Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) is mostly famous today as the first “talking picture,” which it really isn’t, since it’s largely a silent film with a synchronized musical score and a handful of sound sequences built around singing. It’s also become something of a hot potato because of Al Jolson’s use of blackface in some of the musical sequences — mindless of the fact that this was a theatrical artifice from the era, wasn’t intended as mean-spirited, was praised by black newspapers in 1927, and was being done by another much defamed minority, a Jew. (It’s interesting that the only stage performers who carried this device over into their films were Jolie (Asa Yoelsen) and Eddie Cantor (Edward Israel Iskowitz), both Jews.) There was an innate sense of kinship between these Jewish entertainers and their black models — no matter how misguided the approach might now seem. (Similarly, both men — given improbably WASPy names in their films — constantly ad-libbed remarks about their Jewishness.)
It’s equally strange that a film like The Jazz Singer should be thought of as racist, since it’s very much a film about race — about being Jewish and about assimilating (to achieve success Jakie Rabinowitz has to become Jack Robin and alienate his very conservative cantor father (Warner Oland)). It’s clunky and heavy-handed a lot of the time, and its canned-music score can get old (it keeps falling back on Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet whenever no one can think of anything else, it seems). But it’s sincere and it’s an important, if a little self-aware, look at being Jewish in a way other movies of the time weren’t touching.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke