In This Article The Jazz Singer

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Archival Material
  • Reviews
  • Blackface, The Essential Context
  • Reception and Influence
  • Jazz and the Jazz Age
  • Remakes

Cinema and Media Studies The Jazz Singer
by
Krin Gabbard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0069

Introduction

Although it was not the first film in which actors talked or made noise, The Jazz Singer radically hastened the end of silent cinema. Soon after it opened in 1927, theaters all over the world were being wired for sound. A perfect Jazz Age storm, The Jazz Singer brought together Al Jolson—already billed as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”—with the revolutionary new Vitaphone technology and a story that formed the bedrock of American myth. In his many Broadway hits, Jolson had always appeared in blackface as an African American trickster, but in The Jazz Singer, Jolson was essentially playing himself. His story closely parallels that of the film’s Jakie Rabinowitz, who rejects his cantor father and an insular, immigrant culture to achieve show business glory. Although it inaugurated the genre of the Hollywood musical, The Jazz Singer was essentially a melodrama, with unfailing love between mother and son, reconciliation with a previously unyielding father, and the protagonist’s last-minute decision to give up everything he has spent his life pursuing. In the various versions of the story on which the film is based, the Jewish jazz singer walks away from certain success on opening night to sing “Kol Nidre” on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. But late in the genesis of the film, a scene was added in which Jakie—now known as “Jack Robin”—reappears on stage in blackface and sings “My Mammy” while his mother and his blond costar look on adoringly. He has won stardom and the love of a beautiful gentile woman while inflicting no harm on his doting mother. And at the end he gives up nothing as he retains a rich connection to his roots in Jewish culture. Like the heroes of so many American movies yet to come, even the Jewish Jack Robin can have it all. Of course, the story was very different for black Americans.

Overviews

For many years after its release, film historians tended to regard The Jazz Singer’s talking and singing as the end of “pure cinema.” Other film scholars may have decided to stay away from the film because of Jolson’s maudlin impersonation of a black mama’s boy. Carringer 1979 was among the first works to explore the film in depth, but its author did so primarily as a historian. Rogin 1996 inaugurated a new discourse for the film by foregrounding the racism of blackface. Willis 2005 is also highly critical of the film’s racist project. Williams 2001 ingeniously contextualizes the film in terms of America’s “melodramas of black and white.” Stanfield 2005 is also an excellent contextualizer, but its focus is more on the musical traditions on which the film draws. In a broad discussion of Yiddish films, Hoberman 1991 has much to say about The Jazz Singer as well as a Polish film that took a much less celebratory view of assimilation. The harshest critique of the film is Gubar 1997, which sees the film as especially vicious in its racism. A revisionist view, Musser 2011, argues that The Jazz Singer was not racist and was in fact well-received among African American audiences.

  • Carringer, Robert L. “Introduction: History of a Popular Culture Classic.” In The Jazz Singer. Edited by Robert L. Carringer, 11–32. Wisconsin/Warner Bros. Screenplay Series. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.

    E-mail Citation »

    A careful account of the film’s genesis from short story to ambitious studio production, with many details about the cast and producers at Warner Bros.

  • Gubar, Susan. “Spirit-Murder at the Movies: Blackface Lynchings.” In Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. By Susan Gubar, 53–94. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    In condemning the racism of The Jazz Singer, Gubar associates the film with Birth of a Nation (1914), which also features white actors in blackface and which endorsed the Ku Klux Klan’s attacks on black Americans.

  • Hoberman, J. Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film between Two Worlds. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    In an overview of Yiddish films, Hoberman highlights how a film from Poland, Der Vilner Balebesl (1940), shares plot similarities with The Jazz Singer with the exception that the former ends in disaster for a cantor who leaves his village in hopes of assimilating into gentile society. See pp. 270–273.

  • Musser, Charles. Why Did Negroes Love Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer? Molodrama, Blackface and Cosmopolitan Theatrical Culture. Film History, 23.2 (2011): 196-222.

    E-mail Citation »

    Musser makes the case that, at least in the 1920s, Jolson was one of the most popular entertainers among blacks audiences. He was respected for advancing the careers of many African American entertaingers, and his use of blackface was a “powerful assertion of shared experience and unity” between blacks and Jews.

  • Rogin, Michael. “Blackface, White Noise: The Jewish Jazz Singer Finds His Voice.” In Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. By Michael Rogin, 73–120. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    While writing a thorough history of The Jazz Singer, Rogin argues that Jews such as Jolson hid their ethnicity behind burnt cork and thus “became white.” He also condemns the film for presenting imitations of a black man without any meaningful representation of how black Americans lived.

  • Stanfield, Peter. “An Octoroon in the Kindling: A Black and White Minstrel Show.” In Body and Soul: Jazz, Blues, and Race in American Film, 1927–1963. By Peter Stanfield, 9–43. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Primarily concerned with how American popular music is rooted in previously despised traditions, Stanfield sees The Jazz Singer and blackface minstrelsy as a mostly incoherent attempt to bridge the gap between vernacular and mainstream music.

  • Williams, Linda. “Posing as Black, Passing as White: The Melos of Black and White Melodrama in the Jazz Age.” In Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson. By Linda Williams, 136–186. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Implicitly critical of Rogin 1996, Williams is intrigued by how The Jazz Singer allowed Jews to make common cause with blacks by melodramatically connecting the sufferings of both groups.

  • Willis, Corin. “Meaning and Value in The Jazz Singer.” In Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film. Edited by John Gibbs and Douglas Pye, 127–140. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    After watching virtually all of the American films that feature blackface, Willis concludes that The Jazz Singer is unique in making so much of a practice that reveals the duplicity and ethnic hybridity within American identity.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down