Variety, October 12, 1927.
Undoubtedly the best thing Vitaphone has ever put on the screen. The combination of the religious heart interest story and Jolson’s singing “Kol Nidre” in a synagog while his father is dying and two “Mammy” lyrics as his mother stands in the wings of the theatre, and later as she sits in the first row, carries abundant power and appeal. Besides which the finish of the “Mammy” melody (the one that goes “The sun shines east, the sun shines west” is also the end of the picture with Jolson supposedly on a stage and a closeup on the screen as his voice pours through the amplifiers.
To a first night Broadway that finale was a whale and resulted in a tumultuous ovation. Jolson, personally, has never been more warmly greeted than at this premiere. He was there, in person, also.
But “The Jazz Singer” minus Vitaphone is somethlng else again. There’s really no love interest in the script, except between mother and son. It’s doubtful if the general public will take to the Jewish boy’s problem of becoming a cantor or a stage luminary as told on celluloid. On the other hand, with Vitaphone it can’t miss. It is understood that W.B. has prepared two versions of the film, with and without Vitaphone, for the exhibition angle.
Jolson, when singing, is Jolson. There are six instances of this, each running from two to three minutes. When he’s without that instrumental spur Jolson is camera conscious. Yet for his first picture the Shubert ace does exceptionally well. Plus his camera makeup, this holder of a $17,500 check for one week in a picture house isn’t quite the Al his vast audience knows. But as soon as he gets under cork the lens picks up that spark of individual personality solely identified with him. That much goes with or without Vitaphone.
The picture is all Jolson, although Alan Crosland, directing, has creditably dodged the hazard of over-emphasizing the star as well as refraining from laying it on too thick in the scenes between the mother and boy. The film dovetails splendidly, which speaks well for those component parts of the technical staff. Cast support stands out in the persons of Eugenie Besserer, as the mother; Otto Lederer, as a friend of the family, and Warner Oland as the father. Oland recently left this theatre as a Chinese dastard in “Old San Francisco” and comes back as a Jewish cantor, so if his performance isn’t what it might be, it’s excusable on the territory he covers.
May McAvoy is pretty well smothered on footage with no love theme to help, but being instrumental in getting Jakie, nee Jack Robin, his chance in a Broadway show. She is also a performer in the story.
Heavy heart interest in the film and some comedy, plus adept titling, which helps both these ingredients. The pathos makes the picture a contender for Jewish neighborhoods, minus the voice feature. With Jolson’s audible rendering of “Kol Nidre” this bit will likely make a tremendous impression in such houses. Or any audience for that matter as, after all, anybody’s religion demands respect and consideration and when as seriously presented as here, the genuineness of the effort will make everybody listen. Besides which the story has the father dying as his son sings for him with the boy’s voice coming through a window as the parent passes on.
By script it tells of young Jakie running away from home to eventually become a vaudevillian. Bobbie Gordon plays this early sequence with Jolson’s entrance in Coffee Dan’s cellar restaurant in ‘Frisco, where he gets up and does two songs, “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” and “Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye.”
In the sticks a wire comes for him to join a Broadway show. He returns home to see his mother, where he sits down at a piano to run over one of his songs, “Blue Skies,” for her. At this point is some laugh patter as Jolson affectionately kids his mother. As he goes into another chorus his father entrances, to order him out of the house for the second time. The scene switch is then to the dress rehearsal on the day of the show’s opening with Yudelson and his mother pleading with him in the dressing room to come to the synagogue that night and sing on the eve of Yum Kippur because of his father’s illness.
Worried about his father, torn between his first big chance and a natural impulse to throw up everything and go to the synagogue, Jolson comes out in “one” to do “Mother O’Mine, I Still Love You” as she stands in the wings and listens. Convinced that her boy belongs to the theatre, she returns home where Jolson follows, dons the Cantor’s talis and leads the choir.
Crosland has done no stalling in these passages, the scenes moving fast with just the boy’s decision to the inferred mental struggle shown through his appearing in the home. Following “Kol Nidre,” the final scene has Jolson in “one” during a performance, his mother in the first row as he sings “Mammy” to her, and the finish of the song closes the picture.
George Jessel originally did the show and was supposed to have done this picture. Jessel is still out in the play and doing big business. When the show first opened on Broadway last year talk was that the story was based on Jolson, so now with Jolson actually doing it the psychology is perfect.
Louis Silvers gets credit for having arranged the Vita-synchronization with the projection booth switching machines for Jolson’s songs, the change over generally coming on a title, An odd factor is that the orchestral accompaniment to the story is scratchy, but when Jolson sings it’s about the best recording Vitaphone has turned out to date.
Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” is surefire for Broadway. With his songs that holds good for any town or street. Exclude Vitaphone and there crops up the problem that it amounts to a Jewish mother-son religious story with Jolson not yet enough the screen actor to carry it. It’s running for a consecutive 88 minutes at the Warner and will have totaled a lot of screen hours by the time it reaches the end of its stay.
As presented with Vitaphone, it’s a credit to everybody concerned.