Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Jazz Singer


The Jazz Singer (Three-Disc Deluxe Edition)

#90 on the 1998 AFI List of the best 100 American Movies.

The Jazz Singer is a 1927 American musical film. The first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences, its release heralded the commercial ascendance of the "talkies" and the decline of the silent film era. Produced by Warner Bros. with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, the movie stars Al Jolson, who performs six songs. Directed by Alan Crosland, it is based on a play by Samson Raphaelson.

The story begins with young Jakie Rabinowitz defying the traditions of his devout Jewish family by singing popular tunes in a beer hall. Punished by his father, a cantor, Jakie runs away from home. Some years later, now calling himself Jack Robin, he has become a talented jazz singer. He attempts to build a career as an entertainer, but his professional ambitions ultimately come into conflict with the demands of his home and heritage.

On April 25, 1917, Samson Raphaelson, a native of New York City's Lower East Side and a University of Illinois undergraduate, attended a performance of the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr. in Champaign, Illinois. The star of the show was a thirty-year-old singer, Al Jolson, a Russian-born Jew who performed in blackface. In a 1927 interview, Raphaelson described the experience: "I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson—his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from a tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song." He explained that he had seen emotional intensity like Jolson's only among synagogue cantors.

A few years later, pursuing a professional literary career, Raphaelson wrote "The Day of Atonement", a short story about a young Jew named Jakie Rabinowitz, based on Jolson's real life. The story was published in January 1922 in Everybody's Magazine. Raphaelson later adapted the story into a stage play, The Jazz Singer. A straight drama, all the singing in Raphaelson's version takes place offstage. With George Jessel in the lead role, the show premiered on Broadway in September 1925 and became a hit. Warner Bros. acquired the movie rights to the play on June 4, 1926, and signed Jessel to a contract. Moving Picture World published a story in February 1927 announcing that production on the film would begin with Jessel on May 1.
A blackfaced Al Jolson starring in Robinson Crusoe, Jr.—the performance that inspired the story that led to the play that became the movie The Jazz Singer

But the plans to make the film with Jessel would fall through, for multiple reasons. Jessel's contract with Warner Bros. had not anticipated that the movie they had particularly signed him for would be made with sound (he'd made a modestly budgeted, silent comedy in the interim). When Warners had hits with two Vitaphone, though dialogue-less, features in late 1926, The Jazz Singer production had been reconceived. Jessel asked for a bonus or a new contract, but was rebuffed. According to Jessel's description in his autobiography, Harry Warner "was having a tough time with the financing of the company.... He talked about taking care of me if the picture was a success. I did not feel that was enough." In fact, around the beginning of 1927, Harry Warner—the eldest of the brothers who ran the eponymous studio—had sold $4 million of his personal stock to keep the studio solvent. Then came another major issue. According to Jessel, a first read of screenwriter Alfred A. Cohn's adaptation "threw me into a fit. Instead of the boy's leaving the theatre and following the traditions of his father by singing in the synagogue, as in the play, the picture scenario had him return to the Winter Garden as a blackface comedian, with his mother wildly applauding in the box. I raised hell. Money or no money, I would not do this."

According to performer Eddie Cantor, as negotiations between Warner Bros. and Jessel foundered, Jack Warner and the studio's production chief, Darryl Zanuck, called to see if he was interested in the part. Cantor, a friend of Jessel's, responded that he was sure any differences with the actor could be worked out and offered his assistance. Cantor was not invited to participate in the Jessel talks; instead, the role was then offered to Jolson, who had inspired it in the first place. Describing Jolson as the production's best choice for its star, film historian Donald Crafton wrote, "The entertainer, who sang jazzed-up minstrel numbers in blackface, was at the height of his phenomenal popularity. Anticipating the later stardom of crooners and rock stars, Jolson electrified audiences with the vitality and sex appeal of his songs and gestures, which owed much to African-American sources." As described by historian Robert L. Carringer, "Jessel was a vaudeville comedian and master of ceremonies with one successful play and one modestly successful film to his credit. Jolson was a superstar." Jolson took the part, signing a $75,000 contract on May 26, 1927, for eight weeks of services beginning in July. There have been several claims but no proof that Jolson invested some of his own money in the film. Jessel and Jolson, also friends, did not speak for some time after—on the one hand, Jessel had been confiding his problems with the Warners to Jolson; on the other, Jolson had signed with them without telling Jessel of his plans. In his autobiography, Jessel wrote that, in the end, Jolson "must not be blamed, as the Warners had definitely decided that I was out."

* Al Jolson as Jakie Rabinowitz (Jack Robin)
* May McAvoy as Mary Dale
* Warner Oland as Cantor Rabinowitz
* Yossele Rosenblatt as himself
* Eugenie Besserer as Sara Rabinowitz
* Otto Lederer as Moisha Yudelson
* Bobby Gordon as Jakie Rabinowitz (age 13)
* Richard Tucker as Harry Lee

Jack Robin's use of blackface in his Broadway stage act is the primary focus of many Jazz Singer studies. Its crucial and unusual role is described by scholar Corin Willis:

In contrast to the racial jokes and innuendo brought out in its subsequent persistence in early sound film, blackface imagery in The Jazz Singer is at the core of the film's central theme, an expressive and artistic exploration of the notion of duplicity and ethnic hybridity within American identity. Of the more than seventy examples of blackface in early sound film 1927–53 that I have viewed (including the nine blackface appearances Jolson subsequently made), The Jazz Singer is unique in that it is the only film where blackface is central to the narrative development and thematic expression.

Mary (May McAvoy) and Jack, preparing for dress rehearsal: the first blackface scene

The function and meaning of blackface in the film is intimately involved with Jack's own Jewish heritage and his desire to make his mark in mass American culture—much as the ethnically Jewish Jolson and the Warner brothers were doing themselves. Jack Robin "compounds both tradition and stardom. The Warner Brothers thesis is that, really to succeed, a man must first acknowledge his ethnic self," argues W. T. Lhamon. "[T]he whole film builds toward the blacking-up scene at the dress rehearsal. Jack Robin needs the blackface mask as the agency of his compounded identity. Blackface will hold all the identities together without freezing them in a singular relationship or replacing their parts."

Seymour Stark's view is less sanguine. In describing Jolson's extensive experience performing in blackface in stage musicals, he asserts, "The immigrant Jew as Broadway star...works within a blackface minstrel tradition that obscures his Jewish pedigree, but proclaims his white identity. Jolson's slight Yiddish accent was hidden by a Southern veneer." Arguing that The Jazz Singer actually avoids honestly dealing with the tension between American assimilation and Jewish identity, he claims that its "covert message...is that the symbol of blackface provides the Jewish immigrant with the same rights and privileges accorded to earlier generations of European immigrants initiated into the rituals of the minstrel show."

1 comment:

G said...

Cool I think I saw this once...