The Jazz Singer 85 Years Later and the Origins of Film Sound

One of the original posters for

Let’s talk about sound films for a second. In 1927, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, was released by Warner Bros. Pictures. The movie was a sensation and is marked as the beginning of the shift from silent pictures to talkies. As others have said, however, the transition was not immediate and silent films were still produced, in one form or another, until the early 30s. I need to clear up a bit of a misconception about the film before continuing. The Jazz Singer was not the first all talking picture. It was only the first feature length film with synchronized dialogue in it (although, the re-release of D.W. Griffith’s Dream Street in 1921 could possibly qualify for that honor as well, but that film was not intended to be a talkie when originally conceived and released). The movie is still mostly silent, in that it lacks sound effects and uses title cards to get across dialogue and exposition. The first all talking feature length picture was actually the 1928 crime film Lights of New York. Lights of New YorkInventors had experimented with sound since almost the beginning of film’s invention, but a semi-reliable system would not be presented publicly until 1923, when a series of sound shorts were presented by American inventor Lee De Forest in New York. De Forest film’s used the sound-on-film technique, while The Jazz Singer used the sound-on-disc approach. Now, to avoid going on forever about the history of sound, I will avoid going into extreme detail about how these two methods of sound recording worked. Suffice it to say both methods pretty much worked in the way their names suggest. So why am I explaining all this? Well, The Jazz Singer is often cited, as I mentioned earlier, as being the turning point from silents to talkies. The film itself; its story, acting and its use of sound, is often not talked about. In honor of the film’s 85th anniversary, I wish to discuss the film as a film and not specifically as the film that started the sound revolution. The movie is about a boy, Jakie Rabinowitz, who grows up with a Jewish father who is committed to the old ways and traditions of his people. Jakie is caught singing popular songs in a bar, and with his father furious at him for going against tradition, Jakie runs away. He builds a new life for himself as Jack Robin and attempts to have a successful career as a jazz singer and entertainer. His past and present collide as he struggles with the decision of staying true to his career or to his family customs. The story itself, having to choose between tradition and your own dreams, is good and one that speaks just as much to people today as it must have for audiences in the 1920s, which may be why the film has been remade a few times.

Jack Robin (Al Jolson) acting as Cantor on the Jewish Day of Antonement (left) and performing at a night club (right).

Jack Robin (Al Jolson) acting as Cantor on the Jewish Day of Antonement (left) and performing at a night club (right).

Al Jolson, who plays the adult Jack Robin in the film, has a lot of energy, charisma and his acting comes through well in certain sections of the movie. The direction also shows some good touches. The film’s problems lie in mostly everything else. One of the film’s major failings is its over-dramatic nature. The acting is the type of silent pantomime that gives silent pantomime a bad name. It’s really broad, theatrical and not up to snuff with great silent movies from around the same time. I will say the supporting cast, despite the overacting, does have some nice moments. Robin’s mother and father in particular have some touching scenes that tell us a lot about their characters and their relationship with their son. The music can be beautiful, but I did find myself getting a little tired of it by the film’s conclusion. Also, I’m not a fan of the overture and exit music at the beginning and end of movies. Even if the music is topnotch, I quickly tire of it. I want to see the film begin and not listen to the music for five minutes. The editing is strange. There are certain scenes where it is extremely obvious they are reusing shots or looping them. One particular example of reusing shots is near the end of the movie when Robin is getting ready for his blackface act. He puts on a black wig, turns to May McAvoy’s character (who is the romantic lead in the film) and smiles. The movie cuts back to Robin a shot or two later and he’s giving the same exact smile again. Editing problems like that were a big distraction and took me out of the movie. Looking at the film in retrospect, it is interesting to note for a film that is famous for having sound, the sound isn’t actually that good. It’s easy for me to say that now when sound has been as refined and perfected as it is today. It is important, not to mention fair, to note how sound was obviously still in its infancy stages when this film premiered, and thus the film can’t be expected to have the same quality of sound recording as movies made in the present. Still, the sound problems, like the aforementioned editing glitches, served to distract me from the movie I was watching. In the first two or three scenes that show synchronized dialogue (or singing as is the case in most of this movie) it’s apparent the singing is being dubbed by someone else and/or the sound is not in sync with the character’s lips. Also, in the scene where Robin plays the piano and sings for his mother, it is hard to hear what the mother is saying. I’m guessing this is because the microphone was placed much closer to Jolson than to the actress playing his mother. The audio recording equipment being what it was back then, the mics wouldn’t pick up an actor’s voice that well if he/she was not directly in front of the microphone. The audio is not all bad, though. The singing scenes with Jolson sound pretty good on his end, my favorite being the “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye)” number.

Production still from

Production still from “The Jazz Singer” (1927).

The film has some positive aspects – like the timeless story, to Al Jolson, to some shining moments from the supporting cast, and the music – but it greatly suffers from being overdramatic, having some editing hiccups and showing on its sleeves how early it came in the history of film sound. There are much better silent films from around the same time that dwarf The Jazz Singer with their quality. Directors and actors would hone the talking picture in the years after The Jazz Singer and make better films, which demonstrated why film sound was not just a novelty but a serious tool that artists could use to make some truly wonderful motion pictures.

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2 thoughts on “The Jazz Singer 85 Years Later and the Origins of Film Sound

  1. Always enjoyed the Jazz Singer. Also on tv was another entertainer by the name of Eddie Cantor whose act was similar he ha I believe 5 daughters, and one was married to the French actor on Hogan’s Hero.

  2. Pingback: MOVIE REVIEW | The Jazz Singer (1927) – Bored and Dangerous

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