THE JAZZ SINGER ( 1927 )

MUSICAL MONTH

THE JAZZ SINGER ( 1927 )

My parents have always been avid fans of Neil Diamond, and growing up I became accustomed to his music, later becoming an ardent supporter of his work myself. When I was younger they purchased the 1980 remake of “The Jazz Singer” which stars Neil Diamond alongside Laurence Olivier. Once my passion for classic cinema evolved, I discovered that there were two other versions of “The Jazz Singer”, and the original one is regarded as a distinguished masterpiece for the fact that it is the very first sound picture ever produced. After reading all about it, I was eager to see this movie, so I ordered it online, and was lucky enough to attain the deluxe box set edition, which includes books, photos, and original film advertisements, along with three discs, filled with the movie, documentaries and special features.

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The Jazz Singer is a perennial classic now known as a celebrated monument in the history of cinema. Not only is it the first feature length motion picture with synchronized dialogue, it also marked the decline of silent film, with more studios transitioning into talkies, as the number of silent films diminished.  To this day “The Jazz Singer” is heralded as the commercial ascendance into talkies.

It all began on April 25th, 1917, when Samson Raphaelson, a University Of Illinois undergraduate attended the musical “Robinson Crusoe, Jr. starring a young and still unknown, Al Jolson. Upon witnessing Jolson’s powerful performance, Samson was impressed by the singers talent and later said, “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 explained that he had seen emotional intensity like Jolson’s only among synagogue cantors.

Ever since that evening, Jolson piqued an interest in Samson so much that when he pursued a professional literary career, he wrote “The Day Of Atonement”, a short story about a young Jew named Jakie Rabinowitz, which was based on Al Jolson’s life. The story was later published in January 1922 in ‘Everybody’s Magazine’, and eventually Samson adapted the story into a stage play titled “The Jazz Singer”, which starred George Jessel in the lead role. In September 1925, the show opened at the Warner Theatre in Times Square, and was instantly crowned a hit.

With the success of the show, Warner Bros. acquired the movie rights to the play, and campaigned for George Jessel to portray the role of Jakie Rabinowitz. On June 4th, 1926, Jessel was signed to a contract, and was scheduled to start production on May 1st, but the plans of Jessel playing the lead role never came to fruition. Jessel’s contract with Warner Bros. had not anticipated that the movie they had particularly signed him for would be made with sound (he’d made a modestly budgeted, silent comedy in the interim). When Warner’s had hits with two Vitaphone though dialogue-less, features in late 1926, “The Jazz Singer” was reconceived.

Once the new production was in the works, Jessel fought for the role, but the part went to Al Jolson instead. Jolson proved to be the best candidate for the role, and was described as “The entertainer, who sang jazzed-up minstrel numbers in blackface, and was at the height of his phenomenal popularity. Anticipating the later stardom of crooners and rock stars, Jolson electrified audiences with the vitality and sex appeal of his songs and gestures, which owed much to African-American sources.”. When news got to Jolson, he agreed to play the role, and took the part, signing a $75,000 contract on May 26th, 1927, for eight weeks of services beginning in July.

At the start of July, the filming of “The Jazz Singer” took place. Alan Crosland, who had directed several silent films for Warner’s, was hired as director. At this stage, Crosland was fresh out of working with John Barrymore in the 1926 film “Don Juan”, the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized Vitaphone sound affects and musical soundtrack. Darryl F. Zanuck, still in the introduction phrase as producer, with only three produced films on his resume served as the films producer.

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The film tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of Jewish Cantor Rabinowitz ( Warner Oland ), who wants young Jakie to inherit the families trade and heritage by being a Cantor in the synagogue in the Jewish ghetto of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Jakie decides that he is not interested in following the family tradition, and wants to pursue a career as a jazz singer.

Tensions arise when Jakie is spotted at the local beer garden, performing and singing so called jazz tunes to an enthusiastic audience. When his father finds out, he considers it a crime, and starts whipping the boy. Jakie threatens that if he hits him again, he’ll walk out and never come back. True to his word, Jakie packs up and runs away from home, but first he hugs his mother, who is understanding of her son’s passion, and tries to talk sense in to Cantor Rabinowitz, but to no avail.

Ten years pass, Jakie is now Jack Robin ( Al Jolson ), and has a successful career as a jazz singer. After wooing the audience with his inimitable rendition of “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face”, he is discovered by Mary Dale, a musical theater dancer, who witnesses that Jack has a tear in his voice, and offers to help Jack achieve higher fame.

With Mary’s help, Jack has now reached his pinnacle, but soon he is faced with difficult decisions, and is forced to make changes in his career in order to retain the strong bond he has with his mother, and his positive relationship with Mary.

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I would highly recommend “The Jazz Singer” to anybody who loves classic movies. It’s an historic film, and a cinematic treasure that shouldn’t be missed. Some people may consider it rather unusual because it’s half silent, half talkie, with only the songs verbalized, and a few words mumbled after each song, but being a fan of silent films like I am, I love it, and to this day it cements itself as one of my favourite musicals.

I also find the film enthralling for the fact that it reflects Neil Diamond’s upbringing in Brooklyn. Like thirteen year old Jakie in the film, Neil Diamond was born into an impoverished family of Jewish immigrants, and to reach the status that he has attained, Neil had to really work hard for it. Music was not the families trade, and his parents considered it an atrocity against their religion, but Neil got past his parents, and became one of the greatest singers/songwriters the world has known. As legend has it, Neil Diamond played Al Jolson’s role in the 1980 remake of “The Jazz Singer”.

I love everything about “The Jazz Singer”. It’s such an emotional story, that leaves you with tears in your eyes. You can’t help feeling sorry for Jakie’s mother, who thinks that she will never see her son again after he leaves, but when Jakie achieves his dream ten years later, you feel elated for him. It is a very touching and sentimental classic.

Another highlight of the film for me are the songs. I love all the songs that are showcased here, and have known them for years as Judy Garland has made hits with her beautiful renditions of some of the songs in “The Jazz Singer”. My favorite number from the film is when Al Jolson appears in blackface and sings “Mammy” to his mother from the stage. He’s poignant delivery of the song would make anyone tear up.

“The Jazz Singer” is a true cinematic experience for anyone that has not seen the film. I encourage everybody to take themselves on a journey of classic Hollywood history by watching this film.

Both the play and the personality dictate that this film is owned exclusively by Al Jolson. Despite later versions with Danny Thomas and Neil Diamond in the lead, the story will always be identified with the man who said we ain’t heard nothing yet.

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Songs:

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Trivia:

The First feature-length movie with audible dialogue.

The movie’s opening line and quote, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothing yet” was voted as the #71 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100), and as #57 of “The 100 Greatest Movie Lines” by Premiere in 2007.

Many documentaries and historians state that immediately after the release and success of The Jazz Singer (1927) that all of Hollywood switched to sound. This is not true for several reasons. First, there were two competing and incompatible sound systems. The Vitaphone process was cumbersome, relying on an electro-mechanical interface between the projector and the turntable. Fox’s Fotofilm was a superior sound-on-film process that allowed for easier editing but required a costlier projector (the Vitaphone system would be quietly killed off by 1932). Secondly, either sound process nearly doubled the budget of a film. Thirdly, theater chains faced enormous conversion costs (MGM-parent company Loew’s Inc. owned over 1,000 outlets, and took a deliberately slow wait-and-see attitude toward sound). The first feature film with all synchronous dialog was Lights of New York (1928). Also, in the midst of the talkie-craze of 1928-30, studio bosses were faced with a limited amount of sound equipment and qualified sound technicians, causing them innumerable headaches over which productions to produce as talkies vs. silents. Also, silents were internationally marketable via cheap title card translations while talkies, prior to the advent of subtitles, usually required completely different foreign language versions to be produced simultaneously. Low budget producers of westerns along poverty row were especially impacted, with silents continuing in that market through the end of 1930. Many studios continued to produce both silent and sound versions of their films, including the classic All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

Sam Warner, the Warner Brother, that was nicknamed the “Father of the Talkies”, because he insisted that Al Jolson‘s ad-libbed speech be included in the movie, died on Wednesday, October 5th, 1927, just one day before the film debuted, to the remaining cast and crew, on Thursday, October 6th, 1927.

Myrna Loy plays a short cameo as a  chorus girl in one scene.

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Quotes:

[opening lines, first quote and first words in the first widely-seen talking picture]

Jack Robin: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet! Wait a minute, I tell ya! You ain’t heard nothin’! You wanna hear “Toot, Toot, Tootsie”? All right, hold on, hold on…”

[then he walks back to one of the band members]

Jack Robin: “Lou, listen. Play “Toot, Toot, Tootsie”, three chorus, you understand. In the third chorus, I whistle. Now give it to ’em hard and heavy, go right ahead.”

Jack Robin: [sings] “I’ll walk a million miles for one of your smiles, my Mammy.”

Moisha Yudelson ( Jakie’s mum ): “He sounds like Jakie, but he looks like his shadow!”

Mary Dale: [Listening to Jakie cantoring at Yom Kippur services after the death of his father] “A jazz singer…singing to his God!”

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Cast:

Al Jolson: Born Asa Yoelson on May 26th, 1886 in Srednik, Kovno Governorate, Russian Empire. Died: October 23rd, 1950 in San Francisco, California. Aged 64.

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