Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland) **

Director: Alan Crosland

Cast: Al Jolson, Warner Oland, Eugenie Besserer, May McAvoy, Otto Lederer

Background: Al Jolson was a very successful theater star. Playwright Samson Raphaelson wrote a play based on Jolson's life. The play was a Broadway hit and Warner Bros. acquired the rights. After failing to get their first two choices, they ended up with Jolson, the person it was based on, in the lead role. The Jazz Singer would be the first feature length film to have synchronized dialogue.

The Story: Jakie Rabinowitz is a talented singer, but prefers singing jazz tunes and dreams of a show business career, while his father (Warner Oland) would rather he follow in the family footsteps and become a cantor. After getting caught singing jazz tunes at a night club, Jakie and his dad get into a huge fight, eventually leading to Jakie's departure from home. The next time we see him is ten years later, performing at a cabaret. No matter how successful he gets (including winning a major role in a Broadway show), Jack is conflicted about his father, especially as the old man gets sick.

Thoughts: The first problem we run into is Jolson's performance. He certainly does do a good job with the song and dance numbers. There's no denying Jolson's musical talent. However, as a film actor, Jolson is definitely lacking. He wears the same earnest expression throughout the entire film, and is unable to convey the complex emotions that his character would be experiencing. Compare that to the exquisite performance from Warner Oland as his father and it's easy to see how Jolson doesn't really belong in the same medium. The story itself if pure hokum, and it would take a captivating actor to make it work. No matter how good Jolson does with his song and dance numbers, that's a minimal portion of the film and the dramatic moments are undercut by his inexpressiveness. Yes, he does blackface at the end, and yes it is distracting (whatever his true intentions were), but the film has enough problems before you even start that discussion. Notable only for inspiring the onset of talkies.

Postscript: The Jazz Singer was the #1 box office performer of the year. The success of the film ushered in the sound era. AFI chose it in their intitial 100 Greatest American Movies list, but dropped it from the update in 2007.

Jolson was now a big box office star and his next film (The Singing Fool) made even more money than The Jazz Singer. After that, his films were less successful although he did receive some critical acclaim for Lewis Milestone's Hallelujah, I'm a Bum. In 1946, a very successful biopic (The Jolson Story) was released about Jolson's life. Director Crosland kept making movies for another decade, but none of them were very notable. Warner Oland would hit it big as Charlie Chan.

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