March 9, 2011

The Jazz Singer (1927)

I wasn't sure what to expect here.  I knew it wasn't a full talkie, and I knew the synced sound was mostly used for musical performances.  The word "talkie" is important here, btw - The Jazz Singer isn't the first sound film in the broadest sense.  Sunrise had an on-film soundtrack consisting of the score and a few effects, such as applause (and I think thunder, but maybe the cinematography just made me remember thunder...), as did a few other films.  What Jazz Singer pioneered was discernible words coming out of people's mouths in a feature film.  This only happens twice as spoken dialogue, but both times are impressive.  The first synced dialogue ever: "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!"  How perfect is that?

What's really great is that it comes out of nowhere.  He finishes the song and just launches into some quick stage banter, like it was nothing.  Audiences gasped.  History was made.  Then it goes back to using title cards.

The movie is mostly comprised of a handful of complete musical numbers backed by a simplistic Billy Elliot Plot/Jackie Robinson Story (broadly applied).  His father expects one life out of him, he desires another, and - naturally - the key moment for both falls on the same night.  These days, this plot is so overused you can't even judge it on originality anymore; it comes down to the strength of the characters and craftsmanship of the story.  For example, one of the best - Bend it Like Beckham - thrives on the lush culture of the Indian heroine.  It also skillfully navigates the conflicting events at the end and the inevitable compromise solution (by solving it through an effort by all of the heroine's friends and family which is both plausible and, of course, heartwarming).  In comparison, The Jazz Singer is passable.  Its characters are engaging enough, but it stumbles at the compromise finale, in which we are continually told that compromise is impossible, and then it somehow works out anyway - not sure why.  So, taken strictly by itself, I found it a decent but largely forgettable movie, which might be easy to dismiss as a brainless effort to cash-in on the cool sound technology.

But, you can't take it just by itself.  Context matters here - and that's fair because audiences of the time would have known the context, because they knew who star Al Jolson was.  The tropes in the film are all too familiar and easy, but the specific details Jolson chooses to fill in those tropes are where the meat is.  They are also largely autobiographical.

Let's go through this again.  The hero is Jakie Rabinowitz, American-born child of Jewish immigrants.  His father expects a certain life out of him - that of a Jewish cantor, as he is and his father before him.  And already the movie has broken some important ground.  This isn't just a few mentions of Judaism here and there.  The plot is built on it, and we see rabbis and synagogues and singing and ceremonial dress and instruments.  When was the last time you saw that in a movie (that wasn't about the Holocaust)?  Also, Al Jolson himself was Jewish, from Lithuania.

But young Jakie doesn't want to be a cantor - he wants to sing the songs of his own new world, Broadway and jazz.  So he runs away from home to follow his dreams, and gains much success.  Of course, his Jewish heritage does him no favors in that regard, so he changes his name to the much more palatable Jack Robin (even insisting his mother call him that).  Al Jolson also changed his name when he entered show business - he was born Asa Yoelson.  Btw, even with the fabled penetration of ethnic Jews into the modern entertainment industry, they still can't get carried away.  Perhaps you noticed it isn't called The Daily Show with Jon Stuart Leibowitz?

And then things get dramatically more interesting as we come upon the infamous blackface scene.  Oh boy.  The initial reaction, as Mandie says in her review, was pretty much horror and revulsion.  Since the Civil Rights revolution, blackface performance has been a pretty strict no-no, and not without good reason.  Its history primarily dates back to the old "minstrel shows" of the 19th and early 20th century, which were quite popular in their heyday, but now considered so unspeakably evil that their memory has been almost entirely forgotten in the space of a couple generations (thanks to the unspeaking).  In these shows, small groups in blackface would sing songs and maybe do a skit or two, purporting (often not truthfully) to be performing real negro music while perpetuating incredibly insulting stereotypes (that went on to form the basis for most of those we have today).  Since these shows established that black music was to be played in blackface, even more straightforward performances of jazz and other actual black music came to be performed commonly in blackface, even by blacks themselves.

So, back to Jolson.  Racist?  Bigot?  Otherwise good man caught up in the current of history, ala' Thomas Jefferson the slave holder?  Jolson was certainly no stranger to blackface.  He used it a lot, before and after The Jazz Singer, and claimed to love it.  It was a sortof disguise, and gave him a feeling of freedom in his performance.  It was also just the style at the time - you put on lederhosen to sing a polka, and blackface to sing jazz.  But there's more going on here.  For one thing, you have to understand that, at the time, jazz was as new and scary to much of America as it is to Jakie's disapproving father.  Much like blacks themselves were.  For another, it's noteworthy that Jolson simply wears the accoutrements - he makes no attempt to act black, in one stereotype or another.  He simply talks and sings as himself with another face.  What he's doing comes into especially sharp focus in the context of Jazz Singer - drawing a parallel between the black experience and his as a Jew and as a jazz singer.  There is some debate about whether this was done intentionally, but now that I've seen the movie I have no doubt at all.  The theme of identity and disguises is strong.  Jakie Rabinowitz must suppress his heritage to find success.  Ironically, he is able to use the costume of a black man to do this, while an actual black man would also find his heritage a barrier to success.  After all, they invented the music, but it was Jolson who was largely responsible for bringing jazz to the rest of America.  As a white man, he had the power to do that.  He also had the power to stay white and not bring up the whole race thing.  Yet he chose to put it right on stage.  It suggests a kinship between them, through the music, and I think was also a way to give blacks their due credit, and start the process of bringing them into the mainstream.  In any case, if you peruse his Wikipedia link above, you can see that Jolson's credentials as a friend to blacks and supporter of civil rights is beyond reproach.

So here we have a bunch of underdogs finding acceptance in a conservative world.  Jakie to his father.  Jazz on Broadway.  And, maybe, blacks and Jews to the world, through the unifying power of jazz, the "holy music" of the American experience.  Is there anything else?  Any other crazy, new, dangerous, world-changing ideas looking for acceptance here?  Why... talking pictures!  My god, this film is just the neatest little ball I ever did see!  It's even a bit prescient.  Check this out: Jakie Rabinowitz; Jack Robin; Jackie Robinson.  Obviously not intentional, but cool nonetheless.

I was expecting, or perhaps bracing is a better word, for The Jazz Singer to be one of those technical achievements that really has no reason to be famous beyond being a technical achievement.  But that isn't the case.  While its story is simple, there is a lot going on under the surface and a lot of clever construction.  I didn't even mention the second dialogue scene, in which Jack speaks to his mother while performing some "jazzy" music for her.  She loves it, but then his father bursts in and shouts "Stop!" with such force that it cuts off the synchronized dialogue and the film reverts again to title cards.  That's exactly what I mean by clever construction - something that could have just been a gimmick is given a real thematic job to do, creating a layer of symbolism that appears to affect the film itself.  It's almost recursive.  And it just gets better and better the more I think about it.  It might even be enough for me to forgive the stumble at the climax. :)

NEXT WEEK:  The first full "all talking" picture was The Lights of New York, a gangster film from 1928.  But we're not watching that.  We're watching Little Caesar, a better gangster film from three years later, starring Edward G. Robinson... whose birth name, incidentally, was Emanuel Goldenberg.  And he went with "Robinson."  You can't make this stuff up.

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