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.

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The Jazz Singer at 90, Part III (The life of Al Jolson)

It was hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) that George Jessel demanded too much salary from Warner Bros. for the lead role of The Jazz Singer. As talented and popular as Jessel was, Al Jolson was the only one with the charisma, star power, voice, and raw personal authenticity to carry the film and make it the first successful sound on film experiment.

Asa Yoelson was born 26 May 1886 in Sredniki, Russia (now Seredžius, Lithuania). Its Yiddish name was Srednik. Thankfully, he was spared the fate of the rest of Srednik’s Jewish community. On 4 September 1941, the Nazis murdered 193 people near Skrebėnai.

Asa was the baby of five children born to Moses Rubin Yoelson (1858–23 December 1945) and Nechama (Naomi) Cantor (1858–6 February 1895). His older siblings were Rose, Etta, a sister who died in infancy, and Hirsch (Harry).

Like many people in that era, he didn’t know when he was born, and chose 26 May 1886. His sister-in-law Margaret Weatherwax, however, claimed he was the same age as her father, born in 1881, and that he was 46 when he married her 18-year-old sister Ruby Keeler in 1928.

In 1891, Asa’s father immigrated to the U.S., and by 1894, he’d saved up enough money to bring his wife and children over. When they arrived, he was working as a cantor at Talmud Torah Congregation (now Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue) in Washington, D.C.

Sadly, Asa’s mother died in 1895, aged only 37. This sent him into a deep depression and withdrawal, and deeply affected him for the rest of his life. Later, his father remarried a woman named Ida, shown in the previous picture.

Asa was taken in by St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys (now Cardinal Gibbons School), a progressive orphanage in Baltimore. Another famous alum was Babe Ruth, who enrolled in 1902.

Asa and Hirsch were introduced to show business by entertainer Al Reeves in 1897, and began singing for money on street corners as Al and Harry. They often used the money for National Theatre shows.

In 1900, he moved to New York, where his first show was Children of the Ghetto. Then, in 1902, he began working for Walter L. Main’s Circus as an usher. Main was so impressed by his voice, he hired Asa as a singer in the Indian Medicine Side Show.

The circus folded that same year, leaving Asa unemployed. In 1903, he was hired for one show of Dainty Duchess Burlesquers. His rendition of “Be My Baby Bumble Bee” was so strong, he was kept for future shows.

This show too folded within the year, and Asa joined Hirsch, now a vaudeville performer called Harry. Though they gained nationwide bookings, live performances were no longer so popular, thanks to the rise of movies.

In 1904, the renamed Al began performing in blackface, which was a huge boost to his career. Harry left Al and their partner Joe Palmer following an argument, and the duo wasn’t as successful as the trio.

In 1906, Al was left solo. He soon became a nationally successful vaudeville singer. For awhile, he lived in San Francisco (wanting to cheer up earthquake survivors), then moved to New York in 1908 with his new wife Henrietta.

His singing career began growing by leaps and bounds after this move. By 1914, he was a huge star, and by 1920, he was Broadway’s biggest star.

Al went from strength to strength, becoming more popular and beloved with each new show and song. At 35, he became the youngest person to have a theatre named for him, Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre (later renamed the New Century Theatre, and razed in 1962).

In spite of how many modern people don’t understand the historical context and intent of blackface, this method of performing gave him a freedom to step into an alternate persona, disguise his true origins, express the Jewish liturgical tradition and cry of suffering, introduce jazz, blues, and ragtime to white audiences.

His blackface stage persona, Gus, was also smarter than his white masters, often helping them out of problems they’d made themselves. There was no bigotry or racism intended.

Al had many African–American friends, and promoted their careers at a time when Broadway barred them. He also demanded equal treatment for African–American co-stars, and was the only white person allowed into an all-Black Harlem nightclub.

When he learnt Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie, musicians he’d never met, had been denied service by a Connecticut restaurant, he tracked them down and took them to dinner himself. He and Blake became great friends.

The African–American community saw Al as a great friend and ally.

Over the course of his life, Al starred in many live shows and films, entertained the troops, recorded many songs, and starred on the radio many times.

He was married four times, to Henrietta Keller, Alma Osborne (professionally known as Ethel Delmar), Ruby Keeler, and Erie Galbraith. He adopted a child with Ruby in 1935, Al, Jr. He and Erie adopted Asa, Jr., in 1948, and Alicia in 1949.

With Ruby in 1934

With Erie and Asa, Jr., in 1948

While entertaining troops in the Pacific during WWII, Al got malaria and had to get his left lung removed. In Korea in 1950, the dust and dirt of the front clogged his remaining lung and sapped his health.

On 23 October 1950, he collapsed of a massive heart attack. His funeral was one of the largest in show business history.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part II (What inspired the story)

Samson Raphaelson (30 March 1894–16 July 1983) was the writer to whom we owe The Jazz Singer. A native New Yorker, he attended the University of Illinois and worked as a journalist and ad writer after graduation. His dream was to become a published short story writer.

When he was a successful ad executive in NYC, he wrote a short story based on Al Jolson’s early life, “The Day of Atonement.” It was published in Everybody’s Magazine in January 1922.

His secretary encouraged him to rework it as a play, and showed him a play manuscript so he could see the style needed. She said he’d dictated more than that in two hours yesterday, and volunteered to dictate over the weekend.

By Sunday evening, they’d produced a complete draft of a play, The Jazz Singer. The play débuted by Broadway’s Fulton Theatre (razed in 1982) on 14 September 1925. Between the Fulton and Cort Theatres, it gave 303 performances, till 5 June 1926.

A 1927 revival by the Century Theatre ran for 16 performances.

Raphaelson got the idea on 25 April 1917, when he saw 30-year-old Al Jolson in the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr., in Champaign, IL. He was struck by how Jolson sounded not like a jazz singer, but a cantor. Raphaelson also knew Jolson’s dad was a Lower East Side cantor.

Raphaelson’s story is about a young man who breaks from his religious roots to become a jazz singer, with a conflict between father and son about the proper usage of God-given talents.

Nine-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz breaks his gang’s code by not responding to the taunts of an Irish boy from a rival gang. Because he didn’t answer to the anti-Semitic insults, another member of his gang, Joe, beats him to a pulp. Jakie is so angry, he spews the same anti-Semitic insults at Joe.

At home, Cantor Rabinowitz (of Hester Street Synagogue) beats him too, after he says he doesn’t want to become a cantor. His Hebrew school teacher also beats him.

Cantor Rabinowitz agrees to a compromise, in which Jakie will sing in shul on Shabbos and the High Holy Days, while working as a ragtime singer the rest of the time. But when Jakie neglects his religious duties, his dad kicks him out.

Jakie reinvents himself as Jack Robin and begins building a successful musical career. He falls in love with a Gentile dancer, Amy Prentiss, the daughter of a Boston lawyer. Jack hides his Jewish origins out of fear of rejection, and this inner turmoil affects his singing, as does the alcohol he’s begun imbibing.

When Jack finally tells the truth, they get engaged. His parents are horrified he’s intermarrying.

As Yom Kippur approaches, Mrs. Rabinowitz asks him to attend services, the same night Jack’s Broadway show opens. Before he dies, Cantor Rabinowitz begs his wife to get Jack to chant Kol Nidre.

In Act I of the play, Jack Robin visits his parents on his dad’s 60th birthday. His dad is an Orthodox cantor on the Lower East Side, from a long line of cantors. Needless to say, Cantor Rabinowitz highly disapproves of his son’s career as a blackface jazz singer.

After a fight, Jack is kicked out.

In Act II, Jack gets ready for his Broadway début, which he hopes will majorly launch his career. Word is relayed to Jack that his dad has fallen very ill, but he refuses to leave rehearsals.

In Act III, Jack visits his parents’ home before the show, only to find his dad has been taken to hospital. This differs from the film, where Cantor Rabinowitz remains at home the entire time.

Now it’s up to Jack to decide if the show must go on above all else, or if he’ll go back to shul to chant Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.

The star of the show was renowned entertainer George Jessel (3 April 1898–23 May 1981). Among his many claims to fame was being one of Broadway’s most popular leading men. He, not Al Jolson, was originally slated to star in the film adaptation. More on that in future posts.

The cast list for the play is much larger than that of the film, though it’s possible all these characters are also in the film but are just unnamed. There are a number of background characters and extras amid the main players.

George Albert Jessel

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part I (Plot summary)

Welcome to my long-awaited series on The Jazz Singer on its 90th anniversary! I’m going to be covering topics including the source play, Al Jolson, the history of blackface, the history of Jewish-themed films, the transition from silent to sound film, debunking myths about this era (e.g., the claim that most silent stars had horrible voices), the history of sound-on-film technology, the making of the film, and so much more.

Let’s get started with a general plot summary and review of the film itself!

The story opens in the Lower East Side (described as “the ghetto”), where 13-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz longs to become a jazz singer instead of following in his cantor dad’s footsteps. It’s Erev (the eve of) Yom Kippur, and Jakie still isn’t home to sing with his dad in shul.

Busybody Moisha Yudelson reports he saw Jakie “singing raggy time songs” by a beer garden. Ignoring the fact that Yudelson was in such a supposedly sinful place himself, Cantor Rabinowitz storms over and drags Jakie home.

Jakie’s mother Sara begs her husband to be easy on the boy, but Cantor Rabinowitz declares, “I’ll teach him better than to debase the voice God gave him!” Jakie says he’ll run away and never come back if he’s whipped again, and he indeed does just that.

By the Kol Nidre evening service, Cantor Rabinowitz says he no longer has a son. During the chanting of Kol Nidre, Jakie (who’s quite a mama’s-boy) sneaks back home to pick up a picture of his mother.

Ten years later, Jakie has reinvented himself as Jack Robin. After he wows the crowd at a cabaret with a few songs, he’s introduced to dancer Mary Dale. She offers to help him with his career, and says he’s got a tear in his voice, unlike many other jazz singers.

Jack’s big break comes when Mary helps him to get a leading role in the musical April Follies. He’s very excited to be going back to New York, his home. Best of all, he’ll get to see his mother again.

Mrs. Rabinowitz is ecstatic to see her boy again, and Jack promises all sorts of wonderful things, like moving her to the Bronx and buying her a big house. Jack has also brought a birthday present for his dad. But when Cantor Rabinowitz comes home, the happy mood is crushed (and the dialogue reverts from sound to title cards).

Once again, Jack tries to explain his love of modern music and why he feels it’s more important to him than old traditions, but his father will have none of it. Cantor Rabinowitz banishes him again, and on his way out, Jack says he came home with a heart full of love.

Two weeks later, and twenty-four hours before the opening of April Follies, Cantor Rabinowitz falls very sick. This is also Erev Yom Kippur, which means he won’t be able to chant Kol Nidre. Now, in a decision reminiscent of Sandy Koufax and the 1965 World Series, Jack has to make the difficult choice between his faith and his career. Will he sing in the show or take his father’s place in shul?

This isn’t one of the all-time classic greats of film history, but I’d give it a solid 4 stars. The blackface might make some modern people uncomfortable, but it’s only in two scenes, one towards the end and the other at the end. I was really nervous about that the first time I saw it, but I ended up not taking any offense.

As I’ll discuss in future posts, the use of blackface is actually integral to both this specific story and Al Jolson’s life and career. It wouldn’t be the same story, with the same impact, if it were taken out.

Everyone should see this important piece of film history at least once.

A bundle of letters

(This review of A Bintel Brief is edited from a post which originally was written for my Angelfire page around 2003 or 2004, but never published. I was saving my book reviews to publish as a list of links on a master page when they were completed, but that mentally unstable blogger and her sycophantic friends had my entire webpage taken away from me before that could happen. I was lucky to recover as many book reviews as I could from cache searches.)

4.5 stars

This book is a collection of letters from 1905–67, from a very popular feature in the Yiddish-language daily paper Der Forverts (The Forward). Originally a minor advice column for those who felt they had nowhere else to turn, it soon became wildly popular. People presented all sorts of problems, none too bizarre, personal, or embarrassing to hide from all-knowing editor Abraham Cahan.

Many subjects in the early years concern marriage, anti-Semitism, deadbeat husbands, unemployment, poverty, and labour unions. Others include feeling ashamed of having red hair and a husband who refused to shave his beard.

A childless woman said her husband of seven years kept reminding her it’s “sooner rather than later” till the time they must divorce. Under traditional Jewish Law, a man may divorce his wife if she hasn’t had any kids in ten years. Mr. Cahan began his response, “The husband is severely scolded for his inhuman behavior towards his wife.” He said childlessness is no reason to divorce a loyal, loving wife, and comforted the wife by saying she might still become a mother in the next three years.

Later subjects include Zionism, wanting to make aliyah (move to Israel), intermarriage, differences in religious practice among family members, the Shoah, and:

A man overcome with emotions when he encountered the Polish Gentile who’d murdered his sister, brother-in-law, and niece after pretending he was going to hide them from the Nazis. The editor said it was good he’d restrained his urge to kill the man when he ran into him by a boxing match, and that he shouldn’t take justice into his own hands.

A mother-in-law acting like a young woman and being a real drain on her daughter-in-law

A young man upset that the vibrant Jewish culture his grandparents grew up with isn’t being exhibited by his generation

Concern over a son who, while married to a Jewish woman and raising Jewish kids, put up a Christmas tree

A wife addicted to television.

No matter what the problem was, these people poured their hearts out to the wise, all-knowing editor, confident he or other readers would have a solution.

This is a great historical document, but the editorial commentary was written in the late Sixties, and therefore can be quite a bit dated.

The introduction says there are many similarities between the hippie movement “of today” and the freethinkers at the turn of the twentieth century. The comments about intermarriage are also very dated. The reasons and consequences have vastly changed, and most parents no longer force their children to break up with a Gentile.

There are also dated comments to a letter about a young woman who’s upset her parents, esp. her ultra-Zionistic father, by pretending to be Christian at work. He says that even nowadays, some Jews have to pretend to be Christians to work in certain places, and that one of his sisters wore a cross necklace to work and tucked it inside her clothes when she was on the bridge home.

Another fun bit of datedness comes from a letter sent in by “concerned” parents during WWII. They’re very deeply upset one of their sons has begun refusing to eat meat, and that he still refused to eat it when they took him to a restaurant to show him “everyone” eats meat. The editor’s response was no better, suggesting they take him to a psychiatrist who’ll figure out what gave him such a “terrible” idea and induce him to start eating meat again.

Following this is a letter from the Society of Jewish Vegetarians in America, giving information about their group and surprised the editor didn’t refer the parents to them. They rightly pointed out that more and more people are becoming vegetarians, and that it’s very possible to have a healthy diet without meat.

Still, however dated parts of it are, it’s a great chronicle of life in a certain place, culture, and time, which sadly is vanishing.