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All right, I'm now starting my review of movie musicals in chronological order (mostly) by commenting on the one that transitioned the silent-to-talkie era: The Jazz Singer. This is the one that put Warner Bros. on the map of the Major Studios. This is the one that made Al Jolson a film star having previously conquered Broadway and the recording industry. This is the one that ended the silent era and ushered in the talkies even though this was mostly silent with a recorded score, Jolson singing, and some dialogue scenes with him and the woman playing his mother. Oh, and while Jolson had said "You ain't heard nothing' yet" in his debut short A Plantation Act, here in this picture is where he is most famous for saying that. His performance as a singer is bar none here and his acting isn't so bad either though when it comes to the part where he has to choose between honoring his dying father on The Day of Atonement and his Broadway break at the same time, the film threatens into ridiculous melodrama. Still, for the most part, I liked the drama that ensured there and the humor of some of the supporting characters. So on that note, The Jazz Singer was pretty enjoyable for both historical and entertainment purposes. Also, while I was a bit embarrassed for Al's blackface act in his previous short, here I was less so since he wears a suit when he does that here and doesn't speak in the stereotypical dialect usually associated with such characterization. P.S. On the current DVD there's also some commentary by Ron Hutchinson, a founder of The Vitaphone Project which is dedicated to the preservation of the films and discs from that studio, and Vince Giordano, a band leader who often performs with his combo many of these classic tunes from Jolson's time, that shed light on the techniques of this film's recording and some of its players like which of the showgirls was Myrna Loy.
I hope nobody regards this as a shill for Warner Brothers... In 2007 a 3 disc edition was put out with background material about the movie, the times of 1927, and a disc of burlesque programs which ended with George Burns and Gracie Allen. There is also a short of Al Jolsen in blackface and dressed as a farmboy from the farm. And yes, it is stereotypical. But no different than the ethnic humor of that day which depicted Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews in exaggerated fashion for the sake of comedy. And as more than one person has pointed out, Jolsen in blackface in the movie only occurs but a short time when he is performing on stage. The explanation given to the viewer of the DVD is that the blackface and white gloves were used by the actor so people in the back of the theater could see the performer. And yes blackface was used well into the 1940s; Irving Berlin's 1941 "Holiday Inn" has a scene where Crosby wants to hide his girl from Fred Astaire, so he puts blackface on her. And blackface must have been offensive even by standards of 1940s, for in 1955 they made "White Christmas" without the blackface. "The Jazz Singer" storyline is hokey, but still enjoyable.
"The Jazz Singer" (1927) directed by Alan Crosland it is as movie very
unusual and strongly grotesque, an extraordinary success by its musical
drama construction, with the spontaneous and glad cooperation of Al
Jolson, as singer with a black ink on his face as fake skin, because
his own father whom is against the skilled transfer of the learned
technique of this specific art of singing a kind of spirituals from the
church, as the same like to the stage but with another melodic timber.
The story is in itself so fantastic that with still a bit of some
prejudice against many illogic things, that even today are almost as
two times ironic. The girl is also very nice, fellows.
From Swedish origin, this very good stage artist coming also from Broadway is the character of the first unforgettable talkie, made by Warner Brothers with Vitaphone technical revolution and with a screen adaptation from a theatrical entertainment, like the play from 1925. The sound is guttural which means it came from the throat for the effect of musical voice, when he says to his mother the attribute of his relative as romantic supplement of the night's sight of this plot. Made as entertainment risking interdiction by the rules not written concerning segregation both religious by free expression and color of skins as inequality of the time. Except in singers nonetheless this masquerade from Hollywood before the code, to bring up animosity against sadness of blues from Mississippi with such a noisy souls from the cotton lands, but courageously in this specific case making the bridge between church chorus and vocal group out of that line of fire for show business in night clubs. Everywhere around the world of rhythms from slaves of another continent, as roots of all this turmoil of sound, even from the nostrils of Al Jolson and his imitative figure of a Negro's spirituals expressing love by song in spite of relatives opposition.
This kind of movie was by chance and full opportunity the open door for a more ambitious story out of the screens at the time, concerning such a problem of integrity of the masked character : smiling nowhere as in the round circus of the stage, concealed by such a tonic accents in that way of speaking about domestic affairs. Without apparently any other issue than fighting on the backwards of streets bad known and too at short term in the local society, actually with no other way out then talking in between. To the surprise of the viewers this movie is much more interesting than it was supposed to be, because its state of plasticity in the relatively short content of this narrative, which it plays well fresh fervor a little bit camp. Nonetheless the strange affection in it by the melody, at the time of foolish years and just before the Depression crisis.
Although a less than spectacular film, it is a part of film history and preservation and if you salute that cause like I do, you will salute this first talkie as a milestone.
Jazz Singer, The (1927)
* 1/2 (out of 4)
The most important film in history? I don't think so but it's follows the simple story of a young Jewish boy who gets kicked out of his house by his father and years later grows into a great jazz singer. I've never really understood why this film was anything special. Yes, I know it was the first feature to use sound but I say so what to this for several reasons. First, there were sound shorts before this that have just as much talking as this movie because for the most part this is 90% silent with a handful of sound moments. Another thing I've always wondered is why Warner didn't just go ahead and make this a sound movie from start to finish. Either way, I find the film deadly dull because all the silent sequences are full of bad acting and really bad direction. It seems that no effort when into these sequences because the director felt that the sound sequences would be good enough to carry the film. Perhaps in 1927 but not today. Al Jolson, during the famous first talking scene, does a great job and these early sound sequences still pack a nice little punch. The story is totally predictable but I guess that's to be expected.
Rather than follow in his father's footsteps, a Jewish cantor's son
runs away from home to become a jazz singer; many years later he
returns to New York to star in a Broadway show and attempts a
reconciliation with his implacable father. Even 1927 audiences thought
it was pretty silly--but no one ever went to see THE JAZZ SINGER
because it was a great film. They went to see it because you could hear
the actors talk.
Not that they do much talking. Al Jolson performs several of his popular numbers and there are occasional snatches of speech and dialogue, but for all practical purposes THE JAZZ SINGER is a silent film. The cast, which includes Warner Oland (better known for his later appearances as Charlie Chan) plays very broadly, and the result is mildly entertaining. But the interest here is largely historical. Film historians, students, and buffs will be eager to see it--and rightly so--but I do not recommend it for the casual viewer.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Al Jolson made cinematic history in October of 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer. Jolson stars as the son of a cantor who can't accept Jolson's penchant for wanting to sing jazz instead of becoming a sixth generation cantor. Jolson has a few singing scenes which are accompanied by synchronized sound, and his energy in the role is hard to ignore. However, the plot is very creaky, even by 1920's standards with embarrassing overacting, complete with breast-beating by the actress playing Jolson's mother: Eugenie Besserer. Swedish actor Warner Oland, who in a few years garnered fame as Charlie Chan, plays Jolson's stubborn (and quite frankly), obnoxious father. May McAvoy is Jolson's girl who sees him through these troubled spots. Musical highlights include "Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye", "Blue Skies", and the closer "My Mammy". Alfred A. Cohn adapted the screenplay from the play by Samson Raphaelson. Director Alan Crosland reached his zenith with directing this film. Time has taken a toll on this film for sure. Look for William Demarest in a bit role and Myrna Loy as a chorus girl. ** of 4 stars.
In this movie Al Jolson is an Ashekenazi Jew whose parents emigrated from Eastern Europe during the the early 20th Century. Progroms and antisemitic acts of violence in Russia and the Pale from 1871-1906 forced these communities to settle in the Lower East Side of New York. Like all children of immigrants Al Jolson's character had to go through the difficult process of assimilating into American culture. How did he do this ? Through the music of another marginalized people groups in America. His father however was a cantor, which is a Jewish singer that leads singing in the synagogue. Being the son of a Cantor he quite naturally had signing talent but wanted to forgo his father's profession to seek his own identity in the American world.
Despite being labeled as the first talkie, and the first sucessful talkie, this movie is notable for neither. It is notable because it was the first film in which film was used in a fictional narrative story, not as a novelty or addition to a filmed vaudville act. This movie is famous for being the first talkie because it whet the audience's appitite for talking films, used as they were in The Jazz Singer.
This is the highest recommendation I could make for anybody. I mean, sure. It's mostly silent, it's black and white, it's from 1927, but that's not how I see it. The sound is one thing, the story that goes along with it is another. Whether you're from a Jewish family, or know some things about the Jewish religion, or whatever, this is not, and I mean not, a movie that will disappoint you. I've seen it about fifty times now, and I enjoy it more each time.
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