July 2nd, 2022


The Jazz Singer: Ninety years of talking pictures

Mark Steyn

By Mark Steyn

Published Oct. 4, 2017

The Jazz Singer: Ninety years of talking pictures

Jolson in The Jazz Singer: a phenomenon --- thanks to Vitaphone.

Nine decades ago this week, the talkies were born: On October 6th 1927, at their marquee picture palace in New York, the Warner Brothers premiered their new film The Jazz Singer. Not a single Warner brother was present. Sam Warner, the most enthusiastic proponent of the new "Vitaphone" sound technology, had died the day before, and his three siblings were en route back to Hollywood to bury him. The four brothers Warner had not been having a good time of it in 1927: They were variously selling stock, ceasing to draw salaries, moving into more modest accommodations and pawning the missus's jewelry. The Jazz Singer would make them into a major studio. So it was, within the space of 24 hours, both a death and a re-birth - as it was for their industry, although very few of its employees foresaw that.

It was an odd movie to gamble an art form on: I doubt you'd get it past the first pitch at a Hollywood studio today. It was born a decade earlier, when a University of Illinois student found himself planning a night on the town:

It became very necessary that I should impress a certain young lady. I had a date with her for a certain evening. I wanted to show her the best time to be had in the town of Champaign, Illinois. I borrowed ten dollars and bought two tickets for the one-night performance of Al Jolson in Robinson Crusoe Jr.

The young swain was a chap called Samson Raphaelson. As to how the date went, he liked the girl, but he loved Jolson. The Broadway headliner was "the World's Greatest Entertainer", according to himself, and Raphaelson was minded to agree:

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 song. I still remember the song, 'Where the Black-Eyed Susans Grow...' That figure in blackface, kneeling at the end of a runway which projected him into the heart of his audience, flinging out his white-gloved hands, was embracing that audience with a prayer-an evangelical moan-a tortured, imperious call that hurtled through the house...

Samson Raphaelson had grown up on New York's Lower East Side, and he was surely unique that night in Champaign in seeing beyond the white gloves and blackface to recognize in Jolson, who'd spent his boyhood in a shtetl in what's now Lithuania, something from his own early days at the Pike Street synagogue. At the end of "Where the Black-Eyed Susans Grow", he turned to the girl and supposedly exclaimed:

My G0D, this isn't a jazz singer. This is a cantor!

I very much doubt he ever said that - as "jazz" was not a word in general currency in 1917, especially not in front of the ladies, and insofar as it was applied to music it was still spelled "jass". But, however expressed, the thought must have occurred - because five years later he wrote a short story for Everybody's Magazine called "The Day of Atonement", about a thinly fictionalized Jolson. Like the real-life singer, "Jack Robin" is a cantor's son who becomes a Broadway star, etc. What transformed it from just the usual roman à clef stuff was the theme in which Raphaelson framed the drama: the conflict between a young Jew's traditions and the seductions of modernity. The author was by now a successful advertising executive, and his secretary suggested he turn his short story into a play. She sold him on the idea by showing him a script, pointing out how few words there were on each page, and offering to take dictation all weekend. The Jazz Singer opened on Broadway with George Jessel in September 1925, and Warner Brothers bought the film rights nine months later.

George Jessel was signed to star in the movie. But the Warners were having a tough time of it. Their investment in "Vitaphone" sound-on-disc technology was primarily a cost-cutting move: They intended to use it to pre-record the orchestral scores, so that they could dispense with the live musicians who accompanied silent pictures at movie theaters across the land. That would be a huge saving. To be sure, the technology had other potential - for example, the occasional sound effect: it would be pretty spectacular to have, say, a shipwreck or a train smash, and to hear all the noise. But talking? The thought never occurred to the Warner Brothers. Talking was for plays. Nobody went to the pictures to hear talk.

In the fall of 1926, the first two Vitaphone features with orchestra plus sound effects - Don Juan and The Better 'Ole - were hits, and the brothers decided to make The Jazz Singer into a sound-on-disc production. Jessel decided that the new technology demanded a new contract and overplayed his hand, insisting on a significant bonus and failing to appreciate that the brothers were mainly turning to Vitaphone because they were bust. Negotiations with Jessel broke down; they offered the part to Eddie Cantor, who declined; and finally they came to the man who'd inspired the original short story. And it was the participation of Al Jolson that ensured that the most decisive contributions of The Jazz Singer to the course of motion pictures would be neither the symphonic score nor the sound effects, but the singing and talking. That's what killed non-singing, non-talking pictures.

Neither the producer, Daryl Zanuck, nor the director, Alan Crosland, seemed to realize that's what they were doing. The Jazz Singer begins with a markedly somber overture, freighted with tragedy, six minutes of foreboding. Then a card appears:

In every living soul, a spirit cries for expression - perhaps this plaintive, wailing song of Jazz is, after all, the misunderstood utterance of a prayer.

The camera shows scenes of busy urban streets and the orchestra segues into a symphonic arrangement of "Sidewalks of New York" - so the audience knows which particular urban streets they're looking at. This is all the language of what our age calls "silent pictures", a designation that defines an art form only by the element it's missing: no one calls ballet "silent plays".

In the teeming Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side, Papa Rabinowitz wants his boy to follow in the family tradition and become a cantor. But Mama knows the 13-year-old lad has other ideas. The scenario plays out silently, with dialogue cards, and then we cut to a beer garden, where the kid, billed as "Ragtime Jakie", is taking the stage. In this scene, you sense how little the film-makers understood their own revolution: Ragtime Jakie is singing a song, but it's nothing so scandalous as ragtime - merely "My Gal Sal", the last sentimental hit of Paul Dresser, an Indiana man who wrote the second most successful American pop song of the 19th century ("On The Banks of the Wabash Far Away", now the state anthem, if you're minded to take a knee). And, in fact, Ragtime Jakie isn't really "singing" it: Bobby Gordon, who plays the kid, has his singing voice dubbed. So the first sound scene in the first "talkie" is actually a lip-synching scene, and not a terribly good one, although no worse than many today. Still, how odd to inaugurate the "talkie" with a "lippie" or a "dubbie".

By whom was young Master Gordon dubbed? Nobody knows. That's how unimportant it was. The very first voice heard in the first talkie is lost to posterity. Because the scene was meant to be just a freaky novelty: A silent film bursts into song for one goofy rendition of an ancient number by a guy who died bankrupt in 1906. What kind of wave of the future is that?

And immediately afterwards we lapse back into silence. A friend of the cantor witnesses the song, and races home to tell the old man. Dialogue card:

In a saloon, who do you think I saw singing raggy time songs?

The enraged father races over to the beer hall and arrives in the midst of Ragtime Jakie's second number, lip-synched to the same no-name dubber. This time it's "Waiting for the Robert E Lee". Ever since all this statue-toppling business began earlier in the summer, I find I can't stop bursting into "Waiting For The Robert E Lee". Does anyone else have that problem? I can't recall even thinking of it for a couple of decades, but you may have noticed I broke into "Way down on the levee/In old Alabammy" on Tucker Carlson last last week, and on Rush the week before. Don't ask me why - although, as a general proposition, whenever the cultural totalitarians attempt to torch even the most minor artifact, it generally behooves us to put it into heavy rotation (see, e.g., my frequent performances of "Kung Fu Fighting" since the Isle of Wight coppers designated performances thereof as a hate crime). So, even without the ninetieth anniversary of The Jazz Singer, I'd probably be looking for a movie featuring the song (The Jolson Story probably, or Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway).

Alas, in the midst of his lip-synching, Ragtime Jakie is yanked off stage by his pa. And we're back to the dialogue cards:

I'll teach him better than to debase the voice God gave him... First he will get a whipping.

After the whipping, the boy runs away from home, and Cantor Rabinowitz goes to the synagogue. And so "Kol Nidre", the traditional declaration in Aramaic that commences the evening service on Yom Kippur, becomes the third song to be sung on the big screen, first with the cantor in shot and then over scenes of the sobbing mother in her empty flat, and of Jakie sneaking back to retrieve a treasured photo of his mother. So, in a certain sense, this is the first musical cutaway - cutting away from the performance to use the song to heighten emotionally the drama taking place elsewhere.

At which point, after 18 minutes, we flash forward and finally see Al Jolson, as the grown-up Jakie. How many years have passed? Well, Jolie was forty when he made The Jazz Singer, and the guy playing his dad, Warner Oland, was a mere eight years older. But you'd have to be missing the point entirely if that's what you take away from this scene. We're in San Francisco, thousands of miles from New York's Lower East Side, and at a modest cabaret "Jack Robin" (as Jakie Rabinowitz now styles himself) is called up from his table and invited to do a song.

He then launches into "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face" - and what follows is on an entirely different level, technically speaking, from "My Gal Sal" or "Kol Nidre". Jolson was always a very idiosyncratic performer: he was the first major singer to use the second chorus of a song not as a straight reprise of the first, but as an opportunity for ad-libs and embellishments (as Crosby and Sinatra later would). So here he does what he always does, and somehow the Vitaphone manages to keep up with him through all the sobs, chuckles, talk-singy lines, through every "Awwwwww!" The synchronicity of it all must have thrilled audiences in 1927 as much as any CGI superhero battle scene today.

And then finally, 20 minutes in, "the first talkie" actually lets someone talk. Jolie finishes the number and tells the audience, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet. Wait a minute, I tell you. You ain't heard nothin'..." This was his catchphrase, of course - ever since the night, a decade earlier, when he'd had to follow Caruso on stage and, with the ovation for the great tenor still ringing through the rafters, quietened the crowd and cockily assured them, "You ain't heard nothin' yet." Could there be a better first line of heard dialogue for the birth of talking pictures?

That's Jolson. Just Jolson being Jolson. He goes into "Toot, Toot, Tootsie", an exhilaratingly physical performance, complete with spoken interjections - "Ow! Ow!" He whistles the second chorus, and so the first talkie is also the first whistling picture. Georgie Jessel wouldn't have done that. Heading into the final stretch, he instructs the band, "Get hot!" And they almost do, because it's hard to go wrong with "Toot, Toot, Tootsie".

And then the sound of applause, and the customers enthusiastically banging cutlery on plates. It's the equivalent of the moment when the drab dustbowl monochrome of Kansas flames into the rainbow colors of Oz: in just five minutes, Joley's wild, abandoned "jazz" singing has turned "silent pictures" into the raucous cacophony of "talkies".

The dialogue cards and silence return - but just for a bit. Jack Robin gets his big break on Broadway and goes home to see his Mama, with a gift of jewelry:

Diamonds! With stones in it! You didn't do any wrong, did you, Jakie?

His head rears back laughing. Dialogue card:

Mama, you ain't heard nothing yet!

But the line doesn't work as well typed out in white on black. In a mere half-hour of screen time, something has changed, and can't be changed back.

Jolson sits down at the piano and we're back to sound, as he plays and sings Irving Berlin's then new "Blue Skies". As the band was ordered back in San Francisco, he "gets hot", and so does Mama, grooving along and getting into it. And at the end, not minded to return to dialogue cards quite yet, Jolson asks her out loud, "You like that, mama? I'm glad of it. I'd rather please you than anybody I know of."

And so Eugenie Besserer, a career silent-film actress who'd been acting mother roles for two decades, found herself playing straight-man in talking pictures' first two-person dialogue scene. No writer came up with it - neither the scenarist (Alfred Cohn) nor the writer of the caption cards (Jack Jarmuth) penned a word of it. Jolson was famous on Broadway for ignoring the scripts of his shows and going his own way, and he had no plans to change his working methods for Hollywood. So he just ad-libbed his way through the scene, and a slightly befuddled Eugenie Besserer does her best to keep her end up with the occasional mumbled assent.

"We're gonna move up into the Bronx," Joley tells her. "Lot of nice green grass up there, and a whole lot of people you know - the Ginsbergs, the Gutenbergs, the Goldbergs, a whole lot of bergs, I don't know them all." At that world premiere in New York, on October 6th 1927, this scene electrified the crowd above all others. At a stroke, Jolson's patter shattered the formality of silent-screen dialogue, and turned Jack Jarmuth and the other writers of "intertitles" into the equivalent of buggy-whip manufacturers. While the audience understood what was happening at that moment, only one critic did. Robert E Sherwood, later the author of Waterloo Bridge, Rebecca, The Best Years of Our Lives and much more, brooded on this scene in Life:

There is one moment in The Jazz Singer that is fraught with tremendous significance. Al Jolson, appearing as a Jewish youth, returns to his old home after years of wandering around the Pantages circuit. His strictly orthodox father has disowned him because he chose to sing mammy songs in music halls rather than chants in the synagogue; his mother, however, welcomes the prodigal with open arms. Al sits down at the piano and sings 'Blue Sky' [sic] for his mother. Thanks to the Vitaphone attachment, his marvelous voice rings out from the screen, the sound agreeing perfectly with the movements of his mobile lips, the wriggling of his shoulders, the nervous tapping of his feet. After the song, there is a brief bit of spoken dialogue, and then Al bursts into 'Blue Sky' again. When he is halfway through the chorus, his father enters the room, realizes that his house is being profaned with jazz, and shouts 'Stop!'

At this point the Vitaphone withdraws and The Jazz Singer returns to a routine of pantomime punctuated with sub-titles... I for one suddenly realized that the end of silent drama is in sight.

The Vitaphone did not withdraw for long, and the end of silent drama came very quickly. A quarter-century later, Singin' in the Rain played it for laughs, with Donald O'Connor proposing to turn the unwanted silent flick The Dueling Cavalier into The Dueling Mammy. Yet it was a tragic time for many, as one skill-set - expressive faces - yielded to another - the ability to rattle off rat-a-tat dialogue. Jolie's girl here, May McAvoy, married the treasurer of United Artists and retired. Otto Lederer, playing the family friend who spots Ragtime Jakie in the saloon, made a couple more talkies and then retired. Other than Jolson, only Warner Oland was still on the big screen a decade later: He was a Swede who played a Jew and then parlayed it into a lifetime of Chinese roles, as Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. Indeed, the screen in Jolson's dressing room here is a curiously Fu Manchu-esque bit of chinoiserie.

After Oland's single word "Stop!" silences "Blue Skies", the unseen orchestra picks up the score with, of all things, Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet - because this is a feud between two houses, the Songs of Israel and the Songs of Jazz. In the words of the cantor: "Leave my house! I never want to see you again - you jazz singer!" Even if it weren't the first talkie, The Jazz Singer would be significant as the protean plot for virtually every biotuner in the years since, in which some rebellious punk insists he has to play his music his way even though the squares don't dig it at all. What raises Raphaelson's script above the run-of-the-mill is his framing it as an immigrant family's struggle between ancient faith and the din of the new. On the one hand:

Would you be the first Rabinowitz in five generations to fail your God?

On the other:

We in the show business have our religion, too - on every day, the show must go on!

In choosing the latter, Jolson's character understands that something is being lost - just as Robert E Sherwood understood that the bright dawn of a new art form was also the end of another. The film's ambivalence about both itself and its story is caught in the dressing-room scene in which Jolson applies his blackface make-up. Blackface lingered in the movies for another couple of decades, but mostly just as visual accessorizing of period numbers from the minstrel days (Judy Garland got up like a high yaller in the above-mentioned Babes on Broadway, for example). But this is about the only blackface moment I can think of where the act of blacking up is the point of the drama. Years earlier, the star had been one half of a vaudevillian double-act called "The Hebrew and the Coon": The Hebrew was the genuine article, the Coon was Al. Nineteenth-century minstrelsy was the dominant race condescending to its subordinate. Jolson makes it something subtler here - a metaphor, a code, a refuge: the confusion of a man caught between two worlds, expressing one race's pain through the form of another, and exchanging one complex duality for an ostensibly simpler one. Telling his girl about "the call of the ages - the cry of my race", the would-be Broadway star resumes making up: He sees his blackface in the glass above the sink, and (in a visual effect) the mirror dissolves to his father in the synagogue.

The Jazz Singer is a serious and sincere film, and certainly not the property you'd greenlight if you wanted merely to show off the new technology and make a gazillion bucks. It has its moments of hack work - "Mother of Mine" is basically "Sonny Boy" sideways - but it also has its integrity: hence, Jolson in cantor's garb singing at the synagogue. The opening date was chosen to capitalize on Yom Kippur, because the Warner Brothers thought it would appeal to New York Jews. That's it. They didn't realize they were blowing up the entire trajectory of Hollywood.

But that's what they did nine decades ago, when Al Jolson ad-libbing and hip-wiggling opened every small-town audience's eyes to all the "velocity", "fluidity" and sheer vitality Samson Raphaelson had seen on stage in Champaign, Illinois a decade earlier. The exit music for the film was "Mammy" - in contrast to all the orchestral brooding in the overture. Those two pieces of music symbolize the journey the film and the industry had taken during the intervening ninety minutes. By contrast, ninety years after Vitaphone, Hollywood seems exhausted, bereft of Vita and just phoning it in.

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Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human rights activist. His latest book is "The Undocumented Mark Steyn: Don't Say You Weren't Warned". (Buy it at a 32% discount by clicking here or order in KINDLE edition at a 50% discount by clicking here. Sales help fund JWR)