I’m in one of those frames of mind lately where I’m kind of afraid to watch something new, I need something familiar and unthreatening cos at the moment I don’t think I actually have the mental capacity for anything too heavy. So The Jazz Singer kind of fit the bill nicely this afternoon (not to mention being eminently suitable after watching that documentary the other day as well). It’s a film that, really, should be easy to tear to shreds, and indeed I think I’ve done so in my less forgiving past. It’s not exactly a great film after all; there’s a certain shamelessness to the whole enterprise, with apparently no depth of sentimentality that it won’t sink to, and I still suspect the main if not the only reason it’s still remembered—or even still around—is the whole “first talkie” thing. (Certainly the fame of star Al Jolson, whose own life story inspired the play the film was taken from, doesn’t seem to have ensured the complete preservation status of some of his other films.)
The film’s historical status is vexed, depending on how pedantic you want to be about what constitutes a “sound film”, but it’d be churlish to deny its significance even so (even if most people probably saw the “first talkie” in its silent version, and even though it wasn’t originally supposed to even have talking scenes in the first place). Certainly you could wish that such a historically important film might be better… and however much academics have tried to explain the blackface as a performing tradition actually expressing empathy with real black folks (who loved Jolson, apparently, the latter being unusually progressive for the period when it came to treating black folks as actual human beings), there’s still something jarring about it now. Still, I keep coming back to the film for some reason; it has a lot fewer “early talkie” issues than most early talkies (probably because it is, after all, mostly silent anyway), and I think today I finally realised just how important Jolson is to the film. Shameless sentiment was his stock in trade, after all, and this material let him rip that way; through all the heavy-handed ethnic ham the script offers, he does come across as being essentially right for the film. Jolson is so invested in it that it’s actually kind of stunning to remember he was only third choice for the title role, hard to believe he wasn’t the automatic choice. The Jazz Singer is a film very much trapped in its own time, but in those two scenes of actual spoken dialogue Jolson probably saves it from being only of historical interest today.