The Jazz Singer at 90: Was it good for the Jews?

Michael Freedland considers the legacy of Al Jolson's classic film


It was, everyone knew, a kind of revolution. For Hollywood and every other place where they made movies, it certainly was. For the cinema-going public, if revolutions meant experiencing something mysterious and new, it was indeed. For Jews, who per capita, probably spent more money on going to the movies than any other group, it was going to be one — but actually wasn’t.

Ninety years ago this week, at the Warner Theatre on Broadway, the lights went down and on the screen flashed the words, The Jazz Singer. Then came the name of the star, Al Jolson, telling what was virtually the story of his life, the cantor’s son who chooses the stage instead of the bimah. The biggest star on Broadway was going to wow them singing. Yes, singing. At last, films had learned to talk. On October 6, 1927, after half-a-century of people marvelling at the idea of a train rushing into a station or seeing beautiful people whispering words of love to each other (actually, what they said was probably unprintable) the silent film had been cast on to the scrap heap.

Thanks to this new invention, Jewish audiences could sigh and weep a little when Jolson put on his tallit and sang Kol Nidrei. The idea of hearing the sacred words coming from a screen was unthinkable and plainly ushered in a new era. After all, Jews who paid 10 cents at what we in Britain called the pictures, knew that Jolson was the most popular Jewish star there was. They kvelled with pride.

This surely had to be the beginning of Jews featuring in more and more films? They knew that most of the Hollywood studio bosses were Jewish. They also knew that the comedian Sophie Tucker, who loved coming to London and eating salt-beef sandwiches in Whitechapel, was Jewish. So was her big rival, Fanny — Funny Girl— Brice. And then there was Eddie Cantor — Jolson’s competition. Also, there was the man who had starred in The Jazz Singer stage show, George Jessel, who was not quite as big as he thought he was.

Jews in films were, said the producers, going to be big business in New York and those in Los Angeles loved them, too. In Chicago and Philadelphia it was the same story. But in the Deep South? Forget it.

The South represented a huge proportion of the American audience who weren’t in the habit of liking Jews all that much. And then there was the international market. How many Jews were there in India? Or Spain?

At first, of course, there was a rush to follow the sensational success of The Jazz Singer and the Warner Brothers brought Jolson back to make The Singing Fool, in which he sang the terrible, lachrymose lullaby Sonny Boy. It was dreadful but, until Gone With The Wind a decade later, it was listed as the most successful movie of all time. So, go tell people. If the customers want Jolson, let them have him — but not in a Jewish picture.

His films got worse and worse. The “World’s Greatest Entertainer” should have stuck to being on Broadway where he loved to tell stories about his favourite food, gefilte fish and — always — about his father, Chazan Moses Yoelson.

There was one movie when Jolson actually left no doubt of his Jewishness. In Big Boy (1930), in his famous black-face role, he played a stable boy (so effectively, it has to be said, that the movie was banned in the South for 30 years) he suddenly takes off the makeup and acts as if he were in the audience at his own show.

“Look, look,” he cries. “There’s my mammy waiting for me. And look, there’s my house — and my little dog Rover and in the window… in the window is a big ham, a Virginia ham… That ain’t my house.”

Perhaps more humour might have done the trick. And to be fair, Paramount tried their best a year after The Jazz Singer with Abie’s Irish Rose and sequels, but you only have to see the title and you knew what that was about. Not many Jewish viewers’ bowl of lokshen soup. Twentieth Century Fox thought it would jump on the band wagon and came out with the blockbuster, The House of Rothschild (1934), starring the biggest film star of the age, George Arliss. It might have worked — if it weren’t for a caricature, depicting the father of the family, Mayer Rothschild, sitting by the fire in his little house in the Frankfurt ghetto, bearded and with the most glorious set of peyot ever seen outside Stamford Hill or Crown Heights, muttering to his wife , “Money, money, money, Mama, that’s what counts. Hide the roast so that the inspector will think business is bad.”

Somehow, they thought a touch of antisemitism would bring in the customers. Perhaps it did.

But no one, apparently, really wanted to see Jewish films. The best audiences for them were those who struggled to understand English. For them, the burgeoning Yiddish film business answered all the questions they might have asked. A lot of them were made in New York — like the one where a woman loses her baby, only to discover he has grown into the handsome doctor treating her for loss of memory.

The most popular, Tevya, the Milkman came long before there was a fiddler sitting on that roof.

But other Jewish films? Almost none. MGM got a little closer in 1939 with a movie called The Mortal Storm, in which Frank Morgan (the Wizard of Oz) played a German professor who lost his job because he wasn’t an “Aryan”. No one dared call him a Jew on screen in those days.

Quite suddenly, stories about rabbis became tales of Irish priests. Even the very Jewish Edward G. Robinson became an Italian in more than one movie.

It wasn’t until 1946, almost 20 years after The Jazz Singer that things changed. In that one year, three films were released, two of them not antisemitic, but about antisemitism; Crossfire and Gentleman’s Agreement. It was also the year of The Jolson Story, all about the man who started it all. There was a synagogue, Friday-night scene in that and, in the sequel, Jolson Sings Again, the character playing Chazan Yoelson sang El Malei Rachamim.

Films like Goodbye Columbus and of course Fiddler on the Roof showed that things were changing and are continuing to do so. There were to be three more versions of The Jazz Singer, the most notable starring Neil Diamond. And there were a few about the Holocaust. The best has to be Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Along with The Pianist and Sophie’s Choice, the only memorable movies of the Shoah.

But we mustn’t forget Hollywood films about Israel, like Exodus and Sword In The Desert, made in 1949 about the War of Independence, banned in Britain after protests outside the cinema where it was showing. Then there was the Kirk Douglas biggie, Cast A Giant Shadow. The writer/director/producer of that picture, my late friend, Melville Shavelson, wrote a book on the subject. He called it How To Make A Jewish Movie.


Jolson by Michael Freedland is published by Vallentine Mitchell.

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