Three of Hollywood’s Earliest Paradigm-Shifting Films Are Decidedly American
Last night, I watched THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) for the first time. The landmark film, which introduced sound to the cinema (in a significant, mainstream way), has a complex legacy. Well, it’s really just racist. The film follows Jakie Rabinowitz, AKA Jack Robin, who is played by notorious jazz and ragtime superstar and blackface “aficionado” Al Jolson. Jolson, a Russian-born Jew, actually inspired the play on which the film is based. Anyways, Jakie Rabinowitz is the son of an orthodox Jewish cantor, an official singer of sacred songs for the synagogue next door. But Jakie likes ragtime, and after he is caught performing in a bar and whipped by his father, he runs away.
Years later, he’s Jack Robin, a struggling but talented jazz singer who rises the ranks of showbiz thanks to the miraculous intervention of star dancer Mary Dale. It should be noted that most of the film is actually silent, in spite of its reputation as the killer of the silent era. The sound only comes in for a handful of songs, and only a couple of minutes of spoken dialogue is heard in the whole 90 minute film. In any event, Jack’s rise brings him to a big-time Broadway revue, but his return to his parents’ lives is fraught with conflict. His love for his understanding mother, and even his opposing father, brings him to try to reconcile with the cantor.
But his father still cannot stand his son the jazz singer, and actually falls ill after their reunion. The opening of Jack’s show coincides with Yom Kippur, which actually began the film. With his father ill, his mother and community try to compel Jack to sing in his father’s place, in spite of the huge career opportunity waiting for him on Broadway. THE JAZZ SINGER is really about a conflict of identity; Jack is constantly torn between his career and family/heritage, as well as his girl Mary. Although he states that he’d do anything for his career, Jack ends up singing at the synagogue. His father passes as he hears it through the window, but the show is eventually restaged and Jack is a big hit. And he does it all in blackface. I guess he would do anything for his career.
But of course, blackface was not considered the moral transgression, as it is today, in 1927. Throughout most of the film, Jolson is not in blackface. Before one of the final musical numbers, however, he applies the dark makeup before going onstage to sing a sad song for the show’s important dress rehearsal. This decision to turn to blackface is never explained or commented on, except by his mother who visits him just before his performance. It’s just natural. Al Jolson was a star known for his blackface, so why should Jack Robin eschew the tradition? It was natural for vaudeville and stage performers to resort to the racist practice in a strange play for…silliness? A “novel” experience? I still don’t really understand it.
I do know, however, that the blackface, in the context of THE JAZZ SINGER, represents the film’s defining theme, even if its makers didn’t necessarily intend it. The blackface is a sort of disguise (well, duh, I guess) for the Jewish Jack Robin, and Jolson. Russian-born Jews weren’t exactly accepted into the WASPy American world, but the use of blackface further distinguished African Americans as the other. There’s a further sense of irony, or continuation of this theme, in the production of this film by Warner Bros., run by a quartet of Jewish immigrants.
I’m not excusing the blackface or leveling the existence of the trend on Jews. I’m pointing out that there is a correlation with, singularly, Jolson himself, and I suppose to a certain extent, the Warners, as immigrants. There was a confusion of identity at the heart of Jolson, the character he played, and the whole concept of THE JAZZ SINGER. That’s American. Many of the people who come here are faced with a crisis of identity. Assimilation is stressed, often with the threat of violence or lifelong ruin, and people have to turn to different names or professions to make do. And I guess, to blackface? But no, Jolson was certainly never forced to cover his face in dark makeup and act out the part of a black man. He wasn’t forced to profit from the suffering and negative portrayals of a group of people who were, in fact, forced to come to America. And so, by extension, neither was THE JAZZ SINGER. But it did, and although its impact as the silent era killer is somewhat exaggerated, it heralded and hastened its end. That is not insignificant. It is a paradigm-shifting film. And it is racist, like two other films that I think form a trio of huge, era-defining Hollywood movies.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), in spite of all that innovated its achievements before it, solidified crucial, affecting narrative film techniques in an epic form, beginning the silent Hollywood era and narrative filmmaking as we know it on a mainstream, massive scale. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) was a monumental culmination of the talkie techniques of 1930s, perhaps the greatest decade for cinema. THE BIRTH OF A NATION depicted the Southern fight as a noble cause, its Ku Klux Klan members as heroes in a struggle against villainous, greedy black people. GONE WITH THE WIND reinforced Confederate men and women as glamorous and worthy of admiration, and presented its slaves as blissfully ignorant or aligned with the desires and wishes of their white masters.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION’s total box office receipts are not, and likely will never be, known, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that it was Hollywood’s highest grossing film before GONE WITH THE WIND, itself considered the top earner of all time after adjusting for inflation. THE BIRTH OF A NATION reignited the passions of the KKK and GONE WITH THE WIND catered to even progressive whites and drove home the idea that there were good slave masters. And both, clearly, captured the American imagination. The two are formic masterpieces, incredible displays of cinematic craftsmanship and vision. It just so happened that the vision was driven by white supremacy, and so, their existence is also quite American.
I think THE BIRTH OF A NATION, THE JAZZ SINGER, and GONE WITH THE WIND are three of the most important films of the silent/early Golden Age period, if not the three most important. They changed the world of film forever, and they did so on the backs of black bodies. America wouldn’t have it any other way.