Little Bits of History

The Jazz Singer

Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 6, 2014
The Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer

October 6, 1927: The Jazz Singer debuts. The musical film starred Al Jolson with May McAvoy, Warner Oland, and Yossele Rosenblatt in supporting roles. It was produced by Warner Bros. and was the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences. It was the beginning of the “talkies” and the death knell for the silent film era. The movie was directed by Alan Crosland and based on the play, The Day of Atonement written by Samson Raphaelson. Jolson sang six songs in the 89 minute movie (96 minutes if the Overture and Exit Music are included). Vitaphone sound-on-disc was used to put the words and music together with the film.

The movie was about Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson) in defiance against his devoutly Jewish father, a cantor. Jakie wanted to sing popular tunes in a beer garden in the Jewish community of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  His father’s disapproval was enough to make the teenager run away from home. He changed his name to Jack Robin and was a talented jazz singer. As his career grew, so did the issues between what he wanted and who he was. The ambitious entertainer was in conflict with the demands of his home and heritage.

On April 25, 1917, Raphaelson (a New York City native) attended a performance of the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr. in Champaign, Illinois. The star of that show was 30-year-old Al Jolson, a Russian-born Jew who performed in blackface. A few years later, Raphaelson wrote “The Day of Atonement” – a short story based on Al Jolson’s real life. The story was published in Everybody’s Magazine in 1922 and it was later adapted to the stage play – The Jazz Singer. The play was a straight drama with all the singing taking place off stage and starred George Jessel in the leading role. Warner Bros. acquired the movie rights on June 4, 1926 and signed Jessel to star. This plan fell through for many reasons and Eddie Cantor was approached. Finally, Jolson was approached and took the job for $75,000 (slightly more than $1 million in today’s dollars).

Prior to this movie, there were some “talkies” but they had all been short subjects with dialog only. Dream Street had one short song with street and crowd noises. Don Juan, Warner Bros. first venture into talkies came in August 1926 had Vitaphone features which included synchronized instrumental scores and sound effects. The Jazz Singer contained everything which had gone before as well as numerous synchronized singing sequences and some synchronized speech. The movie included five jazz songs sung by Jack as well as the devotional Kol Nidre, the song on which the story hinges, and two songs by Jakie. His cantor father sang two devotional songs as well.

I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson—his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from a tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song. – Samson Raphaelson

A responsive audience is the best encouragement an actor can have. – Al Jolson

I’d like to do radio just like pictures – leave the imperfect stuff on the cutting-room floor. – Al Jolson

After I die, I’ll be forgotten. – Al Jolson

Also on this day: Superstition – In 1945, the Cubs Curse began when a goat was kicked out of the stadium.
Bellerophone – In 1995, a new planet was discovered.
Martyrs – In 1849, the Hungarian Revolution’s martyrs were executed.
Flight 455 – In 1976, the flight ended in a fiery crash.

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