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Silent no more.

October 6, 2008, 3:12 pm

[We're lucky to have Ben Alpers back with us today. Ben's excellent book can be found here. Thanks again, Ben, for doing this. We're very grateful to you.]

On this day in 1927, The Jazz Singer premiered in New York City. Though usually credited as the first “talkie,” the film’s innovation is subtler than that designation suggests. To begin with, over a year before The Jazz Singer was released, on August 6, 1926, Warner Brothers had released the first feature film with a synchronized soundtrack, Don Juan. Directed by Alan Crosland, who would later direct The Jazz Singer, Don Juan had no dialogue, but merely sound effects and a musical soundtrack. On the other hand, though The Jazz Singer was the first feature film with synchronized dialogue, only a few short scenes feature it. Most of the film, like Don Juan before it, is essentially a silent film with a synced musical score.

Nevertheless, The Jazz Singer’s premiere was a truly significant event. The film was a huge hit. Audiences flocked to it because it contained not simply synced dialogue, but synced singing by Al Jolson, already a hugely popular entertainer. It was also one of the very few Hollywood movies to concern itself with the complications of the American immigrant experience. Young Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson) is the son of a Jewish cantor in New York’s Lower East Side. But he loves to sing American “jazz” songs in the local saloon (as Michael Rogin and others have noted, the tin-pan-alley music in the film really isn’t jazz, even by 1927 standards). When Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) finds out that his son is singing in a saloon he becomes enraged and Jakie runs away from home. The film flashes forward, Jakie is now Jack Robin, a rising vaudeville star who is falling in love with his fellow performer, the apparently WASPy Mary Dale (May McEvoy). When their troupe comes to New York to play Broadway, Jack visits his mother (Eugenie Besserer) and sings her one of his songs. But his father interrupts their reverie (famously yelling “Stop” to bring an end to one of the film’s dialogue sequences, thus thrusting it back into the world of silence). The climax of the film comes when Cantor Rabinowitz falls ill and Jack needs to decide between appearing in his Broadway premiere and going to his father’s shul to sing Kol Nidre in his stead on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. In classic Hollywood fashion, the film lets Jack have it both ways, singing in the synagogue, reuniting with his father over the later’s deathbed, and finally performing “Mammy” on stage and in blackface, with his own mother in the audience.

The Jazz Singer was, in many ways, oddly self-referential. Born Asa Yoelson in Seredžius, Lithuania, Al Jolson was himself an immigrant and son of a cantor. Indeed, Jolson had been the inspiration for, and star of, the original Broadway production of The Jazz Singer in 1925. (In fact, the revival of the play two years later starring George Jessel was the bigger hit and Warner Brothers had hoped to land him for their movie. But Jessel had demanded too much money, so they settled for Jolson.) The Warner Brothers, too, were assimilated Jewish immigrants. And they decided to premiere The Jazz Singer on Yom Kippur, which ran from sundown on October 5 to sundown on October 6 in 1927. But, on October 5, 1927, the day before the big premiere, one of the four brothers, Sam Warner (born Szmul Eichelbaum) passed away from complications related to either a sinus infection or a rotten tooth (historians seem to disagree about this; the actor William Demarest — best known to people of my generation as Uncle Charlie on TV’s My Three Sons — claimed late in his life that the other brothers had poisoned Sam!). The three remaining brothers, Harry (Hirsz), Albert (Aaron), and Jack (Itzhak) were suddenly faced with a Jack Robin-like choice. Rather than attend the New York premiere, they stayed in Los Angeles to attend to their brother’s funeral arrangements.

As a result of the success of The Jazz Singer, a revolution in movies took place. Within a few short years, public demand essentially killed off silent cinema. The arrival of sound proved hugely expensive to the studios, which not only had to purchase new sound-recording equipment, but also had to pay to wire their theaters for sound (the Hollywood studios were a vertically integrated oligopoly that controlled not only production, but also distribution and exhibition). All of this meant that when the Great Depression hit, the studios were carrying an enormous load of debt.

But for all of its revolutionary impact, The Jazz Singer today seems oddly backward looking. Not only is it largely a silent film (and, by the standards of 1927, not a particularly sophisticated silent film at that), but its main character’s star turn occurs in blackface, which was, by 1927, already losing its cultural centrality as a performance practice in the United States. Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot has interesting things to say about this aspect of the film.

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