The Stoneman family finds its friendship with the Camerons affected by the Civil War, both fighting in opposite armies. The development of the war in their lives plays through to Lincoln's assassination and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
Cantor Rabinowitz is concerned and upset because his son Jakie shows so little interest in carrying on the family's traditions and heritage. For five generations, men in the family have been cantors in the synagogue, but Jakie is more interested in jazz and ragtime music. One day, they have such a bitter argument that Jakie leaves home for good. After a few years on his own, now calling himself Jack Robin, he gets an important opportunity through the help of well-known stage performer Mary Dale. But Jakie finds that in order to balance his career, his relationship with Mary, and his memories of his family, he will be forced to make some difficult choices. Written by
For a mawkishly sentimental play that was outdated even when it first was presented on Broadway, The Jazz Singer has had a remarkable life with now three movie versions and possibly more to come. Of course it being considered the first sound film probably has a whole lot to do with it. I doubt it would have been remade twice already if it wasn't a historical moment.
But for trying to hold up the Brothers Warner for some extra salary for doing that first sound feature, Georgie Jessel might have been able to repeat the role he created on Broadway as Jakie Rabinowitz aka Jack Robin, cantor's son who runs away from home as a juvenile and comes back home in time to sing Kol Nidre at Yom Kippur services in place of his dying father. Jessel's greed was Al Jolson's gain as America's greatest live entertainer at the time got to inaugurate the era of movie sound.
As Al Jolson was wont to do in his stage shows, he interpolated material from all sources in his first film that he felt was suitable for him. Toot Toot Tootsie and interestingly enough My Mammy were songs he'd done on stage before and were proved material his audience would respond to. The first song he actually does sing is Dirty Hands, Dirty Face which was something he had not done before. Blue Skies which he sings to his mother after returning home as a Broadway star was in fact a current hit on Broadway at the time Jolson was singing it.
People from that era say that you cannot appreciate Jolson on the screen, that to really get the full impact of his dynamic stage presence you had to see him live. Maybe so, but since that isn't possible, there's enough of him in The Jazz Singer and other of his films to realize what a great entertainer he was, black-face or not.
Warner Oland, later to be the first Charlie Chan, plays Cantor Rabinowitz and Eugenie Besserer is touching as Jolson's mother caught hopelessly between her husband and son. In that first scene of a grownup Jolson in a café before he sings Dirty Hands, Dirty Face you will note that is William Demarest who he's dining with. Myrna Loy has a small role as a chorus girl.
Still 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.
Though The Jazz Singer is exponentially sentimental and mawkish, it does have a very nice depiction of Jewish life and neighborhood in the Teens and Twenties of the last century. And of course The Jazz Singer is a historic first.
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