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.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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Archival Material

The film was based on the play, Raphaelson 1925, which was in turn based on the short story, Raphaelson 1979. In Raphaelson 1927, the author gives his own account of the film’s genesis. The original shooting script, Cohn 1979, prefigures a somewhat different film than the one that was eventually released. The novelization, De Haas 1927, is a good example of how studios tried to manage the reception of their products. Al Jolson Signs with Warners 1927 and Kreuger 1977 reveal how Warners promoted the film.

  • “Al Jolson Signs with Warners.” Los Angeles Times, 26 May 1927, p. A8.

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    Reports that Jolson will replace George Jessel in the cast of The Jazz Singer, and suggests that the film replicates Jolson’s own story.

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  • Cohn, Alfred A. “The Jazz Singer: Adaptation and Continuity.” In The Jazz Singer. Edited by Robert L. Carringer, 47–141. Wisconsin/Warner Bros. Screenplay Series. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.

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    Along with many other differences, the original shooting script ends with Jack Robin giving up show business in order to assume his dying father’s career as a cantor.

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  • De Haas, Arline. The Jazz Singer: A Story of Pathos and Laughter. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1927.

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    Like most novelizations, this treatment of The Jazz Singer tells us so much about what is going on in the minds of the characters that it could have been based on a different film.

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  • Kreuger, Miles. “The Jazz Singer.” In Souvenir Programs of Twelve Classic Movies, 1927–1941. Edited by Miles Kreuger, 1–20. New York: Dover, 1977.

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    Loaded with photos, bios of the actors, sheet music, and much more, this is what audiences took home after they saw the film in 1927. As publicity, the material is consistently revealing.

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  • Raphaelson, Samson. The Jazz Singer. Stage play based on “Day of Atonement.” Opened in New York in 1925 and is apparently unpublished.

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    Like the short story and the original screenplay, the stage version ends with Jack Robin leaving show business. The part of Jack was played by George Jessel, and the play was not a musical.

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  • Raphaelson, Samson. “Birth of The Jazz Singer.” American Hebrew, 14 October 1927, 812.

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    Before he wrote “Day of Atonement,” the author saw Jolson perform in a road show production of Robinson Crusoe, Jr., in 1917. He said to himself, “This isn’t a jazz singer. This is a cantor!”

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  • Raphaelson, Samson. “The Day of Atonement.” In The Jazz Singer. Edited by Robert L. Carringer, 147–167. Wisconsin/Warner Bros. Screenplay Series. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.

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    The story, based on what Raphaelson knew of Jolson’s own biography, was originally published in Everybody’s Magazine in 1922.

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Reviews

This list of reviews can be extended almost indefinitely. Fisher 1994 cites over thirty reviews, and Geduld 1975 usefully summarizes many of them. Among the more important reviews, Hall 1927 hailed the film as breakthrough. Jolson Turns to Drama 1927 shows the extent to which reviewers emphasized its Jewish content, an aspect of the film that the anti-Semitic Huxley 1929 found especially offensive. The critique of Jolson’s acting in Silverman 1927 and the objections to the film’s maudlin tone by Sherwood 1927 are typical of the film’s many lukewarm reviews.

Al Jolson

The history of The Jazz Singer would be indistinguishable from the career of Al Jolson, even if the screenplay were not actually inspired by his own life. Most commentators agree that Jolson was an egomaniac who was only happy when he was performing. But audiences adored him, and he was regularly billed as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.” Jolson was so devoted to his audiences that it might seem that the ending of The Jazz Singer had to be changed because the idea of Al Jolson giving up show business was unimaginable.

Biographies and Criticism

Freedland 2007 and Goldman 1988 have the most useful biographical information. Kiner and Evans 1992, and Fisher 1994 have compiled lists documenting virtually every aspect of his career. Written on the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Jazz Singer, Sarris 1977 provides a postmortem on Jolson’s career after his first great success in movies. Gabbard 2010 and Webb 2005 provide critical accounts of Jolson’s films.

Memoirs

Jolson was a memorable character, and many who knew him have put pen to paper. In Jolson 1951, Al’s brother fills in information about the star’s early years, while Sieben 1962 recalls the performer late in his life. Berle 2002 and Burns with Fisher 1989 have plenty of anecdotes, not all of them flattering. Grudens 2006 is pure celebration. Although most historians agree that George Jessel was forced out of the film version of The Jazz Singer because he asked for too much money, the performer gives his own version of the story in Jessel 1943.

The Revolution in Cinema Sound

It is as impossible to imagine The Jazz Singer without the Vitaphone sound system as it is to imagine it without Jolson. Warner Bros. developed Vitaphone in hopes that it would soon dominate cinema production and distribution. The sound-on-disc process, however, did not catch on, and the more reliable sound-on-film system soon became the industry standard. Many scholars have documented and theorized these first moments of talking pictures.

The Vitaphone Process

The most useful work on Vitaphone is Wolfe 1990. Hutchinson 2002 documents everything that was recorded with the process. Tankel 1978 discounts the importance of the process in the success of The Jazz Singer. The Vitaphone News is often informative, but it is mostly for people who collect Vitaphone discs.

History and Criticism

Useful histories of the arrival of sound include Gomery 1985, Mulvey 1999, and Walker 1978. Among the revisionist studies, Eyman 1997 documents early resistance to sound; Spadoni 2003 argues that the process bizarrely brought the dead back to life; and Crafton 1996 finds fault with historians who have overemphasized the importance of The Jazz Singer. Swindell 1977 laments the fate of those who had flourished before the arrival of sound. O’Brien 2005 shows the singularity of early sound in Hollywood by comparing it to parallel developments in France. The making of a short film (as yet unreleased) is documented in Finehout 1979.

Blackface, The Essential Context

Blackface minstrelsy was the dominant form of American entertainment for most of the 19th century, and actors with burnt cork on their faces appeared in American movies from the beginnings until the mid-1950s. Useful histories of blackface performance in the United States are Toll 1977, Lott 1993, and Mahar 1999. In a tribute to the work of Rogin 1996 (see Overviews), Abel 2003 applies its arguments about blackface to other films and historical moments. Lhamon 1998 is a fascinating rethinking of how blackface functioned in American culture, and Tuhkanen 2001 ambitiously extends the debate into current notions of what is offensive in a range of racial representations.

  • Abel, Elizabeth. “Shadows.” Representations 84 (November 2003): 166–199.

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    Likening The Jazz Singer to the Astaire-Rogers vehicle Swing Time (1936), Abel argues that blackface has a strong Protestant dimension in both films. Available online by subscription.

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  • Lhamon, W. T., Jr. Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

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    An exceptionally thoughtful take on The Jazz Singer and blackface. For Lhamon, Jolson in particular and blackface performers in general are not so much replacing African Americans as claiming multiple identities for themselves. See pp. 102–115.

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  • Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    Exhaustively researched and elaborately theorized, the book asserts that audiences for blackface shows, especially working-class males, did indeed see blacks as inferior but also regarded them as exemplars of masculinity, spontaneity, and joyfully transgressive behavior.

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  • Mahar, William J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

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    A well-researched exploration of the crucial role blackface minstrelsy played in the development of most American genres of entertainment in the years after the Civil War.

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  • Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

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    Reliable account of minstrelsy’s history and its broad appeal. Minstrelsy succeeded in large part by reassuring white Americans that blacks were inferior beings who needed the help of whites.

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  • Tuhkanen, Mikko. “Of Blackface and Paranoid Knowledge: Richard Wright, Jacques Lacan, and the Ambivalence of Black Minstrelsy.” Diacritics 31.2 (Summer 2001): 9–34.

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    A poststructuralist meditation on the predictable and unpredictable ways in which representations such as blackface have been reappropriated. Available online by subscription.

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Reception and Influence

Although there is debate about exactly how influential The Jazz Singer actually was, the film is a crucial item in anyone’s cinema history. Altman 1987 begins its exhaustive history of the American musical with the film, and Berman 2009 weaves The Jazz Singer into its account of New York’s Times Square. Knight 2002 is concerned with how black audiences may have received the film, and Higashi 2009 weaves the film into the larger fabric of cinema in 1927. Knapp 2005 takes a more general look at how a variety of films like The Jazz Singer changed America. Revisionist works that believe the film’s importance has been overstated include Barrios 1995 and Bergstrom 2005. Gomery 2005 contextualizes the film within the history of Hollywood studios, and Cooper 2003 connects the film to the rise of a new managerial class.

Is it Good for the Jews?

The story of Jakie Rabinowitz has much in common with the lives of many Jewish filmmakers in the early years of the 20th century. For better or worse, few films represented the experience of Jewish immigrants as vividly as The Jazz Singer. Among the great deal of scholarship devoted to Jews and American entertainment, an especially intriguing example of how Jews could assimilate without losing their identity is the story of Yossele Rosenblatt, who sings onscreen in The Jazz Singer.

Ethnic and Religious Issues

Useful overviews of Jews performing behind and in front of the camera include Friedman 1982, Erens 1984, and Bartov 2005. Desser 1991 engagingly recruits psychoanalysis to account for Jewish representations in films like The Jazz Singer, while Rosenberg 2002 looks at how the film reflected Americans’ discomfort with Jewish culture. Brackman 2000 traces the evolution of anti-Semitic attacks on “Jewish Hollywood,” and Knapp 2008 scolds the many critics who have written that Jack Robin abandons his religion as he assimilates. Saposnik 1994 considers Jewish mothers and their sons in films like The Jazz Singer, and Long 2008 carefully assesses the impact of Jewish sensibilities on the film’s music.

Jews and the Jazz Age

In the crucial moment when The Jazz Singer appeared, Jews were as prominent in musical entertainment as they were in Hollywood. Slobin 1982, Slobin 1983, and Melnick 2001 document the ability of Jewish musicians such as Jolson to succeed in spite of almost insuperable obstacles. For Merwin 2006, this success was crucial to the humanization and ultimately to the assimilation of subsequent generations of Jews. Gabler 1988 shows how deeply Jewish filmmakers were involved in the invention of modern America, while Alexander 2003 and Jerving 2003 see Jewish entertainers working against the grain of American culture in the 1920s.

The Case of Yossele Rosenblatt

At an important moment in The Jazz Singer, Jack Robin goes into a theater to hear real-life cantor Yossele Rosenblatt (identified in the film as “Josef Rosenblatt”). An especially popular singer of the late 1920s, Rosenblatt was originally offered the role of Cantor Rabinowitz. He refused the part for religious reasons but agreed to sing in the film on the condition that he not wear makeup. Rosenblatt 1954 is the cantor’s biography, and Cantor Sings Famous Aria during Film 1928 is a vivid account of one of his performances. Lee 1957 was enchanted by Rosenblatt’s singing. Knapp 2008 makes him a crucial figure in The Jazz Singer, and Stowe 2004 argues that Rosenblatt’s role in the film powerfully revealed the connections between Jewish sacred music and jazz.

Jazz and the Jazz Age

Rogin 1992 insisted that there was no jazz in The Jazz Singer. However, the film was definitely part of the Jazz Age, and as Osgood 1978 reveals and Ulanov 1952 and Shaw 1989 confirm, most white people in 1927 believed that white performers such as Jolson, Paul Whiteman, Sophie Tucker, and George Gershwin were playing jazz. Of course, not everyone in the 1920s was receptive to the new music. Goldberg 1927 imperiously explains the music in terms of the shared otherness of blacks and Jews, while Shultz 1922 defends early jazz even as that book’s author finds it strident and vulgar. More recently, scholarly works such as Moore 1985 have charted the course of the despised music that Jolson and others were making quintessentially American. Fass 1979 looks at the role jazz played in the lives of young affluent Americans in the 1920s.

Remakes

The Jazz Singer has been remade several times, including a twenty-fifth anniversary revival in 1952 that starred Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee. A bizarre vanity project with Neil Diamond in 1980 inspired a useful essay Hoberman 1991. Carringer 1979 summarizes the films briefly, while Gabbard 1996 addresses the various films called The Jazz Singer as well as the several films its author considers “unacknowledged remakes.” Writing on Jerry Lewis’s 1959 remake for television, which Lewis himself took out of distribution, Gabbard 2002 finds a surprising return to the original ending of The Jazz Singer. McClelland 1987 is primarily journalistic, but the book usefully addresses the two Jolson biopics, The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), and then continues into the tragic career of Larry Parks, who played Jolson in the two films before he was blacklisted for his political beliefs.

  • Carringer, Robert L. The Jazz Singer. Wisconsin/Warner Bros. Screenplay Series. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.

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    Writing before the 1980 remake, Carringer gives good accounts of both the 1952 and 1959 versions in his introduction to this book. He also mentions the aborted plan, inspired by the success of The Wiz (1975), to stage The Jazz Singer on Broadway with an all-black cast. See pp. 28–32.

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  • Gabbard, Krin. “The Ethnic Oedipus: The Jazz Singer and Its Remakes.” In Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema. By Krin Gabbard, 35–63. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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    Close readings of the three The Jazz Singer remakes as well as “unacknowledged remakes” such as The Jolson Story (1946), The Benny Goodman Story (1955), St. Louis Blues (1958), and La Bamba (1987).

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  • Gabbard, Krin. “The Day the Clown Quit: Jerry Lewis Returns to The Jazz Singer’s Roots.” In Enfant Terrible: Jerry Lewis in American Film. Edited by Murray Pomerance, 91–106. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

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    Lewis might have been attracted to the oedipal dynamics of The Jazz Singer because his father was basically a Jolson imitator. This televised program ends with Jack (Lewis) singing “Kol Nidre” (in clownface!) and not returning to show business.

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  • Hoberman, J. “The Show Biz Messiah.” In Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Movies and Other Media. By J. Hoberman, 64–88. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

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    Writing about the 1980 remake, Hoberman points out that the creation of the state of Israel makes the protagonist’s father’s resistance to assimilation anachronistic.

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  • McClelland, Doug. Blackface to Blacklist: Al Jolson, Larry Parks, and “The Jolson Story.” Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1987.

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    Mostly a series of anecdotes about Jolson and Larry Parks, the actor who played Jolson in the two biopics, The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949).

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