The 1927 film The Jazz Singer tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz (played by Al Jolson), the son of a Jewish cantor, who declines to follow in his father's footsteps. Instead, he dissembles his Jewish identity while trying to make it in the world of popular music. Just as Jakie is about to hit the big time, his father falls ill, forcing Jakie to choose between his family and his show-biz dreams.
The Jazz Singer, despite its reputation as the first "talkie," is fundamentally a silent film, with an atmospheric musical backdrop, no sound effects, and dialogue on title cards. It does, however, have several recorded songs which are lip-synced (with variable success), and during the filming/recording of one of these songs, Jolson ad-libbed a spoken intro: "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet! Wait a minute, I tell ya! You ain't heard nothin'!" (Additionally, the film has one short synchronized dialogue scene where Jolson talks to his mother.)
Audiences at the time heard something in that.
Experiments in recorded film sound were nothing new; as far back as 1894, an Edison film of a violin player was paired with a recording of the instrument. In 1926, the Warner Bros. film Don Juan was released with a prerecorded, instrumental soundtrack, eliminating the need for live accompaniment. Sunrise, a critically adored experimental melodrama released the same year as The Jazz Singer featured a line or two of background chatter as part of the soundtrack. What The Jazz Singer brought to the table was an ambitious use of synchronization (or, as Warner dubbed it, the "Vitaphone" process). Even that, if confined to the songs, might have remained a sterile gimmick. But speech — that was something else. The first "all-talking" picture was The Lights of New York, a gangster film released in 1928.
Oh, yeah — the blackface scene. The redeeming element may be that the song — "My Mammy" — reflects Jakie's reconciliation with his own mother; in a way, Jakie is identifying very deeply with the stereotyped "darkie" character he portrays. It was also 1927. It was very common in old cartoons of the 1930s to reference this scene via Blackface gags (i.e. smoke or ash being blown onto the victim's face, which somehow makes them want to shout "Mammy!").
Myrna Loy had one of her first big film parts as a chorus girl in the 1927 film.
Tropes included in either the 1927 or the 1980 versions of this film include:
- Artifact Title: Neil Diamond's character does not sing jazz. Also applies to the original film, by modern standards. Al Jolson's character never sings "jazz" as modern audiences expect - aside from the "blackface" scene (which is in the "Traveling Minstrel" tradition) - all of the music would be what we would today identify as "ragtime." "Jazz" in this context is more synonymous with "ruckus" or "noise," actually bringing it in line with its use in the Neil Diamond remake.
- Beard of Sorrow: Neil Diamond version, after his Heroic BSoD.
- "Billy Elliot" Plot: Sort of, if you consider singing to be "feminine" and being a cantor to be "manly."
- Blackface: One of the most famous examples in film in the 1927 version, and one of the most infamous examples in the 1980 version!
- Dies Wide Open: Cantor Rabinowitz in the original, oddly enough, closes his eyes first, slumps, and then opens them again after he dies.
- Have a Gay Old Time: In the original, Jakie's producer warns him that he'll "queer (him)self on Broadway" if he skips the show to sing Kol Nidre.
- Hong Kong Dub: Jolson's singing appears to have been recorded live. But the first song, the scene where a child Jakie is singing in a club, is dubbed very very badly.
- I Have No Son!: In both versions, but much sillier in the remake.
- Jive Turkey: In the 1980 version, when the black nightclub audience discovers the blackface ruse, one guy angrily shouts "That ain't no brotha! That's a white boy!"
- Mythology Gag: Neil Diamond wearing blackface so he can sing with an R&B group is a nod to Al Jolson's blackface routine in the original.
- Never Learned to Read: In the 1927 film, Jakie's mother has to have a neighbor read the letters Jakie sends home.
- Non-Actor Vehicle: The 1980 version was this for Neil Diamond. While his performance "won" the first Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor, the soundtrack was a big hit so his career held up.
- Redemption Equals Death: Inverted in the original; Cantor Rabinowitz dies after Jack returns to the synagogue and sings, thus earning his father's forgiveness.
- Silence Is Golden: Oddly, for a film that is rightly remembered as ushering in talking pictures, the bulk of the original is silent. The use of sound is confined to 1) Jolson's songs and 2) one four-minute dialogue scene (when Jack comes home to see his mother).
- Spared by the Adaptation: Cantor Rabinowitz in the 1980 remake.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: All the Jazz Singer wants is his father's approval.
- Wham Line: In the era of silent film, hearing Jakie actually speak the line "You ain't heard nothing yet!" came as a shock to a number of viewers at the time.
Parodies of the basic plot (not specific to any of the film versions) include:
- An SCTV sketch guest-starring Al Jarreau as the title character reverses the plot: The father expects the son to be a jazz singer like himself, but the son instead becomes a cantor.
- The obscure direct-to-video film That's Adequate! (which has a variety of parodies of Hollywood classics) features another reversal: Singing in the Synagogue. David Alan Grier, a few years before In Living Color!, plays the hero and dons whiteface to make it big!
- The Simpsons episode "Like Father, Like Clown", guest-starring the voice of Jackie Mason as Krusty's estranged father Rabbi Hyman Krustovsky. The I Have No Son! moment is memorably spoofed. (Mason himself is to some extent a Real Life instance of The Jazz Singer; under pressure from his father he received rabbinic ordination as his brothers did, but he subsequently chose to become a comedian.)
- The 1936 Merrie Melodies cartoon I Love to Singa, directed by Tex Avery, featuring fledgling jazz singer "Owl Jolson" rebelling against his family of traditionalist musicians. This film was intended to advertise the title song, "I Love To Singa" which was featured in an Al Jolson and Cab Calloway film released around the same time.