In 1927, The Jazz Singer ushered out the era of silent cinema with Jack Robin’s emotional rendition of Kol Nidre. The film’s profound statement on American Jewish life created a splash that has endured for nearly a hundred years.
Building to a cinematic climax on the evening of “Kol Nidre,” The Jazz Singer (1927) deserves to be remembered not only for the revolution that the first of the “talkies” inaugurated but also because no previous film—and precious few thereafter—has offered so intimate a glimpse of the distinctive atmosphere of American Jewish life.
In one bold gamble, Warner Brothers managed to doom the enchanting and insinuating art of the silent movie. The studio also captured the central dilemma of Jewish experience in the United States: how to enjoy the social and economic opportunities that no other segment of the Diaspora has offered, while still honoring a religious tradition that stretched back across the millennia.
That conflict, recorded on a new-fangled Vitaphone sound-on-disc process, makes The Jazz Singer the most important movie ever to address the dominant ambitions and tensions of American Jewish life.
The genesis of this classic can be located exactly a decade earlier, when the vaudevillian Al Jolson gave one of his characteristic rock-‘em, sock-‘em performances at the University of Illinois in Champaign. In the audience was an undergraduate, Samson Raphaelson, who was inspired to write a short story entitled “The Day of Atonement.” In it Jakie Rabinowitz, an only kid who is descended from nine generations of cantors, transforms himself into Jack Robin, the most dazzling “mammy singer” in vaudeville. He also falls in love with a dancer named Amy Prentiss, and is disowned.
Then, on the night that he is to open on Broadway, Robin is asked to sub for his dying father in the chanting of “Kol Nidre” in the shul on Hester Street on the Lower East Side. Abandoning the chance to launch an exceptionally promising career in popular entertainment, Robin shows himself to be a loyal son and a good Jew after all. The worshippers are enthralled by “the golden notes of this young singer of ragtime as he rendered ‘Kol Nidre’ with a high, broken sobbing which, they insisted critically, surpassed his father’s in his best days.” Applying himself to the “grief-laden notes with a lyric passion that was distinctly his own,” Robin attracts such notice that Broadway stardom is bound to be his anyway.
Published in 1922, “The Day of Atonement” tapped into enough episodes in Jolson’s own life and career that he wanted to star in the dramatization of Raphaelson’s story. “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” as Jolson billed himself, was the Yiddish-speaking, immigrant son of a rabbi who also served as a cantor. Formerly Yoelson, Jolson propelled himself far away from the boundaries of the Jewish community; and none of his four wives would be Jewish. But he saw in the dramatic tale of American freedom and Judaic norms a parable of generational struggle that was hardly confined to the minority from which he had sprung.
However, Raphaelson’s Broadway play, called The Jazz Singer, featured one of Jolson’s rivals, George Jessel. Warner Brothers snapped up the rights; and because “The Day of Atonement” had been based on Jolson anyway, casting him was a no-brainer. The studio decided to shoot his six songs with sound, including “Mammy” as well as Irving Berlin’s big new hit, “Blue Skies,” plus “Kol Nidre.” But in the musical sequences, the irrepressible star also interpolated some spoken words of his own. His confident promise, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!,” first uttered at a U. S. Army benefit in 1918, when Jolson was maliciously billed after the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, proved to be a disarmingly apt inauguration of the sound era.
Opening in New York on October 6, 1927, one night before the eve of Yom Kippur, The Jazz Singer created a sensation. The purists among film historians still consider that milestone a silent film, in which the songs and the few lines of dialogue are recorded on disc. Not until the following year, with the Warner Brothers’ The Lights of New York, was a truly complete sound film released. But by then The Jazz Singer was already being lifted into the elevated realm of myth. The pop iconography of the blackface balladeer down on one knee crying for his Mammy quickly led to parody. Even as late as the bar mitzvah of Woody Allen, he did a Jolson imitation at the party after the ceremony.
Such is the enduring power of The Jazz Singer that it led to half a dozen subsequent versions, including a 1952 remake starring the Lebanese-American Danny Thomas, a 1959 NBC telecast with Jerry Lewis playing the cantor’s son, and finally a 1980 film starring Neil Diamond. Slumming it as Diamond’s father was Sir Laurence Olivier. About these later versions, the less said, the better.
Admittedly the 1927 original is far from a masterpiece either, judged solely in aesthetic terms. The fascination with what Warner Brothers wrought remains ethnographic. For no other American movie quite matches the immediacy of The Jazz Singer in considering the implications of assimilation. No other film shows quite so piercingly the ferocious impulses that drove so many Jews into the inviting society that was America, or calibrates so lucidly the cost that was exacted upon the family and upon the hope that the lines of religious continuity would not snap. The Jazz Singer still has the power to sting, not only in tracing the intensity of the yearning to escape from the restrictions of the past, but also in showing the hurt that is felt even as the validity of the desire for personal success is affirmed.
Stephen J. Whitfield holds the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization at Brandeis University and is the author of In Search of American Jewish Culture(University Press of New England).