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Looking back at 'The Jazz Singer', the very first 'talkie' film

The Jazz Singer is a 1927 American musical/drama film directed by Alan Crosland. It was the first feature-length film to included a synchronised recorded music score accompanied by lip-synced singing. It also featured speech in a handful of isolated sequences.

Although it wasn’t initially apparent, the film’s released marked the end of the silent film era and marked the dawn of sound films. Of course, silent films were still released for a time after the film’s debut, but retrospectively The Jazz Singer is seen as the turning point in modern cinema.

The Jazz Singer was produced by influential studio Warner Bros. and their newfound Vitaphone sound-on-disc system. This groundbreaking technique involved playing back or recording sounds on a gramophone in sync with a motion picture. Consequently of its pioneering style and filming techniques, in 1996, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” motion pictures.

The film was a huge hit. It features six songs performed by the mega-star of the day, Al Jolson. The narrative was based on a 1925 play of the same name by Samson Raphaelson, which the writer had adopted from one of his short stories entitled The Day of Atonement.

The funny thing about the film is that The Day of Atonement was originally based on the life of its star Al Jolson. It had been written in 1922 and published in Everybody’s Magazine. Raphaelson had been captivated by Jolson’s performance in the stage play Robinson Crusoe, Jr. at a show in Champaign, Illinois. In a 1927 interview, he recalled: “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 audience to a tremendous absorption in his song.”

After The Day of Atonement was adapted into the stage play version of The Jazz Singer, it premiered at the Warner Theatre in Times Square in September 1925. The play became a hit, with leading man George Jessell grabbing the headlines. The size of its hit led Warner Bros. to acquire the movie rights to the play on June 4, 1926. They also snapped up leading man Jessel. However, things were not to be. Jessel eventually left the project due to money demands that Warner Bros. couldn’t meet and a disdain for how the movie’s ending diverged heavily from the plays.

His role was subsequently offered to Jessel’s friend and man of the hour, Al Jolson. It was noted in Jessel’s autobiography that the pair did not speak for a time after, as Jessel had confided in Jolson his issues with the Warners. Furthermore, Jolson signed the contract without telling Jessel. In the end, though, Jessel wrote that Jolson “must not be blamed, as the Warners had definitely decided that I was out.” In 1999, film historian Donald Crafton wrote of the decision. “The entertainer, who sang jazzed-up minstrel numbers in blackface, was at the height of his phenomenal popularity. Anticipating the later stardom of crooners and rock stars, Jolson electrified audiences with the vitality and sex appeal of his songs and gestures, which owed much to African-American sources.”

The film’s narrative depicts the fictional story of Jakie Rabinowitz, who was based on Jolson. Rabinowitz is a young man who defies his family’s devout Jewish traditions. Early in the plot, Rabinowitz is punished by his father, a hazzan (Jewish cantor/musician), after singing popular songs in a beer garden. This prompts the young protagonist to run away from home. Ten years later, now going by Jack Robin, he has become a talented jazz singer. He attempts to build a career as an entertainer, using blackface, but his professional dreams ultimately come into conflict with his family and heritage demands.

Upon its release in 1927, the film was a hit, albeit not universally. However, the more illustrious elements of the American press loved it. Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times‘ first-ever film critic, offered a more grounded take “not since the first presentation of Vitaphone features, more than a year ago (i.e., Don Juan), has anything like the ovation been heard in a motion-picture theatre […] The Vitaphoned songs and some dialogue have been introduced most adroitly. This in itself is an ambitious move, for in the expression of song, the Vitaphone vitalises the production enormously. The dialogue is not so effective, for it does not always catch the nuances of speech or inflexions of the voice so that one is not aware of the mechanical features.”

 Showing that it was the technological aspect and the leading man that made the film, rather than its script, the headline of The Los Angeles Times review contended: “‘Jazz Singer’ Scores a Hit—Vitaphone and Al Jolson Responsible, Picture Itself Second Rate.”

The film’s legacy also established the profit potentials for ‘the talkies’. The film made an impressive sum, but this was not overnight as some claims stake. The Warners had a clause in the films contract which entitled it to lengthy runs in cinemas throughout the country. Instead of a flat rental fee, they took a cut of the gate receipts. This gave the studio an increased take the longer the film was shown in theatres.

A major key to the film’s success was this innovative marketing scheme. It was the brainchild of Warner Bros.’ sales manager, Sam Morris. In 1999, Crafton argued that “the signing of this contract by the greater New York Fox Theatres circuit was regarded as a headline-making precedent.” To a considerable degree, Crafton is bang on the mark. Like the film’s use of technology, Morris’s arrangement would also set a game-changing precedent. Similar agreements, based on taking a cut of the gross rather than flat fees, would soon become standard for the U.S. film industry, giving rise to blockbusters.

However, the film has also been highly divisive. The use of blackface and narrative themes of religion has caused a considerable disparity in the discourse on The Jazz Singer. Although the use of blackface was widespread at the time, it is now considered crass and highly racist. In 2005, scholar Corin Willis commented on the films unusual conflation of blackface and the central narrative: “In contrast to the racial jokes and innuendo brought out in its subsequent persistence in early sound film, blackface imagery in The Jazz Singer is at the core of the film’s central theme, an expressive and artistic exploration of the notion of duplicity and ethnic hybridity within American identity. Of the more than seventy examples of blackface in early sound film 1927–53 that I have viewed (including the nine blackface appearances Jolson subsequently made), The Jazz Singer is unique in that it is the only film where blackface is central to the narrative development and thematic expression.”

Such positivist re-examinations of the film do not abound everywhere, though. In 2000, Seymour Stark maintained that the Russian-born Jolson embodied internalised racism as the star of blackface stage shows. He argues, “The immigrant Jew as Broadway star…works within a blackface minstrel tradition that obscures his Jewish pedigree, but proclaims his white identity. Jolson’s slight Yiddish accent was hidden by a Southern veneer”.

Seymour Stark also maintained that The Jazz Singer avoids discussing the tension between Jewish identity and assimilation into American culture. He claims the film has a far more sinister undertone. He states its “covert message…is that the symbol of blackface provides the Jewish immigrant with the same rights and privileges accorded to earlier generations of European immigrants initiated into the rituals of the minstrel show.”

In 1998, W.T. Lhamon presented a more middling account of the film’s narrative and use of blackface. The esteemed academic claims that the character of Jack Robin “compounds both tradition and stardom. The Warner Brothers thesis is that, really to succeed, a man must first acknowledge his ethnic self.” Lhamon goes on to argue that the “whole film builds toward the blacking-up scene at the dress rehearsal. Jack Robin needs the blackface mask as the agency of his compounded identity. Blackface will hold all the identities together without freezing them in a singular relationship or replacing their parts.”

Regardless of what one thinks about the racial narrative issues inherent to The Jazz Singer, technologically and business-wise, the film was groundbreaking. It signified the start of the golden era of ‘the talkies’ and highlighted significant financial possibilities of big-budget motion pictures. The Jazz Singer marked the start of the era of the all-powerful Hollywood studios that still lasts to this day. 

Ultimately, given it was the era of Jim Crow and that America was highly racially charged, we’ll let you make your own mind up on the racial and religious themes.