Plot: Jakie Rabinowitz (pronounced Jackie) sings ragtime music, much to the disdain of his father, a fourth generation cantor. Jakie runs away and becomes a professional singer with the stage name Jack Robin. Years later, he meets famous actress Mary Dale, falls in love, and she gets him his big break on Broadway. Jack reunites with his family, but his father is still angry, and his anger causes a grave illness to overcome him. As a result, there is no cantor to sing on Yom Kippur, unless Jack forgoes opening night on Broadway to step in. WHAT WILL HE DO?
Best Moment: Sound, of course! The first talkie. Though there’s very little actual talking in the film, Warner Brothers made a good choice in making sure the bulk of the talking part of the movie was between Jack and his mother. Sweet and poignant.
Worst Moment: The blackface. I was actually taken aback by the casual way Jolson goes about putting on the makeup and then the hairpiece to complete his transformation to black man. PSA: blackface is racist, as is any makeup used to transform someone who is white into a person of color. Don’t do it.
Fun facts: American writer Samuel Raphaelson wrote a short story in 1922 titled “Day of Atonement” about a young Jewish boy. The Jewish Day of Atonement is Yom Kippur, and is a day in which Jews seek forgiveness for sins. By 1925 Raphaelson turned that short story into a play titled “The Jazz Singer,” and Warner Brothers picked up the rights to make it into a film starring Al Jolson. So the title of the short story takes on a deeper meaning for the film, as both Jack and his father require forgiveness from each other.
It’s been remade at least twice and parodied often; perhaps the most famous remake is Neil Diamond’s 1980 turn in which he sings two formative pop works in my own life: “Love on the Rocks,” and “America.” Neither of which I would classify as belonging to the jazz genre.
Epiphany: I had seen Neil Diamond’s Jazz Singer when I was a kid, so I knew it had something to do with being Jewish and leaving the family, but didn’t remember specifics. Watching Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer I was struck by how prominently Judaism was seen in the film, mostly because of the time period. And I couldn’t stop thinking about what a risk that had to be.
Antisemitism has long been part of the American psyche, and really, the world’s. Why would Warner Brothers choose to make a film that celebrated the Jewish faith so blatantly? I don’t know how much Americans knew about German politics in 1927, but by then, the Nazi party had been ramping up in Germany for eight years. So I like to think this film was an act of resistance, even if it wasn’t. I can only imagine that if we had a remake of this film today, a certain Baptist church from Kansas would show up to protest it…after all, they have protested community theatres that produce “Fiddler on the Roof.” So I appreciate the film’s courage in showing slices of Jewish culture and faith.
Recommendation: See it. It’s foundational to how we experience film today, and the story of the pull between forging one’s own path and being loyal to family and culture is universal.