The fame of this film is perhaps greater than ever, but I’ll wager many more millions have heard about the movie than have ever seen it. Like many other great American works (Huckleberry Finn, The Birth of a Nation) The Jazz Singer’s legacy is complicated.
Its biggest renown is for being the “first talkie”, which is actually far from the case. Countless (or at least numerous) talking films had been made and shown prior to The Jazz Singer, just as many Europeans had traveled to the Americas prior to Columbus. What made The Jazz Singer (and Columbus’s voyage) significant was that this was the one that GOT NOTICED, and that brought about major, sweeping change. A major feature length film starring one of the top theatre stars of the day singing many popular tunes, it was an ATTRACTION. People went to see it, and so the studios sought immediately to replicate its success.
Another complicating factor? The Jazz Singer isn’t really a talkie. It’s more like a silent film with a musical soundtrack, punctuated with a half dozen short sequences containing sync sound musical numbers and brief chatter. Then back to the silence. The recording process, called Vitaphone, allowed Warner Brothers to take the industry lead in talking films. The first all-talking feature Lights of New York wasn’t released by Vitaphone until almost a year later.
The other complicating factor is of course that the film makes use of blackface** performance. In time — mostly because of widespread public ignorance of early show business history — The Jazz Singer and Jolson have been unfairly scapegoated as some sort of particular standard bearers for this practice, which has since become universally discredited and acknowledged to be racist. The truth is blackface had been popular to the point of near universality on the American stage for nearly a century by the time The Jazz Singer came out. Nearly every performer of the time put on burnt cork from time to time. Jolson was just the most famous of them, and The Jazz Singer is simply the most famous movie that uses it. But in no sense did Jolson or The Jazz Singer pioneer or particularly popularize or spearhead blackface minstrelsy. In 1927, it was just another show. This isn’t to defend blackface, which is heinous; it’s to put The Jazz Singer in its proper context.
Finally, the most complicating aspect of The Jazz Singer is, even as it dehumanized African Americans, it was landmark in constructing a sympathetic narrative for the American Immigrant Story. Amazingly, the play on which The Jazz Singer was based The Day of Atonement by Samson Raphaelson, was based on Jolson’s own life story. It tells of one Jake Rabinowitz, the son of a Jewish cantor who is trained to take such a role in life himself. But he breaks with tradition and embraces American culture, becoming the titular Jazz Singer in night clubs and theatres. Astute listeners will hear music they recognize as “Tin Pan Alley” — popular compositions with an element of syncopation — but no actual jazz instrumentation. Jazz had a broader definition back then. Everything is relative. At any rate, George Jessel had starred in the hit Broadway play, but when the film became a talkie, through various machinations Jessel was displaced and Jolson was brought in to replace him — as himself. Anyway, to further complicate the racial ripples and overtones and undertows in this crazy musical, Jolson’s cantor father is played in the movie by Warner Oland, the Swede best known for playing Charlie Chan).
Most of us today find Jolson overbearing and obnoxious. As with many performers, I have an affection for him, with some reservations. But in his day his brash personality was considered winning — it’s one of the factors that made such a hit of this movie. It’s entirely possible that a more boring performance might have delayed the final triumph of sound (after decades of quiet development) by months or even years.
To learn more about early film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.