The Rear-View Mirror: The Jazz Singer (1927)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Despite its reputation as the first full length feature with synchronised sound, The Jazz Singer is a silent for most of its running time. When Sam Warner of Warner Brothers bought Vitaphone in 1925, despite the misgivings of his brother Harry, it was not because he thought that “Talkies” were the future: it was because they could record a film’s music, making a full orchestra unnecessary for showings. The process was complicated and ponderous. But the future did belong to the Talkies, and so The Jazz Singer is still famous today for being the first of its kind.

Poor Jakie (Robert Gordon as a young Jakie, and Al Jolson for the rest of the film) wants to sing Ragtime. But his father disapproves and wants him to be a traditional Cantor. Despite mother’s pleadings, a whipping prompts Jakie to run away from home. “Years later, and three thousand miles from home”, reads the title card, and we finally get to hear Al Jolson sing, followed by the famous lines: “Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet!”.

There is a rags to riches story, there is a love story. There is plenty of melodrama. But it is immediately obvious why Jolson was the most famous entertainer of his time. The man is a dynamo.

About an hour into the film, we get to see what Jolson was also famous for. Blackface. Jolson, throughout his career, appropriated music associated with black communities, to make them palatable for white audiences. Sometimes he did so in blackface, and many things have been written about whether or not this can ever be considered appropriate. This is not helped by the fact that the movie is chock-full of problematic stereotypes, this goes equally for the Jewish community for example. And what to make of a shot where a Jewish man looks in a mirror in blackface, being called back to his own tradition? And that same man, in the same get-up sing a ballad to his mother from the stage through his tears? Though it is always important to recognise problematic elements in any film, old ones in particular, these are some of the most evocative, striking images in the film: and it is hard to avoid making the link between two traditions vying for legitimacy.

For viewers unused to silents, this film will ask a lot of your patience. But as a piece of history with all the imagery that invokes, for good and for ill, it is almost unmissable. When at about seven minutes into the film, a young Jakie starts singing “Frivolous Sal”, you can imagine the wonder of the audience. But when Al Jolson starts to talk, it must have seemed like magic.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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