The first ‘talkie,’ is also the first title in the musical section of the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book.
This was the first time I had seen this one, all I’d known of it before was that at some point, Al Jolson as Jack Robin, previously Jakie Rabinowitz, dons blackface to perform a couple of numbers, and even after the seeing the film, I still can’t tell you why he donned it, as there was no real reason for it at all, thematically or cinematically, and of course it seems wildly inappropriate now, not to mention decidedly offensive. Apparently, though, this was Jolson’s way of introducing the music he loved to his mostly white audience.
The rest of the film is actually quite engaging, and despite being proclaimed as the first talking film, is still a relatively silent one, relying on dialogue cards, with only the musical numbers, some surrounding dialogue and the occasional sound effect serving as the film’s soundtrack. Still, I’m sure it was revelatory at the time!
The story follows Jakie, from his youth, growing up in a strictly Jewish household, where his father (Warner Oland), the Cantor at the local synagogue, has high hopes and believes that his son will follow in his footsteps, just like prior generations and become the next Cantor. Jakie has other plans, and is in love with jazz and ragtime music. After being caught at a local bar singing, his father beats him, and Jakie leaves home.
He crafts himself, changing his name to Jack Robin, and with the help of Mary Dale (May McAvoy), he gets a big break while he’s out touring the country, and lands a shot in a Broadway revue.
With his girl at his side, a chance to make it big in New York, everything seems to be coming up Jakie, but when he heads home to see his parents, conflict arises again, and everything is thrown into jeopardy when his father falls deathly ill, and Jakie is forced to make a choice between the life he loves, and the one his father wants for him.
There are musical numbers here that a lot of people will recognize, including Blue Skies, and the film is fairly engaging. I can only imagine what it would have been like in 1927, to go into the theater, and see this film, and then have the image start singing to you. It must have been something at the time. The film looks great, its shots smartly composed, some great music and the performances, entertaining, but for the whole blackface bits, I can say I highly enjoyed this film and was very glad to have finally added it to the seen-it column.
It explores some very familiar territory, the old world vs. the new, youthful dreams vs. parental desires, but it’s pulled off incredibly well, and the story itself, along with the film, has withstood the test of time, and not just merely as a novelty as the first talking motion picture, but as a family drama with some great tunes.
Have you seen it?