- Written by Sandi Tracey
But Al Jolson was, and it worked for him and Warner Brothers both, as it was hailed by the press as "remarkable", "perfect", and "revolutionizing", with Jolson being labeled as as the "greatest box office attraction".
It wasn't just the cinema houses that saw change, either. It was also acting itself that had to undergo changes. No longer did actors "need" to portray their characters with such strong exaggeration and facial expression. Now they needed to adjust to using sound, and not all of the actors had the "voice" for sound quality motion pictures.
This was a time when voice coaching became a Hollywood staple. Actors now needed to learn to adequately project their voices while enunciating clearly. To be able to do that and sound natural on film was a learning curve for most.
Additionally, musicals were a trendy issue of the early talkies, so not only were the players learning how to talk, they were also learning how to sing. I suppose it may be a matter of one's personal tastes as to whether some Hollywood actors should have been given singing parts, but it was all part of the transition into the era of the talkies.
Some actors were unable to make the transition, while others - like Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Bob Hope, and Abbott and Costello were able to embrace the transition well despite any hesitations any of them may have had at first, and those who transitioned well found that their careers managed to not only survive the transition, but to grow right along with it. It is unfortunate, though, that so many others did not transition well and their careers were ended as a result.
Not every actor, director, or producer chose to attempt to transition into sound - at least at first. Charlie Chaplin simply ignored it - until his famous 1940 production, "The Great Dictator". Apparently that along with his political ideology landed him in a bit of hot water, as his US Visa was not extended and he was refused further entry into the US. Had his politics not been an issue, one wonders whether he would have eventually successfully transitioned. We see that he made at least one attempt, anyway.
Sound vs. Silent: Controversies extended?
There is no industry without its fair share of controversy, and the entertainment industry is certainly no exception. There was already competition between stage and film actors who would argue about who was "really" acting. "Real" acting was on a stage, where you had to remember your lines and enunciate and perform - you couldn't stop for a take and fix a scene - you had to be perfect before a live audience. Some stage actors would argue that film acting didn't require so much skill, because if they erred during a scene, they could do a retake. Stage acting, however, required the skill of getting it right the first time, or being able to flawlessly ad lib around a mistake.
So enter the talkies for more fun - the rift between whether using voice and not was similar to that between the stage and screen actors. Being able to talk in a production was viewed by some as "cheating" and "lazy acting" in the industry because you didn't have to project with your whole body to the point where you were exaggerating your movements so highly.
By the way, we see some very good examples exaggerated gestures and expressions in The Jazz Singer, especially during Jolson's performance of Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Goodbye as you'll see in the video below. His performance looks out of place and even clownish by today's standards, but they fit in quite well with the times, which is part of what makes this film such an important and priceless piece of cinematic history. Today we are honored to be able to see it on DVD and BluRay.
"...you ain't seen nothin' yet!"
Before The Jazz Singer was produced, there were some shorts with sound that were produced, one of those was a roughly 9 minute and 23 second sound production called A Plantation Act in which Jolson performs a variety of songs in blackface, dressed as a slave. His performance wasn't nearly as comical as Toot-Toot-Tootsie..., but he was cute. He also spoke the same famous historical line in this short that he did in The Jazz Singer: "… you ain't heard nothin' yet…". That was the phrase that changed the course of the film industry forever, delighting millions all across the nation, who would remember and quote it for years to come.
Jolson in Blackface
I can't answer the question as to why they needed a blackface routine in this movie, but I can speculate that the reason could have had something to do with Jolson being a well known vaudevillian who was popular for his blackface routines, which - in those days - was considered a perfectly acceptable form of entertainment. Today, however, blackface is seen as an insult to the black community and is no longer performed. In fact, many productions that have blackface in them are either banned or voluntarily withdrawn so as to not offend the black community.
The history of blackface itself is rooted in stage performances during times when blacks and whites were not allowed, by law, to share the same stage at the same time. In some areas, blacks were banned from performing altogether, which is sad. Since many of the routines that were performed were traditional negro ballads and spirituals, in keeping with their spirit, white performers took to wearing dark makeup both to keep the performances of those songs with the spirit intended and as a protest against laws that didn't permit blacks on the same stage as whites. Because the white performers weren't black - it was only makeup - there was nothing authorities could do about the performances, and audiences loved them - so the show went on.
Eventually, however, there were some racist opportunists who used blackface for less than honorable reasons, which pretty much spoiled its use, turning it into a negative thing with racial overtones, and this is the reason why it became an offense to the black community. I need not delve into US History any further at this point - it was a very difficult and trying time for all, and we should be thankful that those days are over.
It is important, though, that I bring this up because of Jolson's appearance in blackface in The Jazz Singer and I want people to understand that while it may appear needless by today's standards, this is the history behind that, and I don't think it was meant to be derogatory to the black community, by any means. If anything, I see it as a tribute to the talent of the black community and the beauty of black entertainment. Entertainment in those days was much different than today's entertainment, and what is considered racist today wasn't back then, although it did exist in those days and was just as wrong then as it is today.
That having been said, we can not erase the past, or undo it, yet banning or destroying these works would be a disservice to the public, because they are a part of film history and American history depicting different times, and the public deserves the ability to see what our past was made of in order to continue to create and appreciate a better future.
All things considered, Jolson's performance is fabulous! His presentation was energetic and we can see that he embraced this new challenge and made it work.
An endearing tale
The Jazz Singer is about a young jewish boy, Jakie Rabinowitz, whose father is a 5th generation cantor, and wants him to be the next generation cantor in the synagogue. But the young boy has other aspirations - he has a natural love for jazz music, so off he goes, doing his own thing while his father thinks he's being rebellious. When his father discovers him singing in a saloon, they have a falling out and the young boy runs away from home while the father reacts to this by disowning him.
As years go by, the young boy becomes a man who now calls himself Jack Robin, and after years of trying, finally gets his big break. But something draws him back home to visit his mother and father, which turns out to be an unpleasant excursion. Torn between opening night of his big break and "doing the right thing", he has a very difficult decision to make. What is the right thing? Does he honor his parents or his destiny? If he honors his parents, there goes his once in a lifetime break. If he honors his destiny, he breaks his parents hearts - again.
One can easily find themselves on the edge of their seat watching this and thinking to themselves, "Why should this be a struggle?" only to realize that we face similar struggles in our own lives in this day and age all the time, so this is a very gripping story.
I won't spoil the end - but I will say that Jolson's performances are spectacular and I think you'll enjoy this movie if you've never seen it before.
There are some wonderful performances in this movie - Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer deliver a riveting performances as Jakie's parents, and you'll hear the lovely voice of Cantor Joseff Rosenblatt singing in a recital of sacred songs. What a lovely tenor voice to rival the voices of other famous classical tenors of his time! Absolutely beautiful!
And May McAvoy gives a very sincere performance as Mary Dale - Jakie's apparent crush who really pushes him at one point when he is faced with the decision of a lifetime. Her performance was so strong at one point that I began to get emotional. I didn't know whether to be angry or happy at how pushy Mary was at one point - and I'm still undecided as to whether she's a villain or a heroine. I guess it all depends on the perspective one sees the storyline with. What a terrific actress!
If there is anything that I recommend for your classic movies collection, this is definitely it - because of it's entertainment and historical value both.
Where to buy:
The Jazz Singer was released January 8, 2013 on BluRay, and can be purchased at the Warner Brother's Shop on line.
If you prefer, you can also purchase it on DVD in a 3-disc collector's edition.
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