Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Young Jackie Rabinowitz is the son of a Jewish Cantor (apparently the dude who sings at Temple). He is expected to take over the family business, but young Jackie has different plans. After being punished for singing in a pub, he runs away and recasts himself as jazz singer Jack Robin (Al Jolson). Over time his new life as a rising star and his family ties collide when he must make a choice.

This is the movie that heralded in the era of the talkies, and overnight they became a craze. Interestingly enough, The Jazz Singer is not a talkie. Here is a little movie knowledge, courtesy a film philistine: sound films are not sound films because of spoken dialog. What distinguishes them is that the audio track is encoded on the film itself and synchronized with the moving pictures. Later Charlie Chaplin movies had no recorded dialog but were technically not silent because a synchronized sound system was used.

What happened here is that between songs, Jolson had to open his trap. He was supposed to go straight into his next song, but instead said a few words to the crowd. Those words? "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!" Truer words were never before spoken. Studio head Sam Warner insisted it be kept in the movie. Warner would die one day before the movie was released. He was 40.

As for the rest of the dialog: title cards. Seems obvious now to record ALL the dialog, but they didn't. There was a second scene were Jolson chats with his mother between songs. Which leads to another interesting aspect of the movie. The depiction of Jewish life. Not just having Jewish people, and admitting that they were Jewish, but actually depicting issues that matter to Jews regarding their culture. Remember, in To Be or Not To Be, fourteen years later, they never even used the word Jew once, and I considered it brave.

Another thing ... well ... let's just say that the logic and appeal of the minstrel show is lost on modern audiences. Me, in particular. Was it the collision of the realization that black music was pretty awesome and the fear of allowing them to play to white audiences? Was it meant to mock black performance? I don't even aspire to understand. But apparently Jolson in blackface served another purpose. It illustrated the dichotomy between the character's Jewish heritage and his desire to succeed in the wider American culture. Or so Wikipedia says. What do I know? The neighborhood I grew up in had about the same number of minorities as your average country club.

Anyhow, this was a movie worth seeing. Maybe worth seeing again. AMRU 3.5. Thank you Pub-D-Hub.
"He sounds like Jakie, but he looks like his shadow!"

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