From “Movies of the 20s”, Jurgen Muller, editor (Taschen), video clip from “Broadway – The American Musical” (PBS)
Watching the movie today, the dialog on the intertitles seems tired and outdated and the players’ gestures very theatrical. But the reason why the Jazz Singer occupies such an important place in the history of cinema is not so much the story as its technical achievement.
Since the turn of the 20th century, moviemakers had been experimenting with the synchronization of picture and sound, but in the 1920s hardly anyone seriously believed that talking pictures would ever become a reality. Although teetering on the edge of financial disaster, Warners Bros. decided to take the risk involved in trying to achieve such a breakthrough. The production company bought Samson Raphaelson’s already-successful stage play and made it into a musical entitled The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson.
Vocal numbers were recorded on the state-of-the art Vitaphone sound-on-disc system and played in sync with the movie. The innovation was an overwhelming success. From now on moviegoers could not only see a singer but hear him too. . .
The Jazz Singer is not a modern film. But it is a film that marks the start of a new era, not only because of the story it tells but also because of the new cinematic experience it provides. It brings together the esthetics of the silent movie with the auditory thrill of the talkie. Al Jolson embodies the blend to perfection.
Like no other performer, he knew how to translate vaudeville to the screen. When at the end of the film he stands onstage and performs his famous “Mammy” song for his mother, we, in the audience, are right up there with him.