This post is the next installment of my project of watching every movie featured on Disney’s Great Movie Ride.
The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson, was the first ever “talkie,” with the distinction of being the first full-length film with synchronized music recordings and lip-syncing in both singing and talking for brief moments throughout the film.
The plot follows Jolson’s character, Jakie Rabinowitz as he leaves behind his family’s strict Jewish traditions to focus on a career as, well, a jazz singer. Doing so causes massive issues with his parents, particularly his father; however, by the end of the film he essentially comes to use his talents for both the career that he’s chosen and his Jewish community despite spending most of his adult life feeling split between the two very different directions.
First, the good: It’s the first talkie. Regardless of everything else about this film, that in itself is a major achievement. The actual talkie parts of the film are light, as most of it really is basically a silent movie, but there are musical numbers by Jolson and some dialogue that includes actual synchronized sound.
The so-so: Maybe it’s my modern perspective, but I wasn’t blown away by any other part of this film. I guess the subject of the plot is fine in that it’s at least relatable I’m sure for audiences to see a character torn between what they actually want and what their family wants for them. I don’t know if it’s my modern viewing that can’t be helped or if the music was actually meh, or if I just had too high of expectations for the first ever talkie…but for a movie called The Jazz Singer…the jazz singing…was not amazing, in my opinion. The acting, sets, costuming, everything else was mostly fine, too, with exceptions coming up in…
The bad: Obviously, the use of blackface, but it’s a little more complex here so I’ll touch on that shortly. Otherwise the bad is surely just my personal opinion because it differs so much from the actual reception of The Jazz Singer when the film came out, but I just found it uncomfortable. I don’t know if it was the writing, the character, or Al Jolson himself, but Jakie creeped me the hell out. His relationship with his mother was cringy and uncomfy, something about his mannerisms just didn’t do it for me, and the scene of him casually putting on blackface was just the icing on the cake.
But as I said, the blackface here really wasn’t as simple as just a racist thing that used to happen at the time, where in this film it was at least a bit of a plot device. Jolson’s use of blackface is really done to draw a parallel between how he feels out of his race, relating more to the side of him that is the jazz singer than his traditional Jewish heritage. That being said…I understand it within the context of the film, but the fact that the concept of blackface still exists in the first place and was so commonplace when this was made that it could easily be used as a plot device like that, is still going to make it uncomfortable in my 2023 watching, even if it came with I guess not horrible intentions and is obviously dated and wrong by today’s standards.
This might be one that I need to rewatch, as I’m trying to be open-minded but it’s still possible that my modern viewing got the best of me here. From where I’m at now, I can recognize what it did for the future of film as paving the way as the first talkie, the story and most of the acting isn’t terrible, but I just found the main character so offputting that the film wasn’t enjoyable.