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The First Full-Length Hollywood Talkie:
The Jazz Singer, 1927

 


 

Excerpt from "The Jazz Singer"
from "Hollywood and the Stars:
The Immortal Jolson"
1963
Narrator: Joseph Cotten
 


The first scene of "The Jazz Singer" that included sound was filmed and recorded in a studio in Los Angeles in mid-August, 1927. Al Jolson is playing the role of Jack Robin and is singing the song "Dirty Hands, Dirt Face" to a crowd in a San Francisco cafe.

As it was during his performances in real life, the audience applauds thunderously. Jolson's character shouts out, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet. You ain't heard nothin' yet. You wanna hear 'Toot, Toot, Tootsie'? All right, hold on, hold on. Lou, listen. Play 'Toot, Toot, Tootsie!' Three choruses, ya understand, and on the third chorus, I whistle. Now give it to 'em hot and heavy."

No dialogue was supposed to be spoken in the film, but Jolson's adlibbing convinced producer Sam Warner to include it, along with a scene of Jolson's character speaking to his mother (see below.)




 

 
 

In April 1926, the Vitaphone Corporation was created as a joint venture between Warner Brothers and Western Electric. This venture produced the Vitaphone process, i.e. one of "sound-on-disk." This process was used initially to create films with sounds of both the most popular vaudevillians and other current performers, as well as to provide musical scores for feature-length, silent movies. 

In August of the same year, Al Jolson, George Jessel (read more about Jolson, Jessel, and Eddie Cantor by using the Jessel link provided here), and a number of other performers signed contracts to appear in short films ("shorts") for Vitaphone. During the first week in September, Jolson went to the studio where they filmed him in "Al Jolson in a Plantation Act," a short nine-minute film in which he comes out of a cabin (in blackface) and sings three songs, including "April Showers."

Jolson had heard about a Samson Raphaelson story that had been made into a play--the story had been named "The Day of Atonement," but the play had been renamed "The Jazz Singer." Jolson was interested in this play, and being friendly with the Warner family, he made his interest known to Sam Warner who owned the screen rights to the story.

 

Earlier in 1925, two producers in the Sam H. Harris office took a option on "The Jazz Singer," hoping to feature George Jessel in it. Jessel and the play "The Jazz Singer" had its premiere in Connecticut in July 1925. The play "The Jazz Singer" ran a full season on Broadway during the 1926-7 season before going on tour.
 

Jolson was not the film studio's first choice to play the lead in "The Jazz Singer." They had offered it to both George Jessel, who had unsuccessfully tried to negotiate some sort of agreement to do the film. The film was also offered to Eddie Cantor, but he also turned it down. This was fortuitous for Jolson, as the film's audience was very excited to see Jolson in the title role.

"The Jazz Singer" had its world premiere on October 6, 1927. It was the first full-length Hollywood feature film in which dialogue was spoken as part of the film's action. The majority of the film, however, is filled with vocal musical numbers and accompaniment that is synchronized with the sound. The film has a musical score, as well as musical sound effects and title/subtitle cards which are used throughout the entire film.

The co-founder of the Warner studios, Sam Warner, passed away age the age of forty, just one day before the world premiere of "The Jazz Singer" in New York City.
 



Al Jolson as Jakie Rabinowitz (Jack Robin) and
his screen mother Sara (Eugenie Besserer.)


 


Jakie, his mother Sara and his father Cantor Rabinowitz,
as played by versatile actor Warner Oland.

Now for the plot of "The Jazz Singer."  Jakie's father, Cantor Rabinowitz, is troubled and upset because his son Jakie has no desire to carry on the family's traditions and heritage. For five generations, the Rabinowitzs have been Cantors in the synagogue, but his son Jakie would rather sing jazz and ragtime songs. Jakie's mother senses this.

Thirteen-year old Jakie is to supposed sing "Kol Nidre" at the Orchard Street synagogue in place of his father on the eve of Yom Kippur, but he does not show up for services. Where can he be?

An Orthodox and powerful man named Yudelson, from the neighborhood where the Rabinowitzs live, hears Jakie singing at a bar-cafe and drags Jakie by the ear back home to his parents.  Jakie tells his mother that he wants to be on stage, but Cantor Rabinowitz, angered by what has transpired, prepares to whip young Jakie with his belt. Jakie says that he will run away if he is whipped--he is and he does. While his father is at the synagogue, Jakie sneaks back home to retrieve a photo of his mother, then runs away.

 

After a few years on his own, he is no longer Jakie Rabinowitz, but further escaping his Jewish roots, he changes his name to Jack Robin.

This night he will sing the song "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face" at Coffee Dan's, a nightspot in San Francisco. He also will sing  "Toot, Toot, Tootsie..."

In the audience is Mary Dale, a vaudeville dancer. She recognizes Jack's ability to move people with his singing of jazz songs.

Cantor Yosef Rosenblatt appears in "The Jazz Singer". Jack hears him give a concert of sacred Jewish songs and is moved by it.

Over the years that Jack is away from home, he writes home to his parents, telling them of his successes, but still he and his father do not see "eye-to-eye."





 


Jack Robins performs.


 


Jakie in blackface, with film love interest
Mary Dale, as played by May McAvoy.

Jack becomes very fond of Mary Dale, but discovers that she has been offered a part in a Broadway show and will be leaving. Of course, Jack is very unhappy about this.

Soon Jack too is offered a part in a Broadway show. It is the autumn of 1927, and he returns to New York City. He decides to pay a visit to his parents' home, as this will be Cantor Rabinowitz's sixtieth birthday.  He visits the family home and finds his mother alone; she is so very happy to see him. He sits down at the piano and talks to his mother, promising to buy her a pink dress and other presents. He plays the piano and sings "Blue Skies" to her.

However, Cantor Rabinowitz soon arrives home and is upset to hear Jack singing jazz songs in their home. Again they get into an argument about his singing jazz songs, about his being a "jazz singer" instead of becoming a cantor, and once again Jack leaves them.

 
Two weeks later, and one night before Jack is to open on Broadway, Cantor Rabinowitz becomes very ill.  The next sundown happens to be the evening of Yom Kippur. The question is asked, "Who will take Cantor Rabinowitz's place at the synagogue?" Mother Sara has faith in her son Jakie: "If Jakie knew his father was so sick - he would come." Yudelson then looks for Jakie, hoping to convince him to return home and take his father's place at the synagogue for Yom Kippur. He finds Jakie during a backstage rehearsal, and he implores him: "Tomorrow, the Day of Atonement - they want you should sing in the synagogue, Jakie." Jack responds: "But my father - he doesn't want me to sing, does he?" Yudelson tells Jakie that his father is gravely ill and that his father, the Cantor, cannot perform on the eve of Yom Kippur, the most sacred of holy days. Yudleson wants Jakie to take over for his father: "But Jakie, your singing would be like sunshine to your Papa...Jakie, remember --- a son's a son no matter if his Papa throws him out a hundred times!"

This proves to be a great dilemma for Jakie. This request forces him to make a terribly difficult choice--does he goes on opening night, or does he become dutiful to his father and sing "Kol Nidre" at the synagogue during Yom Kippur?  Jack is  bewildered--he has waited for this show business break for years, and now he is being asked to give it up. Jack feels Yudelson's words even more when he says, "Would you be the first Rabinowitz in five generations to fail your God?"


 
The next afternoon is the dress rehearsal for the show. Back on the Lower East Side, on the eve of Yom Kippur, Yudelson tells the Jewish elders that they have no Cantor on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Meanwhile, Cantor Rabinowitz is very sick and is seen lying in his bed. He tells his wife that he cannot perform at the synagogue on Yom Kippur eve.

He says to her,  "My heart is breaking, Mama. I cannot sing. My son came to me in my dreams - - he sang Kol Nidre so beautifully. If he would only sing like that tonight - surely he would be forgiven."


Jakie Rabinowitz, the Cantor's son, sings "Kol Nidre"
at the synagogue in place of his ill father.

 
 

Yudelson tells Jack that he must sing tonight. Jack says that he hasn't sung Kol Nidre since he was a small boy. He is reassured by Yudelson that he can never forget what he learned as a child. His mother leaves the ultimate decision up to him.  The show producer tells him that he would be a fool to give up this big chance to become a Broadway star.

When the curtain is about to go up, the audience is told that there would be no performance that evening. This one time, Jack returns to sing in his father's place at the synagogue, becoming Jakie Rabinowitz once again. The opening night for the Broadway show is cancelled and Jackie  sings "Kol Nidre" in the synagogue.

From his bed, his father listens to Jakie lead the Yom Kippur congregation and sing "Kol Nidre." Cantor Rabinowitz believes his son has returned to his roots, so to speak, and he forgives him. His last words are, "Mamma, we have our son again." In a super-imposed image, we see the spirit of Jack's father at his side in the synagogue. Mary describes Jack perfectly: "- a jazz singer - singing to his God."

Yudelson returns to the theater with Mrs. Rabinowitz, once again to implore her Jakie to take his father's place that evening at the synagogue. Jack realizes that he has a very big decision to make. "It's a choice between giving up the biggest chance of my life --and breaking my mother's heart - -I have no right to do either." Mary repeats the words that Jack once said to her. She asks, "Were you lying when you said your career came before everything?" 
 

The Broadway show opens the next day; Jack Robin sings his beloved jazz songs in the opening theatre performance, which occurs the day after his father's death.

In the final scene of the film we can see Yudelson and Jakie's mother seated in the front row (Mary Dale is standing in the wings), beaming with pride.  She weeps with joy. In blackface, her son Jakie sings the song "My Mammy" to her:

I'm, I'm a comin'! Sorry I made you wait.
I'm, I'm comin'! I hope and pray I'm not late.
Mammy! Mammy!
I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles!
My Mammy!

 


Jack Robin onstage sings "My Mammy" to his audience,
as well as to his mother who is sitting in the front row.



 

 

       
               
               
     

 

       
 

 

   

 

       

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This exhibition was made possible in part with the cooperation of the International Al Jolson Society.

 

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