Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Jazz Singer (1927)


”The Jazz Singer’s” claim to fame is that it is the first talkie ever. This fame is also in a sense the curse of the movie because almost everything else about the move is either ignored or simply forgotten, which amounts to the same thing. Of course being the first movie with sound is monumental, especially since this changed filmmaking forever, but what every commentary will tell you is that it is actually a hybrid. Most of the movie is a silent movie except when Al Jolson starts singing and a few lines on either side of the songs. Even then I get the shivers when the first words said in a sound movie is “wait, wait, you ain’t heard nothing yet”. You better believe it!

The second think you probably will have heard about the movie is that some of the songs are performed in blackface. That is, Al Jolson, your average white boy, paints his face black and gives it as a black dude. Personally I am not particularly shocked, just nonplussed. I do not really see why he should be black to sing those songs.

These things out of the way I can continue to what really interests me about this movie: the story.

This is the best example of a youth rebellion/family rift movie before the fifties. Certainly it is a lot deeper and more poignant than “Babes in Arms”. There are real issues in this movie even though they are almost drowned out by the singing and the gizmo of sound.

What I see is a story about family tyranny, control and guilt games. Themes anybody living in a family can relate to but here they are getting extreme because of powerful forces like tradition and religion are involved as well.

Jackie (Al Jolson) is the son of a Kantor. A Kantor is the singer in a Jewish congregation and Jackie’s father is a traditional man. He has taught his son all he knows and it is his clear wish, no, demand that Jackie follow in his footsteps. Jackie however has another love in his life, that of jazz and ragtime music. It may be hard for us to see the crime today, but this is the equivalent of punk for the twenties.

The father is furious and determined to literally beat it out of his son. I have absolutely no respect for parents who beat their children and this guy’s excuse is worse than most. The son’s crime is that he is not following his father’s dictate in observing his religious duties. For the sake of a religion he is beating his son.

The natural consequence is that Jackie runs away. He has effectively been thrown out of his home. His father’s reaction to that is simply that he has no son anymore. The mother tries to mend the situation, but she is weak and powerless against this monster of a man.

Despite all odds Jackie actually makes it as a singer. He is a kind and happy guy, the fellow everybody likes. His family left him with a deep pain, but it only comes out when he sings, which I think is a nice touch. It is hard work, but finally he is getting his chance. He gets a lead on a Broadway show and he returns to New York.

Jackie visits his parents, reaching out for them. His mother is happy to see him, but his father reacts by throwing him out. After not having seen his son for what seems to be 10 years his words are that he does not want that music in his house. That is a guy who loves his son, no? As if there was any doubt it is pretty clear now that Jackie owes his father nothing, that his religion means more to him than his son.

In this pretty clear-cut situation the atrocity is committed.

The father gets very ill, dying even, and Yom Kippur is coming up. The father’s concern is that he cannot sing the Kol Nidra in the synagogue, not that he has not made his peace with his son. The concern of the congregation is that they have no one to be their Kantor, not that their current one is dying. So they go to Jackie to get him to sing it. Unfortunately Yom Kippur is coinciding with the premiere on the big breakthrough show of his. The crux of his career, everything he has been working toward. And here these people come to ask him to sing in a synagogue instead, for a father that does not want to recognize him and who has not needed him until now.

To top it they even bring his mother along to put maximum pressure on him. Do it for her, do it for your God! This is the guilt game in action. Of course as a decent person there is only one possible outcome, but really, how dare they ask this of him? Have they no shame? He has to refuse those who actually support him, who rely on him who are there for him when his family is not, for a job that is not his, for a father who has rejected him.

When the father on his death bed hears his son sing the Kol Nidra, he is not anguished for the sacrifice the son made or happy what his son is doing for him. He is simply pleased that in the end he got his way and his son has returned to the Church.

We are led to believe that what moves Jackie to sing the Kol Nidra is his mother and that it is a simple choice between career and family to which the standard Hollywood answer will always be family of course, but the question is a lot more existential and unfair against Jackie. In his shoes I would probably have ended up doing the same thing, but man, I would have been pissed.

This is strong stuff and in my opinion enough to make this an important movie. It is also a movie that I enjoyed a lot more than I expected. A really nice surprise.

The version I got is a Warner special edition with a ton of extra material on the advent of sound in the cinema. But what I really like is how they made this Night at the Cinema feature, where they are reproducing the feel of going to the cinema in the twenties and thirties, complete with newsreel, cartoon and a music feature. It is a wonderful gimmick.


  1. This must be opposite day or something, because we each wrote about a movie that the other was ambivalent about. I was not moved by this movie AT ALL. I thought it was stuffy and stodgy and predictable; I really thought the only reason it was in the book was because of its historical significance, not its quality.

    Having said all that, I need to see it a second time, give it a second chance, before I write about it. I'm all about giving movies a second chance.

  2. Indeed. I guess this is one of those movies you have to attack from the right angle. Seen as a light movie about choosing family values it is simple and predictable. It is when you dig into the relationsship between mother, father and son it get more interesting.
    In any case this move presses a few buttons for me so maybe I get a little too agitated.

  3. I saw this several years ago and was surprised when I found out it was mostly silent. I didn't realize it until I saw it.

    I thought this movie was just okay, storywise. It should be seen for its place in history.

    By the way, the blackface scenes were just a part of American stage performing in the 1800s and into the early 1900s. I don't know why. The movie was just being historically accurate. Yankee Doodle Dandy has some, too.

    1. And when we see that today we are just wondering "What were they thinking of?"

  4. The story is pretty interesting--especially since Jews faced a lot of discrimination in the US in the 1920s (nothing like Germany, but the KKK had a resurgence here after Birth of Nation and an influx of Eastern European immigrants, most of whom were Jewish and Catholic).

    1. I think many people tend to forget how wide spread racism and xenophobia was before WWII not only in Germany. Since then we thought this kind if bigotry was a German Nazi phenomenon and we were now rid of it, but a lot of places could do with some soul searching.
      The father of this movie is a total asshole and I think the struggle against him is what makes this film interesting.