Thursday, July 10, 2008

The 1927 “Jazz Singer”: A Truly Great Film

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 1927 Warner Brothers (they were still spelling out the word “Brothers” instead of abbreviating it “Bros.” in their credits then!) production “The Jazz Singer” is acknowledged as a film of transcendent historical importance because it was the first popular movie with synchronized singing and dialogue, and it launched the transition from silent to sound films that was virtually complete in three years. What isn’t so well known is that it’s actually a quite good movie, sentimental and mawkish as all get-out but also legitimately powerful in presenting and resolving its conflicts. I couldn’t agree more with British critic Alexander Walker that “The Jazz Singer” is “about the making of an American as well as an entertainer,” and it no doubt resonated with 1920’s audiences who saw it just three years after a restrictive immigration bill pushed by the nativists in the U.S. Congress and the Republican Party (forerunners of the racist zealots who hold forth on talk radio against “illegals” and sound for all the world like the Nazis talking about the Jews) sought to close the melting pot. It remains a strong and powerful movie, and the recent Warner Home Video three-DVD set is a virtual primer in the silent-to-sound transition and a must-have item for a film collector with a particular interest in the transition to sound.


I stayed up to record the 1927 movie, The Jazz Singer, off TNT. It’s a movie that’s got some pretty bad press over the years — writers generally acknowledge its importance as the pioneering talkie (though only two sequences contain dialogue and less than 20 percent of the film has sound) but discount its obvious sentimentality and stereotyped portrayal of Jewish ghetto life (viewing this film, it’s hard to believe the stultifying, tradition-bound world of the American Jewish ghettoes of New York and Chicago produced Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Benny Goodman). Alexander Walker had kinder things to say about it in his book on the early days of sound film, The Shattered Silents (pp. 38-39):

“The power of lachrymose feeling charges three of the most potent themes that any film has been built around: Jewish tradition, show-business sentiment and mother love. All are combined in a story that is irredeemably mawkish, yet crudely effective. Ghetto attitudes and back-stage free-and-easiness collide in a way that, in 1927, most have caused a familiar wrench to thousands of America’s new Jewish immigrants. In a very real sense, The Jazz Singer is about the making of an American as well as an entertainer. … Sacred and lay shibboleths, Judaism and American fervor, father-worship and mother-love: these are elements that the story reconciles with an unselfconscious directness which survives the overloaded sentimentality better than it has any right to do.”

I basically agree with that analysis. The 1927 Jazz Singer is not a great film, but it is a good one; though the director (Alan Crosland) and the actors playing Jolson’s parents (Warner Oland — a Swede in real life, here playing his most famous non-Chinese role — and Eugene Besserer, who jars the story’s verisimilitude by looking throughout exactly like the Irishwoman she was) weren’t Jewish, enough of the personnel involved were — including the producers, screenwriter Alfred Cohn and, of course, the star — to give the story a peculiar authenticity. The fact that the piece had been done before as a straight play (A Day of Atonement) starring Edward G. Robinson (née Emmanuel Goldenberg) and then as a stage musical with Georgie Jessel is less significant than the fact that Robinson, Jessel and Jolson had all had real lives similar to that of the character they played. The Jazz Singer is a movie pretty obviously made by people who genuinely cared about the story they were telling, and this carried the picture over the shoals of its own sentimentality and the limitations of the early sound apparatus (plus the jarring effect, especially in a modern viewer used to the idea that movies have sound, of a film that is only part-talking). — 3/28/93


As for The Jazz Singer, Charles was surprised by it because he’d expected to be merely a novelty item, of historical interest as the first major “talking” film (even though only 10 percent of the movie has synchronized singing, talking and sound effects, and only 291 words are spoken in it) — and instead he was surprised to find it a quite good movie. It’s been denounced by most of the critics, though Alexander Walker wrote a moving appreciation of it in his book The Shattered Silents that fulfilled one function of critical writing and got me to see qualities in the film I’d missed before. True, it’s sentimental as all get-out, and there are some hysterical (in both senses — frightening and funny) titles (“Would you be the first Rabinowitz in five generations to fail your God?”) that are perfect examples of the kind of highly melodramatic dialogue lines that silent-film title-writers could get away with but that sounded ludicrous once you actually heard actors say them.

It also gets tiresome to hear exactly the same piece of music accompany every sequence in which chorus girls are shown dancing, no matter what city they’re playing in or what show they’re supposed to be performing — and when Jack Robin (the Jazz Singer Formerly Known as Jakie Rabinowitz, the character Jolson plays in the movie) finally hits Broadway, his show is directed by a typical screaming-queen dance director (it’s somewhat dispiriting to learn that that stereotype was established right at the beginning of musical film, too!), and despite the fact that most of the action takes place in New York City the Jewish characters look, dress and act like they’re in a road-company production of Fiddler on the Roof.

But the movie has a surprisingly strong plot and taut, incisive direction by Alan Crosland (even this early, the film shows the electrifying pace Warner Brothers productions were famous for, and I got the impression that Crosland was using a lot of short shots, quick cuts and multiple camera angles in the silent sequences because the talkie equipment was so balky the sound scenes would inevitably be static and ponderous), and while Jolson is only a mediocre silent actor (despite two gripping close-ups in which he effectively projects the anguish the plot puts his character through) the acting in this film is generally quite good.

Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer as his parents, in particular, act with a surprising degree of restraint that helps “cut” the sentimentality of the plot — and the opening sequence, in which Oland as the old cantor lip-synchs the words of “Kol Nidre” while Cantor Joseph Diskay (later another cantor, Josef Rosenblatt, actually is seen in the film, giving a concert that Jolson attends, and when the film was shown in Jewish neighborhoods Rosenblatt got star billing on the posters) dubs the singing for him off-screen like Anny Ondra and Joan Barry in Blackmail two years later, proves (if nothing else) that the stories I heard about the great cantors having vocal flexibility and quality equal to opera singers are true — at the end Diskay “floats” a melismatic passage with the ease of a great coloratura soprano. (Jolson, who sings the same song near the end, can’t duplicate the passage with Diskay’s operatic flair but sounds quite convincing anyway, singing seriously and from his heart as a real-life cantor’s son.)

And the movie itself is one of great thematic richness; its central conflicts, not only between Jewish tradition and jazz but between the Old World and the New, between community and career, between familial love and “family values,” still resonate strongly, and there are marvelously subtle touches like (and I’ll acknowledge Alexander Walker for pointing this out to me) Jolson’s introduction, in a cafeteria eating a breakfast of ham and eggs (symbolizing how far away from Jewish tradition he has strayed in his life as a traveling entertainer). Even the mawkish mother-love theme is used effectively from a dramatic point of view — of the five songs Jolson sings in the course of the film, three (“Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” — later covered, like a lot of items from the Jolson songbook, by Judy Garland — “Mother, I Still Have You” and the classic “My Mammy”) deal with mother-son love, and a fourth (Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” — how appropriate that the first American musical film would include a song by America’s most popular and best-loved songwriter — especially since he, like Jolson, was an expatriate Russian Jew!) is sung by Jolson to Besserer and features an expression of mother love that, in Walker’s words, “verges on the Oedipal.”

The constant references to mother-son love give the movie a gripping thematic unity and are moving even though the final fourth of the film is practically a hymn to Jewish guilt — and while there’s a lot of Jewish cultural reference in the film (I couldn’t help but wonder whether straight, Gentile Middle America came even close to “getting” such Yiddish words as shiksa and kibitizer in the titles) the story is universal. Though Jolson’s on-screen singing is phenomenal — if nothing else, The Jazz Singer would be valuable for capturing Jolson’s star power and charisma on film for all time, preserving for us a record of him at his absolute best — The Jazz Singer has a lot more to offer than just five incandescent vocal performances by its star. — 1/10/97


I also finished the cassette dub of the Al Jolson movie-soundtracks CD with the four songs he sang in The Jazz Singer that weren’t included already (“Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” “Blue Skies,” “My Mammy” and the version of “Kol Nidre” he sings on the deathbed of his movie father) — the irony is that for all its sentimentality and the overacting, particularly Eugenie Besserer as Jolson’s mother and Jolson himself when he’s not singing or speaking in the synch-sound sequences, The Jazz Singer actually holds up surprisingly well as a movie, with clearly delineated character conflicts and an intense resonance to the immigrant experience in America and the clash between the immigrants themselves and their far more assimilated offspring. — 8/1/04


I asked to stop in at the public library and look for a copy of Al Jolson’s recording of “My Mammy” from the soundtrack of The Jazz Singer, the one song I needed to complete my reconstruction of the Walter Donaldson songwriter’s tape. I got the CD I Love to Sing which years ago I had checked out from the library and dubbed to cassette; I made a Toast copy of it when I got it home but was reminded that the version of “My Mammy” on it was not from The Jazz Singer but was from the movie Rose of Washington Square, made at a different studio (20th Century-Fox) 12 years later. (Actually, I think Jolson’s best recording of “My Mammy” was the one he made for the album The Jolson Story on Decca in 1946, since there he sings the song’s beautiful verse and phrases it magnificently, but I was trying to reproduce my older tape exactly, with only one change: I’m going to use both takes of Louis Armstrong’s 1930 recording of “You’re Driving Me Crazy.”)

Fortunately, they also had a DVD of the 1927 film The Jazz Singer itself, so I made a Crosley CD dub from it consisting of all Al Jolson’s songs from the film (including his climactic performance of “Kol Nidre” and the version of “My Mammy” which follows it — and which, oddly, is received in silence in the film; he just sings it, there’s a pause, and then the exit music comes in, even though he’s supposedly singing it to an enthralled live audience at the Winter Garden Theatre, site of the real Al Jolson’s greatest stage triumphs.) The DVD turned out to be a three-disc package, with the unrecorded sides of the discs reproducing the original labels of the Vitaphone soundtrack discs (I always like stuff like that!), including the checkoffs of the number of times each disc was played (20 times was the limit; after that, the discs were presumably too worn and scratchy to be used again), and just the extras on the same disc with the film made this one worth having: the 1926 Vitaphone short Al Jolson in a Plantation Act (the first film of Jolson that survives, made a year before The Jazz Singer — he started but didn’t finish two silent movies, one in 1916 for Vitagraph and one in 1923 for D. W. Griffith), a 1936 spoof of Jolson and The Jazz Singer in Warners’ “Merrie Melodies” cartoon series (when I was a kid I always wondered why they misspelled “merry”!) and a June 2, 1947 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of The Jazz Singer starring the 60-something Jolson in the role of 20-something “Jack Robin” the 40-something Jolson had played on screen two decades before, with Gail Patrick (barely competent) in the May McAvoy role of his girlfriend from the show world and Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne playing the roles of the parents (since they’d already played Jolson’s parents in The Jolson Story and would go on to play the parents in the first big-screen remake of The Jazz Singer, in 1953 with Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee).

As schlocky as the story is — even more so when told in dialogue than in the original film’s mixture of silent-screen technique, audible songs and two bits of dialogue scenes — it still packs a sentimental wallop, especially since the writers of the radio version reverted to the original ending of the play (after missing the opening night of his Broadway show in order to take the place of his just minutes-before deceased father in the synagogue to sing “Kol Nidre” for the Day of Atonement, jazz singer Jack Robin gives up secular showbiz and again becomes Jakie Rabinowitz, sixth consecutive male heir in his family to be a cantor) rather than the ending of the film (Jack sings in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement to take his late father’s place, misses his opening night on Broadway to do so, but the show is merely postponed and eventually he takes his place in the theatre, becomes a star and wins his leading lady’s affections while his mom looks on with joy and pride).

Interestingly, while I was listening it occurred to me that the life of Puccini was a sort of real-life Italian Catholic version of The Jazz Singer; the Puccini we all know and love was the seventh generation of his family to take up music as a career, but all the previous Puccinis had written music for the church and our Giacomo’s decision to write operas instead was a major break with family and religious tradition (though somewhere in the mix Puccini’s grandfather Domenico wrote a quite nice piano concerto). — 6/28/08


I did so, grabbing the chance of a rare evening more or less alone to run one of the special bonuses in the Jazz Singer DVD package, an 80-minute documentary called The Dawn of Sound: How the Movies Learned to Talk. It was an intriguing show, largely in terms of the background on the major inventors involved in the process, particularly Lee DeForest and Theodore Case, who between them developed the very first workable sound-on-film system — and then had a spectacular falling-out mainly over the issue of credit. DeForest was a chronically cash-poor inventor and Case was an independently wealthy dilettante who offered DeForest a fully equipped lab and worked out a special photoelectric cell that gave far better sound reproduction than DeForest’s own — with the result that Case took his superior photoelectric cell and went to William Fox, who offered to back him and brought the sound-on-film system to market, scoring a major coup when his Movietone Newsreel crew shot the takeoff of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and actually had the newsreel in theatres while Lindbergh was still in the air (and followed it up by shooting his speech in Paris after he landed — thereby making Lindbergh, not Al Jolson, the real first star of the sound era, or at least so this film argued).

This film suggested that the real reason Vitaphone’s sound-on-disc system beat the DeForest-Case-Fox Movietone sound-on-film system to theatres was that phonograph record making and manufacture were mature technologies and therefore seemed less intimidating than literally photographing sound, even though the Movietone system was not only more practical (since sound and picture were on the same film and therefore locked in synch permanently) but the quality was better (especially since the heavy phonograph pickups then in use wore out the Vitaphone discs so fast they could only be used 20 times before they had to be replaced — a good deal quicker than a film print wore out!). What the film didn’t mention was that in the end the system that became standard was neither Vitaphone nor Movietone, but a competing sound-on-film system called Photophone invented by RCA’s technical staff (mainly because it recorded sound on a variable-area system — the familiar bilateral striation visible to anyone who holds a piece of sound film to light — rather than the variable-density of Movietone, and variable-area gave a cleaner, less noisy recording).

The show offered clips of some of the earliest experiments in sound film, including Edison’s preposterous link-up of the movie camera and the phonograph through a belt extending across the room, with metal stanchions mounted along the wall just to hold the belt up — and all the early sound systems, from Edison’s to the one used by D. W. Griffith to record a spoken prologue to his 1921 film Dream Street, suffered from the limitations of acoustic phonograph recording, both in timbre (the limits are far more noticeable when the acoustic recordings are accompanying films than they are on their own!) and in volume. In fact, this film attributes the failure of DeForest’s Phonofilm demonstrations in 1922-23 partly to the graininess of the film he was using (which interfered with recording quality) but mostly due to the limited power of his amplifiers, which simply couldn’t make the sound loud enough to fill a typical movie theatre of the day. The narration suggests that William Fox signed with Vitaphone as well as with Case to cover his bets whichever system became the standard, though the real reason Fox needed Vitaphone was that its developer, Western Electric (AT&T’s equipment manufacturing subsidiary), had built a far more powerful amplifier than anyone else and both the sound-on-disc and sound-on-film systems needed the Western Electric amplifier to deliver sufficiently loud and distortion-free sound to play in a theatre.

The technological discussion was frankly quite a bit more interesting than the artistic one, which hit a few of the high/low points of the early sound era (including Warners’ almost unspeakably bad 1928 melodrama, The Lights of New York, the first all-talking film and a dull, dreary bore whose biggest surprise is that it came from the studio which within two to three years was giving us fast, exciting gangster thrillers like Little Caesar and Public Enemy) and showed a rare clip from Jolson’s second feature, The Singing Fool (a bigger hit than The Jazz Singer and in fact the film that held the record for highest-grossing movie ever from its release in 1928 until Gone With the Wind came out in 1939) as well as Mary Pickford’s talkie debut Coquette (which won her the Academy Award, though that was probably more a “career award” than one for that specific film; she comes off fairly well but the combination of her age, the old-fashioned nature of her “type,” the fact that she’d become a multimillionaire and therefore didn’t have to work, and the personal trauma of the breakup of her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks — not her inability to adapt to sound — caused her to call it quits after just three more films).

The documentary brought on Leatrice Joy Fountain, daughter of John Gilbert and Leatrice Joy, to refute the old canard that Gilbert’s downfall as a star in the sound era had anything to do with the quality of his voice per se, but the film didn’t offer an explanation of what did cause it. (My own theory, based on the Gilbert talkies I have seen, is that his voice was perfectly acceptable but he never learned to act with it, remaining clueless about how to vary his inflections and vocal delivery to convey emotions.) The whole mythology of sound destroying careers right and left is nonsense; aside from Gilbert, virtually all the big-name male stars of the late silent era — Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, William Powell, John and Lionel Barrymore et al. — made the transition with flying colors; and fewer of the women did, but the career problems of Pickford, Gloria Swanson (whose first talkie, The Trespasser, was actually the highest-grossing film she ever made) and the others probably had more to do with the fact that when sound came in they were entering their mid- to late-30’s, an awkward age for actresses then as now. — 7/2/08


Charles and I ran 13 of the 24 Vitaphone sound shorts on the third disc of the deluxe DVD set of the film The Jazz Singer (the 1927 original, of course, the only one of the three probably worth seeing — I’ve personally never seen the other two) before we finally reached our limit and called it a night at 10:35. (I put the disc on pause and Charles and I went out and had some cake, while I gave John a snack of his own and nebulized him — and when we were done with that Charles didn’t want to watch the rest and just wanted to crash.) In his book on the early days of sound film, The Shattered Silents, Alexander Walker said that for him the most poignant part of his research was reading the interviews with vaudevillians in the early days of talkies and noting with what glee they greeted the invention that, as things turned out, put most of them out of work: they had hoped not only to film their acts but get royalties from the showings of the films, so they would have a steady income without the rigors of traveling the vaudeville circuits. Instead they hauled themselves and their props and sets before the Vitaphone cameras and recorders, did their acts, got paid once and then never heard from the movie company again. One quirk of vaudeville was that the gigs were so spread out that an act could tour for years with the same piece of material, whereas the mass media of film and radio wore out material almost overnight; George Burns and Gracie Allen, whose Vitaphone short “Lambchops” is included here (they do a talking act to a piano while also practicing dance steps) and was simply their vaudeville act put on film, prospered because Burns was creative enough to keep coming up with new material that fit his and Allen’s characterizations — but most of these folks weren’t.

Among the 13 shorts we watched, easily the best were the first one, Elsie Janis’s “Behind the Lines” — in which she plays an entertainer performing for the troops in World War I; and the fifth, singers Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields with the Music Boxes (an otherwise unidentified piano duo who played with their two grand pianos, lids closed, fitted together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle). Both were probably a bit too old for movie stardom in the early sound era, but Janis’s act was a superbly deadpan combination of vocal and comedy and Seeley’s was even better. Though her partner Fields was a pretty typical whispery tenor of the 1920’s (once the development of microphones had made it possible to perform live in this soft style instead of having to belt out loud enough to fill a room without amplification), Seeley was great, every bit as good as I’ve heard this legendary performer was. She was the sort of performer then called a “coon shouter” — a white singer who could sound Black — and, like Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker before her and Elvis Presley afterwards, she showed that she had not only learned the rudiments of the Black singing styles but had caught much of their soul as well. Her phrasing is surprisingly good — she obviously knew quite a lot more about jazz than her rather anemic accompanists did — and her vocal style far closer to that of the great Black blues queens of the 1920’s than to other white vaudevillians.

The gap became even clearer when Adele Rowland’s short, “Stories in Song,” came on; Rowland had no trouble with projection but had hardly any phrasing at all, and she closed her short with one of those gotta-go-back-to-the-South numbers that Seeley could have aced but Rowland was just up at sea in (and it didn’t help that her accompanist, a tall, rail-thin woman pianist who looked like a drag queen, rushed the tempo so much even Billie Holiday would have had trouble phrasing effectively with this person backing her). There were a number of other shorts, including one called “Bernado de Pace: ‘The Wizard of the Mandolin,’” which Charles summed up effectively by describing it as a case of a performer with real talent having to do a ridiculous novelty act to survive; de Pace played a beautifully phrased version of the “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann while dressed in a Pagliacci-style clown suit and periodically having to interrupt his number with cornball “Americana” themes.

Van and Schenck’s “The Pennant-Winning Battery of Songland” was surprisingly boring, especially by comparison with the quite lively records I’ve heard of theirs (including one of the first recordings of Gershwin’s “Yankee Doodle Blues”); only on their last number did they sing together and some of their quality come through. “Hazel Green and Company” turned out to feature Hazel Green (who knew?), a zaftig performer who proved to be a surprisingly agile dancer for someone of her weight, even though I suspect her voice was considerably bigger than it appeared here. I suspect the Vitaphone technicians told her to suppress it and sing more softly than usual to avoid either overloading the recording or blowing the microphones — with the result that her band frequently drowned her out. (Remember that these Vitaphone shorts — essentially the first music videos — were films of on-the-spot live performances, with no pre-recording or post-production remixing possible; what went on the Vitaphone record during filming was what the audience heard.)

Other shorts on this quite interesting disc (oddly, the package contained none of the classical and operatic Vitaphone shorts) included a sketch called The Night Court — in which the members of a revue busted in mid-act perform their show for the judge and he, of course, pronounces it good — a group called “The Police Quartette” (four men in police uniforms singing quite good barbershop harmonies — I couldn’t help but wonder if they were really cops), “The Jazzmania Quintette” with violinist Georgie Stoll (who later made it quite big in Hollywood, not as a performer but as a composer, arranger and music director for films) and singer Edythe Flynn; “The Band Beautiful” with the Ingenues, an all-woman band whose members would frequently all (or almost all) play the same instrument (we’d seen this one before on TCM), whose best players were the harpist (one of the few instruments then generally considered acceptable for women to play in public) and a woman whose accordion proclaimed her as “Frances”; “Chips off the Old Block” by the younger generation of the Foy family (which was pretty dumb but kind of fun — and, as often happened in those days, judging by the evidence of these shorts, the women seemed more talented than the men); and the last one we watched in the sequence, “Dick Rich and His Melodious Monarchs.”

Dick Rich was a Paul Whiteman-esque bandleader — not only did his band sound like Whiteman’s but Rich was even shaped like him — and the short was going along quite nicely until Rich made the unaccountable decision to start singing. Mistake! He had only the bare minimum of a voice, and so the songs (including two I’d recently heard on records by the real Whiteman, “Smile” and “Sunshine”) fell flat when they should have soared.

This morning I watched the rest of the items on disc two of the collection, after the contemporary documentary The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk: the surviving excerpts from the 1929 Gold Diggers of Broadway (including a spectacular number to the songs “Tiptoe through the Tulips” and “Painting My Face with Sunshine,” set on a Paris street set built in such forced perspective it looks like The Revue of Dr. Caligari; pity the staging — aside from one brief overhead shot of a chorus line -— isn’t anywhere nearly as creative as the set!) and shorts about sound film from 1926 (The Voice from the Screen, a Bell Laboratories film about how Vitaphone movies were made, with a singularly uncharismatic narrator), 1929 (Finding His Voice, a Max Fleischer cartoon starring “Talkie” and “Mutie” and featuring “Talkie,” a strip of film with a soundtrack, going to the doctors at Western Electric to have “Mutie” fitted with a soundtrack as well), 1943 (The Voice That Thrilled the World, a Warners two-reel documentary intended to promote Yankee Doodle Dandy and other films of theirs at the time), 1947 (Okay for Sound, another two-reel documentary this time celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Jazz Singer) and When the Talkies Were Young (a bit out of place because it was a “clip reel” from 1955 and the films they excerpted, including Sinners’ Holiday, Five Star Final, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, Night Nurse and Svengali, actually were made three to five years after The Jazz Singer and really belong to the next era in film). — 7/5/08