The Jazz Singer at 90, Part X (Common myths debunked)

Over the past 90 years, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about TJS, the end of the silent era, and the dawn of sound. While many have a sliver of basis in truth, the truth is a lot different and more complex than popular opinion suggests.

Myth #1: TJS was the first talking picture.

As discussed in Part VI, sound-on-film technology had a long history, full of fits and starts, going back to 1894 or 1895. TJS was merely the most popular and successful, due largely to Al Jolson’s star power and charisma. This is similar to the oft-repeated myth about BOAN being the first feature-length film.

TJS also wasn’t even the first all-talking feature. That was 1928’s Lights of New York. TJS is at least 75% silent.

Myth #2: The silent era immediately ended after TJS came out

As discussed in Part IX, the transition from silent to sound film was very long and slow. Even if the entire film industry worldwide had decided, right then and there, to make sound the law of the land, they couldn’t wire all theatres for sound overnight. They also needed to buy a lot of expensive new equipment and film.

China, Japan, and Korea were largely silent well into the Thirties. They didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken. Japan also had the tradition of the benshi, a narrator who accompanied film screenings and was a star in his own right.

Myth #3: Most silent actors had horrible voices, and thus had to retire

Many actors had wonderful or at least competent voices, though they weren’t always best-served by early sound recording technology. People were so enamoured of talkies, they flocked to see anything and anyone. They didn’t mind voices which weren’t professionally trained, such as Clara Bow’s Brooklyn accent. All they cared about was hearing someone talk during a movie.

Some actors genuinely had very thick accents or serious speech impediments which prematurely ended their careers, but this wasn’t the norm. Rare exceptions included:

1. Karl Dane (né Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb), a funny-looking character actor who became a comedian in his own right. His thick Danish accent soon relegated him to lesser and lesser roles, until MGM yanked his contract. He tried several other careers, but nothing panned out. Deep in depression, he finally took his own life.

2. Many foreign exports, like Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. They had heavy accents combined with poor English. However, their acting careers continued when they returned to their home countries. Other foreign actors, like Nils Asther, took voice lessons and were cast in roles where accents were expected.

The same thing happened with the large community of Russian actors in France. In that case, going home wasn’t an option if they valued their lives and freedom.

3. Raymond Griffith, a comedian whose voice was barely above a whisper due to childhood vocal chord damage (screaming every night in a stage play). His final acting role was a dying French soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which had extra poignancy with his natural voice.

True blame goes to factors including:

1. ALL stars have a shelf life! Even actors who’ve been successful for several decades eventually slow down or lose popularity to the new generation. These actors just happened to reach their expiration date in the early sound era.

2. Some actors were looking towards retirement anyway. Vilma Bánky, for example, had a thick Hungarian accent, but wanted to leave acting for the full-time role of Rod La Rocque’s wife. She retired in 1930, just as she’d announced she would.

3. Studio politics and personality clashes. Enough said!

4. Even big-name silent stars, and the types of characters they played, were increasingly seen as outdated and unfashionable, reminders of a bygone era.

5. Marriage (or lack thereof). Many women either chose to retire upon or shortly after marriage, or had husbands who insisted they stop working to be full-time wives and mothers. William Haines refused to enter a lavender marriage and dump his boyfriend (whom he was with for 47 years, until his death).

Myth #4: John Gilbert had a terrible, squeaky voice

Jack’s career was sabotaged by the vile, vindictive Louis B. Mayer. He had a lovely voice and well-received talkie début, but Mayer kept giving him sub-par roles. The wonderful Irving Thalberg gave Jack some great films, and ex-lover Greta Garbo chose him as her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), but the damage had already been done.

His depression with inferior films and long periods of unemployment led to increasing alcoholism, and Jack died of a heart attack at age 36.

Advertisements

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VIII (A miraculously successful première and reception)

In loving memory of George Harrison, who left the material world 16 years ago today.

Sadly, none of the four Warner Bros. were able to attend the triumphant première of TJS on 6 October 1927. They’d been running themselves ragged with this film, since so much was riding upon its success. All this nonstop work took its toll on Sam’s health, and at the end of September, he was hospitalized.

Sam was diagnosed with a sinus infection, abscessed teeth, and a mastoid brain infection. After four surgeries, Sam fell into a coma. On 5 October, he fell victim to pneumonia caused by sinusitis, osteomyelitis, and subdural and epidural abscesses.

The other three brothers had to go home to California for the funeral, missing their flagship New York theatre’s première.

Samuel Louis Warner (né Schmuel Wonsal or Wonskolaser), 10 August 1887–5 October 1927

The première date was no accident. It was chosen deliberately because it was Yom Kippur, and TJS revolves so closely around that holiday.

Warner Bros. had been in deep financial straits for years. Taking on Vitaphone sound-on-film technology had only added another huge, risky financial burden. If this film flopped, it would be curtains.

Though TJS is, contrary to popular misconception, at least 75% silent, audiences still weren’t accustomed to hearing real sound during a film. This wasn’t just a synchronized soundtrack or sound effects, but actual human speech.

The audience applauded after every song, and went particularly wild after the conversation between Jack and his mother. By the end of the film, they’d gone wild, chanting Jolson’s name as they gave a standing ovation.

It was a miracle there wasn’t a single misstep during the synchronization of the film and discs. Had the projectionist not cued up any of those fifteen discs with the fifteen reels exactly in synch, Warner Bros. would’ve been both publicly and financially humiliated.

TJS met with predominantly rave reviews, in the mainstream press as well as the Jewish and African–American communities. While some reviewers noted it was more of a showcase for Jolson and/or a new technology, they nevertheless praised that aspect.

Had George Jessel or Eddie Cantor played the lead, things would’ve been so different. As talented and popular as they were, only Jolson could’ve carried it the way it needed to be. His superstardom, charisma, background, and larger than life personality elevated it beyond a B-movie into something really special.

This was truly one of those cases where someone was born to play a certain role, write a certain book, paint a certain painting, or record a certain album. While someone else could’ve done a competent job with the same material, it just wouldn’t be the same.

TJS was Warner Bros.’ biggest hit to date, only surpassed a year later by the all-talking The Singing Fool (also starring Jolson). Though many theatres weren’t wired for any kind of sound, and thus had to play an entirely silent version, it still proved itself as a big earner.

Film scholars and historians estimate TJS made $3.9 million ($126 million as of 2005) in the U.S., and $2.6 million worldwide, for an overall profit of $1,196,750. Warner Bros. had been saved.

In spite of its success, TJS was ruled ineligible for nomination by the first Academy Awards. As a partly-talking picture, it would’ve been unfair competition against the all-silent pictures.

TJS has been referenced and parodied countless times in popular media over the years, and was remade in 1952 (with Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee), 1959 (as a TV movie with Jerry Lewis), and 1980 (with Neil Diamond, Laurence Olivier, and Lucie Arnaz).

Jolson reprised the role in a radio adaptation on 10 August 1936 and 2 June 1947 on Lux Radio Theater.

In 1996, the National Film Registry chose TJS for preservation, based upon it being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” In 1998, the American Film Institute voted it the 90th best American film of all time.

But of course, the film’s greatest impact was in hastening the talkie revolution and sounding the death knell of the silent era.

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.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part V (Let’s talk about blackface)

One of the reasons I was so annoyed and disappointed with The Rap Critic and his annoying girlfriend Lady Jess’s review of The Jazz Singer was because it was little more than one huge rant against blackface. They went total SJW and unfairly applied contemporary views to a radically different era.

Rap Critic admitted Al Jolson wasn’t a racist at all and that he did a lot of good things for the African–American community, but in the next breath said he didn’t care, because ZOMG, blackface! They “shamed” pretty much every major entertainer for using blackface, even once ever, in the pre-Civil Rights era.

I fully admit I was really nervous the first time I saw this film, knowing there was going to be blackface. Having been born in 1979, I grew up in a much different era, and also have lived the majority of my life in an area that’s about half-African–American.

A lot of the African–American kids at my awful junior high were much nicer and more accepting than the other white kids, which was my inspiration for creating Marjani Washington in Little Ragdoll.

And yet, when I saw the blackface scenes in context, I wasn’t offended or angry at all. As I researched the history of this now-discontinued performance style, I gained a greater understanding of its proper historical context.

The use of blackface in The Jazz Singer stems from minstrel shows, and as such is separate from that of white actors playing African–Americans (a subject for a whole other post!). Depending on context and intent, these performances could be positive, neutral, or perpetuate ugly, racist stereotypes.

There were definitely performers whose characters represented, e.g., oversexed people, pathological liars, thieves, lazy workers, easily-spooked cowards, and buffoons, but there were also plenty of other ethnic and racial stereotypes in the same era.

Other stock characters which would never be allowed today included drunken Irishmen, money-hungry Jewish pawnbrokers, and bumbling Italian immigrants. In the context of the era, most people wouldn’t have considered it unacceptably racist and offensive.

We can’t judge other eras’ standards of acceptability based upon our own. For example, it’s like nails on a chalkboard when I see a woman referred to as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name, but that was considered a married woman’s proper, respectable title. Most people never questioned that custom.

After minstrel shows declined in popularity, blackface moved to vaudeville. In Al Jolson’s case, it was a way of exposing white audiences to blues, ragtime, and jazz. This was an era when people “knew their place,” and as such typically wouldn’t know about that kind of music.

Blackface was also a way for him to step into a different persona, Gus, who was smarter than his white masters. He subtly poked fun at the idea of white supremacy by frequently helping them out of problems they’d created themselves, and being wily and wise-cracking.

In the 1926 Vitaphone short A Plantation Act, he performs three songs and pleasantly addresses his audience. It’s so matter-of-fact, with zero maliciousness or intended racism.

Blackface is integral to the story of The Jazz Singer. It wouldn’t be the same story or “a lot better,” as Rap Critic and his SJW girlfriend insisted, if the blackface were absent. It lets Jack Robin combine the Jewish cantorial tradition with modern jazz, letting out the anguished cry of both peoples in an impassioned prayer.

For the entire story, Jack has also been hiding from himself, running away from his roots, with a de-Judaized name, a radical break from his family and hometown, and blackface. He becomes a different person in blackface, with greater artistic freedom. Jakie Rabinowitz couldn’t do that.

In the climactic penultimate scene, his heart, soul, and identity are finally laid bare, in spite of his attempts to hide his origins. He releases the cry of “a jazz singer—singing to his God.”

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part IV (Jewish subjects on film before 1927)

Cohen’s Advertising Scheme (1904)

The Jazz Singer marked the first time many American Gentiles were exposed to Judaism. Sure, it promotes assimilation over religiosity, and the characters are a bit stereotypical, but by 1927 standards, this was a huge step forward.

Many prior Jewish characters typified all the worst, ugliest, most anti-Semitic stereotypes. Legendary director Edwin S. Porter’s Cohen series was a prime example of the “scheming merchant” stereotype.

Cohen’s Fire Sale (1907)

In Cohen’s Advertising Scheme, a grotesquely stereotyped shopkeeper tricks a passerby into buying a coat on which he’s hung a large sign advertising the store.

In Cohen’s Fire Sale (1907), Cohen is once again grotesquely made up like an ugly anti-Semitic stereotype. When a shipment of hats is accidentally picked up by rubbish collectors, Cohen chases their wagon through the streets of New York in hot pursuit.

After the hats fail to sell, Cohen reviews his insurance policy, sets a fire, and holds a fire sale. The film ends as Cohen reads the insurance policy and gives his wife a ring.

In Cohen Saves the Flag (1913), directed by the legendary Mack Sennett, popular comedian Ford Sterling plays Union Sgt. Cohen. He and Lt. Goldberg are bitter rivals for Rebecca (Mabel Normand). Yet again, Cohen is made up as a grotesque, ugly, anti-Semitic stereotype.

However, Cohen turns the tide of battle when he throws back an enemy grenade and raises a fallen flag. The film also contains impressive battle scenes, and a positive portrayal of a Jewish woman.

Goldberg tries to get Cohen shot by firing squad, but Rebecca rides to the rescue and conveys the truth about his battlefield heroics. Cohen is now hailed as as hero, and gets revenge on Goldberg.

Another early depiction of Jewish life was D.W. Griffith’s A Child of the Ghetto (1910), set on the Lower East Side’s Rivington Street. After Ruth’s mother dies, she supports herself as a seamstress. Then the son of the factory owner steals some money, and she’s accused of the crime.

Ruth flees the city and hides in the countryside, where a young farmer takes her in, and they fall in love. At the time, few other films dealing with Jewish subjects suggested moving from the city to the country might improve people’s lives and offer a better future.

Griffith’s Romance of a Jewess (1908) is also set on the Lower East Side. Professional actors commingle with real street vendors and locals. Again, the protagonist is named Ruth, and played by Florence Lawrence, “The Biograph Girl.” She was also known as the first American moviestar, and was very popular before people even knew her name.

The story involves not only romance, but the conflicts between different generations, representing the Old and New World.

Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker (1908) was one of Griffith’s very first films. Though it does contain more stereotypically-made up characters, it features a pawnbroker as a humanitarian hero. A little girl goes to the Amalgamated Association of Charities to get help for her sick mother, but all the red tape makes it impossible.

She then goes to a pawnbroker to beg for help. First she offers shoes, which his assistant rejects. When she returns with her doll, the manager’s heart melts, and he stops the goons trying to evict the family. He also pays their rent, gives them food and medicine, and buys the girl a new doll.

Hungry Hearts (1922) is based on Anzia Yezierska’s stories about Lower East Side Jewish women’s lives. She was the first writer who brought such stories to a mainstream audience.

This film tells the story of the immigrant Levins. Janitor Sara falls in love with landlord Rosenblatt’s nephew David, who teaches her to write and read. David dreams of opening his own law office and getting out of his uncle’s clutches, but his uncle breaks them up and raises the Levins’ rent.

Mrs. Levin goes crazy from the stress, and damages the walls. When Rosenblatt takes them to court, David defends them. He and Sara reunite, and the Levins move to suburbia.

From Germany came a Golem trilogy, of which only the last installment, The Golem, is known to survive in full. These films are devoid of stereotypes like hook noses, money-grubbing, and nefarious scheming.

The Jazz Singer is no Left Luggage or Ushpizin, but it was a positive step forwards. Progress never comes overnight, all at once. It has to start somewhere.