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Before watching "The Jazz Singer", I really didn't know what to expect. I
knew very little about silent films, had seen very few silent films and
didn't know anything about Al Jolson. I did know that this movie was the
first movie to ever use sound, although it is used sparingly (In 5 Jolson
songs and a small bit of dialogue). A keen listener will also notice that
the noise level of the voice doesn't change in perspective to the distance
between the camera and the person speaking. Basically, this movie could be
considered a silent picture.
The movie itself was based on the idea that Jolson was to continue the family tradition of being a cantor but leaned towards Jazz music which was all the rage at the time. This greatly angered his father causing him to disown his son and refuse to talk to him. Of course, in the end they reconcile just before the father's death and right after Jolson delivers his cantoring at the synagogue. I wasn't really affected by this film and felt indifferent to the relationship between Jolson's character and his father. The relationship between Jolson's character and his girlfriend never really gets off the ground which might be a result of relationship beliefs at the time of filming.
I am baffled at how this movie made the AFI's top 100 list and can only attribute this to the fact that it was the first ever talkie. I would however recommend this film to anyone who is interested in seeing this important piece of film history.
This Warner Bros. part-talkie was the smash hit that started to spell the
end for silent movies. But is it really that good a film?
Benefiting from the larger-than-life presence of the great Al Jolson as the cantor's son who wants to be a popular singer, the famous scenes where he sings (and ad-libs some talk including the often cited and mimicked 'wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing yet') are certainly more memorable than the dull remainder of the film.
The story would be remade twice - in the 1950s with likeable Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee; and in the 1980s, overblown, with Neil Diamond and Lucie Arnaz - but rightly, this is the version which has passed into legend. That poster with the famous outstretched hands is the most recalled image of Jolson. He didn't really make a massive success in movies as his personality was probably too big for the screen, but he was a true showman.
Warner 'Charlie Chan' Oland plays his father, who just wants him to toe the line and sing in the synagogue. May McAvoy is the romantic interest, while Eugenie Besserer also makes history in her few spoken words on the soundtrack.
Most of the part-talkies made from 1927 to 1929 have sadly been lost through the years, and those which remain can only be described as curios and relics of a changing time. 'The Jazz Singer' is important, but it is a hard slog for today's audiences.
I saw this movie for its historial value, but I stayed for its greatness.
Because, first talkie or not, this is just a great movie. The 6.3 rating
baffled me; didn't everyone else like this interesting story about a boy who
abandons tradition and his father who disowns him? I can't think of anything
not to like about the movie. It's a fabulous movie, and a filmmaking
I'd like to comment on someone else's comments now. Someone said this movie was very racist and that's why it was successful, saying, "Would this film have still been successful if it was just Jolson as himself and not black-faced? Probably not. That's because people watched it to make themselves feel better about themselves."
I wonder if this commenter actually saw the movie. Jolson is only wearing blackface for about 15 minutes for a performance. The rest of the movie, Jolson IS himself. Jolson never plays an African-American as his character in the movie, he just sings a song as one. Yes, the song is somewhat racist by today's standards, but most of this comment is not valid at all. In fact, I suspect the comment was written solely based on a glance at the video box cover.
Anyway, if you wanna see a historical landmark in film or if you wanna see a fabulous movie (half-talkie, half-silent), go ahead and see "The Jazz Singer."
If you've never seen it what you have to get into your head is that THE JAZZ SINGER wasn't the first all-talking picture. In fact, it was a silent picture to which a certain amount of talking and, of course, singing was later added and in such a perfunctory way it's little wonder people said it would never catch on. This looks like an experiment and not a very good one. It was based on a play by Samson Raphaelson though it was hardly likely to be remembered as great drama; indeed it is shamelessly sentimental and melodramatic. Fundamentally this is a vehicle for the great Al Jolson who, even in these primitive circumstances, brings the stamp of his considerable personality to every scene in which he sings. As the man himself says, "You ain't heard nothing' yet". You can just imagine how cinema audiences must have felt at the time.
In a review here on IMDb of Jerry Lewis' 1959 TV version of the Jazz
Singer a reviewer stated that the Jazz Singer is a film very much of
its time. I've now seen four versions: Lewis' TV adaption, the original
with Al Jolson, the 1952 Danny Thomas version, the Neil Diamond 1980s
version, and Jerry Lewis' TV adaption. I now understand why the Jazz
Singer belongs to its original time period. It's not a story about a
jazz singer - though all the versions over the years have kept the
title. At first I thought it was Jolson's personality and performance
that made the story legendary. Certainly the power of hearing Jolson
sing was instrumental in making the original movie a sensation.
The story is about the old clashing with the new: it's apt that it was chosen for Jolson's vehicle, part silent mixed with the scenes of Jolson singing (as I remember it, none of the scenes with sound were all dialogue: all featured singing, and two of the singing voices weren't Jolson's).
It's also about the old generation clashing with the new generation: the father's old world cantor struggling with the son's new world show business song and dance man.
The story doesn't really work in the later versions. Jerry Lewis was a good singer and he's fantastic in the opening sequence. But his version is really more about him as a comic. The Thomas version is bland and pedestrian. The Neil Diamond version is cheesy and unconvincing: for one thing, he's not a jazz singer, he's a pop singer.
The later movies are dominated by the echoes of the elements of the Jolson movie, already clichés by the end of the 1920s: the big show, the big chance, the call to his father's deathbed, and the last scene with the son honoring the father.
The original is charged by its reflections of Jewish culture: the big chance comes on the evening of Yom Kippur, and the son's reconciliation comes through performing his father's role of singing Kol Nidre and leading the evening services. For me one of the most powerful sequences of the movie doesn't feature Jolson singing: it's the scene in which his character hears Yossele Rosenblatt singing- in a theater, note, not in a synagogue.
I realized that the Jazz Singer also echoes the anxieties of the first European born generation regarding the American born second generation: will they keep the traditions, or reject everything, including morality and religious belief. The 1950s versions- both the Thomas movie and Lewis' TV play- have a father who is evidently American as well. Hence the story doesn't have the resonance of the fears of adjusting to a new country and the freedom it brings. (Diamond's version features a father who is a Holocaust survivor, but as I remember it the movie doesn't greatly explore the father's ambivalence towards the openness of American society.)
The later movies are also dominated by the echoes of Jolson's performance, not just his singing, but also in the scenes in which he pays tribute to his father and his heritage by leading the Kol Nidre service. It's both interesting and bizarre that in the closing of the Lewis version, Jerry Lewis is wearing cantor's robes and his clown makeup in the synagogue before the congregation- a reference to Jolson as a show business legend and to Jolson's performance as Jack Robin, the son conquering the new world with its modern new media, and at the same time continuing the culture of his heritage. The movie still has much to say to modern audiences. And despite the limitations of the early sound technology the outdated conventions of silent film acting and storytelling, and the numbers in blackface which are now seen as offensive, Jolson shines in the performance of his life.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Jazz Singer" may not have been the first film featuring sound, as
there had been several experimental short films with sound earlier. For
instance see the Theodore Case Sound Test: "Gus Visser and his Singing
Duck" (1925), which is easily found online in YouTube. But "The Jazz
Singer" was the first feature length film to use real sound, although
dialog is limited as most of the film is silent (at least
three-quarters) with Title Cards (intertitles). It is accompanied by a
Vitaphone Orchestra score and features singing sequences by Al Jolson,
America's favorite entertainer. The success of this film transformed
the movie industry from the silent to talkies.
The story begins in the Lower East Side of the New York City Ghetto. Bearded cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) tells his wife, Sara (Eugenie Besserer) that his ambition is for their son, Jakie (Bobby Gordon) to continue in the family tradition and succeed him as cantor at the Orchard Street synagogue. Sara, though, knows differently, as young Jakie really wants to be an entertainer, a jazz singer. Not long after, Cantor Rabinowitz catches young Jakie singing popular (ragtime) songs like "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" in Muller's neighborhood bar- café. Outraged that Jakie is defying Jewish tradition, the cantor promptly takes him home to give him a whipping. To Sara's detriment, Jakie responds by leaving home. Nevertheless, Cantor Rabinowitz proceeds with the services at the synagogue, telling another cantor that he has no son.
The years pass, and three thousand miles away Jakie Rabinowitz has become well-known entertainer Jack Robin (Al Jolson) at Coffee Dan's nightclub in San Francisco. The audience is aroused by his singing when Jolson says those famous words: "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothing' yet. Wait a minute, I tell ya, you ain't heard nothing'! Do you wanna hear 'Toot, Toot, Tootsie!'? All right, hold on, hold on. Lou (band leader), listen. Play 'Toot, Toot, Tootsie!' Three choruses, you understand. In the third chorus I whistle. Now give it to 'em hard and heavy. Go right ahead!" Jack makes an impression on Mary Dale (May McAvoy), an attractive theatrical dancer with clout who decides to give him an opportunity to appear in an upcoming show. It develops into a successful run on vaudeville circuits at all major western cities. He writes to his mother, but Sara is chagrined to learn that he now has a non-Jewish name and has fallen in love with a non-Jewish girl. Later, he receives news that he is to star in a major Broadway revue.
Back in New York, Jack decides to return home to see Sara and to participate in celebrating his father's sixtieth birthday. Sara welcomes Jack home with open arms, but when Cantor Rabinowitz returns home to find Jakie singing "Blue Skies" to his mother, father and son have another brouhaha, causing Jack to storm away once more. "Leave my house! I never want to see you again, you jazz singer!"
During a dress rehearsal before opening night on Broadway, an important public performance, Sara comes backstage to Jack, telling him that his father is ill and might be dying, and he must return home for Yom Kippur and take his father's place at the altar to sing "Kol Nidre." Now he's faced with the difficult decision to eschew his big break to be at the synagogue. If only opening night could be postponed. In the end, Al Jolson eventually sings "My Mammy" (in blackface).
Although Al Jolson was a plodding actor, his vibrant voice brings enthusiasm to the silver screen. "The Jazz Singer" is not a great movie by any means, but it is entertaining and its influence was far-reaching. After 1927, talkies became the norm. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock saw the writing on the wall and filmed his "Blackmail" in both silent and talkie versions; the latter is what we see today. "The Jazz Singer" does present a slice of Jewish life in the early twentieth century. Note that blackface entertainment, which had been popular since the mid-nineteenth century, was not considered inappropriate then. It came into public disfavor by mid- century.
In NYC, child Jakie defies his father Cantor Rabinowitz, his culture
and family tradition to sing in the ragtime jazz club. He runs away
after a whipping by his father. Years later in Chicago, Jakie (Al
Jolson) becomes singer Jack Robin. He's smitten with performer Mary
Dale (May McAvoy) and she gets him an important opportunity.
This is the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences. There has been shorts with dialogue but this is considered the dawn of the talkies. Al Jolson's first line is "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing' yet" which is great on many levels. The story itself is nothing special but at least, it doesn't suck. For such an iconic movie landmark, it would be horrible if this movie is bad in any way. It's a musical with a couple of great songs. The blackface could be irksome for parts of modern audience but that's the style back in the day. It's not meant to be offensive. This is worthy movie for such a big technical signpost.
The "roaring twenties" was a huge time for the United States! There were many new things going on! One huge thing was that people would go to movie theaters to watch old silent films! This was also when the prohibition happened so people were having parties and the crime family thrived with illegal usage and selling of alcohol. The twenties was also the birth of a whole new genre of music: Jazz! Starting in Harlem, jazz quickly grew everywhere in the US. But something in 1927 happened that no one thought would happen, The Jazz Singer came out! This movie was the very first talkie! Most major movie companies thought that the world was not ready for a talkie was it was deemed to be a complete and utter failure. Something surprised them, however, it was a huge success, gaining money and putting a lot of silent actors into a jobless environment. This movie was a stepping stone to cinema history!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Once you strip away this movie's historical significance and musical numbers, you are left with some pretty heavy melodrama. Forced to choose between a long Jewish tradition from the old country and the individualism and freedom of America, Jakie chooses the latter, and is disowned by his father, a cantor from a long line of cantors who wants his son to be a cantor. This goes on through the whole movie and it wears you out. But then, on the opening night of his first big break in the theater, Jakie finds out his father is dying, and there is no one to sing in the temple on the Day of Atonement. He agonizes and agonizes over the choice he must make between family and career. But what was he worried about? Didn't he know this was a Hollywood movie where people get to have it both ways? He chooses to sing for his father, and then goes on to sing in the theater too, becoming a great success.
Seldom do I give a 10 star rating as few films are perfect, but this movie is as close to perfect as it could get for a silent film. The story line is sweet, the dubbed over original soundtrack is wonderful, making it interesting, and never left me wanting it to hurry up and end. Because this movie is available on Blu-ray, made it even better for having the quality it deserves. It certainly should be listed as a classic silent film in the top 100 of the genre. To rate this movie with just one word,"Fantastic", would be more than enough. It would be fair to say that this great early film is wonderful as the other top silent films of the age, such as the Big Parade, Wings, Sunrise, the Crowd and many, many others.
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