How I Came to Write “The Jazz Singer,” By Samson Raphaelson
from the original Souvenir Program of “The Jazz Singer”
When I was a junior at the University of Illinois, 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.”
I had never seen Jolson before. I had heard of him. 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.” When he finished, I turned to the girl beside me, dazed with memories of my childhood on the East Side—memories of the Pike Street Synagogue. I said to the girl, “My God, this isn’t a jazz singer. This is a cantor!”
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 like a swift electrical lariat with a twist that swept the audience right to the edge of that runway. The words didn’t matter, the melody didn’t matter. It was the emotion—the emotions of a cantor.
I said to my friend, “There’s a story in this—a dramatic story.” I went backstage after the performance and talked to Jolson. He was very busy, but I shall never forget the feeling I had about what a “damn decent guy” he was. I was a youngster deeply stirred by something which undoubtedly stirred him as much as it did me. He sensed that. In those days he had already become the world’s greatest entertainer,” and a lot of stirred youngsters must have tried to say nothing in particluar to him. He behaved as if I were the first. He told me a little of his background. But I had already guessed it. I knew there was the spirit of cantors in him, the blood of cantors in him.
Five years later in California I wrote the story I called “The Day of Atonement.” My stories at that time were being published in various magazines. I was a professional writer. I knew most of the editors and they knew me. I said to myself, the first editor that sees this will jump at it. For I felt that it was easily the best story I had ever written. The story was turned down by five magazines. Sewell Haggard, editor of “Everybody’s,” bought it. When it appeared, I got letters from my other editors saying, “Why don’t you send us stuff like that?” Solomon should have added to a certain remark, “And the ways of an editor with an author.”
Mr Haggard, when he accepted the story, wrote me: “For goodness sake, don’t sell the movie rights on this. You have the making of a play. Write the play first.”
Three years ago I wrote the play. I felt about it as I did about the story. I sent it to Sam H. Harris, who turned it down. I couldn’t believe it and wouldn’t believe it. I went to his office with genuine concern for Mr. Harris’ welfare, fretted him into a state where he handed me over to Al Lewis. Mr. Lewis pointed out certain things in the play which could not be done an any stage. He suggested that if I rewrote it he might be interested. I rewrote it and read it to him. When I finished, there were tears in his eyes. He said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t produce this play.” I said, “then why were you crying – because it broke you heart to turn me down?” I really think Mr. Lewis accepted this play because I wore him out.
If anyone had told me ten years ago, when I first saw Jolson, that he would be in a movie of a play inspired by my seeing him it would have sounded like a bit of a fairy tale to me. At the time this article is being written the motion picture of The Jazz Singer has not yet arrived. Jolson, who was so damn decent to me in Champaign, Illinois, in 1916—Jolson, who came up to me in Stamford after the opening of “The Jazz Singer” two years ago and said, “Boy, if there’s anything I can do to make this show a success, just say the word. If it flops, I’ll put my own money into it to keep it alive.” – Jolson, electric, palpitating, the most American figure in the world today – Jolson’s going to be in it. And I’m as eager to see it as if the movie was based on his play, not mine.