Georgie" Jessel.

When the Warner Brothers were looking for a property to make into a film, they chose The Jazz Singer and brought Jessel out to Hollywood to star in the picture. Following the success of their film Don Juan (1926) with its synchronized music and sound effects, and in desperate financial need for a hit, the Warners decided on turning The Jazz Singer into a part-talkie.

They also decided to change the play’s ending slightly, with Jakie returning to the stage at the end. Jessel didn't like the change and the studio, strapped for cash, didn't like Jessel's demands for a bonus or a new contract to play the lead, so he was out. Desperate for a leading man, Jack L. Warner and his production chief Daryl F. Zanuck turned to another Jewish Broadway by way of Vaudeville performer, Eddie Cantor. But Cantor was hoping to help the studio reconcile their differences with Jessel. The studio looked else where and offered the part to the then forty-one-year-old performer whom the whole story was based on: Al Jolson.

The film opens with a written prologue: "In every living soul, a spirit cries for expression--perhaps this plaintive, wailing song of Jazz is, after all, the misunderstood utterance of a prayer."

Turn of the 20th Century New York City at the corner of Hester and Orchard
 Streets, where the film opens.

It is the turn of the 20th century New York City. Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) is speaking with his wife Sara (Eugenie Besserer) about their son, Jakie (Bobby Gordon). The Cantor expects their son to follow him, in what has become a family profession, Cantor. He is looking forward to Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when Jakie will make his debut, so to speak, singing "Kol Nidre," a traditional hymn.

Meanwhile, as they’re talking, Jakie is already working on a singing career, but far from a religious calling; he is singing at a saloon. This is noticed by the neighborhood “kibitzer”, Moisha Yudelson (Otto Lederer). [Note: A kibitzer is someone who, according to Meriam Webster: looks on and often offers unwanted advice or comment.]

Moisha rushes out of the saloon straight to inform the Cantor, who goes to the saloon and drags Jakie off stage and back home. The cantor is strict and, even when the mother pleads her son’s case, decides the only just punishment is a whipping. Apparently this isn’t the first time and Jakie threatens to run away and never come back if he’s beaten again. But as the mother listens through the door, the cantor whips his son. And true to his word, Jakie runs away. The Cantor is adamant that if Jakie isn’t singing with him that night, then he has no son.

Jakie (Bobby Gordon) keeps his promise and runs away after his father, Cantor Rabinowitz
(Warner Oland) beats him. His mother, Sara (Eugenie Besserer) is helpless to stop her husband.

While the Cantor sings the Kol Nidre for Yom Kippur and his mother is in the synagogue, Jakie sneaks back into their apartment, only taking with him a framed photo of his mother.

The Cantor sings Kol Nidre for Yom Kippur.

Years pass and Jakie (Al Jolson) has grown up to be a singer. We see him eating to the music of the band at Coffee Dan's restaurant, before he is introduced by the club owner. Suddenly, the film has synched sound as Jakie sings the poignant “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face,” an overly melodramatic song about a father’s love for his sometimes troublesome son.

Jakie (Al Jolson) promises his audience "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"

The audience, of course, loves Jakie and he tells them, those famous lines that would change filmmaking forever, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet! Wait a minute, I tell ya! You ain't heard nothin'!” He then launches into another crowd pleaser, the upbeat “Toot, Toot, Tootsie!”. In the audience is a vaudeville dancer, Mary Dale (May McAvoy), who, like everyone else, hammers her table with a gavel to show her approval.

She “speaks” to him afterward, remarking that he has a tear in his voice, something which other jazz singers do not. Mary even goes so far as to get him a job in her troupe.

Time passes and Jakie has changed his name to Jack Robin. While performing in Chicago, he takes in a concert of sacred songs given by famed Cantor Josef Rosenblatt, and is deeply moved. Jack continues to write home to his mother, of course, boasting of his success. Moisha comes by to read the letters to her without his father knowing, because the two never have reconciled.

Jack, meanwhile, has grown to love Mary and is saddened when he learns she is leaving the troupe for a chance to appear on Broadway. [Note: One of the two show dancers we see watching Mary and Jack is none other than Myrna Loy.]


Before they were stars: Myrna Loy plays a dancer backstage during The Jazz Singer.

Jack continues with the show and has become the headliner, but one day when he’s about to get aboard the train to the next town, his manager stops him. He tells him that New York has decided he’s not to go on with the troupe. Jack is, of course, heartbroken to hear that, until his manager informs him that he’s been offered a part in a Broadway show.

Broadway means going home to New York and Jack is thrilled with the prospect. First stop is to see his mother, who is also preparing for the Cantor’s 60th birthday, apparently back when this was considered old. Everyone who buys the Cantor a gift, including Jack, buys him a prayer shawl.

Jack sings for his mother when he comes home for a visit.

Mother is over-joyed at the reunion and Jack talks big about what the future will bring, promising to move his family to the beautiful Bronx, where other Jewish families have apparently settled, and to buy her a pink dress, something that would be a luxury compared to her rather limited wardrobe. Jack sits down at the piano and starts to sing his mother a song when father enters. He is not happy to see Jack and even furious to hear his son singing jazz songs in his house. A furious argument ensues and the Cantor orders him out, going so far as to tell his son, "I never want to see you again — you jazz singer!"

Father kicks his son out of his house, calling him a "jazz singer".

Yom Kippur comes and Cantor Rabinowitz is too ill to sing the Kol Nidre in temple. He dreams of his son singing in his place. Moisha goes down to the theatre where the show, April Follies, is in rehearsal, to see Jack. He tells him about his father and asks him to replace his father at temple. But Jack refuses; his life is in the theater now.

But Moisha is not through. The day of the final dress rehearsal with Jack already in blackface, Moisha brings his mother down to the theater to plead with Jack to reconsider. But Mary, playing a sort of devil’s advocate here, reminds Jack that he once told her that his career meant more to him than anything, even her. Jack refused to leave dress rehearsal and goes out on stage. Watching from the wings, Mother realizes that Jack has moved on, "Here he belongs. If God wanted him in His house, He would have kept him there. He's not my boy anymore—he belongs to the whole world now."

Jack returns home and forces his way past the nurse to kneel down by his father’s bed. The Cantor finally comes around and tells his son that he loves him. Mother suggests that it might help his father heal if he could hear Jack singing at the service. Just then, Mary and the show’s producer arrive. The producer tells Jack that if he doesn’t go on opening night, his career on Broadway will be over.

With his father dying, Jack is presented with a tough choice, feeling the pull of
Broadway represented by Mary (May McAvoy) and the show's producer on one side
 and tradition, represented by Moisha (Otto Lerder) and mother, on the other. 

But Jack does what’s in his heart and sings at the Yom Kippur service with Mary in the audience. Since they live next door to the synagogue, the Cantor can hear his son’s voice. He dies a happy man thereafter.

Jack defies the producer and does what his heart tells him to do.

And even though the show’s opening had to be cancelled, Jack still becomes a major star. When next we see him, he is the featured player at the Winter Garden in a show called Back Room. He opens the show, again in blackface, singing "Mammy" as his mother and Moisha sit in the front row, and Mary happily watches from the wings.

Jack wows the audience as he sings "Mammy" in blackface.

The Jazz Singer opened in New York on October 6, 1927 to coincide with Yom Kippur, around which most of the plot revolves. None of the Warner Brothers were able to make the premiere as Sam Warner, the biggest advocate of sound films, had died the previous day of pneumonia.

The presentation of the 89-minute film required 15 reels and fifteen discs, with each musical number on a different reel. The projectionist had to not only thread the film, but also synch the accompanying disc.

With so much riding on this film, there was great relief when it not only went off without a hitch, but turned into quite the sensation. The Jazz Singer became the biggest film in Warner Bros. history with $3.9 million at the domestic box-office. The film was only the second largest grossing film that year, being beat out by Paramount’s Wings (1927), which brought in $4.3 million. [Wings, along with Fox's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,would also win best picture, with The Jazz Singer being ruled ineligible because the Academy thought it would have been unfair competition for the silent pictures under consideration. The Jazz Singer would win a special Academy Award for Warner Bros. and Zanuck "for producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry".]

After this film, everything in Hollywood would change. Audiences wanted only sound pictures and every studio had to revamp their productions to accommodate. Livelihoods would be changed after The Jazz Singer. If you didn’t have a good speaking voice, you were through. [To see how this film affected Hollywood, I would recommend seeing Singin’ In the Rain (1952) or The Artist (2011), both of which have stories revolving around this transition.] Now sound was all the rage, and by mid-1929 the studios were almost exclusively making sound pictures. Chaplin was a noteable holdout, releasing the silent City Lights in 1931. European filmmakers would also transition to sound by the end of 1930.

While audiences were interested in the “novelty” of talkies, The Jazz Singer was also so profitable as it was because Warner Bros. changed the agreement with exhibitors as well. The film had to be booked for full rather than split weeks and the studio introduced a new financial arrangement with the theaters. Instead of taking a flat fee, Warner Bros took a percentage of the boxoffice. A sliding scale meant that the longer the film remained in theaters, the bigger the theater’s percent of the take. This virtually guaranteed long runs for the film.

Al Jolson is a force of nature, one of those performers who is on all the time. Jolson clearly likes the limelight; he comes across as one of those extroverts that have a hole in their soul that only applause can fill. And I know Hollywood is filled with those types of people, it just seems more pronounced in his performance in The Jazz Singer. I can’t say that he’s my cup of tea. His act seems dated and I’m not just referring to the minstrel show he always seems to be doing in this film. At the time this film was made, that was part of the culture and though it seems shameful now, it was an acceptable way to make a living. I don’t pretend to understand it, but I’m not going to criticize the past against our modern mores.

For the most part, Jolson is the only one we actually hear in the film. There are few snippets of Eugenie Besserer speaking, but only as it relates to Jolson. The film clearly revolves around him, as it should be, since he was who the story was written about in the first place. But the other actors come across more as set pieces than as real people. May McAvoy was no stranger to Hollywood, having been in Ben-Hur (1925), the epic that put MGM on the map. But here she is pretty much a prop for Jolson to act around.

Swedish born Warner Oland was a gifted character actor, who would later go on to greater fame as Oriental detective Charlie Chan in 16 films at Fox. You wouldn’t know by looking at him in this film that he was only about seven years older than Jolson. Still, his performance is very one note until the inevitable deathbed confession of love for his son.

One of the things that doesn’t work as well as you would hope is when the film transitions between synched sound and silent. In the scene that follows Jolson’s first sound performance, the silent section seems sped up and unreal. These sort of jolting transitions are all through the film. Perhaps they were overlooked when the film first hit the theaters, but now they seem very jarring.

The Jazz Singer is one of those stories that Hollywood has returned to more than once. Two other versions of the film have been made, including a 1952 version starring Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee and a 1980’s version starring Neil Diamond, Laurence Olivier and Lucie Arnaz. Neither subsequent version would have the same impact as the original.

Despite the historical significance of the film, The Jazz Singer is almost like a silent musical with some songs thrown in. And in comparison to William Wellman's Wings and F. W. Murnau's Sunrise, films which clearly demonstrate how far silent filmmaking had come artistically, The Jazz Singer is sort of a step back. With few exceptions, most scenes are shot indoors and the action is reduced to Jolson’s swaying hips as he moves to the beat of the music. Compared with Wings, The Jazz Singer seems almost claustrophobic.

From a historical point of view, The Jazz Singer is sort of a must-watch. This is the film that you can point to as a landmark and a cultural shift. Things, as they say, would never be the same after this one. But knowing that might not be enough. While I’m happy that I finally saw it, I can’t say that it is really a great film nor could I recommend it except to the most hardcore of film buffs. Sometimes, as in the case of The Jazz Singer, historically significant doesn’t mean it’s a good film.

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