Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE JAZZ SINGER (1927)

If people think of Al Jolson at all today, they think of him in blackface, belting out his plaintive "Mammy" song at the end of The Jazz Singer (1927) or in countless cartoon parodies of it. It may well discourage viewers from giving the original movie a chance, which is a shame because, as problematic as such a moment has become, it only accounts for a small part of what is mostly a very good picture, with a surprisingly sensitive take on a different minority group's American experience. Although The Jazz Singer is often cited merely as a footnote in movie history, it has enough merit as a film in its own right to reward viewers who enjoy sentimental tales of the conflict between personal desire and familial duty, and those interested in the Jewish-American experience ought to find it especially compelling.

Jolson stars as Jakie Rabinowitz, the American-born son of Jewish immigrants who struggle to pass their Old World values on to the next generation. Jakie, meant by his father (Warner Oland) to continue the traditional family role as cantor, rebels against a life spent in the synagogue because he longs to be a jazz singer and a star. He runs away from home after a particularly heart-rending scene with his father, changes his name to Jack Robin, and pursues a life on the stage. There he meets Mary Dale (May McAvoy), another ambitious young soul who urges him on to stardom, but Jakie is torn by his feelings. Through all of his highs and lows, Jakie's mother (Eugenie Besserer) remains devoted to him and longs to see their broken family ties restored.

I don't intend to defend blackface as a practice; it's certainly racist and offensive to modern viewers, but it was a staple of the minstrel shows and vaudeville routines that shaped Jolson's career and those of many of his contemporaries. You'll find it in many classic films that people still watch, including A Day at the Races (1937) and Holiday Inn (1942), and even the all African-American picture, Stormy Weather (1943). Like sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other kinds of prejudice, racism is one of those things viewers and readers have to confront when they look at works from earlier eras.

Still, there's a lot more going on in The Jazz Singer than a white guy cashing in on the vogue for minstrel shows. The overwhelming concern of the story is Jakie's difficult position as a man caught between two worlds and two ways of living. His family's Jewish traditions have tremendous power within their community, and the film treats them as serious, holy moments (Jolson was, after all, born Asa Yoelson). The Jazz Singer does not take lightly the cantor's chosen life, and he is no Shylock, but a stern, loving father whose heart is broken by his son's defection from the ancestral path. It might be true that the sentimentality of the picture is too much for some modern viewers, but those who enjoy a good cry will respond to the aching desire of Jakie's mother and the late scenes that depict the subtle healing of the rift between father and son.

The Jazz Singer is also, of course, important to those interested in the transition from silent films to talkies. The picture is mostly silent, using title cards to relay spoken dialogue and plot points; it switches to sound only for the musical numbers, including the moment when Jolson famously says, "You ain't heard nothing yet!" You can read more about the film's place in history in this Filmsite review by Tim Dirks. Its significance to movie and especially musical history explains its inclusion in the recently released Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Musicals, which also includes standards like Singin' in the Rain (1952) as well as other early musicals like The Broadway Melody (1929).

For more of Al Jolson's films, look for The Singing Fool (1928), The Singing Kid (1936), and Rose of Washington Square (1939). You might also be interested in The Al Jolson Story (1946), starring Larry Parks in the title role. To learn more about Al Jolson, visit the website of the Al Jolson Society. Alan Crosland, the director of The Jazz Singer, also directed silent classics like Don Juan (1926) and The Beloved Rogue (1927) as well as dozens of later talkies.

Disclaimer: Warner has provided a review copy of this film to the reviewer free of charge. No promise of a positive review is made in exchange for this product.