www.bangitout.com Jordan Hiller's Top 25 Essential Jewish Films of all time continues with…

19. The Jazz Singer (1927)

The Jazz Singer maintains its landmark status in the evolution of cinema and the arts for nothing more than doing something that had already been done before, but simply on a grander scale. Widely considered the first “talkie,” Alan Crosland’s 1927 film about a chazan’s son (Jakie/Jack) who is cast away by his father for being too, well, jazzy, and then cuts ties with the Jewish community (which he considers a repressive ghetto anyway) to become a Broadway star is no great entertainment. Nor is it by any means competent from a narrative perspective (Jakie abandons his poor mother as a child and returns about twenty years later with some flowers as if nothing happened). In fact, much of the film is offensively patronizing and in bad taste (Let’s hear it for lame white guys performing watered down jazz in black-face!) The oohs and ahhs and universal acclaim was at the time reserved for the few minutes of the film where the actors’ mouths moved and actual words were heard and synched with the movement of their lips. That’s it. That’s The Jazz Singer. That’s why you are aware of it. It’s the answer to a trivia question.

Here’s another trivia question for ya. In feature length film history, what is the first song sung in a movie that exhibited synched dialogue? Well, the movie of course is The Jazz Singer and the song is Kol Nidre.

The Jazz Singer proves a very interesting showcase and milestone for Jews in America. No one will deny Jewish influence and authority in early (and current) American filmmaking, but The Jazz Singer, due to its sacred appointment in cinematic history and considering all that was riding on it from a technological debut standpoint, is utterly amazing in how ethnically particular it is. I mean, this film is loud and proud, we’re here and we’re from the Mir Jewish. Jakie’s mother, who has not seen the boy in years, her chief worry is that he will wind up with a “shiksah.” The most elaborate gag in the film revolves around three different characters purchasing a tallis for the old chazan as a gift. The sole conflict in the film is whether Jakie will miss opening night of his Broadway headline show in order to make his sick father proud by davening for the tzibur on Kol Nidre night. Jakie wonders whether he should choose his new god (entertainment) over the long held traditions of his “stubborn race.” It’s a classic Jewish religious struggle which played out for audiences across the world in 1927 who simply looked to catch the latest in movie magic. This is a film that strategically premiered on Erev Yom Kippur to gain publicity!

Let’s put in today’s terms. Imagine if Industrial Light & Magic discovered a stupendous filmmaking technique that enhanced the pleasure and visceral engagement of audiences thereby changing the movie-going experience for all time. And the studio that paid top dollar to get first crack at using the effect produced a film and set it for release. Eager crowds then pack the theatre for the premiere and the film begins…and it’s about a boy who wants to go Shana Bet while his parents demand that he return for college and begin his career in finance. That is about how remarkable it is that The Jazz Singer is a film about a hashkafik crisis and Yamim Noraim inspired teshuvah. So, nu? How do we explain this wild anomaly?

Some might say it is the will of God, who enjoys strategically placing His people in the crosshairs of history. Throughout time, throughout the globe, pounding at the gates of this industry, leading the charge in that movement, or tripping over the lever in someone else’s lab on the brink of a breakthrough, there we are – Forrest Schlump. Maybe Al Jolson – born Asa Yoelson to Moshe Reuven and Naomi Yoelson – who was the biggest star of his day and the first “openly Jewish entertainer” was simply chosen for greatness to boost the profile of his people and break barriers, just as Daniel, and Esther, and Joseph were selected to do before him. God delivers his message and chooses his messengers based on the day’s popular forms of communication. It was once books and oratory, now it is music and film. Moshe. Yehoshua. Spielberg. Could be. Why not?
My feeling, however, is that a lot of highly successful, highly assimilated first generation American Jews were running Hollywood in the early 20th century – men like the Warner brothers who bankrolled and distributed The Jazz Singer – and they simply wanted to offer a combination guilt and peace offering to their parents and grandparents who devoutly worshipped that ancient God of the Hebrews in meager times. The Jazz Singer may well have resulted when a bunch of fat cat Jewish moguls stuck their necks out about eighty years ago and declared, “Momma, Poppa, remember all the stuff that you taught us was important about where we come from – our life and the length of our days and all that pious stuff Zadie, the Rebbi’s shamesh, did for the poor – well, we may act like we forgot all about it (and we’ll most assuredly forget about it during the after party), but we just gambled our reputations on making this movie to let you know, and to let our people know for all time, that deep down we didn’t forget.” I think The Jazz Singer is a shallow attempt by a powerful group of straying Jews to clear their consciences.

Although Jakie’s father is not heard uttering such a plea in the film, on Kol Nidre night the chazzan begins the services with a prayers stating, “By the Heavenly tribunal, and by the earthly tribunal, with the consent of God, and with the consent of the congregation, we are permitted to pray…with those who have transgressed.”

On Kol Nidre night, the sinners are present, and worried. They sit there wishing for another opportunity to make amends and some more time to slap a bandage over an obvious wound. Jakie at one point argues that his father doesn’t understand him, can’t understand him, because…“he wasn’t born here.” He wasn’t born in America where there are golden prospects and so many reasons to leave God floundering in the dust. “He wasn’t born here.” Papa doesn’t know what it’s like here, that’s why. It is the feeble cry from the Americanized Jew, one generation from the oppressiveness of the European shtetl, to be freed from the obligation of mesorah. “You don’t know what it’s like to mingle with starlets (then seduce them to bed) and to afford the finer things! You don’t know how goddamn intoxicating this country is!” You can almost smell the flop sweat.
But miraculously, The Jazz Singer has Jakie choose to leave his shiksah starlet girlfriend and ditch his Broadway debut – at least for that one night – to soothe his father’s bitter heart and chant a sincere Kol Nidre, to appease the God of his people, on the Day of Atonement.  

Perhaps in 1927, somewhere in the decadent bright lights of Los Angeles, there were a few Jews with champagne glassses raised who felt that by making The Jazz Singer they had bought themselves another year’s reprieve.