by Kathryn Fossaceca
April 2011

Cars, television, radio—in the 1920s, a decade of change, Americans departed from tradition and embraced modern technology. Technological innovations modernized the film industry too. The motion picture began as a silent novelty, but the advent of sound transformed the medium into a standard form of entertainment. However, modernization resulted in more losses than gains to emerging ethnic groups in the 1920s, and as mainstream America’s obsession with homogenizing society increased, Hollywood’s interest in sound technology exploited the trend toward assimilation. Alan Crosland’s 1927 film The Jazz Singer, one of the first successful “talkies” of the year, reflects the identity crisis that immigrants faced during the 1920s, depicting the struggle of Jakie Rabinowintz’s, played by Al Jolson, to maintain his Jewish identity in American society. In the film, sound technology works as a metaphor for assimilation in that sound essentially strips Jolson of his Jewish identity and associates him with mainstream American society, suggesting that one cannot retain one’s own ethnic individuality in a culture that stresses social conformity.

The Jazz Singer paved the way for the explosion of the “talkie” throughout the 1920s. Considered the first successful audible picture, The Jazz Singer highlights Jolson singing both Jewish and American songs, and offers a portrayal of his own identity crisis. Jolson plays Jakie Rabinowitz, a first generation Jewish American torn between his Jewish and American roots; his role epitomizes an immigrant’s struggle to retain his individual identity in America. Living in the Jewish side of the New York Ghetto and primarily surrounded by the Jewish people and culture, Jolson’s character struggles to assimilate fully into American society. His love for “rag time Jazz tunes” and his passion for singing kindle his dream of one day performing on Broadway, but this dream clashes with his father’s plan that he will become a Jewish cantor. Jakie’s singing ability thrusts him into Hollywood’s spotlight, and his voice, which he produces with a clear American accent, permits his acceptance into American society; as consequence, however, Jakie’s begins to lose his Jewish identity as he draws away from his cultural traditions.

Many contemporary movie reviewers approved of the silent film’s transition to the new media and commented positively on the movie’s use of sound and Jolson’s voice. In Mordant Hall’s New York Times review of The Jazz Singer, he states, “Mr. Jolson’s persuasive vocal efforts were received with rousing applause. In fact not since the first presentation of Vitaphone features, more than a year ago at the same playhouse has anything like the ovation been heard in a motion picture theatre.” Sound film added an aspect of realism to the motion picture. Harry Geduld argues that “Jolson wasn’t merely an image on the screen—he was, or seemed to be, actually there in person, speaking just the way people did when they tried to break in on conversation […] when they were kidding or making small talk” (185). Jolson’s famous line in The Jazz Singer, “Wait a minute, Wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet,” invites the audience to listen, and the line seems more natural when spoken than when written on an intertitle card.

But perhaps one of the beauties of silent film was that the medium did not restrict its audience to only one language. In The New York Times article “Charm of the Silent Screen,” Arturo Mom provides a description of silent film’s unique experience, claiming that “beings of illusion and mystery were marvelous precisely because of their silence, the profound silence of their language that allowed […] the imagination to clothe them with […] poetic beauty.” Mom continues to criticize the talkie, pointing out that its restriction to only one language promotes an “insurmountable barrier which could only disappear if the world decided to adopt a single language.” Many considered the implementation of sound into the motion picture as silent film’s loss of its universal language, which had allowed the audience to imagine their own voices and sound effects for film. “Seeing” a film without sound allowed the audience to live inside a fantasy machine and make their own creative contribution to what they were viewing. Cohen argues that sound film destroyed the easy “oscillation” and fluid movements of the actors in the silent film who now memorized lines (169). In the same way that the “talkies” standardized the aesthetics of sound and deemphasized the beauty of silence, sound films also homogenized the immigrant actor’s identity.

Significantly, The Jazz Singer is not a complete sound film; it is both a sound film and a silent film. Scott Eyman claims that “by producing a film that slides from sound to silence and back again, Warner Brothers negatively emphasized silence” (15). I would argue that, in addition to disparaging silence, The Jazz Singer actually associates silence with Jewish culture and sound with American culture. Moreoever, the film suggests that sound wins out over silence in the end, just as Jakie begins to identify with mainstream American culture over and above his Jewish heritage.

The opening scene of the movie shows Jakie singing the jazz tunes in a bar. The environment of the bar is cheerful and relaxed as the camera cuts to a friend of Jakie’s father, Moisha Yudleson, enjoying an alcoholic beverage—a sinful American indulgence. Until Yudleson realizes that the boy singing on stage is Jakie, Jakie’s voice fills the saloon with the popular American song, “My Gal Sal.” But the film cuts to silence after Moisha leaves the bar to tattle about Jakie’s whereabouts to Jakie’s father. Outraged, Jakie’s father hurries to the bar to reprimand his son. At this point the film switches back to sound, and Jakie’s voice returns with a new jazz song, “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” while he dances provocatively. The camera captures the looseness with which Jakie moves his body to the music, and intercuts his performance with shots of the audience enjoying his performance, suggesting the popularity of the American song. However, the film switches back to silence when Jakie’s cantor father, who rigidly holds to Jewish tradition, runs to the stage to grab Jakie. At this moment, the music immediately stops. As Mom puts it, “[t]he brusque transition from speech to silence leaves the immediate impression either that the actors suddenly have become dumb or that we have become deaf.” Silence dominates the following scenes in which Jakie’s father brings Jakie back home and proceeds to beat Jakie to cleanse him of contamination from having participated in mainstream American culture and, specifically, from having sung American songs.

The film portrays Jewish culture as stiff and uninviting, and American culture as loose, natural, and free. By associating silence with Jewish culture and sound with mainstream American culture, the film suggests that identifying with mainstream American culture affords a person more opportunities for self-expression whereas identifying with an immigrant or minority culture represses and silences one’s voice. In this way, The Jazz Singer endorses assimilation and elevates mainstream American identity at the expense of Jewish heritage.

Works Cited

Cohen, Paula. Silent Film and the Triumph of the American Myth. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

Crosland, Allen, dir. Jazz Singer. 1927. Video Music Bank. 22 Nov 2010. Web.

Eyman, Scott. The Speed of Sound. New York, Simon and Schuster: Rockerfeller Center, 1997. Print.

Geduld, Harry. The Birth of Talkies. London, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. Print.

Hall, Mordant. “The Screen: Al Jolson and the Vitaphone.” The New York Times. Proquest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, 7 Oct. 1927. Web. 9 Nov 2010.

Mom, Arturo. “Charm of the Silent Screen.” The New York Times. Proquest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, 24 Mar. 1929. Web. 9 Nov 2010.

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