Excerpts from The Songs of Hollywood By Philip Furia
“Blue Skies” thus resonates with the dramatic moment in “The Jazz Singer” when Jolson, after many years of missing his beloved mother, is reunited with her. Before he sings, the scene is silent. Jolson enters his parents’ apartment, surprising his mother, and we see his father giving Hebrew lessons in another room. After a few moments of title-card dialogue, Jolson offers to demonstrate one of the songs in his new Broadway show. As synchronized sound comes up again, Jolson strides to the parlor piano and launches into “Blue Skies.” While he renders the song as a performance, his hammy, flourishing rendition portrays him as a kid showing off for his mother.
After one chorus of “Blue Skies,” however, Jolson did something extraordinary-he talked. He had spoken a few lines earlier in the film. After Jolson sang “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” in a scene set in a San Francisco nightclub, the audience of extras broke into applause. Jolson, seemingly forgetting he was in a movie, spoke to the on-screen audience as he frequently did in his stage performance: “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet. Wait a minute, I tell ya. . . . You wanna hear ‘Toot Toot Tootsie’? All right, hold on.”
As Jolson finally sang the song, director Alan Crosland looked through the glass wall of the soundproof box that enclosed the camera. When he caught Sam Warner’s eye, he signaled “Cut?” by sliding his fingers across his throat. Sam, who was in charge of the production, smiled, shook his head, and mouthed, “Leave it in.”
After the take, Crosland asked Sam if they should reshoot the scene without Jolson’s banter. Although he was suffering from a painful headache, Sam Warner had sensed the power of spoken words wedded to song.
“The lines should stay.”
“Yeah, they stay.”
“You’re the boss.”
I’ve got another idea,” Sam added, “but I’ve go to talk to Jolson about it.”
The idea that Sam presented to Jolson was to give an even longer speech in conjunction with a song in another scene. The scene Sam had in mind had already been shot; in it, Jolson returns to his family home and accompanies himself on the piano as he sings “It All Depends on You” to Eugenie Besserer, his on-screen mother. Sam wanted to reshoot the scene but have Jolson sing Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and insert a monologue between two choruses of the song.
“I could get the script people to write in a few lines on title cards to bridge from your entry to the song,” Sam suggested.
“Nah,” Jolson replied, “no need to do that. I’ll just kinda make it up as I go along . . . like I always do.”
“Right,” Sam said, “You do it, Jolie, just like you always do.”
“Leave it to me. I’ll knock ‘em on their asses.”
After singing one chorus of “Blue Skies” to Eugenie Besserer, he starts the kind of spiel he improvised on stage, telling her that he is going to buy her an apartment in the Bronx, deck her out in a new pink dress, and take her to Coney Island . . . That the monologue is so ludicrous strengthens the impression that it came off the top of Jolson’s head, but what really suggests the sense of improvisation is the reaction of Besserer. While at first she manages to stay in character, the actress if obviously ruffled as Jolson’s patter goes on and on. “What is this guy doing?” she seems to be thinking. “This is a silent movie-and he’s talking!” Besserer has no dialogue of her own and can only mutter an “oh, no, Jakie” as Jolson rambles on. At one point, she leans over and grabs him as if sheer physical force could make him stop talking but then stoically resigns herself to waiting him out. Finally, he sings a second chorus of “Blue Skies” in an even “jazzier” and more flamboyant performance style. . . .
It’s easy to overstate the crucial importance of the “Blue Skies” sequence in prompting Warner Bros. and other studios to shift from silent movie to “talkies,” but the expressive power of the song and Jolson’s talking is manifest in the scene. The combination of talking and singing, dialogue and song, makes “Blue Skies” not just a performance number but a song that resonates with Jolson’s feelings at a particular dramatic moment. As such, it is far more integral and expressive than any of the other songs in the film. “It was a shock to the audience,” director Frank Capra recalled, “to see Jolson open his mouth and hear words come out of it. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences to see it happen on screen. A vision . . . a voice that came out of a shadow.” Another contemporary viewer of the film, playwright Robert Sherwood, saw the scene as the harbinger that would transform an industry: “I for one suddenly realized that the end of silent drama is in sight.”