September 20, 2007
Think you know ‘The Jazz Singer’? You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.
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