The Jazz Singer (1927)


(director: Alan Crosland; screenwriters: from the short story and play “The Day of Atonement” by Samson Raphaelson/Jack Jarmuth/Alfred A. Cohn; cinematographer: Hal Mohr; editor: Harold McCord; music: Louis Silvers; cast: Al Jolson (Jakie Rabinowitz/Jack Robin), May McAvoy (Mary Dale), Warner Oland (Cantor Rabinowitz), Eugenie Besserer (Sara Rabinowitz), Cantor Josef Rosenblatt (Himself), Otto Lederer (Moisha Yudelson), Bobby Gordon (Jakie Rabinowitz), Richard Tucker (Harry Lee), Natt Carr (Levi), William Demarest (Steve Martin), Anders Randolf (Dillings), Will Walling (Doctor), Roscoe Karns (Agent), Audrey Ferris (Chorus Girl); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: NR; Warner Brothers; 1927)

“The Broadway melodrama is schmaltzy, but the music thank God is heavenly.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warner Brothers uses its newest technique, Edison’s Vitaphone sound system to save its studio from bankruptcy and succeeds big time with the first feature-length Hollywood “talkie” film (songs and a few scenes with dialogue). It should be noted that there were previously talkie shorts. The landmark film remains of interest as an historical curiosity because it was the film that caused such a public clamor that it forced the industry to discard silents and go completely to talkies. Also, because it has Al Jolson, arguably the most popular entertainer of his time, in his trademark blackface, which reflected America’s and Hollywood’s stereotyping attitude towards blacks at the time (acceptable then, but now it’s a no-no). It’s directed by Alan Crosland; he made Don Juan in 1926 (which was a superior film), Warners’ first Vitaphone film, that contained music but no dialogue (The Jazz Singer took the talking one step further). It was based upon Samson Raphaelson’s 1921 short story “The Day of Atonement,” which was also made in 1926 into a hit Broadway play; it’s adapted for the screen by Alfred A. Cohn. Jolson sings a number of songs that include “My Gal Sal,” “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face,” “Toot-Toot-Tootsie Goo’Bye,” “Blue Skies,” “Mammy,” and “Kol Nidre.” There’s also an outstanding solemn song delivered by Cantor Josef Rosenblatt. The Broadway melodrama is schmaltzy, but the music thank God is heavenly.

It’s set at the turn of the century in the lower East Side of New York, a ghetto area heavily populated by Jewish immigrants. Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) expects his thirteen-year-old son Jakie (Bobby Gordon) to follow his footsteps and those of five generations of Rabinowitzs to become a cantor. But the youngster on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is seen by neighborhood gossip Yudelson (Otto Lederer) singing in a saloon and rats him out to his father, who drags him home and gives him a beating and a lecture. The kid tells his concerned mother Sara (Eugenie Besserer) that he’s going to trade in his yarmulke to be a jazz singer. He then runs away and the movie picks him up as an adult, who changed his name to Jack Robin (Al Jolson), singing jazz at Coffee Dan’s nightspot in San Francisco and getting cozy with a vaudeville dancer named Mary Dale (May McAvoy). To make his beloved mother even more nervous, Mary is a shiksa. With Mary’s help, Jack is hired to be in the same traveling vaudeville troupe. When Mary lands a gig in New York, she hooks Jack up with the show and he heads for New York to pay a surprise visit home on his father’s sixtieth birthday. Mom is happy to see him and he sings some jazz songs and promises to buy her a house in the countrified Bronx. But his father is irate to see him singing jazz songs in his house and after a heated argument tells his son he never wants to see him again. With the show April Follies about to open on Yom Kippur, Yudelson comes to the theater while Jack is in a dress rehearsal to tell him his father is sick and there’s no cantor to sing Kol Nidre. Jack refuses, saying he’s a jazz singer. Then Yudelson returns with his Mom, who pleads with him to do it for his dying father so he can hear his voice once more before he passes on. Again he refuses, and Mom leaves knowing her son’s heart belongs to the stage. But Jack returns and despite the Broadway producer and Mary urging him to go on stage or else his career will be over, the opening show is canceled as he sings Kol Nidre so his father can hear it emanating from the nearby synagogue and he dies in peace. It closes with Jack returning to the Broadway show as a big star and singing in blackface “Mammy” as his mother and Yudelson proudly sit in the front row and Mary kvells from the wings.

The film’s most famous scene has Jolson and the film coming out of the silent mode as he boldly states “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” and goes on to belt out “Toot-Toot-Tootsie Goo’Bye.”

The mawkish story isn’t why the film was so popular, the reason had to be the tremendous impact of hearing Jolson ad-lib and sing. The dull sentimental film only comes to life during those moments of Jolson singing, and those moments are powerful and counteract his hammy (not kosher) performance.