The Jazz Singer (1927)
Never mind the history for a sec, this is a pretty good drama about the clash of two generations in New York City. It must have been a familiar story, the stern Old World father and the son with dreams of making it American style. And there are familiar strains of devotion to religion and pure love of success and the joy of life.
This is all set, appropriately for New York at the time, in a Jewish context. The protagonist is the son, with a talent for singing and love of the stage, played by a man who fit that description perfectly, Al Jolson. His father is a real patriarchal icon, a bit cardboard in his unwavering attitudes (there is no sense of conversation here, simply saying, "No," loudly). But this might not be so far from the truth. The mother is another stereotype, surely, but a completely believable one, and a lovely one, compassionate and trying with some success to see that America really is different than the old Europe they left behind.
The crux of the conflict is whether the son has any right to abandon the generational calling to be a cantor--a singer of holy songs for the temple. The timing--Yom Kippur, which is perfect, since the movie was released the day before Yom Kippur, 1927. It really is a day of atonement, and the movie does not avoid the sanctity of that day, or of the traditions of being a Jew, new or old style. There are routine portions of the plot, and some filming that is a little awkward at best, but really the overall idea is a great one for the time.
But wait, this is the famous Jazz Singer, which made the film world (and the world) realize that sound was finally here. The technological hurdles were finally cleared. (This is dramatized nicely in Scorsese's "The Aviator," by the way.) Most of "The Jazz Singer" is standard silent film, but with a more or less parallel sound track (much like "Sunrise" had done, and done better, actually, a month earlier). But there are those startling, wonderful few moments--a few songs, one singing by a well known cantor, and a beautiful dialog between the son and the mother near the end--that feel like a door has opened and light and air and the smell of Spring has come in. I do not exaggerate, and this is 2010.
One reason this works is because of the clumsy (truly clumsy) transitions between the silent mainstream and the synch sound sections. The contrast is uncanny. A pure sound film, as would be the norm in a couple years, avoids this contrast, and of course most of us prefer that. But if it is the advent of true sound in movies we are looking for, the change in ambiance and realism between one section and the next is really worth watching for. Even now.
Deservedly famous, even to this day.
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