Most people know The Jazz Singer for two things: being the first talkie, and having Al Jolson in blackface. It isn't, strictly speaking, the first real talking picture. Other films experimented with sound effects and music before The Jazz Singer, and while this film has few scenes that were recorded with synchronized sound on set, the first all-talking film was On with the Show, which came out two years after this. Nevertheless, this movie's tremendous success played a huge role in convincing studios of the viability of taking pictures, and saw them hasten to invest in the new medium.
Jakie Rubinowitz is the teenage son of a cantor, and while his father wants to him to carry on the tradition of singing in synagogue, little Jakie's tastes run more to ragtime. His father beats him black and blue over the shame of him singing at a jazz club, and Jakie runs away from home.
Fast forward many many years. Jakie Rubinowitz is now Jack Robin, an up-and-coming jazz singer and an early participant in the tradition of Jewish entertainers anglicizing their names. Speaking of our Semetic brethren, this film is interesting in that it serves as a time capsule for a time where traditional Jewish culture not only existed but thrived in the United States, and one of its main themes is the concept of Jewish identity and what that means in a modern cosmopolitan society. So you know, this movie isn't just Al Jolson in blackface.
Although that is a major part of it, I'm not going to lie.
Interestingly enough, every single big break that he gets is the direct result of a little dancer named Mary Dare intervening on his behalf, which is pretty unusual for these types of films. Normally in backstage movies, the girls rely upon some male benefactor to get their shot at the big time. But in The Jazz Singer, Mary Dare is the power player, the one with the career prospects who can throw her weight around and get Jack Robin gigs. So that's kind of cool.
But there's a problem: Jack's latest gig brings him back to the Big Apple. And yeah, it's great for him to reconnect with his mother, but the downside is that he also has to see his estranged father, who is predictably peeved that his only son has grown up to be a jazz singer. And in a stunning display of the stereotype of the guilting Jewish parental figure, the father becomes so worked up that he drives himself to the brink of the grave. And the only thing that will make him feel better before dying is to see his son sing as cantor at their synagogue. Ladies and gentlemen, on the day that parents making their children feel guilty was elevated to an art form, we stood in awe and watched.
So Jack is stuck between the two worlds. His career, or his heritage? What will he do?
But really, who cares? We know what we're all here to talk about, and that's the blackface.
OK, so it goes without saying that there are elements of this film that have maybe not aged as well as others. And one of them is probably the fact that it's apparently totally fine to have a white man cover himself in shoe polish and sing a song called "Mammy" on stage. Al Jolson made a career out of this type of performance, and while there is some evidence that this was his attempt to introduce black culture to white audiences (Jolson was unusually supportive of black performers' rights in show business, and he and his wife were reportedly the only white couple of their time in Hollywood who ever invited their black colleagues over for dinner), it doesn't make the blackface any less reprehensible to modern audiences. I mean, you can't look at the above photos of Jolson without getting a little squirmy.
And can we talk about how Jack is solemnly talking to Mary about how he feels the "call of his race" to sing in synagogue on the Day of Atonement...while he's in effing blackface??? I honestly needed to go get a glass of water and calm down after this because it was just so ridiculous.
But putting aside the shoe polish for a second, it's important to acknowledge the role of sound in this film. The transitions between the silent scenes and ones with sound are jarring. But it's easy to see how audiences were completely enthralled by the sound sequences -- they have a sparkle and energy that immediately make the silent parts feel dated and flat.
Although the film only uses live sound for a few key scenes (to showcase their star's singing), they are well chosen and highlight the major dramatic moments of the film. Once you see this film, it's impossible to make an argument that sound doesn't enhance the cinematic experience.
And it's for that reason that The Jazz Singer inevitably ends up on lists like this, because of the role it plays in the development of the medium. The story is simplistic and one that we've all seen before, by necessity - the focus needs to be on Al Jolson and this fancy new technical marvel. And as the man himself said (surprisingly not in blackface for once in the film):