The Jazz Singer

The First Feature-Length Talkie

A movie poster for The Jazz Singer.
"The Jazz Singer". In public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, was released as a feature-length movie on October 6, 1927, it was the first movie that included dialogue and music on the filmstrip itself.

Adding Sounds to Film

Before The Jazz Singer, there were silent films. Despite their name, these films were not silent for they were accompanied by music. Often, these films were accompanied by a live orchestra in the theater and from as early as 1900, films were often synchronized with musical scores that were played on amplified record players.

The technology advanced in the 1920s when Bell Laboratories developed a way to allow an audio track to be placed on the film itself. This technology, called Vitaphone, was first used as a musical track in a film titled Don Juan in 1926. Although Don Juan had music and sound effects, there were no spoken words in the film.

Actors Talking on Film

When Sam Warner of the Warner Brothers planned The Jazz Singer, he anticipated that the film would use silent periods to tell the story and the Vitaphone technology would be used for the singing of music, just as the new technology had been used in Don Juan.

However, during the filming of The Jazz Singer, superstar of the time Al Jolson ad-libbed dialogue in two different scenes and Warner liked the end result.

Thus, when The Jazz Singer was released on October 6, 1927,  it became the first feature-length film (89 minutes long) to include dialogue on the filmstrip itself.

The Jazz Singer made way for the future of "talkies," which is what movies with audio soundtracks were called.

So What Did Al Jolson Actually Say?

The first words Jolson recites are: “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” Jolson spoke 60 words in one scene and 294 words in another

The rest of the film is silent, with words written on black, title cards just like in silent movies. The only sound (besides the few words by Jolson) are the songs.

The Storyline of the Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer is a movie about Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a Jewish cantor who wants to be a jazz singer but is pressured by his father to use his God-given voice to sing as a cantor. With five generations of Rabinowitz men as cantors, Jakie's father (played by Warner Oland) is adamant that Jakie has no choice in the matter.

Jakie, however, has other plans. After being caught singing "raggy time songs" at a beer garden, Cantor Rabinowitz gives Jakie a belt whipping. That's the last straw for Jakie; he runs away from home.

After setting off on his own, adult Jakie (played by Al Jolson) works hard to become a success in the field of jazz. He meets a girl, Mary Dale (played by May McAvoy), and she helps him improve his act.

As Jakie, now known as Jack Robin, becomes increasingly successful, he continues to crave the support and love of his family. His mother (played by Eugenie Besserer) supports him, but his father is disgusted that his son wants to be a jazz singer.

The climax of the movie revolves around a dilemma.

Jakie must choose between starring in a Broadway show or returning to his deathly ill father and singing Kol Nidre at the synagogue. Both occur on the very same night. As Jakie says in the film (on a title card), "It's a choice between giving up the biggest chance of my life -- and breaking my mother's heart."

This dilemma resonated with audiences for the 1920s were full of such decisions. With the older generation holding tight to tradition, the newer generation was rebelling, becoming flappers, listening to jazz, and dancing the Charleston.

Ultimately, Jakie couldn't break his mother's heart and so he sang Kol Nidre that night. The Broadway show was cancelled. There is a happy ending though -- we see Jakie starring in his own show just a few months later.

Al Jolson's Blackface 

In the first of two scenes where Jakie is struggling with his choice, we see Al Jolson applying black makeup all over his face (except for near his lips) and then covering his hair with a wig.

Although unacceptable today, the concept of blackface was popular at the time.

The movie ends with Jolson again in blackface, singing "My Mammy."