The Jazz Singer (1927 film)

The Jazz Singer is a 1927 American musical film. The first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences, its release heralded the commercial ascendance of the "talkies" and the decline of the silent film era. Produced by Warner Bros. with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, the movie stars Al Jolson, who performs six songs. Directed by Alan Crosland, it is based on a play by Samson Raphaelson.

The story begins with young Jakie Rabinowitz defying the traditions of his devout Jewish family by singing popular tunes in a beer hall. Punished by his father, a cantor, Jakie runs away from home. Some years later, now calling himself Jack Robin, he has become a talented jazz singer. He attempts to build a career as an entertainer, but his professional ambitions ultimately come into conflict with the demands of his home and heritage.

From concept to choosing a star

On April 25, 1917, Samson Raphaelson, a native of New York City's Lower East Side and a University of Illinois undergraduate, attended a performance of the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr. in Champaign, Illinois. The star of the show was a thirty-year-old singer, Al Jolson, a Russian-born Jew who performed in blackface.[1] In a 1927 interview, Raphaelson described the experience: "I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson—his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from a tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song."[1] He explained that he had seen emotional intensity like Jolson's only among synagogue cantors.

A few years later, pursuing a professional literary career, Raphaelson wrote "The Day of Atonement", a short story about a young Jew named Jakie Rabinowitz, based on Jolson's real life. The story was published in January 1922 in Everybody's Magazine.[2] Raphaelson later adapted the story into a stage play, The Jazz Singer. A straight drama, all the singing in Raphaelson's version takes place offstage.[3] With George Jessel in the lead role, the show premiered on Broadway in September 1925 and became a hit.[4] Warner Bros. acquired the movie rights to the play on June 4, 1926, and signed Jessel to a contract.[5] Moving Picture World published a story in February 1927 announcing that production on the film would begin with Jessel on May 1.[6]

But the plans to make the film with Jessel would fall through, for multiple reasons. Jessel's contract with Warner Bros. had not anticipated that the movie they had particularly signed him for would be made with sound (he'd made a modestly budgeted, silent comedy in the interim). When Warners had hits with two Vitaphone, though dialogue-less, features in late 1926, The Jazz Singer production had been reconceived.[5] Jessel asked for a bonus or a new contract, but was rebuffed. According to Jessel's description in his autobiography, Harry Warner "was having a tough time with the financing of the company.... He talked about taking care of me if the picture was a success. I did not feel that was enough."[7] In fact, around the beginning of 1927, Harry Warner—the eldest of the brothers who ran the eponymous studio—had sold $4 million of his personal stock to keep the studio solvent.[5] Then came another major issue. According to Jessel, a first read of screenwriter Alfred A. Cohn's adaptation "threw me into a fit. Instead of the boy's leaving the theatre and following the traditions of his father by singing in the synagogue, as in the play, the picture scenario had him return to the Winter Garden as a blackface comedian, with his mother wildly applauding in the box. I raised hell. Money or no money, I would not do this."[8]

According to performer Eddie Cantor, as negotiations between Warner Bros. and Jessel foundered, Jack Warner and the studio's production chief, Darryl Zanuck, called to see if he was interested in the part. Cantor, a friend of Jessel's, responded that he was sure any differences with the actor could be worked out and offered his assistance.[9] Cantor was not invited to participate in the Jessel talks; instead, the role was then offered to Jolson, who had inspired it in the first place. Describing Jolson as the production's best choice for its star, film historian Donald Crafton wrote, "The entertainer, who sang jazzed-up minstrel numbers in blackface, was at the height of his phenomenal popularity. Anticipating the later stardom of crooners and rock stars, Jolson electrified audiences with the vitality and sex appeal of his songs and gestures, which owed much to African-American sources."[10] As described by historian Robert L. Carringer, "Jessel was a vaudeville comedian and master of ceremonies with one successful play and one modestly successful film to his credit. Jolson was a superstar."[11] Jolson took the part, signing a $75,000 contract on May 26, 1927, for eight weeks of services beginning in July.[12] There have been several claims but no proof that Jolson invested some of his own money in the film.[13] Jessel and Jolson, also friends, did not speak for some time after—on the one hand, Jessel had been confiding his problems with the Warners to Jolson; on the other, Jolson had signed with them without telling Jessel of his plans. In his autobiography, Jessel wrote that, in the end, Jolson "must not be blamed, as the Warners had definitely decided that I was out."[14]

Introducing sound

While many earlier sound films had dialogue, all were short subjects. D. W. Griffith's feature Dream Street (1921) was shown in New York with a single singing sequence and crowd noises. It was preceded by a program of sound shorts, including a sequence with Griffith speaking directly to the audience, but the feature itself had no talking scenes.[15] Similarly, the first Warner Bros. Vitaphone features, Don Juan (premiered August 1926) and The Better 'Ole (premiered October 1926), like two more that followed in early 1927, had only a synchronized instrumental score and sound effects. The Jazz Singer contains those, as well as numerous synchronized singing sequences and some synchronized speech: Two popular tunes are performed by the young Jakie Rabinowitz, the future Jazz Singer; his father, a cantor, performs the devotional Kol Nidre; the famous cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, appearing as himself, sings another religious melody. As the adult Jack Robin, Jolson performs six songs, five popular "jazz" tunes and the Kol Nidre. The sound for the film was recorded by British-born George Groves, who had also worked on Don Juan. To direct, the studio chose Alan Crosland, who already had two Vitaphone films to his credit: Don Juan and Old San Francisco, which opened while The Jazz Singer was in production. Jolson's first vocal performance, about fifteen minutes into the picture, is of "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face," with music by James V. Monaco and lyrics by Edgar Leslie and Grant Clarke. The first synchronized speech, uttered by Jack to a cabaret crowd and to the piano player in the band that accompanies him, occurs directly after that performance, beginning at the 17:25 mark of the film. Jack's first spoken words—"Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet"—were well-established stage patter of Jolson's. He had even spoken very similar lines in a 1926 short, Al Jolson in "A Plantation Act."[16] The line had developed as something of an in-joke. In November 1918, during a gala concert celebrating the end of World War I, Jolson ran onstage amid the applause for the preceding performer, the great operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, and exclaimed, "Folks, you ain't heard nothin' yet."[17] The following year, he recorded the song "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet".[18] In a later scene, Jack talks with his mother, played by Eugenie Besserer, in the family parlor; his father enters and pronounces one very conclusive word. In total, the movie contains barely two minutes worth of synchronized talking, much or all of it improvised. The rest of the dialogue is presented through the caption cards, or intertitles, standard in silent movies of the era.

While Jolson was touring with a stage show during June 1927, production on The Jazz Singer began with the shooting of exterior scenes. In late June, Alan Crosland headed to New York City to shoot the Lower East Side and Winter Garden exteriors on location. Jolson joined the production in mid-July (his contract specified July 11). Filming with Jolson began with his silent scenes; the more complex Vitaphone sequences were primarily done in late August.[19] Both Jolson and Zanuck would later take credit for thinking up the ad-libbed dialogue sequence between Jack and his mother; another story had it that Sam Warner was impressed by Jolson's brief ad-libbing in the cabaret scene and had screenwriter Alfred Cohn come up with some lines on the spot.[20] On September 23, Motion Picture News reported that production on the film had been completed.[21]

The production cost for The Jazz Singer was $422,000[22]—a large sum, especially for Warner Bros., which rarely spent more than $250,000. It was by no means a record for the studio, however; two features starring John Barrymore had been costlier: The Sea Beast (1926), a loose and entirely silent adaptation of Moby-Dick, at $503,000 and Don Juan at $546,000.[23] Nonetheless, the outlay constituted a major gamble in light of the studio's financial straits: Harry Warner had stopped taking a salary and his daughter Doris "recalled that Harry had pawned his wife's jewelry and moved the family into a small apartment at the time The Jazz Singer was in production."[24]

Premiere and reception

The premiere was set for October 6, 1927, at Warner Bros.' flagship theater in New York City. The choice of date was pure show business—the following day was Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday around which much of the movie's plot revolves.[25] The buildup to the premiere was tense. Besides Warner Bros.' precarious financial position, the physical presentation of the film itself was remarkably complex:

Each of Jolson's musical numbers was mounted on a separate reel with a separate accompanying sound disc. Even though the film was only eighty-nine minutes long...there were fifteen reels and fifteen discs to manage, and the projectionist had to be able to thread the film and cue up the Vitaphone records very quickly. The least stumble, hesitation, or human error would result in public and financial humiliation for the company.[26]
None of the Warner brothers were able to attend: Sam Warner—among them, the strongest advocate for Vitaphone—had died the previous day of pneumonia, and the surviving brothers had returned to California for his funeral.[20]

According to Doris Warner, who was in attendance, about halfway through the film she began to feel that something exceptional was taking place. Jolson's "Wait a minute" line had prompted a loud, positive response from the audience. Applause followed each of his songs. Excitement built, and when Jolson and Eugenie Besserer began their dialogue scene, "the audience became hysterical."[27] After the show, the audience turned into a "milling, battling, mob", in one journalist's description, chanting "Jolson, Jolson, Jolson!"[26] Among those who reviewed the film, the critic who foresaw most clearly what it presaged for the future of cinema was Life magazine's Robert E. Sherwood. He described the spoken dialogue scene between Jolson and Besserer as "fraught with tremendous significance.... I for one suddenly realized that the end of the silent drama is in sight".[28]

Critical reaction was generally, though far from universally, positive. New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall, reviewing the film's premiere, declared that

not since the first presentation of Vitaphone features, more than a year ago [i.e., Don Juan], has anything like the ovation been heard in a motion-picture theatre.... The Vitaphoned songs and some dialogue have been introduced most adroitly. This in itself is an ambitious move, for in the expression of song the Vitaphone vitalizes the production enormously. The dialogue is not so effective, for it does not always catch the nuances of speech or inflections of the voice so that one is not aware of the mechanical features.[29]

Variety called it "[u]ndoubtedly the best thing Vitaphone has ever put on the screen...[with] abundant power and appeal."[30] Richard Watts, Jr. of the New York Herald Tribune called it a "pleasantly sentimental orgy dealing with a struggle between religion and art.... [T]his is not essentially a motion picture, but rather a chance to capture for comparative immortality the sight and sound of a great performer."[26] The Exhibitors Heralds take was virtually identical: "scarcely a motion picture. It should be more properly labeled an enlarged Vitaphone record of Al Jolson in half a dozen songs."[20] The film received favorable reviews in both the Jewish press and in African American newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American, the New York Amsterdam News, and the Pittsburgh Courier.[31] The headline of the Los Angeles Times review told a somewhat different story: "'Jazz Singer' Scores a Hit—Vitaphone and Al Jolson Responsible, Picture Itself Second Rate."[32] Photoplay dismissed Jolson as "no movie actor. Without his Broadway reputation he wouldn't rate as a minor player."[28]