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The Jazz Singer is mainly known today as being the first feature length
sound film. Other than this historical fact, it is not particularly
familiar to most audiences. This is unsurprising, as its technical
achievements are the only noteworthy aspect of the film.
The Jazz Singer tells the all too familiar story of a young man's clash with his traditional parents. Young Jakie Rabinowitz runs away from home after being brutally punished for playing ragtime music. He soon gains success as a jazz performer. However, after going back to New York to perform on Broadway, his parents come back to haunt him.
Aside from the pedestrian nature of the plot, the film suffers from an unconvincing main conflict. Jakie's father is demonstrably abusive, and it is hard to see why he would care what the man thought once he became an adult. Consequently, the climax, which revolves around the father's illness, is rendered silly, and you wish Jakie would tell the old man what he can do.
That said, the technical quality of the sound in the film is surprisingly good given how old it is. Jolson's voice comes across well, and will make you want to purchase his greatest hits album. The music is also good.
The film is now somewhat infamous for its use of black face. Although this definitely dates the film, it does not necessarily make it racist. For starters, the black face scenes only comprise a very small portion of the film towards the end. More importantly, the black face performance shown is not particularly racist, particularly when compared to contemporary films such as Birth of a Nation. Indeed, far less well known blackface scenes, such as Judy Garland's blackface audition in Everybody Sing, are far more offensive.
Justly remembered for revolutionizing the business (though more of the
movie is silent than the producers would have had you believe), The
Jazz Singer is nevertheless, at its best, a mediocre movie. It inspires
nothing in the hearts and minds of its audience, and it seems to be so
enamored with what we are hearing that it forgets to worry about what
we are watching.
This was the only major work of Al Jolson's career, but what he does here is very good and probably the best thing about the movie. Jolson is Jack Robin, a name he changed from Jakie Rabinowitz to escape his Jewish heritage. He grew up the son of a Jewish cantor and was expected to follow in his father's spiritual footsteps but instead leaves home to seek a career as a jazz singer. The big climax of the film is the night when Jack must make the decision to perform in a revue that could be his big break in New York or to sing in his dying father's place even though the cantor had disowned him.
Silent movies derive their strength less from their stories than their images; the Jazz Singer's story is not amazing, but with inspired imagery it could have been very moving. Instead, I found myself pretty bored. One could use the time period as an excuse for this, but when Charlie Chaplin can make brilliant movies like "The Gold Rush," one expects more from a hyped-up movie like this.
All that said, there is something exciting in the feeling that you are watching history like this. When Al Jolson said that famous line "You ain't heard nothing yet!" I felt I was a part of something far bigger than just a modern revolution in film made for commercial purposes; realizing the future movies that this one affected and knowing the art that it helped to create was an awe-inspiring moment that only those who love the movies can really understand. So as a piece of history, The Jazz Singer is worth seeing; but as a movie, it fails to inspire.
The first demonstration of a taking film was probably a test film W. K.
Laurie Dickson showed to Thomas Edison in 1889.
1922, Phonofilm (Optical) 1926, Movietone (Optical) and Vitaphone (Phono Disk)
In 1926, Warners premiered Don Juan, the first full length Vitaphone film, and the first with a synchronized sound track of music and audio effects. A year later, The Jazz Singer became the first feature with synchronized singing and dialog.
The Jazz Singer, is not the first "talkie", but is the first full-length feature film with sound vs a short.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's nice when a historically important movie is also pretty good. The
Jazz Singer will always be known as the first sound film (even though
more than half of it is silent), the first musical, and so on, but it's
still somewhat fun to watch. Al Jolson plays a Jewish performer who
constantly has to struggle over his identity ("the calls of his race"
by the writing of the movie). Jolson is genuinely good at portraying
the internal rupture while singing powerful and moving songs. The movie
itself is strongly concerned with spectacle, with dancing, performance,
and well-timed and significant choices of when to go to sound--it not
only transitions smoothly back and forth, but for fans of structural
aspects like me it's interesting to notice things about how they use
sound versus silence in a way that could almost have been done today as
an experiment. Of course, it WAS experimental: the first public showing
of the process of course has nothing previous to build upon. But still,
it's a remarkably good movie by itself for just being famous for its
Although this is the first movie to use sound, there are quite a few silent scenes. Nevertheless, this is a pretty cool movie. It starts out where they show Jackie Rabonowitz at age 13 singing jazz in a local bar. His father, a rabbi, hears about this and furiously drags him home. This movie is quite similar to a "Simpsons" episode that I saw entitled "Like Father, Like Clown." In it, Krusty the Klown (Hershel Krustofski) tells the Simpson family about how his father was a rabbi and did not want him to become a clown. He later faces his father and he loves him for who he is just like Cantor Rabonowitz did with his son Jackie (who was now Jack Robins). I guess this is where Matt Groening got the idea. This movie could in a way be considered a musical because of its various songs such as "Kidel Nor" (the Jewish song Jack sings later on in the movie) and "Mammy" (in which he has his face painted like a black person).
THE JAZZ SINGER (Warner Brothers, 1927), directed by Alan Crosland, is
an experimental movie that premiered on that historic night of October
6, 1927, becoming the first feature length film to use sound. Hailed as
the "first talkie," it is actually a silent movie accompanied by a
Vitaphone Orchestra score conducted by Louis Silvers, with limited
dialog and singing sequences mostly by Al Jolson, the Broadway
headliner of his day making his feature film debut. Although based on
the 1925 play that starred George Jessel, the plot itself could easily
be Jolson's own life story itself.
The story opens in the ghetto of New York City where Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) discusses his high hope ambition to his wife, Sara (Eugenie Besserer) for their son, Jakie (Bobby Gordon) to succeed him as cantor, but Mrs. Sara Rabinowitz, a kind-hearted person ("God made her a woman and love made her a mother"), only knows that Jakie wants more in life than just following old Hebrew traditions. After being caught singing ragtime songs ("My Gal Sal" and "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee") in a neighborhood saloon, Old Man Rabinowitz takes his son home to give him a good whipping. But that doesn't stop Jakie, who makes a big decision to leave home. Years later, Jakie Rabinowitz becomes Jack Robin (Al Jolson), and gets his first break singing at a night club in San Francisco where he makes an impression of Mary Dale (May McAvoy), a theatrical dancer who decides to give him a opportunity to appear in an upcoming show. Later, he receives news that he is to star in a Broadway revue. Back in New York, Jack decides to return home to see Mama and to participate in celebrating his father's 60th birthday. Mama welcomes Jack home with open arms (literally), but when Rabinowitz returns home to find Jakie singing "Blue Skies" to his mother, father and son have another bawling out, causing Jack to leave home once more. During dress rehearsal, Mama Rabinowitz comes backstage to Jack, telling him that his father is ill and might be dying, and he must return home for Yom Kippor and take his father's place at the altar to sing "Kol Nidre." Now he's faced with the terrible situation.
While it's been said on movie documentaries that "The Jazz Singer" is a terrible movie, then and now, with the exception of using a couple of different songs, I cannot see how this movie could have been done any other way. Jolson fits his role like a glove, possibly reenacting his own life story on film. He ad-libs in one scene while talking to his on-screen mother, who is heard speaking a few lines of dialog. Oland gets to be heard on screen shouting only one word, "STOP!" And May McAvoy only speaks through title cards. Her voice is never heard. Some of the title cards presented on screen are, at times, unintentionally funny. In spite of everything, these things can be overlooked for this a 1927 movie, even though I've heard some worse dialog come from recent movies.
Also in the cast are Otto Lederer as Moisha Yudelson; Nat Carr as Levi; William Demarest as Buster Billings, whose scenes were reduced to only a brief bit set in Coffee Dan's café. Look fast for a young Myrna Loy as one of the gossiping chorus girls.
Other songs include: "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face," "Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Goodbye," "Mother, I Still Have You" and "Mammy" (all sung by Jolson) Cantor Josef Rosenblatt appears as himself singing "Yahrzeit" (In Memorium) during a special concert performance. He's possibly the one who dubs for Warner Oland's temple singing of "Kol Nidre" (All Vows)in the early portion of the story.
"The Jazz Singer" is palatable for those who enjoy watching films made during the dawn of sound era. It might be unbearable to those who feel Neil Diamond's 1981 remake to be a masterpiece. (And let's not forget there was a 1952 first remake starring Danny Thomas). The 1927 original is available for viewing on video cassette, DVD, or on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. (***)
One of the most unique movies of all times, the first talking picture and all. I saw this movie for the first time a year ago. although it was for school, i actually enjoyed this movie, doing a unit in film studies on Black cinema immeditally following, put things into prespective. in 1927 black face was commonplace and it was in 1929 as well when Show Boat came out. both have black face in it and watching it now really doesnt belittle the blacks at all, its just that the style of music that they sing in both while Jakie and Magnolia are in black face are song that you might have seen them,the blacks, preform in real life. everyone who dislikes it should really watch this film for its historical signifigance. great movie, funny dialogue, love it it gets a 10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
All my life I promised myself that I'd sit down some evening and watch
"The Jazz Singer". Well, just a couple of days after my 65th birthday,
I finally did. I love old movies...but not quite this old. My interest
begins about 5 years after this production...somewhere around 1932
(give or take).
Without dialog (and this film only has spoken word in some parts...mostly Jolson's songs), films go very slowly to me...and this film is no exception. Of course, I didn't watch this film for entertainment. I watched for its history, and this film is just as historical as about anything you'll find in a museum -- the first real talking motion picture -- a true revolution.
Nevertheless, the plot here is not too bad if you can stand all those silent dialog boxes. I'd like to criticize Jolson for sometimes over-acting, but is that fair way back during the transition from silent to talking pictures? Certainly Warner Oland (later Charlie Chan, here the father and cantor) is stiff as a board...even before he died in the film. Eugenie Besserer as the mother was quite good. Otto Lederer has an entertaining role as a family friend. And of course, every one and every thing is VERY Jewish.
This film is primitive enough (though the print shown on TCM is very good considering the age) that you may not find it palatable. In that case, soak in the history as you watch the man who considered himself to be the world's greatest entertainer. This film is history.
Finally after all these years of hearing about this movie, and seeing clips from it in historical film documentaries, I finally watched it! And I really liked it too! The story is universal and still applies today, Jolson was great as the Jewish cantor's son who wanted to be a jazz singer instead of a cantor like his father. Of course this movie is famous for having bits of dialogue spoken, and they are spoken during the song sequences. This device is both really cool, and makes you wish the whole movie were a talky, but it also is kinda annoying at times too, as the transitions are a bit awkward. Overall, I really liked this movie, though, it's got heart.
The Jazz Singer is an important film historically since it was most definitely the film that brought the world into the sound era. Looked at today, many people hate the black face used by Al Jolson in the film but that was, like it or not, a very popular entertainment art form back in those days. Much has been said about the songs and ad-libs interpolated in the film, which was mostly silent with a synchronized music score. They are fine and channel the true Jolson. The film was given a very good restoration several years ago and it looks and sounds better than ever on the new DVD and Blu-Ray releases. The opening and exit music is present, and the DVD set I have is just about the most spectacular one ever released. Three discs with more extra features than I have ever see, and a cornucopia of printed materials originally released with the film in 1927. Listening to the cleaned-up musical score on the DVD, it sounds surprisingly modern, capturing the many moods of the various scenes. Yes, there are dated elements in this film, but they are overshadowed by the fact that this represents a cinematic watershed.
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