A Filmmaker's Guide to: "The Jazz Singer" (1927)
An Appreciation of Cinema (Pt.3)
In this chapter of ‘the filmmaker’s guide’ we are going to explore some of the films that have changed our outlook of the possibilities in cinema in some way, shape or form. These can include, but are not limited to: revolutionary cinematography, narratives that challenge the social structure and the common view, trademark styles of auter cinema, brilliant adaptations of novels and other works, films of philosophical value and films that touch our hearts and souls with their incredible underlying messages and morals. Within each of the films in this chapter there is a certain something that makes them special and a certain something that makes them linger long after we have watched them for the first time. Lasting impressions are difficult to create, but I think that the films we will briefly touch on in this chapter are some of the films we will never ever forget.
"The Jazz Singer" (1927) dir. by Alan Crosland
One of the most iconic films of the jazz age, this film broke into cinema with its witty and touching storyline, its depiction of otherness, and obviously it was now the official beginning of the talkies since this was the film that started sound on screen. With the subject of a man choosing between his faith and his love of show-business, he is forced out of his home and on to the streets on which he must perform in order to make his way, when he returns home he finds his mother is fairly supportive whereas his strictly Jewish father is not and calls off the show-business or the son must risk losing him as a father. An incredible story depicted through song, dance and Al Jolson’s incredible performance as the lead character, this movie went on to become not only an icon of jazz age cinema but also a landmark in cinematic history itself. It lead the way for further films to include sound and even Charlie Chaplin would get on board with it.
Released on the 6th of October, 1927, “The Jazz Singer” would soon become a milestone of cinema and go on to win awards at the First Academy Awards Show in 1929. These included Best Adapted Screenplay and the now dormant Honorary Academy Award for Production that was later turned into Best Film Production. During the 90s, when the Nation Film Registry became interested in the film - it was selected for preservation for its significance in cinematic history. There have also been many, many remakes over time with 1952’s remake starring Peggy Lee and Danny Thomas possibly being the most famous. In 1959, Jerry Lewis took his turn on television for “The Jazz Singer” and then in 1980, Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier starred in the new movie. The film would also go on to inspire other musical-dramas such as the famed “Singin’ In the Rain” (1952) starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds.
The film was premiered at the famed Flagship Theatre in New York City on the eve of the Yom Kippur Holiday in order to keep with the theme of Jewish Identity. One of the details of the premiere applauded its complexity in comparison to other films of the same age, noting the great detail and attention paid to the sound aspects:
“Each of Jolson's musical numbers was mounted on a separate reel with a separate accompanying sound disc. Even though the film was only eighty-nine minutes long...there were fifteen reels and fifteen discs to manage, and the projectionist had to be able to thread the film and cue up the Vitaphone records very quickly. The least stumble, hesitation, or human error would result in public and financial humiliation for the company.”
The era of the Vitaphone was not yet completely upon us, but it was a great start for the talkies. However, none of the Warner Brothers actually attended even though it was their premiere, their film and their theatre that the premiere was being held at. Sam Warner, the pioneer of the Vitaphone amongst the Warner Brothers, died the previous day from pneumonia and therefore, was entirely unable to attend. It was only just that the remaining brothers went to California instead to hold his funeral.
Be that as it may, the film still received a standing ovation once it was premiered.
It was also the songs that made a huge impact on the film with music and lyrics by the likes of L. Wolfe Gilbert, Lewis F. Muir, Irving Berlin, Walter Donaldson, James V. Monaco, Gus Kahn, Sam M Lewis and Joe Young - this film had a massive cast of men behind it writing and composing some of the best loved songs in American Film History. Some of which are upbeat, some are emotional and many of them reference the film’s incredibly touching storyline of conflict and hopelessness through family rivalry.
Many magazines and institutions for film over the years have commented on the legacy of “The Jazz Singer” (1927) with some citing that its success was due to its cinematic milestone and some claiming that it did well because it was based on a story written about Al Jolson’s actual life. But, I think we can all agree that this was a big step in cinema and that nobody would’ve ever seen a film the same way again.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet!”
- Jack Robin, “The Jazz Singer” (1927)