On October 6, 1927, the day before Yom Kippur, a magical premier took place in New York City. “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson electrified the audience as the first feature-length film to contain a sound score, sound effects – and actual dialogue (which amounted to less than three minutes of “talking” with the rest of the dialogue shown on the usual silent film caption cards. Six songs, however were sung).
The film that deals with Jewish assimilation and culminates on Yom Kippur, was based on the play of the same name by Samson Raphaelson, adapted from one of his short stories, “The Day of Atonement” which had everything to do with Jolson.
On April 25, 1917, Raphaelson, from New York City’s Lower East Side and a University of Illinois student, attended a performance of the musical “Robinson Crusoe, Jr.” which starred the 32-year-old Jolson, a Russian-born Jew who performed in blackface.* In a 1927 interview, Raphaelson said he had only experienced this level of emotional intensity among synagogue cantors.
Five years later, he wrote “Day of Atonement” based upon Jolson’s life. From there he adapted it into a stage play that premiered at the Warner Theater in New York in 1925 starring George Jessel. It was a hit and Warner Brothers acquired the film rights. As a result of multiple issues involving contract and story line, Jessel did not star in the movie. It was offered to Eddie Cantor, then Al Jolson (ironically about whom the story was originally written). At the time, Jolson was at the height of his popularity, singing jazzed-up minstrel with electrifying gestures, rooted in the African-American community, but he hadn’t made a film. Jolson took the part, signing a $75,000 deal (about one million dollars today) in 1927.
At the premier during the era of silent films, the audience, for the first time, could both hear as well as see Jolson through the new Vitaphone sound-on-disc system. And what they heard was his rich voice, shuffling feet, and pitiable sobs which punctuated the high notes that reverberated on screen with a fervor never before imagined on screen. The effect was thrilling.
The audience was both mesmerized and moved in a way that would forever change film-making and film-goers. Even Jolson was too overcome at the premiere to say his signature: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing’ yet!”
Culturally, the film was largely responsible for ending silent films.
But there was much more. The story, which reaches its climax during the Yom Kippur services, took on the complex issue of assimilation in this new land. The timing of the premier, was of course, purposeful. Our holiest day of the year is when we Jews ask the Almighty for atonement from our sins. It demands introspection. At the film’s core lies the dilemma of maintaining Jewish identity in a changing world where Jolson’s character, Jakie Rabinowitz, son of a cantor, wrestles with honoring the traditions of his ancestors versus grabbling hold of modern American life (pursuing a Jazz career). The plot reflected the views and experiences of the four Jewish Warner brothers (born Wonskolaser), Albert, Harry, Jack, and Sam, and of its Jewish star, Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson). (None of the brothers were able to attend the opening because the day before, Sam had died of pneumonia, and the others were in California to attend his funeral.)
“The Jazz Singer” tells the story of the Rabinowitz family who have been proud cantors for five generations. Jakie, the youngest Rabinowitz, American born, was being groomed by his orthodox father to devote his life to carrying on the faith and spirit of his ancestors.
Jakie’s passion, however, beats to the rhythm of American jazz. Instead of learning his chants, he’s in cafes singing “Way down on the levee, in old Alabammy, there’s Daddy and Mammy, and Ephraim and Sammy.”
His heartsick father finds out and on Yom Kippur, Cantor Rabinowitz mournfully tells a fellow congregant, “My son was to stand at my side and sing tonight – but now I have no son.” Jakie is forced to leave, and over the next few years, forges a successfully career with his super-jazz, taking on the name Jack Robins.
The dramatic climax occurs some years later on Yom Kippur. His father is dying and calls for his son to come back to the shul the same night Jakie is scheduled to make a critical theatrical appearance in a New York revue. Sara, his mother wants him to take his father’s place at the Yom Kippur service. His gentile girlfriend Mary and co-star warns Jakie that failing to appear on opening night would ruin his career, telling him: “You’re a jazz singer at heart!”
Torn, Jakie at first he refuses his mother, who nevertheless, watching the dress rehearsal realizes her son now belongs to the larger world. But, unable to deny what’s in his heart, he rushes to his father, delaying the Broadway opening.
Jakie kneels at his father’s bedside and the two finally talk with passion and affection as his father says: “My son – I love you.” What will he do? Sacrifice his American career … or his responsibility to his father and his faith?
Jakie sings Kol Nidre in his father’s place and the Broadway opening is delayed. His father listens from his deathbed to the nearby ceremony and speaks his last, forgiving words: “Mama, we have our son again.” Mary attends and sees how Jack has reconciled the division in his soul: “A jazz singer – singing to his God.”
In a memorable scene, Jolson is seen at the piano, singing “Blue Sky” to Eugenie Besserer, who played his mother, Sara. At the conclusion of the song, he turns and talks to her – this being the only “lengthy” snatch of spoken dialog in the film (excerpted).
JAKIE: Mama darlin’, if I’m a success in this show, well, we’re gonna move from here. Oh yes, we’re gonna move up in the Bronx. A lot of nice green grass up there and a whole lot of people you know. There’s the Ginsbergs, the Guttenbergs, and the Goldbergs. Oh, a whole lotta Bergs. And I’m gonna buy you a nice black silk dress, Mama.
MOTHER: Oh, no-
JAKIE: And I’m gonna get you a nice pink dress that’ll go with your brown eyes.
MOTHER: No, Jakie, no I-I-I-I
JAKIE: Yes, you’ll wear pink or else. (He laughs.) And, darlin’, oh, I’m gonna take you to Coney Island.
MOTHER: Oh, no. I wouldn’t go….
JAKIE: Well, with me, it’s all right. I’ll kiss you and hug you. You see if I don’t.
The huge risk taken on by the Warner Brothers when in a financial crises was rewarded. Over time, “The Jazz Singer” was a hit. The film that cost the studio $422,000, a fortune then, made a huge profit. At the first Academy Awards, Darryl F. Zanuck won an Honorary Academy Award for producing the film and Alfred A. Cohn was nominated for Best Writing (Adaptation).
Due to its critical content, in 1996 this Jewish film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” motion pictures. In 1998, the American Film Institute named “The Jazz Singer” as one of the best American films of all time.
The issues explored in “The Jazz Singer” are still relevant for the Jewish community today. How do we remain true to our roots while attempting to “make it” in the modern world? There are many who have found an answer to this question – these are the Jews who have remained committed to their faith and can be found at the forefront of every industry – whether in the worlds of business, politics, medicine, and yes, even Hollywood. As every study of American Jewry has shown, those who remain committed to their faith have a very high likelihood of passing on that heritage to their children and grandchildren. Conversely, those who assimilate, do not. Perhaps as we look at this film in retrospect, a new perspective can be gained – that the Jazz Singer’s father was right after all.
*While “black face” today is considered racist, other interpretations see the “mask” as a metaphor that Jolson used to express similarities with the Jewish experience.