excerpt from: A Song in the Dark: the Birth of the Musical Film
by Richard Barrios (1995)
The most detectable asset of The Jazz Singer is the conviction put into it – Warners’ and Alan Crosland’s belief in the project and Jolson’s belief in his powers as a musical entertainer. Whether the material was worthy of belief is another issue; what matters is that this story carried a force that more conventional screen fare lacked. Jewish themes were not uncommon in 1920s cinema, not only trivia of the Private Izzy Murphy/Kosher Kitty Kelly variety but sensitively considered dramas such as Humoresque (1920) and His People (1926).
Raphaelson’s play, with its ongoing conflict of tradition vs. assimilation, offered intensity and substance as well as schmaltz, and if the film adaptation was especially unsubtle and trite, it did pack some power. So did Crosland’s strong visual sense. While he couldn’t keep the actors from chewing the scenery to atoms, he often made it and them look good. The early shots of the Lower East Side have a documentary vigor, and the backstage vignettes and theater scenes (staged by Ernest Belcher) seem vivid and authentic, up to and including a few shots of young Myrna Loy as a nosy chorus girl. And however incompetent Jolson’s pantomime, it’s hard to forget the sight of a luminous smile breaking through his blackface while Louis Silvers’s orchestra score gives out with a few bars of “My Mammy.”
Jolson. Not only this film, the entire sound-film revolution is inconceivable without him. He was The Jazz Singer. Not the character of Jakie Rabinowitz, for Jolson’s sense of self was too great and his dramatic ability too slight to portray a character other than himself. No, he is the film, and not even the good actors in the cast – May McAvoy, Warner Oland, Eugenie Besserer, William Demarest in a bit – matter greatly. Whenever they attempt to perform in a coherent drama, on comes the Jolson juggernaut, on full throttle the moment he opens his mouth.
The man was, truly, spectacular, and his six songs and a few words of patter clearly illuminate character and situation in ways that film had not done before and shorts subjects could not do. Jakie’s near-Oedipal fixation finds its ultimate expression in “Mother of Mine, I Still Have You” and the indelible “My Mammy,” as well as “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face.” The exuberant “Toot, Toot Tootsie” and “Blue Skies” both illustrate the performer’s energy that finds its most compatible outlet in “jazz” (i.e., pop) singing, where even whistling and scat syllables could be made vivid and immediate. “Kol Nidre” gives resolution to the central conflict as Jakie makes peace with his faith and his father. If the dramatic connections between song and plot are as rudimentary as they are hokey, at least the effort has been made, as it would be in most of the best early musicals to integrate song and plot.
Whatever breakthrough The Jazz Singer comprises is due to its sound sequences being placed, for the first time, at the service of the characters and plot of a feature film. In this context, sound seemed to add a new dimension, one underscored by Jolson’s overpowering style. The final scene, his rendition of “My Mammy,” wraps up the whole corny business with an intensity that silent drama could never duplicate. No title card could have conveyed the power of those hysterical cries just prior to the final sung lines –“Mammy, I’m comin’! . . . Oh, God, I hope I’m not late!”
That is the significance of The Jazz Singer. The hoary legend that it instantaneously made silent film an outmoded curiosity is rubbish. Most observers in 1927 did not foresee the birth of a new kind of film. Instead, they saw that for all its potential The Jazz Singer was essentially several Vitaphone short subjects patched into a silent melodrama. The sound and silent sequences were considered segregated entities, not parts of a cohesive whole. Even some of the print ads reflected this, listing Vitaphone as a supporting “player,” after May McAvoy. Only later was it recognized the extent to which The Jazz Singer expanded upon the potential, previously intimated by Vitaphone and Movietone, for new forms of entertainment; this ultimately bore fruit as talking pictures and musical films.