The Jazz Singer (1927, Alan Crosland)


It’s amazing what strange discoveries are made when one finally sees chestnuts like The Jazz Singer. The conventional wisdom about this film is that it’s a movie to be seen once, exclusively for its innovation and the revolution it instigated, and filed away, a museum piece. Those who read my reviews regularly will recognize this as something I say quite a bit about supposed “classic” movies, most prominently and recently about the epic features of D.W. Griffith. All that is widely remembered and recognized about The Jazz Singer, beyond its very traditional and oft-repeated story, is Al Jolson’s utterance of (ostensibly) the first line of dialogue on the American screen. There are also the famous synced-up musical sequences, making it not just the first sound film (which, to be honest, is quite a misnomer; it’s a silent film with a few talky sequences, and not by any means the first of those, just the first box office hit of the lot) but the first Hollywood musical. And even the most catholic film scholars tend to find it rather musty.

Which is a fair criticism. It is a creaky antique in a lot of ways, and it’s never going to connect with a broad spectrum of people like it did eighty years ago. For my part, however, I thought it had a prominent and invigorating kind of magic and beauty. Perhaps approaching it as a window into its time makes a difference; I can’t say. But I was caught most off guard by its profound sensitivity and sweetness, which incredibly doesn’t strain or cloy, though I can’t imagine that the comical broadness of Warner Oland’s performance played well even in 1927.

It’s a highly emotional movie, and a highly religious one — in fact, one of the most religious films I’ve ever seen from Hollywood. You know the story of the cantor’s son rebelling by turning to the illicit jazz age. It really only soars past “historical moment” and “sincere religious picture” appeal at two specific points: most prominent is Jolson’s torn-up, almost unbearably emotional song and dance at the dress rehearsal. His performance — the other ingredient for which the film is still widely remembered — is quite dazzling in its modest way, and not just in the song sequences. His affection toward his mother brings forth something amazingly raw; a character tells Jolson early on that he has “a tear in his voice.” His face expresses just as much, thus giving the lie to the notion of director Alan Crosland’s film having no purely cinematic interest.

That key relationship of the boy and mother figures in the loveliest sequence of the film, an all-talkie routine in which he drops by his old flat, plays piano and sings Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” to her, their voices natural and shy and real as a microphone captures them on camera for the first time. They exchange cute and silly asides for several minutes until Dad storms in. It’s doubly poignant for the awkwardness of the form, but mostly just astonishingly moving for its undiluted, effortless warmth. (While it’s not exactly complex, Eugenie Besserer’s is the most stirring and felt performance here, both sugary and eerily natural.) This is one of the most affecting moments in any Hollywood film; by comparison to that, the tossed-off “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” barely registers.

I’m not sure to feel about the end of the film, which makes it all a bit too easy, but what of it? If this hadn’t been engineered as a crowd pleaser, lord only knows what kind of movies we’d be watching now. The Jazz Singer is still extremely entertaining, and it would be even if you knew nothing of its historical significance. Antique, maybe, but wortwhile all the same.

[Originally posted in 2007; added a couple of sentences after seeing the film again this year.]

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