Sunday, September 12, 2010

No. 90: The Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Starring: Al Jolson, May

McAvoy, Walter Oland

Director: Alan Crosland

Awards: Special Oscar to Darryl F. Zanuck for producing the “revolutionary” motion picture (But not a real Oscar!)

When I say "silent films," is the first word you think “snoozer?” Well, not for me. Even though I’m supposed to be a 14-year-old teen girl with no attention span, I actually like silent movies. A lot!

I think silent films require a completely different type of attention. The acting isn’t always stellar and seems herky-jerky at times, but something about the stark silence is mesmerizing. In The Jazz Singer, there’s a weird blend of silence and then sudden blasts of musical noise. It’s a strange mix – but it works.

I should probably clarify a bit. The Jazz Singer isn't a completely silent film. In fact, the reason it was revolutionary was because of its incorporation of dialogue and recorded music. The tagline says it all - "See him, and hear him sing!" Even though most of the film isn't talking, and the sound quality is horrible, this film was a big deal.

Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson) is a Jewish cantor’s son who’s expected to become a cantor himself - but all he wants to do is sing jazz. He runs away from New York City, and his disapproving father (Oland), to become a vaudevillian. Ten years later he returns home to star in a Broadway show, but on opening night - which coincidentally happens to be a Jewish holiday - he’s informed that his father is dying and he must choose between his family/religious values (i.e., singing in synagogue) and his blossoming career. He picks family values. But his father dies anyway! And he still gets to be a Broadway star! Great moral-of-the-story, right?

Anyway. Let’s talk about the movie. I found The Jazz Singer had a lot of pros and only a few minor cons. I liked the film’s themes – they were simple but provocative, and left you thinking about choices and decisions. The raw emotion in silent films always interests me because it puts the acting so over-the-top, you know? I also liked the way they used black and white in this film. It’s not meant to be artistic, because they weren’t that technically advanced yet, but today, it looks really complex.

A few minor cons. I was – how do I put this? - a wee bit scared of Al Jolson’s acting and singing style, especially his strange puppet-like dancing. It may have been popular then, but it comes off a bit frightening today. I definitely didn't like the use of blackface, but I guess that was - unfortunately - part of entertainment culture.

So in short, if you like:

* Lotsa good jazz tunes

* Super-extra stereotyped Orthodox Jews

* Flapper dresses

* Strange, marionette-ish dancing

* Broadway musical numbers

* The mesmerizing lure of silent movies

..then you’ll probably like The Jazz Singer.

Coming up next: Patton (1970), starring George C. Scott and Karl Malden. This is another one that I’ve never seen, so I’m intrigued – stick around and read about it!


  1. Have you seen the modern remake with Neal Diamond?

  2. "I also liked the way they used black and white in this film. It’s not meant to be artistic, because they weren’t that technically advanced yet, but today, it looks really complex."

    Good observation, but actually, it was meant to be artistic. Although they didn't have color film in the sense that we think of it now, movies with color had been around since at least 1908. Deciding to colorize a film, or not, was partly about money, and partly about aesthetics. Regardless, black and white composition was definitely an art (and still is, if you're Jim Jarmusch).

    The same is true of silence vs. sound... it's definitely easier and cheaper to make a sound film now than it was back then, but it was still possible... after all, the phonograph was invented before film. Part of the appeal of silent film was watching the story be told without sound, and part of the appeal of black and white movies was exploring that weird, surreal gap between that world and this one.