The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VII (The making of the film)

Had history unfolded differently, this man, George Albert Jessel, and not Al Jolson, would’ve played the lead in The Jazz Singer. One of Broadway’s most popular leading men, he was asked to star in the film adaptation of the play, and signed to a contract with Warner Bros.

4 June 1926, Warner Bros. acquired the play’s rights. In February 1927, Motion Picture World magazine ran a story announcing Jessel’s starring role, and that filming would begin the first of May.

When TJS was reconceived as a sound film, Jessel demanded a larger salary or new contract, which the struggling studio couldn’t afford. They still owed him money for three other films (all now lost), and couldn’t afford to produce any film with a major star.

Jessel also was outraged by the film’s ending, which differed from that of the play. He didn’t want to do that, with or without money.

Popular entertainer Eddie Cantor (né Edward Israel Itzkowitz) was offered the role next, but declined. He was a friend of Jessel’s, and felt sure the difference of opinion could be worked out. Cantor offered his assistance, but wasn’t invited to the negotiations.

By hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence), Al Jolson, whose early life was the inspiration for the story, was then offered the role, and accepted. Jessel may have been a very popular leading man on Broadway, but Jolson was a superstar at the height of his popularity.

Jessel and Jolson were also friends, but after Jolson accepted the role, they didn’t speak for a long time. It felt like a betrayal, after Jessel had confided in him about his problems with the studio. Jolson signed the contract without telling Jessel about his plans beforehand.

26 May 1927, Jolson signed a contract for eight weeks, starting July. His salary was $75,000 ($1,034,052 today).

Also cast were:

Warner Oland (né Johan Verner Ölund) as Cantor Rabinowitz. He was a Swedish-born actor best-known for playing Asian roles, in an era when it was common, de facto practice for white actors to play characters of other ethnicities.

Eugenie Besserer as Sara Rabinowitz. She usually played maternal roles.

May McAvoy as Mary Dale. Probably her best-known other role is Esther in Ben-Hur.

Otto Lederer (in the middle) as busybody gossip Moisha Yudelson.

Fellow Pittsburgher Bobby Gordon as 13-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz. He later became a film and TV director, and was the last surviving cast member of TJS.

Cantor Yossele (Josef) Rosenblatt as himself. He was considered the greatest cantor of his era, with a sweeping career spanning multiple cities and countries.

Richard Tucker (far left) as producer Harry Lee. He was the first official member of the Screen Actors Guild.

The synchronized musical performances are, in order:

“My Gal Sal” (dubbed by an unknown singer as Bobby Gordon lip-synchs)
“Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” (a popular 1912 song), also dubbed as Bobby Gordon lip-synchs
“Kol Nidre” (dubbed by Joseph Diskay with Warner Oland lip-synching)
“Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” (Jolson)
“Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye)” (Jolson)
“Kaddish” (Cantor Rosenblatt)
“Blue Skies” (Jolson)
“Kol Nidre” (Jolson)
“Mother of Mine, I Still Have You” (Jolson)
“My Mammy” (Jolson)

After “Blue Skies,” there’s a brief ad-libbed conversation between Jack and his mother. This comes to an abrupt halt when Cantor Rabinowitz enters and shouts, “STOP!” The dialogue then reverts back to intertitles.

The sound sequences were shot at a different speed from the normal silent sequences. If you watch very closely, you can pick up on the differences, particularly when one stops and the other starts.

The first time I saw TJS, I was jolted by these sound sequences. While I of course knew they’d be there, it’s a very uncanny, surreal feeling for a silent film to suddenly break into sound. I image that’s what it felt like to 1927 audiences.

The Winter Garden and Lower East Side scenes were shot on location. Though filming began in June, the Vitaphone sequences were mostly saved for late August, since they were so technologically complex. On 23 September, Motion Picture News reported production was complete.

The budget was $422,000 ($5.76 million today). This was a colossal sum for the financially struggling Warner Bros., who typically didn’t spend more than $250,000. Only the John Barrymore films Don Juan and The Sea Beast (both 1926) had been more expensive.

To finance TJS, Harry Warner stopped drawing his salary, moved his family to a smaller apartment, and pawned his wife’s jewelry. The brothers worked themselves ragged on the production, since a lot was riding on both this film and Vitaphone being successful.

This costly experiment paid off big-time, though Sam Warner sadly died just before the grand première.

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