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.
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. Jolson took the role, and became one of the film's primary financial backers.
While many earlier sound films had dialogue, all were short subjects. D. W. Griffith's feature Dream Street (1921) was shown in New York with a single singing sequence and crowd noises. It was preceded by a program of sound shorts, including a sequence with Griffith speaking directly to the audience, but the feature itself had no talking scenes. Similarly, the first Warner Bros. Vitaphone feature, Don Juan (1926), like several that followed over the next year, had only a synchronized instrumental score and sound effects. The Jazz Singer contains those, as well as numerous synchronized singing sequences and some synchronized speech: Two popular tunes are performed by the young Jakie Rabinowitz, the future Jazz Singer; his father, a cantor, performs the devotional Kol Nidre; the famous cantor Jossele Rosenblatt, appearing as himself, sings another religious melody. As the adult Jack Robin, Jolson performs six songs, five popular "jazz" tunes and the Kol Nidre. The sound for the film was recorded by British-born George Groves, who had also worked on Don Juan.
Jolson's first vocal performance, about fifteen minutes into the picture, is of "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face," with music by James V. Monaco and lyrics by Edgar Leslie and Grant Clarke. The first synchronized speech—uttered by Jack to a cabaret crowd and to the piano player in the band accompanying him—occurs directly after that performance, beginning at the 17:25 mark of the film. Jack's first spoken words—"Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet"—was well-established stage patter of Jolson's. He had even spoken very similar lines in a 1926 short, Al Jolson in "A Plantation Act." The line had developed as something of an in-joke: he had recorded the song "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet" in 1919. In a later scene, Jack talks with his mother in the family parlor; his father enters and pronounces one very conclusive word. In total, the movie contains barely two minutes worth of synchronized talking, most of it improvised. The rest of the dialogue is presented through the caption cards standard in silent movies of the era. Still, the songs and live-recorded dialogue sequences, fueled by Jolson's charisma, were enough to create a sensation among moviegoing audiences.
The production cost for the film was $422,000—a large sum, especially for Warner Bros., which rarely spent more than $250,000. It was by no means a record for the studio, however; two features starring John Barrymore had been costlier: The Sea Beast (1926), a loose and entirely silent adaptation of Moby-Dick, at $503,000 and Don Juan at $546,000.
not since the first presentation of Vitaphone features, more than a year ago [i.e., Don Juan], has anything like the ovation been heard in a motion-picture theatre.... The Vitaphoned songs and some dialogue have been introduced most adroitly. This in itself is an ambitious move, for in the expression of song the Vitaphone vitalizes the production enormously. The dialogue is not so effective, for it does not always catch the nuances of speech or inflections of the voice so that one is not aware of the mechanical features.
As conversion of theaters to sound was still in its early stages, the film played in a silent version in most of those venues outside the major cities that it reached in the first months of its run. The sound version was not released nationally until early the following year.
Critical reaction was generally positive. Variety called it "[u]ndoubtedly the best thing Vitaphone has ever put on the screen...[with] abundant power and appeal. The film received favorable reviews in both the Jewish press and in African American newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American, the New York Amsterdam News, and the Pittsburgh Courier. "When Jolson... sang numbers like Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye and uttered the immortal line 'You ain't heard nothin' yet, folks!' the audience leaped up and cheered. This was the essence of the great populist art form of the movies: who ever rose to her feet while reading a Tolstoy novel?
While the film was a major hit, Donald Crafton has shown that the reputation the film later acquired for being one of Hollywood's most enormous successes to date was inflated. The movie did well, but not astonishingly so, in the major cities where it was first released, garnering much of its impressive profits with long, steady runs in population centers large and small all around the country. On the other hand, Crafton's statement that The Jazz Singer "was in a distinct second or third tier of attractions compared to the most popular films of the day and even other Vitaphone talkies" is also incorrect. In fact, the film was easily the biggest earner in Warner Bros. history, and would remain so until it was surpassed a year later by The Singing Fool, another Jolson feature. In the larger scope of Hollywood, among films originally released in 1927, available evidence suggests that The Jazz Singer was among the three biggest box office hits, trailing only Wings and, perhaps, The King of Kings.
One of the keys to the film's success was an innovative marketing scheme conceived by Sam Morris, Warner Bros.' sales manager. In Crafton's description:
[A] special clause in Warners' Vitaphone exhibition contract virtually guaranteed long runs. Theaters had to book The Jazz Singer for full rather than split weeks. Instead of the traditional flat rental fee, Warners took a percentage of the gate. A sliding scale meant that the exhibitor's take increased the longer the film was held over. The signing of this contract by the greater New York Fox circuit was regarded as a headline-making precedent.Similar arrangements, based on a percentage of the gross rather than flat rental fees, would soon become standard for the U.S. film industry's high-end or "A" product.
Though in retrospect, the success of The Jazz Singer signaled the end of the silent motion picture era, this was not immediately apparent. Mordaunt Hall, for example, praised Warner Bros. for "astutely realiz[ing] that a film conception of The Jazz Singer was one of the few subjects that would lend itself to the use of the Vitaphone. In historian Richard Koszarski's words, "Silent films did not disappear overnight, nor did talking films immediately flood the theaters.... Nevertheless, 1927 remains the year that Warner Bros. moved to close the book on the history of silent pictures, even if their original goal had been somewhat more modest. Crafton points to the January 1928 national release of the sound version as the true turning point: two months later, Warners announced that The Jazz Singer was playing at a record 235 theaters (though many could still show it only silently). In May, a consortium including the leading Hollywood studios signed up with Western Electric's licensing division, ERPI, for sound conversion. In July, Warner Bros. released the first all-talking feature, Lights of New York, a musical crime melodrama. Within another year, Hollywood would be producing almost exclusively sound films. Jolson went on to make a series of movies for Warners, including The Singing Fool, a part-talkie, and the all-talking features Say It with Songs (1929), Mammy (1930), and Big Boy (1930).
Among the many references to The Jazz Singer in popular culture, perhaps the most notable is that of the classic MGM musical Singin' in the Rain (1952). The story, set in 1927, revolves around efforts to change a silent film production, The Dueling Cavalier, into a talking picture in response to The Jazz Singer's success. The plot of the Simpsons episode "Like Father, Like Clown" (1991) parallels the tale of Jakie Rabinowitz/Jack Robin. Krusty the Clown's rabbi father disapproves of his son's choice to be a comedian, telling him, "If you were a musician or a jazz singer, this I could forgive."
According to film historian Krin Gabbard, The Jazz Singer has provided the basic narrative for the lives of jazz and popular musicians in the movies, including The Benny Goodman Story (1955) and The Glenn Miller Story (1954). "If this argument means that sometime after 1959 the narrative must belong to pop rockers, it only proves the power of the original 1927 film to determine how Hollywood tells the stories of popular musicians." It is also significant that "a seemingly unique film like the 1927 Jazz Singer can become a paradigm for American success stories, regardless of what they are called."
In 1996, The Jazz Singer was selected for preservation in the American National Film Registry of "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" motion pictures. In 1998, the film was chosen in voting conducted by the American Film Institute as one of the best American films of all time, ranking at number ninety. In 2007, a three-disc deluxe DVD edition of the film was released. The supplemental material includes Jolson's 1926 Vitaphone short, A Plantation Act.
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.
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 tradtion 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.
Lisa Silberman Brenner contradicts this view. She returns to the intentions expressed by Samson Raphaelson, on whose play the film's script was closely based: "For Raphaelson, jazz is prayer, American style, and the blackface minstrel the new Jewish cantor. Based on the author's own words, the play is not about blackface as a means for Jews to become White, but about blackface as a means for Jews to express a new kind of Jewishness, that of the modern American Jew. She observes that during the same period, the Jewish press was noting with pride that Jewish performers were adopting aspects of African American music.
Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) wants his son to carry on the generations-old family tradition and become a cantor at the synagogue in the Jewish ghetto of Manhattan's Lower East Side. But thirteen-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz (Bobby Gordon) has a taste for show business. Inside Muller's beer garden, young Jakie sings contemporary popular, or so-called jazz, tunes.
Moisha Yudelson (Otto Lederer), "rigidly orthodox and a power in the affairs of the Ghetto," spots the boy singing. He tells Jakie's father, who storms off to the beer garden. He hauls the boy forcefully from the stage and drags him home. Jakie clings to his mother, Sara (Eugenie Besserer), as his father declares, "I'll teach him better than to debase the voice God gave him!" Sara tries to calm him, but the cantor is insistent: "First he will get a whipping!" Jakie threatens: "If you whip me again, I'll run away — and never come back!" After the whipping, Jakie kisses his mother goodbye and, true to his word, runs away.
At the Yom Kippur service, Rabinowitz mournfully tells one of his fellow celebrants, "My son was to stand at my side and sing tonight — but now I have no son." As the sacred Kol Nidre is sung, Jakie sneaks back into his home and retrieves a picture of his loving mother.
Approximately ten years later, Jakie has changed his name to the more assimilated Jack Robin (Al Jolson). Jack is called up from his table at a cabaret to perform on stage. He belts out "'Dirty Hands, Dirty Face," which details the trials and greater joys of being parent to a young son. The crowd responds enthusiastically. Then Jack addresses them with the live-recorded, spoken words that made motion picture history:
Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet. Wait a minute I tell ya, you ain't heard nothin'. You wanna hear "Toot, Toot, Tootsie"? Alright. Hold on. Hold on. [turning to the band's piano player] Lou, listen. Play "Toot, Toot, Tootsie"—three choruses, you understand? In the third chorus, I whistle. Now give it to 'em hard and heavy. Go right ahead.Jack wows the crowd with his energized rendition, including that remarkable bird-whistle chorus. Afterward, Jack is introduced to the beautiful Mary Dale (May McAvoy), a musical theater dancer. "There are lots of jazz singers, but you have a tear in your voice," she says, offering to help with his still-budding career.
Back at the family home Jack abandoned long ago, the elder Rabinowitz instructs a young student in the traditional cantorial art. Jack's visibly aged mother receives a letter that Yudleson reads to her:
Dear Mama: I'm getting along great, making $250.00 a week. A wonderful girl, Mary Dale, got me my big chance. Write me c/o State Theatre in Chicago. Last time you forgot and addressed me Jakie Rabinowitz. Jack Robin is my name now. Your loving son, Jakie.His mother wonders if he has become romantically involved with a "shiksa," another step away from his religious roots. Yudleson cautions her against jumping to conclusions: "Maybe not — you know Rosie Levy on the theayter is Rosemarie Lee." When Sara shows her husband the letter, he is furious: "We have no son!" Sara weeps.
As it happens, both Jack and Mary are in Chicago. With her help, he's gained a place on the vaudeville circuit and is now in constant travel around the country: Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake, Denver, Omaha. For one glorious week, their paths have crossed and they're appearing on the same bill. Now, however, they must part for an indefinite period as Mary has won a lead role in a Broadway show.
In Chicago, Jack attends a concert of sacred songs performed by renowned cantor Jossele Rosenblatt (playing himself). Jack is reminded poignantly of his father. About to board a train for the next stop on the circuit, Jack is told that his booking has been dropped. Far from being canned however, he's won a shot at the big time: a spot in a Broadway revue, which will bring him close to both Mary and his treasured mother, whom he's not seen in ages.
At the Rabinowitz home, Sara organizes presents that have arrived in celebration of her husband's sixtieth birthday. It is also the day of Jack's return. Greeted warmly by his mother after his long absence, he surprises her with an expensive piece of jewelry. At his father's piano, he sings and plays Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" for her, one of the tunes he will try out in the Broadway show. Then, as Jack continues to tinkle on the piano with his left hand throughout, comes the first true dialogue sequence ever heard in a feature-length film (Sara's lines, for the most part, are not fully enunciated, and at times are difficult to understand amid her frequent giggling):
Jack: Did you like that, Mama? Sara: Yes...Having performed a relatively straightforward version of the song, Jack now demonstrates for his mother the energetic method with which he plans to perform it on Broadway. In the middle of the song, he interjects, referring to his flamboyant piano style,
Jack: I'm glad of it. I'd rather please you than anybody I know of. Oh, darlin', will you gimme something?
Jack: You'll never guess. Shut your eyes, Mama. Shut 'em for little Jakie [pronounced "Jack-ee," not "Jayk-ee"]. Haw, I'm gonna steal something [he kisses her]. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!
Sara: Oh, Jakie, oh...
Jack: I'll give it back to you someday too, you see if I don't. Mama darling, if I'm a success in this show, well, we're gonna move from here.
Sara: Oh, no.
Jack: Oh yes, we're gonna move up in the Bronx. A lot of nice green grass up there, and a whole lot of people you know. There's the Ginsbergs, the Guttenbergs, and the Goldbergs. Oh, a whole lot of Bergs. I don't know 'em all. And I'm gonna buy you a nice black silk dress, Mama.
Jack: You'll see, Mrs. Friedman, the butcher's wife, she'll be jealous of you.
Sara: Oh, no...
Jack: Yes she will. You'll see if she isn't. And I'm going to get you a nice pink dress that will go with your brown eyes.
Sara: Oh, no, Jakie, no. I...I...
Jack: What do you mean, "no"?
Sara: Oh, no, dear.
Jack: Who, who is tellin' ya? What do you mean, "no"? Yes, you'll wear pink or else. Or else you'll wear pink. Hm, hm, hm, hm. And darlin', ohh, I'm gonna take you to Coney Island.
Jack: Yes, you're gonna ride on the shoot-the-chute.
Sara: Oh ho...
Jack: And you know the dark mill.
Jack: Ever been in the dark mill?
Sara: Oh, no, I wouldn't.
Jack: Well, with me it's alright. I'll kiss ya and hug ya—you'll see if I don't. Now Mama, Mama, stop now, you're gettin' kittenish. Mama, listen, I'm gonna sing this like I will if I go on the stage, you know, with the show. I'm gonna sing it jazzy. Now get this.
You like that slapping business?Jack's father enters and watches Jack perform for a few moments. Stunned and still not fully comprehending, he shouts the last recorded line of speech in the movie:
Stop!Jack tries to explain his modern point of view, but the traditionalist cantor is appalled. Jack is banished once again: "Leave my house! I never want to see you again — you jazz singer!" Jack makes a prediction as he departs: "I came home with a heart full of love, but you don't want to understand. Some day you'll understand, the same as Mama does." Sara fears Jack will never return: "He came back once, Papa, but — he'll never come back again." The cantor slumps defeatedly.
Two weeks after Jack's expulsion from the family home and twenty-four hours before opening night of April Follies on Broadway, Jack's father becomes gravely ill. Jack is asked to choose between the show and duty to his family and faith: in order to sing the Kol Nidre at temple in his sick father's place for Yom Kippur the following night, he will have to miss the big premiere.
Dress rehearsal is at one o'clock the next day. Jack is told, "Come full of pep!" That evening, the eve of Yom Kippur, Yudleson tells the Jewish elders, "For the first time, we have no Cantor on the Day of Atonement." Lying in his bed, weak and gaunt, Cantor Rabinowitz tells Sara that he cannot perform on the most sacred of holy days: "My heart is breaking, Mama. I cannot sing. My son came to me in my dreams — he sang Kol Nidre so beautifully. If he would only sing like that tonight — surely he would be forgiven."
As Jack prepares for rehearsal by applying blackface makeup, he and Mary have a heated discussion about his career aspirations and the familial pressures they agree he must rebuff. Sara and Yudleson comes to Jack's dressing room to plea for him to come to his father and sing in his stead. Jack is torn. He delivers his blackface performance ("Mother of Mine, I Still Have You"), and Sara sees her son onstage for the first time. She has a tearful revelation: "Here he belongs. If God wanted him in His house, He would have kept him there. He's not my boy anymore — he belongs to the whole world now."
Jack returns to the Rabinowitz home after the rehearsal. He kneels at his father's bedside and the two converse fondly: "My son — I love you." Yudleson assumes that he has come to replace Cantor Rabinowitz at the Yom Kippur service; Sara encourages him as a way to heal his father. Just then, the producer and Mary arrive to urge Jack to return with them to the April Follies premiere. The producer warns Jack that he'll never work on Broadway again if he fails to appear on opening night. Jack can't decide. Mary challenges him: "Were you lying when you said your career came before everything?" Jack is unsure if he even can replace his father: "I haven't sung Kol Nidre since I was a little boy." His mother tells him, "Do what is in your heart, Jakie — if you sing and God is not in your voice — your father will know." The producer cajoles Jack: "You're a jazz singer at heart!"
At the theater, the opening night audience is told that there will be no performance. Jack sings the Kol Nidre in the synagogue in his father's place. His father listens from his deathbed to the nearby ceremony and speaks his last, forgiving words: "Mama, we have our son again." The spirit of Jack's father is shown at his side in the synagogue. Mary has come to listen. She sees how Jack has reconciled the division in his soul: "a jazz singer — singing to his God."
"The season passes — and time heals — the show goes on." Jack, as "The Jazz Singer," is now appearing at the Winter Garden theater, apparently as the featured performer opening for a show called Back Room. In the film's final scene, his beloved mother sits alongside Yudleson in the front row of the packed theater. In blackface, Jack performs the song "My Mammy" for her and for the world.