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Summer 2011

The Jazz Singers

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Emily Barton

Both scholars and laypeople consider the 1927 film The Jazz Singer the first talkie, though most of the movie is silent. Dialogue appears on interstitial title cards in an exotic Art Nouveau font. The “talk” consists of the film’s star, Al Jolson, performing a few musical numbers and engaging in the kind of audience patter that helped make him famous on the stage. Warner Bros. unveiled a new technology, Vitaphone Sound-on-Disc, for the audio, and, according to the documentary included with the DVD boxed set, didn’t yet entirely have the kinks worked out. Jolson looks like he’s lip-synching, and, whatever it sounded like originally, the music now emerges from behind the sad, nostalgic hiss and crackle that lends such pathos to Bix Beiderbecke recordings and even Little Rascals shorts. The imperfection of the sound lends the film an eerie beauty; you can easily imagine the excitement of sitting down in Warner’s Theater eighty-odd years ago and experiencing, for the first time, the near-miraculous illusion of the artist’s living voice.

But I’m not a film historian or even what you’d call a movie buff. What interests me about Jolson’s Jazz Singer is its significance as a Jewish film, which until recently could only be seen at revival houses like Anthology or the Brattle. Like many people, I was introduced to it via the back door—the readily available 1980 remake starring Neil Diamond. This is also an iconic Jewish film, perhaps topped only by Fiddler on the Roof, Yentl, and The Frisco Kid, though not half as good as the least of them.

For me, the spur to watch Diamond’s Jazz Singer came from my sister-in-law. A few weeks earlier, she’d suggested Before the Dinosaurs: Walking with Monsters, a stoner fantasia that—if I understood Kenneth Branagh’s doomy voiceover correctly above the roar of potentially ADHD-inducing, quick-cut animated depictions of operatic carnage—asserts that Darwin was wrong, Lamarck was right, and prehistoric supermonsters consciously evolved Ever-More-Awesome Weaponry to compete with each other in the Battle for Survival. (She needed to watch this for a project she was working on, so she may have turned a kinder eye on it than I did.) I might have been skeptical of her recommendation at that moment had I not known, dimly, that The Jazz Singer concerned one of the themes that continually arise in Jewish lives and Jewish stories, a young person’s need to frustrate his parents’ expectations in order to live the life he yearns for. My husband and I sat down to watch it with interest.

And were horrified. (Though, as with the dinosaur flick, it was a horror mixed with schadenfreudlich glee at the sheer, loopy joy of anyone making something so bad.) I suspect that the main thing to recommend Neil Diamond’s Jazz Singer would be the singer himself. If you find him and/or his music schlocky, as I do on both counts, you’re on your own. Diamond’s acting is better than I expected—though Roger Ebert may be correct in stating, “It’s not just that he can’t act. It’s that he sends out creepy vibes”—but his big, doughy face isn’t built for close-ups. In a few scenes, his character, a Jewish pop star who calls himself Jess Robin (he was born Yossele Rabinovitch), prances around on stage, slightly tubby in a billowy sequined shirt and what appear to be the gray slacks from a business suit, and it’s hard not to feel a fond embarrassment for him, the kind you’d feel for a relative who’s never shown an ounce of social grace and once again says something inappropriate at the dinner table, making everyone wince, yet simultaneously reminding you all how lonely it must be to be him.

Though I was interested in the core of The Jazz Singer’s plot—Yossele’s giving up his career as a cantor to make a secular life for himself—many things are irksome about this movie. For starters, it’s confusing how Orthodox Jess’s background is supposed to be. His father (Laurence Olivier!) is the chazzan at Eldridge Street Synagogue, an Orthodox shul, but I had trouble understanding the seating arrangements until I pieced together that the women were, in fact, sitting in a separate section, just not up on a balcony or behind a mechitzah. Jess’s Jewish first wife, Rivkah (Catlin Adams), has hair that looks like the worst imaginable sheitl, but after repeated viewings I’d lay my wager on its not being a wig, just late 1970s hair. (Jess’s non-Jewish love interest, Molly—played by Lucie Arnaz—also, after all, resembles a sheep.) For me, the montage sequences tip the film from bad in an ordinary way to giddily awful. In one, Jess, experiencing a moment of solipsistic rock-star pique, drives off from the recording studio in his convertible, starts drifting across the southwest, and ends up, scruffy and down on his luck, singing “You Are My Sunshine” in a honky-tonk Texas bar. The other documents Jess and Molly’s burgeoning romance to upbeat incidental music. This montage begins with Molly taking a huge ham out of the oven, then making exaggerated gestures of dismay as she begins to understand why her yiddishe boyfriend, glinting Magen David at his throat, looks wan at the thought of eating it. After some standard working-and-playing-together shots, the music segues into Diamond’s hit “Hello Again,” and the sequence culminates with Molly in a high-collared blouse draping a frilly do-rag over her head and taking instruction on how to light the Shabbat candles. Then it cuts to Molly and Jess undressing each other in what I can only describe as a love den. (Think floor pillows in front of the tacky fireplace; you get the idea.)

I admit that some of what bothers me about this sequence is that there’s more chest hair on view in that last shot than I’d ever care to see. But my more serious qualm with it is the way it makes light of Jess’s religious life. What we can presume is a lifetime of keeping kosher boils down to a sight gag about a Star of David and a ham; Jess and Molly can only consummate their relationship when she acts like an Orthodox wife (right down to the modest clothes and the mandate to have sex on Shabbat). On the other hand, I’m interested to see that it’s Molly who, like many a non-Jewish spouse, ultimately upholds the importance of Jewish tradition in their new family. Without her, I wonder if Jess would bother to light those candles; and when his father discovers them living together, rends his garments, and begins reciting kaddish, it’s Molly who appreciates the gravity of the situation. It’s also she who, at the movie’s climactic moment, reminds Jess with cloying earnestness that “I may be a shiksa, [but] I know what Yom Kippur means: the Day of Atonement,” and that he must heal the rift with his father by singing the Kol Nidre service when the cantor is too frail to do it.

Jess’s own struggle to make peace between his dreams and his religion seems encapsulated in the movie’s first scene, in which he races through singing the Kabbalat Shabbat service while his friend Bubba (Franklyn Ajaye) waits impatiently, doing a slapstick fumble with his kippah, to escort him to a gig at an all-black nightclub. (Cantor Rabinovitch asks him, in an accent thick as schmaltz, “So vat’s the rush, taking ‘Adon Olam’ so chessy?” —the only reference to jazz in the whole movie, which ought to have been renamed The Lounge Singer.) That is to say, Jess seems to see Jewish tradition as an impediment to his gig. He has little desire to reconcile with his father or his religion; if it weren’t for Molly’s urging, he would never, at the film’s climax, ascend the bima and perform such an embarrassingly chessy rendition of “Kol Nidre.” Only because he’s done this can Jess approach his father after the service, show him a picture of his mamzer grandson, Charlie Parker Rabinovitch (for the occasion, Jess calls him by his Hebrew name, Chayyim), and bring about the feel-good ending, in which Cantor Rabinovitch sits bopping happily alongside the self-proclaimed shiksa while Jess sings “America” to a stadium-size audience. Is this the great story of compromise between tradition and personal ambition? It hardly seems possible. Jess’s reconciliation to his Jewish past seems almost accidental—he’d gladly give up the cramped apartment on Eldridge Street, his family, and even his God for good if it weren’t for Molly.

I knew this couldn’t be the case in the 1927 film, but I didn’t have the opportunity to watch it until it was at last released on DVD just a few years ago. I was prepared for the two versions to share a story line but differ as to setting, like Macbeth and Throne of Blood. The 1980 version does share at least some of its plot with its predecessor; both versions are based on a 1925 stage play by Samson Raphaelson, which is itself based on his 1921 short story “The Day of Atonement.” Al Jolson’s character has a slightly different name (Jakie Rabinowitz, which he anglicizes to Jack Robin), but like Yossele Rabinovitch/Jess Robin, he defies his father’s wishes and chooses to pursue a life on the stage instead of the bima. In the 1927 film, Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) is harsher, disowning his son at the first evidence of his apostasy, and this sternness is tempered by a soft-hearted mamaleh, Sara (Eugenie Besserer). But the two versions of The Jazz Singer have other, more substantial differences.

On an obvious level, boy does the 1927 version have chess numbers! “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’Bye)” and “Blue Skies” get spirited renditions and give us the wonderful opportunity to hear Jolson speak and do his shtick. He also whistles one verse of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” playing his hands as fancifully as Pesache’ke Burstein, the great star of the Yiddish stage. (If you’ve never seen Burstein, Netflix the documentary The Komediant. The footage is remarkable: for example, a trippy Yiddish rendition of “Good Morning Starshine” in which Burstein’s son plays a yeshiva boy frolicking in the forest; he passes behind a tree and emerges a hippie. In both The Komediant and The Jazz Singer, the whistling fills a viewer with as much nostalgia as the crackling sound of Vitaphone itself: it’s a lost skill in our world, in which people have so many higher-tech ways to entertain themselves.)

As thoroughly of its time as Diamond’s film now feels, the 1927 version also seems like an authentic relic. Histrionics play out on the rouged cheeks and spit-blacked eyes of the silent era. Also authentically antique is Jack’s attachment to his mother. When, years after leaving to seek his fortune, he returns to New York to make his Broadway debut, he immediately comes home to Mama. The attentions he pays her better befit a lover than a son: he arrives with a diamond brooch, kisses her on the lips, and promises her a house in the Bronx and a pink dress. (Charmingly, she’s too frumpy to consider wearing such a thing. This was back when bubbes dressed like bubbes.) In Diamond’s film, by contrast, the only mention of the mother is at the party celebrating Cantor Rabinovitch’s twenty-fifth anniversary at the synagogue. He tearfully says to Jess, “Oh, how I would love to dance with your mother. Oh, she was so full of life… And then that awful day when you were playing in the streets and there came the bullets and the bomb and the terrorists”— and this tantalizing bit of backstory never comes up again. The mother’s absence, it seems, is of little significance.

Jack’s and Jess’s relationships to their fathers also differ. When Jess’s father falls ill on Kol Nidre, Molly nudges him to do the right thing; the show is set to open in two days but won’t rehearse on the holiday (as they break, there’s the joke of the producer wishing everyone a “happy Yom Kippur”), so Jess can go home and sing in his father’s place without jeopardizing his career. But in the original film, the stakes are much higher. Jack’s big Broadway revue is in dress rehearsal, set to open on Kol Nidre (which may seem odd, given the Jewishness of New York theater, but many plays actually opened on Yom Kippur in the 1920s). A neighbor comes twice to beg him to fulfill his father’s duty, the second time bringing Sara with him for emotional effect; when the two arrive, Jack is in costume and in the company of Mary Dale (May McAvoy), the love interest. (As if it isn’t bad enough that she’s named Mary, she’s dressed like Cher, in a spangly outfit with a headdress.) The revue’s producer makes it clear that if Jack chooses to miss the dress rehearsal and opening night, he’ll forfeit the chance he’s been working toward all these years. Nevertheless, as he tells Mary via a title card, “there’s something after all, in my heart—maybe it’s the call of the ages—the cry of my race.” He ultimately chooses to go home to the Lower East Side to honor his father; and the producer relents and covers for him with the disappointed audience. In the meantime, Sara is shocked to see her son in blackface, as contemporary viewers may also be; I, for one, had never really witnessed the form outside Spike Lee’s send-up of it in Bamboozled, and I briefly wondered if this unsettling content was why it took Warner so long to release the film on DVD.

But as wrong as blackface looks to a modern eye and conscience, it’s of great, even redemptive, importance in the 1927 Jazz Singer. (The 1980 film nods to this by having Jess try to pass himself off as a member of a group called “The Four Brothers” at the all-black club. The deception results in fisticuffs; and as if to atone for the earlier film’s potentially racist content, Jess’s only friend in the movie is black.) At the decisive moment, Mary Dale is all sequins and artifice, but Jack Robin is dressed ethnic; which is to say that, metaphorically at least, he’s dressed as his non-stage self, Jakie Rabinowitz. He knows this because when he looks in the mirror while wearing his black pancake, he briefly sees in his own reflection the image of his father, the chazzan, up on the bima. And within the racist context of minstrelsy, I’d argue that Jolson is, here at least, doing his best not to be disrespectful, other than in a momentary and grossly stereotypical rolling of his eyes for Mary’s amusement. In the plantation act that’s included on the first DVD of the boxed set, he’s dressed in frayed pants and a straw hat, but here he wears a neat suit; and he performs both of The Jazz Singer’s blackface numbers exactly as he does other songs, with polish and grace. At the dress rehearsal Jolson is singing a maudlin Mammy song, but this provides a real opportunity for Jack to explore the importance his mother, and by extension his family, holds for him. His black makeup helps Jack Robin understand that, for all his ambition and talent, his history is to some extent his destiny. And he once again performs in blackface in the happy ending—echoed in the later film—in which Sara Rabinowitz sits in the audience while her son sings a more upbeat Mammy song. She may originally have been shocked to see him in his makeup, but now his performance fills her with pride.

Neil Diamond’s film thus shares with its predecessor a sense that if a Jewish person walks away from his heritage but maintains some vestigial sense of duty to Abraham’s tribe, he can fulfill his ambitions, maintain (or at least reinstate) his place in the community, and have the respect of both his elders and his colleagues in the secular world. But, interestingly, the script of Samson Raphaelson’s original play offers rather a different and more antiquated message. (My sense of the play’s antiquity is partly influenced by the copy in front of me: published by Brentano’s, with a rough front and bound in boards with a sprightly metallic print that evokes the syncopated rhythms of jazz music. The stiltedness of the Yiddish speakers’ dialogue is hilarious—“You look in my face and tell me happy you are?”—as is Mary Dale’s attempt to convince Jack not to go sing in the synagogue. She tells him, “If the thing you want most is to be a black-face minstrel, then don’t let anything stand in your way” —a sentiment that sounds pretty un-convincing in the twenty-first century.) In the play, Jack Robin’s producer explains that the singer performing is the only way the show, called April Follies though it’s opening on Yom Kippur, can keep him from financial ruin; and Mary Dale, for reasons that are clearly meant to seem at least partly anti-Semitic, does everything in her power to keep him from returning to Orchard Street to sing. He does so full of misgiving and with absolutely no religious feeling; his father dies without knowing he’s returned; and the curtain closes on a man who’s lost his love and ruined his career to sing a bunch of prayers he doesn’t believe in. It’s a very different message from that in either of the two films, and a very un-Hollywood one.

Further complicating the question of what The Jazz Singer says about the individual’s relationship to Judaism is the fact that there’s a little-known third version of the film, starring Danny Thomas, released in 1952. I had a hell of a time tracking it down, and probably never would have managed to had a helpful college librarian not taken pity on me. It turns out there’s a good reason for its rarity: it’s awful. Not in the manner of Neil Diamond’s film, which is lovable in its badness; the Danny Thomas incarnation is all stilted acting and an oddly nonsensical script. The setting has moved from the Lower East Side to Philadelphia, where the Jewish population is of older, German stock—cultured Jews who, when the great Eastern European wave of immigrants arrived, stinking of fish and garlic and escaping the early twentieth century’s pogroms, thought, “There goes the neighborhood.” It’s good to remember that not all Ashkenazim have roots in Anatevka, but it’s fatal for the film to lose that sense of the New World shtetl clinging to “Tradition!” Danny Thomas’s character—whose name is Jerry Golding, perhaps because Rabinowitz sounded too Orchard Street—comes from a WASPy, upper-crust family. Though the film claims the Goldings have been the cantors of Temple Emanuel for generations, it’d be easier to believe that these affluent cocktail-party types spawn admen, pediatricians, or even robber barons. Elements of the plot that cohere in Jolson’s film and are reconfigured in Diamond’s are here weirdly atomized: Jerry Golding waffles between show biz and religious life, fulfills his family’s desires or ignores them, and is home or isn’t for various holidays (bringing to mind For Your Consideration’s film-within-a-film, Home for Purim, which is funny precisely because no one in his right mind would care if you weren’t) in random order, so that none of his actions has any consequences or causes any suspense. Peggy Lee, strangely thuggish and clomping, plays the love interest, who’s blond, brassy, and clearly not meant to read as Jewish—until the moment when she mentions in passing to Jerry’s mother that she hasn’t been to a Rosh Hashanah dinner in ages. Yet her Jewishness—if it isn’t just a mistake that someone forgot to write out of the script—is never mentioned again, which leaves me, at least, feeling kind of ripped off.

Despite all of this, it’s interesting that in the 1950s director Richard Curtiz was looking back at the 1927 film, seeing something in it worth reviving and updating, yet blowing every meaningful bit of it to pieces; and that in 1980, director Richard Fleischer (of Soylent Green fame) was once again looking back, either at both films or, as seems more likely, only at the original. Both remakes turned out to be less touching. Neither Danny Thomas nor Neil Diamond can match the flickering grandeur of Al Jolson, all in white, vamping up “Kol Nidre” on the Sephardic-style central bima while the father lies dying in his apartment across the street and listening to the music through the open window; nor does either remake contain a moment as poignant as that in which the image of the father, at the instant of his death, appears behind his son’s shoulder, gives him a ghostly benediction, and vanishes. Why is this so? Perhaps it’s that the world of Jewish expectations changed so much in the years after that first film was made. For those of us who were raised secularly by parents who, like Jack Robin, rejected their parents’ orthodoxy, there is often a real longing for the security that Jack so yearns to leave behind. As fully assimilated people, we take it for granted that we’ll be able to pursue our ambitions; but I, for one, have spent much of my adult life wishing I’d had a Jewish past with Shabbat dinners and more holidays than Pesach and Yom Kippur. Jack Robin broke free of tradition in a way that befitted his time, and his filmic children and grandchildren did the same. Now at least some of his great-grandchildren would like to be bound by it again.

If history is any predictor—and the story of The Jazz Singer indicates that, for American Jews at least, it is—a new interpretation is due out right about now. Perhaps this time Jakie Rabinowitz or Jack Robin or Jerry Golding or Yossele Rabinovitch or Jess Robin will be a woman. Maybe the way she’ll upset her Jewish parents (who’ve been admen or pediatricians or robber barons for two generations) will be by wanting to become a rabbi. While I’ve been working on this essay and watching the Neil Diamond and Al Jolson Jazz Singers obsessively, my husband has gone and worked up a treatment for a new twist on the old plot; but neither of us will be surprised if, on IMDB sometime soon, we discover that someone—Harry Connick, Jr.? Adam Sandler? Amy Winehouse, God forbid?—already has a Jazz Singer of his or her own in the works.

Emily Barton is the author of the novels Brookland and The Testament of Yves Gundron. She teaches writing at Yale and Columbia.

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