The Jazz Singer (Al Jolson)

So, as soon as Netflix delivers the DVD, I’m going to watch the first full length talking picture, The Jazz Singer. From reading IMDB and Wikipedia, the movie isn’t actually a full talking movie, but only a few scenes feature dialogue as many theaters at that time could not show sound movies.

It should be an interesting watch. I’m not hyper politically correct enough to get worked up about minstrel shows or blackface, it is a movie from 1927.

Your opinions?

Well, this thread took off like crazy and got so many responses. Open spoilers to follow for this very old movie.

Anyway, I watched* The Jazz Singer* and here are my impressions. The movie is basically a silent movie. Music is added as well as two scenes of actual dialogue

This is a silent movie with music. There are only 2 dialogue scenes. One with Al Jolson talking to an audience for less than a minute and then an extended dialogue with his mother.

The movie’s plot is basic. The dad is a Jewish priest, he wants his kid to sing in the temple. The kid wants to sing popular music of the time. The kid leaves and becomes a popular singer. Dad still rejects him, but mom still accepts him. Of course, his dad is near death when Jolson’s character is supposed to debut his new show.

As a silent movie, it is average. The historical movie is more important. Al Jolson singing must have been amazing for this audience. While his style is quite dated, it is entertaining. An Al Jolson born in the mid 1990’s would probably be a popular pop star today.

The blackface scenes didn’t bother me one bit after reading up about it. Jolson was a fierce defender of black artists. This isn’t a college frat running a mock slave auction.

I’ll probably rent the movie again, but it is a movie I’ll come back to every few years. I’m glad I got to see America in the late 1920’s.

I just remember a few scenes from the movie:

His dad wanted him to sing the “Kol Nidre.”
That weird-ass whistling with his whole hand in his mouth, so it seemed.
His sitting in a chair, singing to his mother.

But, yeah, a silent movie with a few scenes with sound.

This plot was re-used in the cartoon I Love to Singa (1936) with “Our Gang” alumni Tommy ‘Butch’ Bond voicing the songs of “Owl Jolson” and Billy Bletcher voicing his dad “Professor Fritz Owl.”

Also redone by Neil Diamond in 1980.

You’ve also got remember just how big Jolson was when this came out. Reviews were built around him on Broadway. He “made” songs. If Jolson sang it, it was a hit. Also the film was semi-autobiographical (or at least perceived that way).

I have read a number of autobiographies of people living at that time and they all repeat what a watershed moment it was when they heard Jolson say, actually SAY, “You ain’t head nothin’ yet!”

I think one of the key things to watching, and listening to this film is to mentally take yourself back to the '20s and watch it from that vantage point. I was kid when I first saw it. I think 14. It was late night on a Saturday. The channel I was watching would show silent films late Saturday. So I was watching what I thought was a silent. For the first 1/4 or so it was. Then, HE TALKED…HE TALKED. Then He SANG. I was floored. I turned to tell someone, but I was the only one up. I just watched with my mouth open. I knew this was something special, but I was a kid, I didn’t know it was the seminal moment in talking pictures. I just leaned back and enjoyed the moment. Granted it was decades after the actual moment, but I felt I was sort of taking part in “THE” moment in my own way.

Just as Jolson declaimed the previous year, 1926, in his all-talking all-singing “A Plantation Act”, also on TJS DVD.

So it was more of the same, at least for the folks in the big cities, but now in a feature-length film that got wide distribution. And of course it does help that Jolson on film is a dynamic performer.

Besides the various sound-film experiments from the early days onward (for example Edison in 1894, synchronized sound on phonograph record), there are films like the DeForest Phonofilms (wikipedia) of 1923 onward.

Nitpick: Not a priest, a cantor. Synagogues have professional soloists, instead of choirs, to sing the hymn. A Jewish friend invited me to a service last year and the cantor was a woman (Refom temple) who is also an opera singer. Jewish hymns are not for the faint of voice – a fact which plays an important role in the plot of The Jazz Singer, when Jackie/Jakie’s Dad falls ill and the synagogue needs some proficient singer to sing the Kol Nidre for Yom Kippur. (If the old man had been a priest, his name would have been Cohen, not Rabinowitz. Jewish priests are a hereditary caste, Sons of Aaron . . . they don’t matter much in Judaism any more, not since the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 71 A.D. – the priests’ job was to do animal sacrifices, and they can’t be done anywhere else.)

Al Jolson singing:

“Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye” (clip from The Jazz Singer – no one had ever sung like that before, with that kind of body-motion and all! Proto-rock-star!)

“My Mammy” (Jazz Singer)

“Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”


Compare and contrast:

“Swanee River”/“Old Folks at Home”

“Oh, Susanna”

“Camptown Races”

The last three are from Swanee River (1939), a biopic of Stephen Foster (practically everything Foster wrote was for the minstrel stage). Jolson plays the 19th-Century minstrel-show performer and impresario E.P. Christie.

Jazz-Age blackface minstrelsy was a very different art-form from traditional 19th-Century minstrelsy. See Eddie Cantor here and here. The latter is from Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937); it is less a parody of African-American art and culture than a tribute to it, particularly the Harlem Renaissance.

Judy Garland sings in blackface. (From [(1938).)

I know Judy Garland and Andy Rooney did blackface numbers in [url=]Babes in Arms](]Everbody Sing[/url) and Babes on Broadway, but I can’t find them on YouTube.

This traditional minstrel-show number, with sand-dancing, is from Yes, Sir Mr. Bones (1951). Worth seeing. I don’t care what color you are or how offensive it is, if you don’t dig this you got no soul!

TVTropes on Blackface.

TVTropes on Minstrel Shows:

Wikipedia also has a fascinating history of minstrel shows. Apparently they were actually pretty good, because they attracted a lot of real artistic talent (they were the most popular form of American stage entertainment for more than a century, and the artists go where the money is).

Paging Spike Lee!

Satisfied now? :wink:

One scene in The Jazz Singer that stands out to me- the scene of young Jakie singing Waiting On The Robert E. Lee in a bar. The piano player is terrifying for a reason I can’t quite put my finger on. And Jakie’s voice is pretty disturbing, too. As is that floppy dancing he does.

Because he chugs beer between measures without missing a beat?

More like whatever makeup they used on the actor made him look like a prepared corpse…and his facial expressions were off. Something “Uncanny Valley-ish” about that whole scene.

I know, of course, you meant “Micky Rooney” but the mental image of “Andy Rooney” from 60 Minutes belting out minstral songs with Judy Garland honestly had me fall out of the chair laughing…thank you for the delightful moment.