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.

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Love, life, and revenge, sideshow-style

Director Tod Browning’s legendary Freaks premièred 20 February 1932, at 90 minutes. Sadly, it was cut to just 64 minutes for the general release, since many scenes were deemed too shocking for public consumption. The original version is lost.

Freaks is based upon horror and mystery author Tod Robbins’s short story “Spurs,” published February 1923 in Munsey’s Magazine. “Spurs” is set in a travelling French circus, where dwarf Jacques falls in love with bareback rider Jeanne Marie.

Jeanne marries him to get his inheritance. She truly loves her partner Simon, and plans to marry him after she offs Jacques. By the wedding feast, Jeanne gets drunk and insults Jacques, calling him a little ape whom she could carry on her shoulders.

A year later, Jacques is retired and living on an estate with Jeanne. She escapes to Simon’s doorstep and begs him to protect her from Jacques, who’s forcing her to make good on her threat to carry him the width of France on her shoulders.

Jacques then appears on a wolfhound, with a sword, and takes his revenge.

Browning convinced MGM to buy the rights, and began working on a screen adaptation in 1927. In June 1931, wonder boy Irving Thalberg gave permission for him to direct. The final script (by primary writers Willis Goldbeck and Elliott Clawson) bore little resemblance to the source material, outside of the basic premise and the wedding feast.

Prolific character actor Victor McLaglen was considered for the role of strongman Hercules; Myrna Loy was cast as evil trapeze artist Cleopatra; and Jean Harlow was chosen as sympathetic “normal” performer Venus. Ultimately, Thalberg decided not to cast any big stars.

Given when Browning began planning this film, plus his long history of collaboration with Lon Chaney, Sr., it’s a given Lon would’ve been in this film had he lived. It’s so painful to think about all the great early sound horror films Lon should’ve left his mark on!

The film opens with a circus barker introducing the most horrifying monstrosity of all time, formerly a beautiful trapeze artist. A woman screams when she sees this creature, whose reveal is saved for the end of the film.

We then enter flashback mode.

Engaged dwarves Hans and Frieda (real-life siblings Harry and Daisy Earles) watch trapeze artist Cleopatra performing. Hans is quite transfixed, so much so Frieda questions if he still loves her. He insists he does, but he quickly begins getting more and more flirtatious and personal with Cleopatra.

Hans asks Cleopatra if she’s laughing at him, and she says no. Many people don’t realize he’s a man, with the same feelings they have.

Before long, Hans and Cleopatra are having a less and less secret affair, and the entire circus is laughing at them. Frieda is humiliated, and confides in Venus for help and comfort.

Cleopatra’s affair with Hercules also becomes less and less secret, to everyone but Hans. When Frieda confronts Hans, he apologizes for not telling her sooner. She wouldn’t care if Cleopatra made him happy, but he only thinks he’s happy.

Frieda delivers the powerful line, “To me, you’re a man, but to her, you’re only something to laugh at.”

Cleopatra and Hercules plot to murder Hans after Frieda mentions his large inheritance.

Other sideshow performers we meet are:

Conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton
Madame Tetrallini, who takes care of the freaks
Half Boy Johnny Eck (sacral agenesis)
Armless Frances O’Connor
Human Skeleton Peter Robinson
Pinheads (microcephalics) Schlitze (a man in real life), Elvira Snow, and Jenny Lee Snow
Bird Girl Elizabeth Green (a large nose and thin bone structure giving a stork-like appearance)
Half-Woman Half-Man Josephine Joseph
Stuttering clown Rosco (Daisy’s husband)
Kind-hearted clown Phroso (Venus’s love interest)
Bearded lady Olga Roderick (the Human Skeleton’s wife)
Dwarf Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto) and his armless wife (Martha Morris)
Sword swallower Delmo Fritz
The Rollo Brothers, Edward Brophy and Matt McHugh
Living Torso, Prince Randian (tetra-amelia; married and the father of four kids in real life)
Koo-Koo the Bird Girl

By the wedding feast, Cleopatra poisons Hans’s wine. When the freaks famously chant, “Gooba-gobble, gooba-gobble, we accept her, one of us,” Cleopatra snaps. During her tirade, she reveals she’s been having an affair with Hercules.

Hans is humiliated, and realizes he’s been played for a fool. He pretends to apologize to Cleopatra and to take her poisoned medicine, while plotting revenge.

During a night thunderstorm, the freaks carry out payback.

Audiences were horrified, and many reviewers expressed revulsion and outrage. It took a $164,000 loss, and Browning had difficulty finding work afterwards. Freaks was the only MGM film pulled from release before finishing its planned run, and it was banned in the U.K. for 30 years.

Today, it’s a cult classic, and garners much more positive reviews.

In that era, a sideshow was just about the only place these people could find work and protection. Mainstream society wouldn’t accept them, and the alternative was life in an institution.

The freaks in this film are the ones with humanity, kindness, decency, loyalty, and morality. It’s the “normal” people who are the villains, with deformed hearts and souls.

A Symphony of Horrors

One of director F.W. Murnau’s most famous films, and one of the few silents most people outside the fan community know exists, almost became yet another lost film. Bram Stoker’s heirs sued over this unauthorized Dracula adaptation, and a court ruled all prints be destroyed.

Murnau changed all the characters’ names, moved the setting from 1890s England to 1838 Germany, axed many secondary characters, and significantly changed the ending. Nosferatu also kills his victims instead of creating new Vampyres.

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors) released 4 March 1922 by the Berlin Zoological Garden’s Marmorsaal (Marble Hall). This was part of Das Fest des Nosferatua party where guests were asked to come in Biedermeier (1815–48) costumes.

It was extensively advertised in Bühne und Film magazine, with stills, essays, production reports, a summary, and a piece on Vampyres by Albin Grau. Hr. Grau was an occultist, artist, and architect who served as production designer and producer.

Grau was responsible for the mystical and occult overtones, and Orlok’s creepy appearance. He got the idea for a Vampyre film during WWI, when a Serbian farmer told him his father was a Vampyre and one of the undead.

The general première was 15 March, by Berlin’s Primus–Palast. The U.S. première was 3 June 1929.

In 1838 Wisborg (a fictional city), Thomas Hutter is sent to Transylvania by his employer, real estate agent Knock, to visit Count Orlok. Rumours about Knock circulate, but one thing known for sure is that he pays his employees well.

Orlok wants to buy a house in Wisborg, and Knock tempts Hutter with extra money. He says Hutter may have to go to a bit of trouble, with some sweat and blood.

Knock suggests Hutter offer Orlok the empty house across from his, and bids him a good trip to the land of the phantoms.

Hutter’s wife Ellen (whose opening scenes call to mind a D.W. Griffith ingénue) is very worried about him, but he assures her he’ll be fine.

Hutter stops by an inn in the Carpathians, and everyone responds with horror when he announces he’s on his way to Count Orlok. The owner warns him not to go any further tonight, saying the werewolf is roaming the forests.

That night, Hutter begins reading a book about Vampyres.

Hutter sets out on his last leg in the morning, and urges his riders to hurry so they get there before dark. They stop before the destination, claiming a bad feeling.

As soon as Hutter crosses the bridge, he’s seized by eerie visions. The creepiness increases when an eerie-looking coachman gives him a lightning-speed ride the rest of the way.

Orlok (Max Schreck, whose surname means “terror”) is displeased to have been kept waiting so long, till nearly midnight, when the servants are asleep.

Orlok’s house gives Hutter the creeps, and he’s further creeped out by Orlok’s weird reaction to his bloody finger. Hutter tries to leave, but Orlok begs him to stay until day, when he sleeps, completely dead to the world.

In the morning, Hutter writes a letter to Ellen to reassure her he’s alright. By evening, Hutter shows Orlok Ellen’s picture, and Orlok remarks on her lovely neck. Orlok also says he’s buying the deserted house across from Hutter’s.

Hutter reads more of his Vampyre book, which makes him even more eager to get out of there. His terror goes through the roof when Orlok stalks towards him.

Meanwhile, Ellen is sleepwalking on the balcony. Her friend Harding catches her before she can fall off, and calls for a doctor. Ellen has a terrifying vision of her husband in danger.

The doctor says it’s just a case of mild blood congestion.

At dawn, Hutter finds Orlok asleep in a coffin. Shortly afterwards, he sees Orlok moving coffins into the courtyard, piling them on a carriage, getting into the one on top, and driving away.

Hutter collapses and is brought to hospital.

Orlok boards the schooner Empusa with coffins full of dirt. Meanwhile, Knock goes crazy under his spell.

While Hutter hurries home, Empusa also draws ever closer to Wisborg, bringing with it the Plague.

A surrealistic Vampyre story

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Gray (Vampyr: The Dream of Allan Gray) isn’t the type of film the average person will immediately understand and fall in love with. Even I found it very strange, and I’ve watched a lot of avant-garde and experimental films!

The film is based upon Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872), a collection of five Gothic short stories.

Dreyer began planning Vampyr in 1929, a year after the release of his critically successful but financially disastrous La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Le Societé Générale des Films cancelled his contract after it bombed, and in return, he accused them of mutilating the film to avoid offending Catholics.

Dreyer sued them for breach of contract, and the lawsuit dragged on till autumn 1931. When he was finally at liberty to work again, he went outside the studio system.

Because the transition from silents to sound happened so quickly, without time to work out the kinks, filming was difficult. Dreyer wanted it to be silent, but it ended up with dialogue used very selectively, explanatory intertitles, and book pages.

In the early sound era, films were often reshot in other languages, with the actors phonetically memorizing their lines. Some were reshot with different actors. In Vampyr, dialogue was mouthed in French, German, and English, so the dubbing wouldn’t look fake.

Much of the dialogue is delivered off-screen or facing away from the camera, to make this process easier. The only actors who didn’t lip-synch were Sybille Schmitz and Nicolas de Gunzburg (billed as Julian West).

The only professional actors were Maurice Schutz (Lord of the Manor) and Sybille Schmitz (his daughter Léone). The others were recruited in trains, cafés, and shops.

Many of the crew members had worked with Dreyer on Jeanne d’Arc, such as art director Hermann Warm and cameraman Rudolph Maté.

Everything was shot on location, with many scenes in Courtempierre, France. Not only did this save money, but it also increased the surrealistic, dreamlike atmosphere. During filming, the château where much of the story transpires served as housing for cast and crew. Unhappily, it was cold and rat-infested.

The German version renamed the protagonist David and ordered certain graphic scenes censored. Other deleted scenes which don’t exist in any known surviving prints include a Vampyre recoiling against the shadow of a cross, and a ferryman guiding Allan and Gisèle with the help of children building a fire and singing.

Dreyer also prepared a Danish version for his native country, based on the German version, but the distributor couldn’t afford to finish the intertitles in that same style. The Danish distributor also wanted the book pages changed into regular intertitles, but Dreyer refused. He felt the book were as much an actor as the humans.

The German première was delayed by UFA (the main production company), since they wanted the American films Dracula and Frankenstein released first. By the Berlin première of 6 May 1932, the audience booed. In response, Dreyer cut several scenes.

The Paris première in September was the opening attraction for a new cinema on Boulevard Raspail.

A Vienna showing resulted in audiences demanding their money back. When this request was denied, a riot broke out, and cops put it down with night sticks.

By the Copenhagen première in May 1933, Dreyer was a no-show.

The U.S. version was titled Not Against the Flesh. A dubbed, heavily-edited version appeared on the roadshow circuit as Castle of Doom a few years later.

Not long afterwards, Dreyer had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a French mental hospital. He didn’t return to filmmaking till 1943, with Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag).

Critical reviews of this international box office flop ranged from negative to mixed. In the modern era, viewers, critics, and film scholars are much more positive. This isn’t a film you watch for the story, but rather the visuals and mood.

This is also one of those films you have to watch multiple times to really start understanding. Its many layers become more meaningful with each new viewing.

Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg), who’s become obsessed with the supernatural, is aimlessly wandering. One night, he comes to a strange inn, where his sleep is disrupted by an old man. The intruder leaves a package on the nightstand, with the note, “To be opened upon my death.”

In the morning, Allan wanders to a weird castle, which is full of more strange visions and characters. His next stop is a manor, where the old man from the inn lives. Allan sees what looks like a shadow shooting the old man, who dies after he and the servants rush to his aide.

The servants ask Allan to stay the night, and the old man’s younger daughter Gisèle tells Allan her sister Léone is very sick. At that moment, they see Léone walking outside. When they run to help her, she’s unconscious, with bite wounds on her neck.

After Léone is carried inside, Allan opens the package left on his nightstand. It’s an old book about the history of Vampyres, which further fuels Allan’s obsession. From his reading, he learns Léone is a Vampyric victim.

The creepy doctor convinces Allan to give Léone his blood, and Allan’s dreams and visions become even stranger and more urgent. Will he be able to save Léone and defeat the forces of evil stalking Courtempierre?

Passing through the great night of terror and triumph

Carl Laemmle, Jr., of Universal Pictures got the idea for The Mummy from the 1922 opening of King Tut’s tomb and its supposed curse. He asked screenwriter Richard Schayer to find a novel which could serve as the basis of a literary adaptation, as the studio had done the previous year with Dracula and Frankenstein.

Schayer found a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, “The Ring of Thoth.” He and Nina Wilcox Putnam also wrote a 9-page story, “Cagliostro,” about a 3,000-year-old magician based on famous occultist Alessandro Cagliostro.

Laemmle liked these ideas very much, and hired John L. Balderston, who’d co-written the screenplays for Dracula and Frankenstein. He’d also covered the opening of King Tut’s tomb for New York World, in his previous career as a journalist.

Balderston moved the story about the magician from San Francisco to Egypt, and renamed the protagonist Imhotep, after an architect who served Pharaoh Djoser in the 27th century BCE. He also changed the protagonist’s motivation from revenge against all women who resembled his ex-lover, to a desire to resurrect her by killing and mummifying her reincarnation.

The Scroll of Thoth was invented by Balderston, though it may be based on The Book of the Dead.

In 1921, archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple discovers a mummy of a high priest named Imhotep. Based on the evidence, he and his friend Dr. Muller conclude Imhotep was mummified alive and cursed even in the afterlife.

Whemple and Dr. Muller go outside to discuss whether they should risk a curse by opening a small casket buried with Imhotep. Left alone, Whemple’s young assistant, Ralph Norton, opens it and begins copying the Scroll of Thoth.

Imhotep comes to life and escapes with the scroll. When Whemple and Dr. Muller return, Norton is laughing like a madman.

In 1932, as modern Egyptian Ardath Bey, Imhotep leads Whemple’s son Frank and Prof. Pearson to the tomb of his lost love, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. They give the mummy and artifacts to the Cairo Museum.

We’re then introduced to Ankh-es-en-amon’s reincarnation, the half-Egyptian Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann, who believed in reincarnation in real life).

Determined to resurrect his love, Imhotep puts a spell on Helen and compels her to come to the museum at night.

Frank discovers her passed out by the front door, and of course, they fall in instalove. I don’t mind romance in a horror film, but it shouldn’t take up excess screentime! Too many screenwriters seem to think romantic subplots are obligatory.

Frank’s attraction to Helen is driven by her resemblance to Ankh-es-en-amon, and the funny feeling he had when handling her artifacts.

Imhotep demands the Scroll of Thoth be returned, and is adamantly refused. When Whemple tries to burn it, Imhotep takes revenge.

When Helen visits Imhotep, he presents a vision of her death and burial as Ankh-es-en-amon, and himself being mummified alive as punishment for trying to resurrect her.

Imhotep plans to resurrect Ankh-es-en-amon by killing Helen and using the Scroll of Thoth. Helen, in turn, falls deeper and deeper under his spell. Can Imhotep be stopped in time?

The Mummy premièred 22 December 1932, and performed somewhat lukewarmly in the U.S., but phenomenally in the U.K. It’s received very positive reviews from critics, both then and now.

It was reimagined in The Mummy’s Hand (1940), with sequels The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and The Mummy’s Curse (1944). That mummy is named Kharis.

In the comedy-horror crossover, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), the mummy’s name is spoofed as Klaris. I believe that may have been my first A&C film.

Universal remade the film in 1999, with several sequels and prequels. Another Universal remake came in 2017.

Overall, I really enjoyed this film. Though it’s somewhat slowly-paced, it’s permeated by a great eerie mood.