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The title for this post is the movie line of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927), which is notable for being the first feature-length film to have synchronised dialogue sequences. Sound, of course, didn’t crash into being from nothing: Crosland’s earlier film Don Juan (1926) was the first feature-length picture to contain a synchronised Vitaphone soundtrack and recorded sound-effects; an edition of D.W. Griffith’s Dream Street (1921) contains a singing scene and background street noise, both recorded using a (more rudimentary) Photokinema. Equally, The Jazz Singer is not all noise: title cards are still used throughout the film for speech and (what would be) voice over. Even if the use of sound wasn’t governed just by aesthetic design (were there, for example, practical limitations in the early recording equipment?), it seems that the distribution of audible and written text is used as another way of conveying meaning.
The narrative is centred in a number of ways around the dichotomy of (out with the) old and (in with the) new: for example, the divergent wishes of a father and a son, the jostle of religion and secularity, the relationship between traditional and contemporary musical styles and, in a sense, the formation of film conventions before and after recorded sound. Singing especially, which makes up most of the audible track, is used as an indicator of how these various pairs blend.
While the contrast between the spoken words of the father and the son is predominantly represented as a split between title cards and recordings, both their wider social roles (Jewish cantor and stage performer) are allowed singing voices. Simply by being audible, the religious melody and the dance hall tune are raised together above the silence of individual speech. This suggested unity undercuts the complaints of Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland): “For five generations there has been a Rabinowitz as cantor — I have taught you to be one — […] And you — you want to be a common actor — in a lowlife theayter [sic].” We hear the traditional notes of the Kol Nidre and we hear the tune Dirty Hands, Dirty Face: by the end of the picture, the viewer believes these two institutions (religion and the “theayter”) are beginning to overlap and that Jack takes up his rightful place, as cantor in his secular temple, when he sings on stage.
Mary (Mary McAvoy) tries to pull him in one direction, claiming “this [the stage] is your life”, while his mother (Eugenie Besserer) wishes him home: “Jackie, this ain’t you…” Lee seems confused, as he listens to Jack sing the Kol Nidre in his father’s place. He turns to Mary in a puzzled manner and says: “You are listening to the stage’s greatest blackface comedian singing to his God.” I read his tone as bathetic: he believes the situation is an almost laughable step down from a full house on Broadway to a small religious ceremony. But the viewer understands that he has always been singing to this God: a God who he finds in the bright lights of the stage, just as his father does in the synagogue. His tins of face paint and smart suit are his religious robes. He sings for the New York Ghetto, “the daily life of which throbs to the rhythm of music that is as old as civilization.” He sings with the same “tear” that haunts his father’s voice and sounded in him as a young boy. The viewer is allowed to hear the continuity for herself and to understand that the rest, the tit-tat of bickering and daily speech, is silence.