The Jazz Singer (1927)tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a cantor’s son who has inherited his father’s gift for song but who feels driven to express that gift in the music hall rather than in the synagogue. It recounts his rift with his father, his rise to secular fame as “Jack Robin,” and his struggle to be true to himself as well as to his family and tradition.
The movie is INfamous for Al Jolson’s use of blackface. Jolson was a Russian-born Jew who performed in blackface long before this role. The short story (“The Day of Atonement”) and play upon which the film is based were written by Samson Raphaelson, who saw Jolson perform in blackface in 1917 and felt that he had seen such emotional intensity in performance only in the singing of cantors in synagogue. The story, the play and the movie are based loosely on Jolson’s own life. The blackface sequences are reprehensible, but too much a part of the film to be excised.
By the way, this film should not be confused with the 1953 remake with Danny Thomas, or the 1980 remake with Neil Diamond, also titled The Jazz Singer. The 1953 remake is bland, but the 1980 film is just plain awful.
The film marked a watershed in American film history: it was the first feature length commercial film with synchronized dialogue: the first of the “talkies.” It deals with themes that are central to the Jewish experience in America: the tension between the “religious Jew” and the “secular Jew” (often, as in this case, in a single Jew), tensions around the observance of family tradition, and issues of assimilation. It acknowledges the debt that first-generation American Jews owed to their immigrant parents, and the tension between those two generations.
In many ways the film is like a drawing by M.C. Escher: the symmetries overwhelm. The Warner Brothers, born Wonskolaser in Poland, were Jews who immigrated to North America and became involved in film distribution and later production. (Today Warner Bros. is a subsidiary of Time Warner, with headquarters in Burbank, CA.) They are a sterling example of Jewish success in America, where some new fields (like entertainment and the movies) offered an open door to Jews, shut out of more well established professions. Their company pioneered the talkies by making this film, and by partnering with Western Electric to produce the technology that made it work. The Jazz Singer is not only Al Jolson’s story, but the story of the Warner brothers themselves and their children: the immigrant and first American-born generation. The film also features a recital by Cantor Joseff Rosenblatt, an American-born cantor who some years later would dabble in acting.
Despite its problems, this 1927 film is a “must see” on several grounds: as a close-up of the Askenazi immigrant experience, as a piece of history in its own right, and as a melding of two musical traditions, chazzanut [cantorial singing] and jazz, which have both been central to the American Jewish experience. For a group audience, especially an audience with young viewers, it is important to consider how to contextualize the blackface segments.