October 6,1927 – The premier of The Jazz Singer, the first prominent “talkie” movie.
100 years ago, Samson Raphaelson, from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attended a performance of a musical titled Robinson Crusoe, Jr. The star was a 30-year-old singer, Al Jolson, a Russian-born Jew who performed in blackface.
A few years later, Raphaelson wrote a short story, The Day Of Atonement, about a young Jew named Jakie Rabinowitz, based on Jolson’s real life. Raphaelson adapted the story into a stage play, The Jazz Singer. All the singing in this version took place offstage. Popular Vaudevillian George Jessel played the lead role when the play opened in September 1925. It was a huge box-office hit. Warner Bros. Studios acquired the film rights and signed Jessel to a contract.
Jessel hated the screenplay with its musical numbers and refused to do the film. Warner Bros. offered the part to another Vaudeville star, Eddie Cantor, who turned it down. Then they went to Jolson, who was one of the biggest stars in the world, offering him $75,000 ($1,500,000 adjusted for inflation) to play a character based on himself.
The earliest sound films that had dialogue were all were all short subjects. D. W. Griffith’s Dream Street (1921) had a single singing sequence and crowd noises, using the sound-on-disc system Photokinema. The film included a sequence with Griffith speaking directly to the audience about how it all worked, but the feature itself had no talking scenes. In 1923, the sound-on-film system Phonofilm was introduced. It offered synchronized sound and dialogue, but the sound quality was terrible.
The first Warner Bros. Vitaphone features, Don Juan (1926) and The Better ‘Ole (1926), had only a synchronized instrumental score and sound effects. The Jazz Singer had those, but also several synchronized singing sequences and some synchronized dialogue. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” were the first spoken words in a feature film.
Directed by Alan Crosland, The Jazz Singer’s release ushered in the new era of sound films and the swift decline of the silent film era.
90 years ago, on October 6, 1927, The Jazz Singer premiered in NYC at the Warner Bros. Theatre. The opening coincided with Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday that figures in the film’s plot.
The physical presentation of the film itself was remarkably complex: each of Jolson’s six musical numbers was mounted on a separate reel with a separate accompanying sound disc. Even though the film only ran 90 minutes, there were fifteen reels and fifteen discs to manage, and the projectionist had to be able to thread the film and cue up the Vitaphone records and keep them in sync. Any stumble would ruin everything.
Jolson’s “Wait a minute” line brought gasps from the audience. After each of his songs there was wild applause. When Jolson and Eugenie Besserer began their dialogue scene, the audience went bananas. After the show, the audience chanted: “Jolson, Jolson, Jolson!”
The film was well-reviewed and made the studio a lot of money, but more importantly, it revolutionized filmmaking. Audiences wanted more talking and more singing.
“Cultural appropriation” is a polite term for “stealing from black folks”. Through the centuries, many artists are guilty of it, but one person in particular, practically made his entire career from it: Al Jolson. You kids may not know of him, yet in the 1920s and 1930s, Jolson was a global superstar and the highest paid entertainer in showbiz.
Born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania, during his lifetime he made theater attendance history, had 80 hit records, and often appeared in blackface, singing music by black performers. He is credited with introducing African-American music to white audiences. Jolson became very wealthy performing music by black musicians in exaggerated black makeup, while black performers got a fraction of his salary and little recognition.
The Jazz Singer made Jolson the highest paid actor in films for several years.
The Jazz Singer is about cultural conflict and duty; the son of a synagogue cantor who has become a successful Broadway and nightclub jazz singer, finds his life turned upside-down when he refuses to follow his father’s family tradition of being a cantor, tearing apart his relationship and earning the ire of his father.
The big final climax has Jolson in blackface, and though it seems insulting and degrading today, many white performers of that era believed that performing in blackface was a way of honoring the black performers who inspired them. But it was, of course, an easy way to get white audiences to be entertained as white performers “demeaned” themselves pretending to be black.
Like D.W. Griffith’s notorious ode to the KKK, The Birth Of A Nation (1915), The Jazz Singer is an important film in the history of Black representation that, because of their reputations, most film fans have never actually watched. Jolson’s blackface routines raise questions about black imagery and representation that I, as a white person, could never answer. I do know, that the single time I saw it, I was made very uncomfortable. And worse, in the early 1970s, I played Al Jolson in a student film, complete with blackface. I have a photo still from that film project, that now that I am smarter, makes me shiver and brings me shame. It is also sort of funny, but in a woke way.
There were three more screen versions of The Jazz Singer: a 1952 remake, starring Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee, a 1959 television version starring Jerry Lewis, both using the blackface element; and a 1980 remake starring Neil Diamond, Lucie Arnaz, and Laurence Olivier that is crummy, but saves face.
In real life, Jolson insisted on the hiring and fair treatment of black people at a time when 15% of the country were members of the KKK. He was outspoken in his support of Equal Rights for African-Americans as early as 1911.
Jolson’s life was the subject of a very popular film imaginatively titled The Jolson Story (1947). The film tries to explain the reason why blackface was so popular. While still very awkward, it is also rather touching. The writers of the film were trying to explain blackface to the audience, but I think they were really trying to explain it to themselves.
Anyway, The Jazz Singer is only a curiosity in the 21st century. It gets mentioned as the First Talking Movie, but it really isn’t. The following year, 1928, Warner Bros. released The Lights Of New York which was the first real all talking sound film from beginning to end. By the end of 1929, Hollywood was producing sound films exclusively.