Review of The Jazz Singer (1927)

Moving picture, 88 minutes

A young Jew in the New York ghetto runs away from his orthodox parents and tries to become a popular singer instead of a sixth generation synagogue cantor, although he respects the heritage of his “Race”. A famous Gentile dancer spots him singing in a London club and eventually he is on his way back to New York to star in a Broadway revue. A brief visit home ends in a confrontation with the father, whose resulting broken heart forbids him to perform his crucial duties as cantor on the evening of Yom Kippur, while the revue is set to premiere.

The first feature with such refined synchronized recording of image and dialogue that the actor(s) could speak in a natural, non-theatrical manner, but only in a few scenes. The still-primitive equipment restricts movement and crops the frame.

There is little audible dialogue. Most of the synchronized sound is spent on musical numbers by lead actor Al Jolson. The script is secondary; an Oedipal coming-of-age melodrama. The songs are realistically diegetic, so the element of musical as a modern genre is somewhat faint.

After his first song, Jolson ad-libs an old catchphrase, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” Its use here symbolically condemns silent cinema and neatly foreshadows the total dominance and eventual great refinement of talking pictures. The line wasn’t intended to be audible, and the film is uninspired. This coincidence is itself the greater symbol.

The use of “blackface” makeup serves a metaphorical purpose in the plot, but Jolson commonly appeared in blackface before the film was made, and the writing is typical of contemporary US attitudes on race.

While The Jazz Singer was in production at Warner Bros., the studio cut down on expenses. Its president stopped taking a salary. The Great Depression was coming. Film studios felt they needed synchronized sound as a novelty to sell more tickets. The film is crude, ugly, racist, an inartistic commercial gamble, and still it changed the way all later movies were made. This is Hollywood as the stumbling giant born out of WW1, governing the world by accident.

References here: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), “Steamboat Willie” (1928), “I Love to Singa” (1936).

moving picture fiction