It's been 80 years, and now the American Cinematheque is celebrating the anniversary with a three-day tribute to Jolson that includes a screening of a new digitally restored print of "The Jazz Singer," screening Oct. 5 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. In addition, Warner Bros. plans to release a special three-disc DVD set including the restored film plus several of the first shorts produced by Vitaphone, Warner's pioneer sound division.
"The Jazz Singer" tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a cantor's son who rejects his father's wishes to follow family tradition and serve in the synagogue, pursuing instead a career in show business as a jazz singer. The music-based story afforded Warners the opportunity to produce a feature film using the sound-on-disc Vitaphone process they had recently licensed from Bell Telephone. Up to that point, Vitaphone had been used only experimentally on short subjects.
The Warners predicted, correctly, that "The Jazz Singer" would be "without a doubt, the biggest stride since the birth of the industry." But the film's importance may not rest solely on the fact that it was the first sound film. It was also the first film to boldly address the assimilation of immigrant Jews into American culture.
"It is basically a showbiz story, but in back of it is the big question of assimilation and, of course, the conflict of the generations," Herbert Goldman, author of the book "Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life," said in an interview. Goldman, who will be a guest panelist at the Cinematheque event adds, "There was a special appeal to the Jewish people, but the national audience was not Jewish, and yet it went over with them too. When you think about it, it's amazing that for the first talking picture Warner Bros. chose a theme that was so overtly Jewish for a national audience."
It may not be so amazing, considering the parallel between Jakie Rabinowitz and the Warners themselves. Like Jakie, the Warner brothers left home to enter show business, and like so many of the other Jewish studio moguls, they assimilated themselves into secular American culture. In his book "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," author Neal Gabler points out '"The Jazz Singer' did something that was extremely rare in Hollywood; it provided an extraordinary revealing window on the dilemmas of the Hollywood Jews generally, and the Warners specifically."
"The Jazz Singer" began as a short story called "The Day of Atonement," published in Everybody's Magazine in 1922. The author was Samson Raphaelson, who would go on to become a top writer in Hollywood, known for witty and sophisticated screenplays, many of which were directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch. Jolson, already a popular entertainer, read the story and was drawn to it because he felt the story's conflict between an aging cantor and his "Americanized" son who yearned to be in show business mirrored his own life.
Jolson brought the story to DW Griffith, who rejected it because he felt it was too racial. The other studios in town passed for the same reason. Apparently, Raphaelson was unaware of Jolson's efforts. When Jolson met the writer at a nightclub, he told him he wanted to turn the story into a musical revue. Raphaelson dismissed the idea and instead adapted his story into a straight dramatic play. Ironically, Raphaelson had been inspired to write his story after seeing Jolson perform in "Robinson Crusoe, Jr." in 1917 at the University of Illinois, while the young author was a student there. Raphaelson recalled, "I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson -- his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song ... when he finished I turned to the girl beside me, dazed with memories of my childhood on the East Side ... my God, this isn't a jazz singer, this is a cantor!"
The original title of Raphaelson's play was "Prayboy" but it was changed to "The Jazz Singer" before its Broadway opening on Sept. 14, 1925. The star of the show was vaudeville comedian George Jessel. Reviews of the show were lukewarm, and it got off to a slow start. But since the audiences were 90 percent Jewish, it picked up momentum around the High Holy Days and ran for 38 weeks, closing only because Jessel had signed a contract with Warner Bros. The day before closing, Warner Bros. purchased the rights for $50,000, presumably with the intention of having Jessel reprise his stage role. According to Jessel, in Neal Gabler's book "An Empire of Their Own," Harry Warner thought, "It would be a good picture to make for the sake of racial tolerance, if nothing else."
The story of why Jessel was replaced by Jolson is a film history "Rashomon." One version is that Jessel's contract with Warner was for silent films, but when Jessel discovered it was going to be a Vitaphone production, he demanded $10,000 extra. Jessel would later claim the reason he did not do the film was not over money differences, but because he objected to the revised ending. In the play, the son abandons the stage and becomes cantor of his father's synagogue, but in the film, he remains an entertainer. Jessel demanded they keep the original ending, but Jack Warner refused. Another version is that Jessel was upset over the casting of two non-Jews, Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer, as Jakie's parents. According to Neal Gabler in his book, "Jessel was probably too Jewish for the kind of assimilation story that Jack and Sam Warner wanted to make. To them 'The Jazz Singer' was more of a personal dramatization of their own family conflicts than a plea for racial tolerance, and they would want to cast a Jew that was as assimilated as they were." Losing the film role plagued Jessel for the rest of his life.
The opening of "The Jazz Singer" lived up to the film's tag line "Warner Brothers' Supreme Triumph!" According to The New York Times, it received "The biggest ovation in a theater since the introduction of Vitaphone." Variety called the film "Undoubtedly the best thing Vitaphone ever put on the screen." But Miles Kreuger, president of The Institute of the American Musical, attributes the film's success solely to its star: "It was Al Jolson, even more than the film itself, or even the content of the film that made it an international success. Just the fact that the whole world, which had heard Jolson on phonograph records, could finally see him in a movie, that is the key to the success of 'The Jazz Singer.'"Unfortunately, the premiere was marred by the death of Sam Warner, who died at age 39 from an abscessed sinus infection one day before the premiere. The tragedy prevented any of the Warner brothers from witnessing their historical transformation of the film industry. After the film's release, Warner Bros.' company stock shot from $9 to $132 per share. As an entertainer, Jolson's stock also rose, transforming his career as well.
"He had been a big star of the stage, touring for the Shuberts in these musical comedy extravaganzas," Jolson biographer Goldman said. "'The Jazz Singer' completely transformed him, and you now had him appearing in melodramas." Goldman also points out that Harry Warner's hope that the film would play as a vehicle for racial tolerance was not realized.
"The silent movie is a bit over the top, so as far as it getting mainstream America to understand Judaism, well I question that."
Samson Raphaelson also felt his story, adapted to film by Alfred Cohn and directed by Alan Crosland, did not fare well.
"I had a simple, corny, well-felt little drama," Raphaelson later assessed. "And they made an ill-felt, silly, maudlin, badly timed thing of it."
Regardless, the script was nominated as Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards and the Warners received an honorary award: "For producing 'The Jazz Singer,' the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry."
Although "The Jazz Singer" is regarded as the first sound film, it is more accurately a silent with singing and two short scenes containing dialogue.
"The whole drama is told as a silent film with inter-titles," Miles Kreuger concured. "The single-most important moment in the film is when the father comes into the room and hears his son playing popular music on the piano and screams the word 'Stop!' That's the moment when the sound of a human voice alters the dramatic action, and that's the first time that ever happened."
The film's popularity inspired countless imitations and parodies by singers, comedians and cartoon animators, most notably in the 1936 Warner Bros. cartoon "I Love to Singa," which features a young bird named Owl Jolson, who, against the wishes of his classical-music-loving father, becomes a jazz singer. "The Jazz Singer" was also remade twice; an updated version in 1953 starring Danny Thomas and a more disastrous 1980 update starring Neil Diamond. Herbert Goldman, who knew Samson Raphaelson, recalled that, "Raphe felt that he would always do 'The Jazz Singer' as a period piece because that kind of generational conflict and potential assimilation, the way he portrayed it was pretty unique to those generations."
Like the story, it seems Jolson himself was more suited to that generation. "Frankly, he's virtually unknown to people below the age of 50," Goldman said.
Jolson did have a minor career revival when Warner Bros. produced a film based on his life in 1946, followed by a sequel in 1949. He died in 1950, at 64, but thanks to the American Cinematheque and Warner Home Video, now 80 years later, Jolson sings again!
The American Cinematheque Tribute to Al Jolson runs Oct. 6-8. On Oct. 5, there is a screening of a digitally restored print of "The Jazz Singer" at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. For more information, call (310) 247-3600.
On Oct. 6 at The Egyptian Theatre is a screening of "Plantation Act," a cabaret performance featuring Jolson songs and a party celebrating the 80th anniversary of "The Jazz Singer."
On Oct. 7, The Egyptian theatre is screening a double feature of the Jolson pictures "Big Boy" and "Hallelujah I'm A Bum."
"The Jazz Singer: 80th Anniversary Collector's Edition" will be available Oct. 16. The three-disc set contains more than four hours of bonus programming including a complete set of Vitaphone shorts never before available.
Pat Sierchio is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West.