Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Jazz Singer

On my drive to work yesterday, the first day of school, I passed four bus stops teeming with children.  With a couple exceptions, almost all of the children were from immigrant families -- Guatemalans. Hmong, Liberians, Mexicans, Laotians, Sudanese.  If you live in place like my hometown, the 1927 musical The Jazz Singer is mandatory viewing.  The film is one of those movies that you don't really want to see, that seems without much promise on the basis of its plot synopsis -- the son of a Jewish cantor rebels to become a "jazz singer" causing strife in his family."  But, in fact, the film has a primal appeal.  If you watch ten minutes, you will be gripped by picture's relentlessly uncompromising and disturbing view of the American immigrant experience as a brutal zero-sum game:  either you are an immigrant, cleaving to ancient customs, draped in a prayer shawl singing Hebrew hymns in a medieval-looking synagogue or you are...a minstrel, a darky performing saccharine songs in black-face with huge white lips and a nappy wig.  The contrast is so stark as to verge on the expression some kind of collective psychosis.  Al Jolson, playing the cantor's son, is called "a jazz singer," although with one exception the music that he plays and sings doesn't seem anything like jazz to me.  (It's schmaltzy ballads, patter songs with fantastically elaborate hand and facial gestures, rag-time crooning.)  But in the world of this film "jazz" is code:  it means African-American, except that phrase is too polite for the actual significance of the term.  Jolson's father beats him for performing a snake-hips ragtime number in a local beer parlor.  A Hebrew, prominent in the synagogue, and playing a comical stage-villain Jew, has seen the lad dancing and singing and reported this misconduct to the stern old rabbi.  After being thrashed, the kid flees the ghetto tenement on the lower East Side and performs in various dives until he is discovered in a London by a fetching ingénue.  (Jolson first appears in the London sequence; in previous scenes, little Jakie Rabinowicz is played by a gifted child actor.)  The ingénue brings Jolson back to America, where he performs successfully at various venues as a "jazz singer," going by the name Jack Robin.  When the woman goes to New York to mount a big Broadway revue, the "April Follies," Jack Robin follows her and lands an important part in the show.  But he makes the mistake of visiting his mother and learns that his father is dying.  As bad luck would have it, the opening night coincides with the rabbi's death and the Day of Atonement.  Jack Robin, formerly Jackie Rabinowicz, is forced to choose between attending at his father's bedside and singing the Kol Nidre in synagogue or success and fame on the Great White Way.  (Implicit in the conflict is a romantic dilemma as well -- Jack is in love with the ingénue, said to be a Shiksa by his mother.  But the people who made the film are so skittish about the inter-faith love affair that the subplot is concealed, almost entirely hidden from view.)  What makes the character's conflict so fiercely irreconcilable is the fact that Jack performs on-stage in black face:  we see him "cork up" and Jolson performs almost all of the last half of the picture in minstrel make-up.  Obviously, this sort of betrayal of his ethnic traditions can't be accommodated to the orthodox community from which Jackie Rabinowicz comes -- and the cantor's son says that Broadway is his temple, where he brings God to the theatergoers and he is unwilling to compromise.  Or so it seems.  (The end of the film is a classic "cop-out" -- Warner Brothers sets up a dilemma that can't be solved, a savage either/or theorem, and, then, opts for "both"; this gives the film an unearned happy ending and is audience-pleasing -- even I felt relieved to some extent -- but it's dishonest.)  The scenes at the dying cantor's bedside have the character of an episode from Kafka:  Jolson is a tiny, frail man with shoulders that don't extend much beyond the rims of his ears and he has an oversize jack-o-lantern head with grinning lips and weirdly glinting eyes.  He is physically dwarfed by the huge, statuesque cantor with his vast white beard, marmoreal like something carved by Michelangelo.  What makes the film startling and unforgettable is the demonic vitality of Jolson's musical performances -- he mugs and hops around like a frenzied marionette and, when he sings a schmaltzy ballad (for instance a hymn to a boy with the title "Dirty Face, Dirty Hands"), his level of personal investment in this third-rate material is frightening, grotesque, something that must be seen to be believed.  Jolson was apparently a performer like no other and the film is extraordinary, if for no other reason than the fact that it preserves examples of his singing and boneless, prancing choreography.  (He comes across as a combination between Michael Jackson and Liza Minnelli both at their most flamboyant).  The black-face material, at first, seems offensive and stupid, but, then, the viewer senses another meaning -- there is a crazy universality in Jolson's minstrel singing:  corked-up, the little Jewish boy is performing not just for his tribe but for all mankind.  I think this is probably how most viewers would have perceived this material in 1927.  And it's my suspicion that the film is probably psychologically accurate, true, I think, even today, to the way immigrants perceive their relationship to American culture.  The Jazz Singer was a big production with excellent editing and good photography and is almost perfectly preserved:  it's a silent film although the musical numbers have a synchronized soundtrack.  There is good documentary footage of New York's lower East Side and a beautiful view of a great crowd of pedestrians walking through a pattern of light and shadow under the iron grid of an El.

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