AFI Countdown Challenge #90: The Jazz Singer

I’ve never seen 1927’s The Jazz Singer, but I feel like I have anyway.

Besides, it’s sort of the first film with talking in it.

Here’s the thing:  the talking is a relatively small part of the movie.  In fact, most of it plays like a standard silent film.  The dialogue is, for the most part, displayed on caption cards for the audience to read.  The facial expressions are broad to minimize the needs for such cards.  Body movements are exaggerated.  But then someone, usually the film’s star Al Jolson, starts singing and a human voice comes out of the soundtrack.  And what little spoken dialogue comes, again mostly from Jolson, as talk between songs when two or more are played in rapid succession.  Jolson has a pretty good voice to judge by the quality of the soundtrack.  The movie is a musical, but it’s a musical in the sense that Yankee Doodle Dandy is a musical and the songs are there because someone is in-character performing the song for an audience of some kind, even if it is an audience of one when Jakie sings for his mother halfway through the movie.

As for the plot, like I said, I feel like I’ve seen it before, mostly because the story seems to be something that has been done many times, perhaps most recently on The Simpsons.  Young Jakie Rabinowitz is a talented singer like his father.  Unlike his father, he doesn’t want to be the Cantor at his synagogue.  He wants to sing…GASP!…jazz!  This infuriates the elder Rabinowitz who tries to literally (off-screen) beat the jazz out of the boy, causing Jakie to run away from home, coming back only for a framed photograph of his mother.  He eventually becomes a big success, but his father has disowned him and after a testy trip home, his father falls ill and there is no one to sing for the Day of Atonement.  Will Jakie do his duty to his people or will he go on for his big break’s opening performance?  His father and the Jewish community want the former, his love interest and producer want the latter, and his mother is somewhere in the middle.

As it is, Jakie, going by the stage name of Jack Robin, manages to do both.  He sings the ceremonial prayers, gaining his father’s forgiveness and blessing, and his singing is so good apparently the girlfriend and the producer who told him he’d never get a second chance give him a second chance.

Like I said, I think I’ve seen this story before.  Besides, even if I hadn’t seen The Jazz Singer, I do love me some Looney Toons and they parodied this movie and Jolson’s appearance in it dozens of times.

This cartoon is the most blatant parody since the main character is named “Owl Jolson”.

Of course, none of that seems to be what the movie is known for if it’s known for anything.  It’s more known for Jolson’s use of blackface make-up during two of his songs, most notably “Mammy” at the film’s end.  Just about any image of this movie you can find on Google Images shows Jolson in blackface.  In fact, aside from a movie poster, all the images on this movie’s Wikipedia page show Jolson in blackface.  Personally, I was a bit reluctant to put any such pictures in this article before I saw the movie, and now that I have seen it…I am a little less reluctant, but in 2018, you really can’t discuss The Jazz Singer without discussing the blackface.  Heck, you couldn’t really in 1927 because it turns out the blackface is thematically important.

A bit of cursory research tells me two things:  1) Jolson was not a racist, and 2) this is a rare use of blackface for something other than a racist bit of humor.  Off-screen, Al Jolson was a friend and advocate for many African-American musicians and theater people, promoting jazz music, taking them to dinner when they were banned from restaurants, and acting as an early advocate of civil rights.  By the standards of 1927, that’s pretty impressive.

As for the second part, much of the movie deals with accepting a new world.  During the climactic fight with his father, Jakie says his father would see things more like Jakie if he had been born in the United States instead of the “old world”.  America the melting pot had exposed Jakie to jazz and and theater culture, but he doesn’t seem to seriously question his dues to what he calls his race until he puts on the blackface for a dress rehearsal, and most of his worries over his heritage come not from reconciling to his father but from breaking his mother’s heart.  His mother, it should be noted, hears him sing (again, in the blackface for that dress rehearsal), and he’s singing a song about someone’s mother, during which she comments that he belongs on the stage where, even if he’s singing jazz, he’s singing with the passion his father brings to prayers.  When Jakie dons the make-up again at the film’s end to sing the movie’s most famous song, it is again about mothers and what they mean to the singer.  Jakie may be wearing make-up to look like a black man, but he’s doing so as a conflicted Jewish man.

Furthermore, Jakie’s love interest Mary is thought at one point by his mother to be a shiksa, a woman who iit is believed will tempt a Jewish man away from his faith.  That seems to be at least a little true as Mary seems intent on keeping Jakie on stage and away from his heritage, but she doesn’t even mind when she is told even she comes in behind his career.  Fortunately, it seems Jakie’s wonderful singing voice will literally heal all wounds, making his mother and girlfriend happy.  Though, to be fair, Mary and Jakie’s mother seem to get along just fine with what little onscreen interaction we see between the two.

This was an odd film as it acted as a fusion of a silent film and a “talkie,” but it actually worked and was very charming in its own way.  The movie may be remembered for something that is, rightfully, considered racist behavior today, but taken on its own, it’s a technical triumph at the very least, and there are a lot of nice songs in it to boot.

NEXT UP:  We’re going to 1970 with the biopic of a controversial general from the second World War.  Be back soon for Patton.

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