Common trivia will tell you that The Jazz Singer (1927) has the distinction of being the first motion picture featuring sound embedded into the film. It is more typically referred to as the first talking movie. Such factoids should come with an asterisk. For much of the film’s runtime, it is of the silent variety. It has a score, and text cards to indicate what the actors are saying. It is during the musical numbers that you get the synchronization of the actors’ lips with what is actually being heard while the cameras were rolling. Perhaps fatefully, the first spoken line you hear other than song lyrics is from the main character Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson), or Jack Robin as he prefers to be called on stage, saying, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” This is a true statement because, though revolutionary, it was really only the beginning of a sea change for the movie industry. Shortly thereafter, Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928), the first appearance of Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney), has the sound throughout, and the rest is history.
It would appear that Jakie (Bobby Gordon) wanted to be The Jazz Singer from an early age, singing at a local bar. This is much to his father’s (Warner Oland) dismay, whose only desire is to see his son follow in his footsteps as cantor of their Jewish temple. Hence, when a family friend, Moisha Yudelson (Otto Lederer), spots the younger Rabinowitz performing in front of bar patrons instead of practicing for his dad, Moisha reports it to the elder Rabinowitz. The Cantor comes to the locale and drags Jakie out, taking the boy home, and whipping his son with a belt. In response, to his mother’s, Sara (Eugenie Besserer), horror, Jakie follows through on a promise to run away, leaving father to perform his Yom Kippur duties without his son by his side. We then move ahead ten years, and the grown-up Jakie, now going by Jack Robin, is taking in an evening at a cabaret when he is asked to perform before the gathered patrons. His rendition of “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face,” which is the cinematically historic moment mentioned in the first paragraph, brings him the attention of some of the more well-connected people in the crowd. One of these is Mary Dale (May McAvoy), a young, up-and-coming musical dancer. Jack’s interest in her goes beyond the musical, of course, but it also gets him a break with the company with which she is connected. He lands the leading part in their new musical, April Follies, and it is out on the road for performances around the country. The tour eventually brings Jack back to New York, and he takes this opportunity to attempt to reconnect with his parents. He believes that his newfound fame and success will smooth over any ruffled feathers from his running away as a boy. Sara is certainly eager to see her son again, and they have a heartfelt exchange with Jack playing music for her. His father is a different story. When the cantor encounters the jazz singer, dad throws Jack out of the house over the objections that his music brings a lot of joy to many people. Despite being rebuffed, Jack still has a tender spot for his family roots. This becomes all the more apparent when, shortly before the show is set to open on Broadway, the culmination of all of Jack’s dreams, his father is taken ill. The timing is made worse by the fact that the premiere is the same night as Yom Kippur, and Jack is the only one with the singing talent and knowledge of the words to fill the cantor’s role. As he prepares for the last dress rehearsal, he debates what to do with Mary. He is torn between his dream career and his heritage. Sara is supportive either way, particularly after getting to see him perform. Afterwards, Jack goes to his sick father, who asks that he sing that night in the temple. At the same time, Mary and the show’s producer are there to remind Jack of his duties to the stage. If Jack does not perform as promised, he can forget about a life on the stage. In the end, Jack chooses to perform the “Kol Nidre” at the Yom Kippur service, which dad is able to hear from where he lays in bed. Further, the theater decides to postpone the opening in light of Jack’s decision as replacing their star is also difficult. We close with Jack once more on the stage singing “My Mammy” with Sara in the audience.
One thing I have yet to mention in this discussion of The Jazz Singer, and it is the elephant in the room, is the fact that many of Jack’s performances are done in black face. If you are unfamiliar with what this means, it was a practice in the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries where white stage performers darkened their flesh with makeup to make them look African American. “Look” is probably too generous of a term. The point was to give a caricature of the black race, and it was (and is) as racist as it sounds. At the same time, it is not useful to leave a discussion of the film at that conclusion. Yes, The Jazz Singer is racist, but there is more to the story. The tragic and unfortunate side to this is that this is how American culture perceived race at this time, in these stereotyped manners that were purposely designed to show that this is how those races (there were others, and I will expand on this idea in a moment) behaved as much as they were meant to entertain. Yet, you have a Jewish man, part of an equally marginalized group, performing in black face. This is not something simply done for the movie, either. It is at least partially biographical as Al Jolson, born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania, was also of Jewish heritage and performed in black face in real life. The film describes the process well for immigrants coming to this country. The newcomers were not a part of the dominant culture. Thus, they had to do things to show their worthiness as Americans. Black face was one of those avenues, and Irish Catholic immigrants did similar things.
Speaking of religion, that is another prominent theme in The Jazz Singer. What makes the film fascinating, particularly in light of the previous paragraph, is that it is unabashedly Jewish. It premiered at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its power. Indeed, that cabal of soft-headed nincompoops would, in 1928, be largely responsible for the defeat of the first professed Catholic candidate for president, Al Smith. The idea in the film is that the two cultures could co-exist. This is evidenced by Sara’s words after she sees Jack sing on stage for the first time. She says that he is where God wants him, and that his talents belong to the people. Indeed, outside of the references to the temple and other specifically Jewish religious practices, you could almost take the references to God as being Christian in nature. They are not meant to be, and nor am I trying to make that case. Yet, when you have a nation like the United States that was as committed to Christianity as it was in the 1920s, the mentions of God at least bear noting. Any one of them would acknowledge the Jewish background belonging to Christianity. Catholicism, in particular, does this in a number of important ways.
In all, though, the racist aspects of The Jazz Singer outweigh any of the positives. I try to only recommend movies from which you can take away important lessons. They are present in this film, especially as they relate to Jack being split between career and heritage. The way this decision is treated makes it a worthwhile film in a limited sense, more so than any of its firsts in cinematic history. At the same time, the racism essentially cancels all that out. Instead, watch the scene when Jack talks for the first time. It only takes a couple minutes, and that is all you need from the film.