Alleged First Talkie, Al Jolson’s 'The Jazz Singer,' Hits World Screens

Not that most of the world could hear the music or Jolson ad-libbing, but sound caught on quickly.

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A scene from 'The Jazz Singer,' with Al Jolson (1927).
A scene from 'The Jazz Singer,' with Al Jolson (1927).
David Green
David B. Green

On October 6, 1927, “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson had its world premiere in New York. The Warner Brothers film is remembered as the first talkie, but that’s not quite correct.

For one thing, some movies featured soundtracks at least a year earlier. Also, “The Jazz Singer” had only a small amount of spoken dialogue, with most of the text still appearing in those captions that filled the screen between the action. The film’s power came not only from its nine recorded songs via the Vitaphone “sound-on-disk” system – including six crooned by Jolson and Kaddish by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt – but also from Jolson’s ad-libbing during the recording sessions.

According to film historian J. Hoberman, the Warners “had not intended to make ‘talking’ pictures so much as [to] automate the music that accompanied silent ones. Only after noting the audience’s response to Jolson’s spontaneous improvisations did they realize what they had wrought.”

Jakie is beaten

From a Jewish point of view, “The Jazz Singer” is also amazing in its explicit depiction of a religious family, and for what it reveals about the dilemmas facing Jewish immigrants and their children during their early years in the United States.

Jolson, in real life a cantor’s son, plays Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a fifth-generation cantor (played by Warner Oland) living on New York’s Lower East Side. When Cantor Rabinowitz learns that his 13-year-old son has been singing at a local saloon on Yom Kippur eve, he beats him, and Jakie runs away.

From a 1927 movie poster for 'The Jazz Singer.'Credit: Warner Brothers

That evening, at the Kol Nidre service, the father tells a congregant mournfully, “My son was to stand at my side and sing tonight – but now I have no son.”

A decade later, Jakie – now calling himself Jack Robin – is looking for his break as a professional singer when he meets Mary Dale (May McAvoy). She becomes his girlfriend and also helps him land a starring role in a musical revue on Broadway.

As fate would have it, opening night is scheduled for Yom Kippur eve. As the dress rehearsal is getting underway, Jakie's mother arrives to tell him that his father is dying and to ask him to take the cantor’s place at synagogue the next night.

Singing to his God

Jakie is torn, but he decides to miss the show’s premiere and hurries to his father’s side, before appearing in shul to chant Kol Nidre. His father dies happy, but soon we see that Jakie, with the encouragement of his mother (who has come to understand that jazz is Jakie’s way of “singing to his God”), decides to return to the theater and to his non-Jewish girlfriend.

In Samson Raphaelson’s original 1917 short story “The Day of Atonement,” the son clearly decides to give up show biz. But that wasn’t the ending Warner Brothers wanted. The message they wanted to convey was that you could have it both ways: both find success in secular society and remain true to the faith of your fathers.

The program that accompanied the premiere informed readers that the movie had the approval of none other than the Warners’ own father, an observant Jew: “The faithful portrayal of Jewish home life is largely due to the unobtrusive assistance of Mr. Benjamin Warner, father of the producers and ardent admirer of ‘the Jazz Singer.’”

Most 1927 audiences saw a silent version of “The Jazz Singer,” since at the time fewer than 100 theaters worldwide were equipped for sound. That changed quickly. By the middle of 1929 nearly every movie coming out of Hollywood was a talkie, and theaters made the necessary adaptations.

Not by coincidence, October 6, 1927, was Yom Kippur, so the evening premiere, at the Warners’ theater on Broadway, took place as the holiday was coming to a close. None of the three Warner brothers was in attendance; Sam Warner had died a day earlier, and Harry and Jack were on their way to California for the funeral.

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