the REEL WORLD: 1927
This film is best known for being the first feature-length sound film, or "talkie." The introduction of sound to the film industry caused major upheavals and ended the careers of many actors and directors, including Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
Al Jolson, star of The Jazz Singer, was probably the most famous and beloved singer in that genre of his time, so, as Tim Dirks points out in his excellent and thorough review, the film was received with wild enthusiasm.
There are a number of things about The Jazz Singer that struck me. First, it's not completely a talkie: much of it is silent, with the dialogue printed on title cards. The sound is reserved for the musical numbers, and for some dialogue before and after them. Second, it's a remarkably sympathetic portrayal of a Jewish man faced with choosing between his popular music and his duty to act as cantor for his synagogue, as five generations of his family have done before him. I'm not sure what kind of treatment of Judaism I'd expected from a 1927 Hollywood film, but I was pleasantly surprised: The Jazz Singer is respectful in its representation of Judaism, and of the conflict between Cantor Rabinowitz and his entertainer son. Third, not all the music is "jazz." Three of the ten musical numbers are traditional Hebrew music, such as a "Kol Nidre" and a "Kaddish." Fourth, Jolson's making himself up in blackface is treated utterly matter-of-factly; it's just something he does to get ready for his big show. It's hard to understand now why blackface was such a widely accepted and even celebrated phenomenon in American entertainment. Michael Rogin has argued in his book Blackface, White Noise that black entertainers were a particularly American phenomenon (of course, black entertainers in Africa would have been ignored), and that Jewish entertainers in particular used blackface makeup to show how American they themselves were.
My Best Girl has moments of high slapstick comedy -- the scene near the end where Maggie's parents are trying to get her things packed and get her to a ship about to leave port is particularly hilarious -- but as with all the other Pickford movies I've seen, there are moments of real sadness, as well. I'm thinking specifically of the scene where she's brought Joe home to introduce him to her parents, who are in the middle of a blazing fight with Maggie's sister. She is too embarrassed to intervene, and makes up a story that her family is a drama troupe rehearsing a scene.
Mary, as always, is marvelous; Buddy Rogers is fine as her suitor, and Sunshine Hart and Lucien Littlefield are just wonderful as Maggie's overemotional mother and milquetoast-who-finds-his-spine father. See this movie if you can.
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Emily Way (email@example.com) Last updated October 20, 1998