Friday, March 22, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Jazz Singer' (1927)

The Jazz Singer

Dir: Alan Crosland

Scr: Alfred A. Cohn

Pho: Hal Mohr

Ed: Harold McCord

Premiere: Oct. 6, 1927

89 min.

There are a few American films that are landmarks, but that are also fatally flawed. Such is the case with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), which peddled animistic views of African-Americans, portrayed by white men in blackface. Such is the case with The Jazz Singer, whose more casual and unspoken racism is almost more disturbing.

It’s the central character’s use of blackface twice in the film that sinks it for us today. We can handle the idea of guy wanting to grow up and become a great jazz singer. What we are no longer capable of understanding is how making oneself up as a caricature of a Black person and singing sentimental ballads was ever a big and ever-present thing, the height of the entertainment experience.

It was and continued to be a thing. The minstrel show began in the 1840s, and remained popular for decades among white audiences. Blackface can be found in Babes in Arms (1939) and Holiday Inn (1942). Jolson would go on to appear in blackface on film nine more times. Only the post-World War II generation began to think of such antics as distasteful.

It’s The Jazz Singer’s prestige as the first sound film that preserves it in our memories, although it’s sound sequences are brief, a half-dozen strung along the course of the narrative, mostly musical numbers.

Despite the ridiculous level of background racism, oddly the film isn’t about that. It’s about GUILT, Jewish guilt specifically. Young Jakie Rabinowitz is the son of a Jewish cantor (a singer of sacred songs), one of generations of the same. His father wants Jakie to follow in his footsteps, but Jakie likes to hang out in beer parlors and sing that low-down jazz. His father forbids him to sing jazz, and Jakie runs away, breaking his very understanding mother’s heart in the process.

We fast-forward to an adult Jakie, now the Americanized “Jack Robin,” played by the inimitable Al Jolson. There was something extraordinary about Jolson’s manner. He was the last of the great pre-microphone era singers, someone who could project and make himself felt all the way to the back row of the theater. He had big, expressive eyes and a ready grin.

Above all, he had energy. His live-wire, shuffling, gesticulating attack of a song transmitted his nervous enthusiasm to the crowd, who responded with adulation. This technique adapted itself well to film. Jolson was as one time termed “the world’s greatest entertainer,” and it is arguable that it was so. He certainly impresses with his renditions of “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” and “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” early on in the film. (Look close, you’ll see William Demarest; Roscoe Karns and Myrna Loy have small parts, too.)

Jack Robin finally gets his big break on Broadway, and he returns home to kiss and hug his mother, give her presents, and sing a few songs for her. His father, who has disowned him, comes home unexpectedly while Jack is riffing on “Blue Skies.” “Stop!” he shouts, the last time a line of dialogue is heard in the movie. The sanctimoniousness of the cantor ironically squelches sound.

Opening night of the big show approaches – but so does Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting and repentance. Jack is ready to take the stage, but then his mother shows up at the theater – his father is dying, and there is no one to sing the Kol Nidre, the unique, beloved, and ancient song that opens the Yom Kippur ceremonies. Can Jakie do it? What about his career? What’s he going to do, ruin his future or break his mother’s heart?

Suffice it to say Jack gets his cake and eats it too. The audience is given a solemn, tear-jerking ending to Jack’s story, then gives him one more number in the spotlight, all blacked up and singing “Mammy” for an adoring crowd that includes his mother, who always believed in him and told him that God made him an entertainer. The levels of mother love in this film are near toxic.

So, to our modern minds, in order to understand the film you have to take everything with a huge grain of salt. When Jakie becomes Jack, he suppresses his Jewishness to be more acceptable. When he dons blackface, he assumes the privilege of the white entertainer to mock his supposed inferiors. When he turns around and stakes claim to his Jewish identity, he restores his integrity and reconnects himself to his past. And then it’s back in blackface again for the big finish.

It’s a story about assimilation, about fathers and sons. It’s the pioneer of a new technology. Thanks to the evolution of society, what we mostly have now though is a problematic milestone in cinema history.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra.




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