April 5, 2013

The Jazz Singer (1927)
Grade: 47/100

Director: Alan Crosland
Stars: Al Jolson, Eugenie Besserer, Warner Oland

What it's about. Known as the first talkie, The Jazz Singer is famous more for its technological advances than for its cinematic quality. A box office smash and Al Jolson's biggest success, the movie made the silent era obsolete, ending the careers of those who could not adjust but eventually allowing greater complexity of script and story.

The story is set in a conservative Jewish neighborhood in New York City. Long-bearded and humorless Warner Oland is an orthodox Jewish cantor obsessed with religion. He is married to Eugenie Besserer, whose emotions consist entirely of love for her husband and their preteenaged son Jakie (Robert Gordon).

Though trained to eventually succeed him as the cantor, or singer, at local Jewish religious ceremonies, Jakie leads a secret double life as a ragtime singer at a bar. There he is spotted by family friend Otto Lederer, who makes the mistake of informing Oland. This leads to the first of many confrontations between Oland and Jakie, who runs away.

Some years pass and Jakie, now grown into gregarious jazz singer Al Jolson, is a rising star in theatrical circles. He has a close platonic relationship with Mary (May McAvoy), a beautiful young actress who is as ambitious and successful as he is.

Both land a plum Broadway role in a new musical, but the eve of the opening, Oland health fails on account of another row with Jakie, who made the mistake of paying a family visit. Because it is a movie, Oland will die unless Jakie breaks his Broadway engagement to sing as a cantor at a Jewish atonement ceremony. Poor Al Jolson has a lengthy star turn as Besserer and Lederer press him to abandon the show while Mary and the producer insist he keep the engagement, or his career will be over.

How others will see it. Most who see The Jazz Singer with only vague understanding of its accomplishments will be surprised to find it is primarily a silent film. Only the musical numbers and stray bits of dialogue are spoken. But it was that dialogue, such that it was, that amazed audiences. A new era was born.

The film did win an hononary Oscar, in the first year of the ceremonies, as "the pioneer outstanding talking picture which has revolutionized the industry." Today at imdb.com, the movie has a reasonable 4755 user votes and a respectable user rating of 6.6. There is a wide gender gap that grows with advancing age, until women over 45 give it a whopping 8.6 out of 10. This demographic can be a sucker for silent films in general, and probably admire the devotion that Jolson shows for his adoring and stereotypical mother.

How I felt about it. One of the most dated aspects of The Jazz Singer is that Jolson appears in blackface twice, singing "Mammy!" to the embarrassment of modern viewers. Not even Spike Lee can get away with blackface today. But here, it is far from offensive, since Jolson continues to sing like Jolson instead of invoking any racial stereotypes.

As for Jolson's performance, he is both a hammy actor and a hammy singer. His lack of pretense is winning, but his enthusiasm remains greater than his talent, expect for his whistling. He whistles very well, though how far that can take anyone is limited.

The parents are, of course, cast much too old relative to little Jakie. We also wonder why future Charlie Chan Warner Oland is the only cantor in the Jewish neighborhood, especially when Lederer is able to round up a full choir. Finally, it is unrealistic that all would be forgiven despite Jolson walking away from the Broadway opening.

I thought I noticed lovely Myrna Loy in a bit role, and it did turn out to be her. I missed William Demarest, who plays somebody called Buster Billings. The irascible Demarest was Uncle Charley from "My Three Sons" and seemingly appeared in every Preston Sturges comedy from the 1940s.

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