Thursday, May 14, 2015

AFI Top 100, #90: "The Jazz Singer" (1927)

Movie Stats:
Released 1927 (USA)
American, in English (Most of the movie is silent, but the scene cards and most of the songs are in English; there are a handful of cantor songs that were in, I believe, Yiddish and/or Hebrew. They aren’t translated.)
Director - Alan Crosland
Stars - Al Jolson, Warner Oland, Eugenie Besserer

Plot Summary:
It’s the age-old tale of a young man rebelling against his conservative father. All young Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson) wants is to be a jazz singer. His father (Oland) wants him to follow in his footsteps as cantor of their Jewish synagogue. Conflict ensues. Besserer co-stars as Jakie’s mother, Sara.


Bad Stuff:
Oh god, black face. Why have you betrayed me so, movie? There was something particularly offensive about a man waxing poetic on the draw to heed the “call of his [Jewish] people” while in black face for the whole scene.

It was kind of weird that most of the movie was silent while parts of it - singing and some occasional dialogue - were in sound. I mean, I understand why. No doubt people went to this movie to hear Jolson sing. I still found it odd, though, and some of it wasn’t synced terribly well. (Note: This movie is widely recognized as the first "talkie," but it was sound on disc, not sound on film.)

My biggest problem with silent movies is the overacting. I assume it’s a recipe of one part not having the benefit of being heard and one part moving from stage to film, but I find it distracting and, occasionally, funny when it’s not meant to be. For example, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to laugh during a [SPOILER] death scene [SPOILER] and yet I did.

The orchestral music was overbearing.

Good Stuff:
With the exception of the above-mentioned scene, which I’m going to blame on the director, I really enjoyed the acting of Eugenie Besserer. Her character was my favorite.

It was really fun to see Jolson sing and dance on-screen. I love old timey jazz, so this was very enjoyable for me.

Loved the costuming.

The Verdict:
On the one hand, I found this movie satisfying. It has a good heart. I was tickled by the ultra-progressive message of it because it was so 1920s. And I really did enjoy the singing, especially Jolson’s performance of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie! Goodbye.” I’m not going to ding it for the black face, even though I find it horribly offensive. I understand that was a thing back then and IIRC, it was particularly part of Jolson’s schtick. What I am dinging this movie for is how two-dimensional all the characters, and the story, are. It’s enjoyable, but at the end of the day it’s just fluff, 1920s fluff. The style of it was groundbreaking for the time. The substance is not. 

I give it 3.75 stars.


Patricia said...

I didn't realize that Neil Diamond's version so closely followed the original. Because I can't actually imagine them making a movie about Jewish people in the 1920s. Holy cow!

Amusingly, Neil Diamond also does a number in black face in his version. But it's okay, because his friend asks him to. The friend has a soul band and needs Diamond to fill in, but it's not going to go over well to have a white dude playing soul. So Diamond wears makeup and the band rips it up with Diamond singing "You Baby" and it goes over really well until the end when Diamond points or something, and he has forgotten to put makeup on his hand. A riot ensues. On the soundtrack, you can actually hear movie dialogue, someone saying, "That ain't no brother, that's a white boy!" Which I always said along with the soundtrack for years, not understanding what was going on until I watched the movie as a young adult.

I'm sure your life is much better by that fact. And also that you know that I now have "Love on the Rocks" in my head.

balyien said...

I was honestly rather surprised by how sympathetic it was toward the Jews, solely based on the time period it's from. I expected gross caricatures and saw none. Of course, this movie is pre-Code (as in the morality codes), as they say, and I've noticed a stark difference between the pre-Code movies in the and the post-Code ones up until everyone started unclenching in the 1960s. Film was really stifled by the Code. It's sad to see.

I read online that Jolson really enjoyed performing in black face because he identified with the plight of blacks. He felt it was similar to the plight of Jews. I appreciated the sentiment, and it makes the black face performances sting *slightly* less. Only slightly because it made sense for the first song he sings. In the second song performed in black face, he sings "Mammy," which is racist no matter how you look at it IMO.