Written by Alfred A. Cohn
Directed by Alan Crosland
Starring Al Jolson, May McAvoy and Warner Oland
Jakie Rabinowitz: Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothing yet!
THE JAZZ SINGER is famous for one very specific and spectacular thing. When it was released in 1927, it became the first talking picture in motion picture history. Before this film was released, feature films were strictly silent and played with orchestral accompaniment. Dialogue was relegated to cards inserted in between shots to ensure that key points were made, but most of the communication relied on the actors’ expressions, which were often exaggerated and comical. THE JAZZ SINGER was a huge success for Warner Brothers and revolutionized the way movies were made, forcing all the other studios to start making talkies as well. That was then and this is now though. Does this quintessential piece of cinema stand the test of time?
The truth of the matter is that I was quite thrown by THE JAZZ SINGER at first. Given its reputation, I expected a full fledged talking picture, one that might have its technical hitches, but that would still be impressive for its achievements. That isn’t really what this is though. There actually isn’t very much talking at all in THE JAZZ SINGER. In fact, it is really more of a silent film with a few carefully placed sound cues here and there, like applause or dishes clanging. It’s true moments of spectacle all come from star, Al Jolson. Playing Jakie Rabinowitz, Jolson rejects his generational birthright to be a Jewish cantor (an assistant to the rabbi, who sings the prayers for the congregation), in favour of being, you guessed it, a jazz singer. This may tear his family apart but it does allow for what is most certainly one of cinema’s defining moments.
After about fifteen or so minutes of fairly typical silent film tropes, Jolson takes to the stage in a small jazz bar. This is when the real magic happens. He launches into rousing rendition of a little ditty called, “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” and the sound leaves his mouth like a minor miracle. It’s like that moment in THE WIZARD OF OZ when everything changes from black and white to colour. Before there was nothing but ambient sound and title cards, but now there was true, crystal clear sound coming from the man on the screen. It is easy to see how audiences then must have been wowed beyond belief given how the moment still manages to resonate to this day. It ends there though. The man who was just singing returns to his table and stops talking. We can hear everyone clapping for him but he can’t even say, “Thank you.” THE JAZZ SINGER is still a classic but it’s a little odd to make sense of all the time (and that’s not taking into account that Jolson ends the film in blackface.)