Friday, June 21, 2013

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Director: Alan Crosland                                  Writers: Alfred A. Cohn & Jack Jarmuth
Film Score: Louis Silvers                               Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Starring: Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer

It’s difficult for us now to feel the same wonder that audiences felt at the end of the twenties when synchronized sound was introduced for the first time in films. But The Jazz Singer comes close as possible because of its particular makeup. For the most part it is a silent film, but the musical numbers that suddenly jolt us into the next decade of sound films are quite striking. The most interesting aspect of this, for me at least, is the opening number with young Jakie singing in the tavern. The music is not quite synchronized, and it has a frisson of what it might have been like to experience this effect for the first time. The film is an absolutely compelling hybrid that seems to stand on its own in cinematic history as the fulcrum on which the rest of the films of that era would balance, on the side of silent or sound.

The story comes from a piece of short fiction written by Samson Raphaelson that he turned into a play. It really has the flavor of the kind of immigrant theater production that would be immortalized by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather II when Di Nero goes to see his friend’s girlfriend in a play. A Jewish cantor in New York is horrified to learn that his young son is singing “raggy songs” in a salon. When he whips him, the boy decides to leave for good, taking with him only a picture of his mother. And though it is set in the late twenties, it has the feeling of something a generation earlier. The title is also something of a misnomer. What we think of a jazz singing today comes out of the 1940s and 50s. Back in the twenties jazz was what we would call pop music, with Jolson being one of the popular singers of his day.

When the scene shifts to the present day, with Jolson trying to break into the music business on the West Coast, the synchronization is perfect, even his patter between numbers. There are also plenty of sound effects, some synched and some not, that demonstrate early attempts to transition to sound. Of course, Jolson’s singing and seems quite outdated today, corny almost. But this is also the closest that we will get to experiencing the kind of vaudeville performances that were almost gone by then. So, the film also works as a historical piece on a number of levels. Still, there is something strangely compelling about Jolson’s acting. Sure, it’s tempting to say it’s over the top, but when you really watch him, it’s not. And unlike a lot of pantomime, he seems as if he genuinely wants to get across his feelings in the silent medium. It’s quite interesting.

Warner Oland is great as Jolson’s father, the cantor. And while the comedic elements are toned down, Otto Lederer makes the most of his talents. Naturally, however, we have to address the blackface minstrel numbers at the conclusion of the film. Were the filmmakers racist? Probably. Are the numbers racist? Certainly. Is this a racist film? I would have to say no. But then, I’m not black. There’s no doubt the film could have been just as successful without the blackface, but I would hope it could be seen today as more of an embarrassment for whites than blacks. Ultimately, The Jazz Singer is a very good silent film in its own right, and with the addition of sound on the vocal numbers it makes it something quite unique, an important milestone in cinematic history that also has the good fortune of being entertaining.

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