On This Day

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Associated Press
Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer.”

On This Day: “The Jazz Singer” Released

October 06, 2011 06:00 AM
by Jennifer Ferris
On Oct. 6, 1927, “The Jazz Singer” debuted; it was the first full-length film to feature the voices of its actors.

“The Jazz Singer” Breaks New Ground

When Thomas Edison conceived of moving pictures, he always planned there to be sound as well. Inventors spent the next few decades searching for a technology to synchronize sound with image. Meanwhile, the era of the silent film was in full swing.

In 1925, Warner Bros. recorded a film, “Don Juan,” with music and sound effects using a system called the Vitaphone. The studio released it in 1926 along with a series of shorts with sound.

Studio executive Jack Warner remained unconvinced of the technology’s promise: “They fail to take into account the international language of the silent pictures, and the unconscious share of each onlooker in creating the play, the action, the plot and the imagined dialogue for himself.”

Nevertheless, the studio chose to produce a second film, “The Jazz Singer,” with a recorded soundtrack. Al Jolson was hired only to sing for the film, but he improvised several lines that comprised fewer than 300 words.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin' yet,” Jolson called to the orchestra in his most famous line.

During the 88-minute film, which debuted Oct. 6, 1927, at the Warner Brothers New York Theater, Jolson captivated the audience in his role as Jakie Rabinowitz, singing six tunes and speaking for several minutes.

Although it wasn’t the first time sound was synchronized with film, nor was it the first film with speaking throughout—that came a year later—“The Jazz Singer” broke new ground with the way it captured the attention of the movie industry and got producers to focus on sound in films.

The Plot of “The Jazz Singer”

“The Jazz Singer” is the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a Jewish resident of New York’s Lower East Side who is descended from five generations of cantors, leaders of songs during Jewish services. Over the objection of his father, Jakie decides to break with tradition and use his singing talent to enter show business.

Rabinowitz leaves home, changes his name to Jack Robin and quickly becomes very successful. However, he misses his family, who has disowned him. When his father is on his deathbed, he offers to accept Jakie back into the family if he will sing as cantor.

Variety dubs the film “the best thing Vitaphone has ever put on the screen.” In 1927, it received one of the first-ever Academy Awards for being a “pioneer talking picture.” However, while they loved the technology that brought them Jolson’s voice, some early audiences were lukewarm on the sappy story of “The Jazz Singer.”

“The Jazz Singer” has been remade three times: in 1952 with Danny Thomas, in 1959 (on TV) with Jerry Lewis and in 1980 with Neil Diamond.

Key Player: Al Jolson

Born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania on May 26, 1886, Al Jolson was brought to the United States at an early age. His father, a cantor in a local synagogue, discouraged Jolson’s love of the entertainment industry, which blossomed early. To his family’s chagrin, Jolson and his brother began performing in vaudeville shows.

Jolson changed his name and began performing in blackface in minstrel shows in his 20s. By 1911, his larger-than-life personality drew audiences who would pay to see him in whatever stage production he appeared. From 1912 to 1930, Jolson also worked as a recording artist; 23 of his 85 recorded songs were considered hits.

After meeting Jolson, playwright Samson Raphaelson wrote a play about the performer’s life entitled, “Day of Atonement.” It was adapted into a screenplay and later made into “The Jazz Singer.” Despite the fact that Jolson was the inspiration for the main character, he was not the first choice for the role. He was offered it after another actor declined.

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