the jazz singer
dir. alan crosland
Arguably the biggest cinematic triumph of the 1920s, The Jazz Singer marked the emergence of the “talkies” and the decline of films as the world had grown to see them. Al Jolson, American superstar extraordinaire, stars as Jakie Rabinowitz, a little Jewish boy from Manhattan, who transforms into Jack Robin and is given his big break on Broadway, and must choose between living his dream and making amends with his estranged father.
‘For those whose faces are turned toward the past, the years roll by unheeded–their lives unchanged.’
Jazz Singer is obviously marked for its significance in the history of cinema, more so than its story. Upon its release, the film was hailed by critics and given a rousing response from audiences around the world, with Jolson’s performance in particular receiving acclaim. From the get-go, the response was always aimed at the technical and performative aspects rather than the story, which some believed would have fallen a bit flat had it not been for these other elements, and I would agree with that. It’s a fine story, though it drags a bit long, and had it not been for the magic of the sound (sprinkled here and there through song and small bits of dialogue here and there) it wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive.
The film is notable too is its use of blackface performing, controversial by today’s standards but understood differently at the time. Jolson performed in blackface throughout his career, and was also an advocate for racially equality in show business–one of the few actors at the time who took such action. His use of blackface was meant to act as “a metaphor of mental suffering”, drawing comparisons between the historical abuses of both blacks and Jews, and was met with praise.