You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet
Legends often prove disappointments when at last seen, heard, read or screened. Nowhere near marvelous even with its unquestionable historical significance and first of filmdom’s one-liners passed into the national vocabulary -- “at which [utterance] audiences stood and cheered” -- The Jazz Singer is, however, worth seeing.
Passable years later as a Danny Thomas-Peggy Lee redo and then awful in a second try with Neil Diamond, the 1927 original ushered in the sound revolution, from unsatisfactory phonograph discs themselves in turn to be replaced by synchronized on-film strips. Its success made a major player of small floundering Warners and its Vitaphone. Almost at once, matinee idol John Barrymore’s first talking picture had him “yesterday a speechless shadow, today a vivid living person -- thanks to Vitaphone.” (Talkies incidentally finished off some silent stars’ careers while simultaneously curtailing international production, which up to then had not been affected by actors’ different mother tongues.)
Though changing tastes diminished his later career, St. Petersburg, Russia,-born Asa Yoelson became Lower East Side-raised Al Jolson, the brightest light of Vaudeville stage and of recording. Somehow he was the third choice, after George Jessel and Eddie Cantor, to play Lower East Side-born and -raised Jakie Rabinowitz, who becomes Jack Robin dreaming of his name on the Great White Way and of money to relocate his parents to green pastures in the Bronx. In his film début, both actor and his character were in fact sons of synagogue cantors. Objections to caricature Eastern European Jewish accents and to the star’s blackface routine reflect today but were not raised ninety years ago in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s WASPy flapper Jazz Age which was not the revisionist desecration of Baz Luhrmann, Jay Z and Beyoncé. As Langston Hughes once reminded readers, revered “Ethel Barrymore appeared in blackface in Scarlet Sister Mary.”
In “Modern Matinees: The Film Library Grows” celebration of eighty years of the Museum’s Department of Film, this rare screening at MoMA gives the lie to an undeserved negative reputation. Yes, the adaptation from Samson Raphaelson’s short story and play The Day of Atonement is schmaltzy, hand-wringing eyeball-rolling melodramatic treacle. Actually, and probably unconsciously, the tale is as well a parable of America (and is in fact universal), where the younger generation breaks with parents’ inflexible Old World traditions and customs.
Sound occupies a minuscule portion of what is really a late silent. It is confined to songs secular and religious and a very few lines of dialogue reportedly ad libbed by Jolson. The very first feature screen sound -- after earlier experiments in shorts – comes from the mouth of Bobby Gordon as Jakie singing “raggy time songs” in a saloon. Reported to his full-bearded cantor father (Warner Oland) by good-hearted trim-bearded “Kibbitzer” Moishe Yudelson (Otto Lederer), the thirteen-year-old is beaten and, though defended by more flexible Mama Sara (Eugenie Besserer), runs away for good.
Years and three thousand miles later, he is clean-shaven, coaxed to sing and pre-Presley hip-swivel in a club, and heard by rising star Mary Dale (May McAvoy), a blonde shiksa semi-love interest who, after padding and detours, gets him a successful audition for April Follies at the Winter Garden.
Opening Night coincides with Yom Kippur, the High Holy Day of Atonement. The son of four generations of cantors must choose between replacing his dying father in shul to chant “Kol Nidre” (“All the Vows”), or, the show must go on, using his “gift from God voice with a tear” to save the otherwise shaky Broadway show.
Of its time, surely, JS is nevertheless better than one expects going in. Sensitive in its depiction of synagogue services (and rivalries), American in its immigrant generational confrontation of the exclusivity of tradition as against assimilation in modernity, and broad in its world theme of the wayward son who succeeds yet returns to embrace roots, the Alan Crosland-directed film is one people should see rather than talk about unseen.
(Released by Warner Bros. Not rated by MPAA.)