The Jazz Singer - A Century of Film

Sound comes to the big screen, but brings with it other problems.

Devin on screen

A Century of Film is Devin Wilger’s attempt to watch a film from every year between 1917 to today. The film for 1927 is The Jazz Singer.

I was dreading The Jazz Singer. It’s very important, having proved that the talking picture was something people wanted to see, but it has a big problem, one that is even on the poster for the film. It was important, but it also headlined the problems inherent in old Hollywood.

Let’s take on the racist elephant in the room - Jolson performs in blackface. It’s not acceptable to perform in blackface anymore, for good reason - it’s inherently racist, by the makeup’s very nature it is mocking the appearance of an entire racial group. What you don’t immediately see is that the film is about racial identity, the blackface part of a series of steps the main character - Jack Robin, formerly known as Jakie Rabinowitz, played by Al Jolson - takes to distance himself from his own Jewish heritage. The name change itself is a big part of the same theme. It’s a strange case where you can appreciate what the film was trying to do while also wishing it found pretty much any other way to do it. Maybe the tools just weren’t there in 1927. Now, you could easily make the same story, right down to the mask of makeup, by making Robin the lead singer in a KISS-style rock band, for example, and neatly avoid all of the racist connotations of blackface. KISS had not been invented yet, however, so we are stuck with the entertainment of the time, and that entertainment is racist.

It’s the classic story of a boy rebelling against his father, with a religious backdrop that gives it a unique take on the subject. The father, Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland, putting in the best performance in the film) wants his son to do the same thing he does, sing in the synagogue as a cantor. Jakie wants to be a Jazz Singer, however, which enrages his father who accuses him of wasting his gifts. The father declares he has no son, and the rest of the film is about Robin’s relationship with his career, his faith and his family.

This is where the blackface comes in - it’s no accident that he doesn’t actually perform in it until the last act of the film, after a conflict with his father. It’s no accident that he puts on the makeup when he’s at his most conflicted. It’s no accident that the scene itself has him expressing guilt about hearing the “call of his race” while he’s in the middle of covering up his identity. All this would be poignant if it wasn’t blackface, but since we essentially know better now, it distracts from the power of the scene. A modern viewer wishes the symbol they chose wasn’t so inherently racist, and even understanding what they’re doing you wish they found pretty much any other way to execute it.

The movie also misses a trick in the final number, which is performed in blackface for no good reason, when it would actually hit the movie’s themes much harder if he wasn’t under a mask at all - this also comes immediately after the genuinely poignant finale, feeling tacked on because the song - My Mammy - was a hit for Jolson. Racism aside, ending the film with another blackface performance feels like it’s undermining the personal growth that defined the previous scene.

For all the hype and excitement surrounding the film being the beginnings of the talkie, there’s really not that much talking. Most of the dialogue is presented with title cards, and it saves its sound budget for the music. The first singing sequence is hilariously badly synced - it predicts the erratic English dubs of Shaw Brothers kung fu films decades later, the song not even remotely connected to the lips of the young Rabinowitz who is supposed to be singing it. Even as a silent it still mines the power of music, with an incredibly effective sequence involving the young Rabinowitz sneaking through his house as his father sings a Jewish prayer elsewhere. It tentatively points at the future, rather than being a revelation.

Hearing Jolson sing for the first time, my main thought is “I think this probably played better in 1927,” which is both a comment on his style - which is dated - and the novelty of sound which has lessened in the 90 years since this film was released. Holding off on your showpiece is often a way to add impact, whether it’s the reveal of the vibrant colours of Oz in The Wizard of Oz or the switch to 3D in Tron Legacy, but Jolson merely gets the first song which looks like it was recorded live, rather than the first song, and the sequence is staged in a way that suggests nobody quite knew how to record sound live - Jolson is awkwardly glued to the spot for the entire number, even though he clearly wants to dance, the shot framed in a way that suggests they kept accidentally getting the microphone in the shot if they did it any other way. It does lead to one of the great spoken lines in film - “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” - but it hasn’t aged well.

Jolson himself is a singer first, comedian second and actor distant third. He plays best with others - Oland is such a good actor that he brings out the best of anyone in a scene with him - but there are a lot of scenes where he’s just a bit blank and dull. This is at its worst in the middle section of the film, which is light on music and has Jolson carrying it on his own, it’s a half hour illustration of his failings as an actor. There’s also a romantic subplot with May McAvoy as Mary Dale that really doesn’t go anywhere, as neither lead is given much to do with it.

It’s a story that has been retold since, and better. The film was the inspiration for the Simpsons episode “Like Father, Like Clown.” The Simpsons episode also neatly sidestepped all the uncomfortable connotations with the makeup because Krusty’s wearing white clown makeup in a world where most people are yellow. It’s a demonstration of how there’s story with power here, one that can resonate, you just need to take the racism out.

Next time: We return to the silents, possibly for the last time, for Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr.

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