Monday, September 9, 2013

The Jazz Singer

Over the weekend I watched "The Jazz Singer" (starring Al Jolson) for the very first time.

Turner Classic Movies started showing the documentary "The Story of Film" (it will run for about 15 weeks on Monday nights) last week and as part of it they are showing some of the movies discuss in that week's installment.

Hasn't everyone heard of "The Jazz Singer"? The first feature-length "talkie" and all that? Or have seen clips of one of the songs, probably "My Mammy"?

And for the record I actually saw the Neil Diamond-Lucia Arnaz version in 1980 or 1981. In those college days we saw movies all the time. The movie is nothing to blog about but the songs from the film were all hits for Neil Diamond: "America", "Hello Again" and "Love on the Rocks".

The Jolson version is basically a silent film --- lots of title cards standing in for dialogue like other silent films of the era. There is a musical score throughout and some sound effects are included. Then there are sound sequences whenever there is a song. Some songs take place in the synagogue and some are pop songs of the day.

The movie itself is surprisingly compelling. Jolson's dad is portrayed by Warner Oland, the Swedish actor who spent his career playing Asian characters (most notably Charlie Chan). Will Jack Robin (the former Jakie Rabinowitz) sing in his father's place for Yom Kippur services or will he make his Broadway debut?

The acting is much as you'd expect from a silent film. To our modern eyes it's even kind of terrible! But overall I think it is pretty good for its time.

It's still kind of hard to understand --- again, to my modern eyes --- how Al Jolson was such a HUGE star in those days. But star he was even though he is mainly forgotten today except for this film. Fame is fleeting indeed.

One small complaint is that Jolson was kinda old for the role of the kid who left home to make good in show business. But this is a fact of Hollywood that still exists today. I looked up his age; he was born in 1886 and the movie was made in 1927 so he was about 41 at the time. But one thing about the early 20th Century is that people always seem to look so much older than their actual ages.

Here's a still from the movie:
It's a scene of Jack (Al's character) and his mother. The actress (Eugenie Besserer) was born in 1868 so she was about 59. Al Jolson looks at least that old too!

Think about it. Here are a few actors around 41 and 42 years old now: Matt Damon, Jeremy Renner, Nathan Fillion, Vince Vaughn, and Ethan Hawke. Freaky. Even the guys in their 50s look pretty good: George Clooney, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Tom Cruise and so on.

The one part of "The Jazz Singer" that's controversial is the fact that part of it is performed by Jolson in blackface. He performs "My Mammy" in blackface (though he's directing his performance to his own mother) and acts in one sequence in his dressing room after he's made up. Some critics contend that Jolson used blackface as a "metaphor of mutual suffering" of both blacks and Jews.

You can find many articles on the Internet about this subject so I won't go into it further than to say that you can find many examples of blackface in classic movies, usually in some musical number. There's nothing like watching a wholesome Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney film and all of a sudden, there they are, performing in blackface!

I still have so many other movies recorded on the DVR! But at least I filled in another brick of my classic film education!

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