The Death Knell For Silent Films.
Al Jolson’s first lines “Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet!” presciently described the future of cinema.
American Film Institutes Ranking: #90
Academy Awards: Was ruled ineligible for top awards at the 1st Academy Awards (1929) because so many silent films would be displaced.
Jazz Singer has two reasons for its present day notoriety: it was the first ever feature-length talking film; it uses a lot of black face by Al Jolson.
What gets lost between these two things is that the film content itself is surprisingly good. The story is a basic father vs. son/conservative vs. liberal retelling that’s told from a Jewish heritage perspective. The twist makes it different and meaningful. Interspersed are song numbers by Al Jolson that still resonate.
A review of this movie requires a lot of history and cultural perspective. Here we go.
Jakie Robinowitz (Al Jolson) is a young man that likes to sing. His family would prefer him to use his talents to carry on the family tradition as a Cantor — a Jewish singer that leads the congregation in prayer. Jakie would rather sing jazz. When his father finds him singing in a bar, he brings him home and whips him. Jackie decides to run away.
Fast forward 10 years and now Jakie Robinowitz is Jack Robin and is performing cabaret which leads to a big break for an upcoming musical. This returns him to the city of his upbringing and he decides to visit his family again. His father and him get in another fight with the dad saying: “I never want to see you again — you jazz singer!“
Weeks later, his dad falls deathly ill near Yom Kippur. This tears Jack in two different directions: does he replace him as a Cantor risking his break into the music scene, or does he ignore his family that didn’t support him? Jack decides to return to the Jewish synagogue and sings Kol Nidre. Jack’s father passes away listening to him sing.
Jack is given another chance on broadway as he sings a rendition of “Mammy” to a packed house which includes his mother, finally reunited and at peace with her son.
There is a lot of culturally significance within such a rather simple movie. On one side, it was such an important technological advance in the art form, leaving people hysterical when they first saw it. On the other side, it egregiously uses blackface, an art form that was used to denigrate African Americans.
Black face began in 1830s and grew in popularity after the Civil War. The National Museum of African American History and Culture describes the representations here:
“These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice.”
What started originally as minstrel shows continued to grow through the vaudevillian era until finally transforming into a genre within mass media movies and radio. Blackface was so popular that even African Americans would do blackface — which goes to show you how important the archetype was over the “real” thing.
What makes blackface even more complicated is that there was an admiration component within it. This was a safe way for white culture to interact with black culture; they could maintain there distance while soaking up the the aspects they enjoyed. Marc Aronson for the Washington Post states:
“White audiences simultaneously sought to be endlessly reassured of their superiority to black people while demonstrating their fascination and even admiration of black culture.”
Some people draw a distinct line right up to today. With about 80% of hip-hop actually being consumed by white listeners (a stat from Tom Barnes at Mic.com) the argument is that this fascination with black culture is still happening. These suburban kids love hearing about sex, drugs, and crime from black entertainers, but can do it from a distance while maintaining their elevated lifestyle.
Where doe that leave us with ‘The Jazz Singer?”
In a reader-response opinion piece, Sig Seidenman goes to bat for Al Jolson:
“Far from being a racist, he [Al Jolson] befriended black entertainers and promoted their careers. No one considered him a racist.”
He tells a story, that is confirmed from other people, about how how two black performers were turned away from a popular restaurant, and upon learning this, Al Jolson invited them as his guests the next night to that same restaurant. The movie, though it has blackface, seems to be consistent with these values: the use of the form was not to denigrate African Americans but to impersonate their music. Ted Gioia defends Al Jolson’s blackface performances in this way:
“His performances included less race-baiting and hate-mongering than any given hour with Chris Rock or Howard Stern, relying instead on his electric stage presence and sheer enthusiasm for pleasing his fans.”
This opens up a debate about the stealing of black culture for white performers to be more successful, and that is a completely fair angle to take. The blackface performances are cringe worthy when watching today — it doesn’t feel right.
Al Jolson finds himself in this cultural conundrum: he used an ample amount of blackface, which was a racist art form, but did it more for appreciation rather than bigotry, which was lightyears ahead of other people back then, but even with that insight, it is still racist by today’s standards.
The First “Talkie”
Al Jolson opens up his dialogue with saying “Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet!” before breaking out into song. I try and put myself in their shoes: the excitement building from hearing that there is no live orchestra, that everything is done with recorded sound. From the moment those lines were spoken, cinema was changed forever. Wikipedia’s entry for “The Jazz Singer” states:
“Jolson’s “Wait a minute” line prompted a loud, positive response from the audience, who were dumbfounded by seeing, hearing, someone speak on a film for the first time…Excitement built, and when Jolson and Eugenie Besserer began their dialogue scene, “the audience became hysterical.”
What a unique moment in time to experience something.
“The Jazz Singer” could be making this list just because of serendipity; it was the first feature-length movie with sound, so maybe it was just a watershed moment in technology, not film. I was surprisingly into this film. I’m not sure where to place Al Jolson in the moral hierarchy (it’s a complicated tale), but it is clear why he was considered the “World’s Greatest Entertainer.”
Other People’s Takes:
- The Cinematic Pack Rat: “There are much better silent films from around the same time that dwarf The Jazz Singer with their quality.”
- Wads Words: “Jolson was also an early fan of jazz and ragtime, and chose to use blackface as a way to sort of introduce them to white audiences. However – even though Jolson apparently meant well, it’s still jarring to watch today.”
- Film and New York City: “The Jazz Singer was hard to watch, but did have some fascinating elements, that make the movie worth watching.”