“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” – Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson), The Jazz Singer (1927)
The plot of The Jazz Singer is fairly simple. The main character is Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor. Jakie has been taught by his father to follow in his footsteps in the synagogue, but he wants to be a jazz singer. He runs away from home as a child, and years later, under the stage name of Jack Robin, he becomes successful enough to come to Broadway. He tries to visit his mother, who supported him, but his father throws him out. As his father becomes sick, Jakie finds himself torn between the stage and following in his father’s footsteps.
This is one of those movies that should be seen even if only for its historical importance. The movie is a silent/ talkie hybrid, owing much to the technology of the time. The only times we hear the dialogue are during the musical numbers (and brief bits of dialogue in between). The movie owes a lot of its success to its star, Al Jolson. There had been some attempts at sound movies prior to this one, but they mostly failed because of the technology along with the stars being unable to sound natural. Everything I read indicates that Al Jolson’s brief bits of dialogue between and during some of the songs were ad-libbed, but they came off so naturally, that this movie became a success.
My favorite moment in the movie is probably when Al Jolson sings the song “Blue Skies.” I can easily see why it is one of the better remembered moments, what with Al Jolson ad-libbing with the actress playing his mother. Of course, the song itself is a lot of fun. I enjoy a lot of Irving Berlin’s music, and it’s a lot of fun to find this song in different movies, whether it’s here or with Alice Faye and Ethel Merman singing it in Alexander’s Ragtime Band or Bing Crosby singing it in both Blue Skies and White Christmas.
The movie is not flawless, particularly for modern viewers. The main problem many will have is that Al Jolson does don blackface a few times later in the movie. I don’t like it, but it’s one of those things I have learned to live with. Personally, I think Moisha Yudelson’s (Otto Lederer) comment upon seeing him in blackface, referring to him as his “shadow” is worse, but that’s my opinion.
In spite of the blackface issues, I still recommend this movie. It is an important historical movie, with some relevance still today. Of course, if you have the opportunity, try watching a few silent movies before it to help you understand what it meant then.
The movie is available on Blu-ray (which I recommend) or DVD from Warner Archive Collection. It is for the most part family-friendly (although parents may obviously want to be there to explain blackface and why it is wrong).
Film Length: 1 hour, 36 minutes
My Rating: 10/10