By Bob Bahr
When Al Jolson leaned away from the keyboard in “The Jazz Singer” and ad-libbed to his adoring mother the ironic words “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” little did he know what he was starting.
It is hard to imagine today how a modern entertainment experience could take place without the rich dimension that sound brings to our understanding of the world.
Indeed, so much of the richness of the experience in the 2017 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which opens Jan. 24, will come through the words, music and creative texture that the marriage of sound and image has made in our lives.
It all started with “The Jazz Singer,” which celebrates its 90th anniversary in the coming year. In that film, for the first time in history, an actor in a major role recorded for all time the spark of creation.
The action is mostly silent, but for 18 minutes of the 89-minute film, Jolson sings and speaks his lines into the history books. Altogether, we hear only 350 words of spoken dialogue, but that was enough to drive audiences wild at the 1927 premiere.
The reviewer the next day in The New York Times was less impressed by the film than he was by the way Jolson’s voice and songs brought down the house time after time. It was all Jolson could do, as he thanked the opening night crowd, to hold back the tears in his own eyes.
Jolson plays Jakie Rabinovitch, a cantor’s son who becomes Jack Robins, a jazz singer torn between pursuing Broadway stardom and honoring his father’s dying wish to have his son sing at the Kol Nidre service that opens Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.
In many ways the story resembles Jolson’s own. His was born Asa Yoelson into a family of cantors in Srednick, Lithuania, but by 1927 he had become the richest and most successful entertainer in America.
He got almost a million dollars in today’s money for starring in “The Jazz Singer.”
It was money well spent. Audiences responded enthusiastically, and they snatched up tickets for every seat during the film’s initial six-month run in New York. Until “Gone With the Wind” in 1939, “The Jazz Singer” was the most successful production of the sound film era it pioneered.
The story of the film, which was based on a short story by the American Jewish author Samson Raphelson that he later turned it into a successful Broadway play, introduced American audiences to a Jewish story and Jewish dramatic characters they could identify with.
The story of a successful young immigrant in early 20th century America resonated with audiences, who were struggling to adapt to life in the modernizing, rapidly growing nation. Each son or daughter of immigrant parents was forced to come to terms with the challenges of assimilation into the nation’s melting pot of social and cultural life.
Between 1880 and 1920, 2.5 million Jews came to America, and the experience transformed the way they and their children related to their communal and religious life.
The souvenir program on the film’s opening night, Oct. 6, 1927 — arriving just as the Yom Kippur holiday was ending — includes an appreciation of the Polish Jewish immigrant father of the four Warner brothers who produced the film.
But for them, for Jolson and for many American Jews, “The Jazz Singer” was a declaration of independence. It put Hollywood’s stamp of approval on the decision many of them had made to break free from the traditions of the Old World.
In the end, Jolson sings Kol Nidre, then leaves the synagogue and his family’s cantorial legacy and goes back to Broadway to sing for his adoring mother.
Nonetheless, “The Jazz Singer” treats the religious and cultural traditions of Judaism with reverence and a certain degree of respect. Jolson’s performance of the Kol Nidre prayer in a beautifully composed religious scene features the voice of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, one of the greatest voices of the modern cantorial tradition.
The 1927 premiere of “The Jazz Singer” was a milestone in American national life as much as it was a revolutionary moment in the history of entertainment. For all its dated melodrama and eye-rolling theatrics, it still poses some serious and relevant questions of how we become modern Americans while remaining true to our long religious and cultural heritage.
Bob Bahr will introduce several films at this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. His winter class “In Search of Three Jews: Steven Spielberg, Sidney Lumet and Woody Allen at the Movies” begins Tuesday evening, Jan. 10, at the Marcus Jewish Community Center.