Hollywood Legends: “The Jazz Singer” (1927) – Part I

IJazzSinger1927Postern the cannon of Hollywood Jewish films, “The Jazz Singer” is among the most beloved and celebrated. And now that we are in the Jewish High Holy Day season, having just celebrated the Jewish near called Rosh HaShanah and preparing for the day of atonement called Yom Kippur. And during these ten Days of Awe this film title has become one of the seasonal staples for Jewish fans of classic films, and it certain is one of my favorites as well.

Now because the film is so loved, everyone in Los Angeles seems to have a colorful story about it. There are even several different synagogues in the shadow of Hollywood which proudly claim to have been the location where this legendary movie was filmed.

So the big question I often get when standing in front of various old synagogue buildings across the city of Los Angeles is this: Wasn’t “The Jazz Singer” filmed here?

The question I sometime have to ask back is this: Which of the films are we talking about?

Some of the claims local shuls have about being connected to this movie are bubbe-meises. Though not all these claims should be so quickly dismissed.

There are three film productions, which would bear the title of this most famous of Jewish American stories. In these various productions we do get a few interesting peeks at some of the most lovely old Jewish sites in the city of Los Angeles.

In this three-party series we will virtually explore these together. And along the way learn a bit about the history of this all-American Jewish favorite holiday film.

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In 1927 the ground-breaking film production of “The Jazz Singer” staring Al Jolson would make history as being the first talking-film with synchronized music on Vitaphone sound-on-disc; this is regarded as having brought an end to the silent film era.

In the story Cantor Rabinowitz wants his son Jackie to follow in the family traditions of becoming a hazzan – a musical leader of the ancient liturgical Hebrew prayers, at the synagogue in his New York’s Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side.

The conflict of our film presents itself right away when the father is alerted by a local and finds his son in a beer garden singing jazz tunes. The father confront his son for debasing his G-d given voice with such music, and decides to teach him a lesson with a whipping. That day the son makes a vow to his father as he clings to his mother for protection: “If you whip me again, I’ll run away—and never come back!” After taking his beating, the son then kisses his mother and leaves home, only returning while the family is away Yom Kippur services to grab a picture of his dear mother. That night the cantor also makes a vow in his heart and says to his friend at Kol Nidrei, “My son was to stand at my side and sing tonight – but now I have no son.” The cantor vows in his heart that his son is now dead to him.

The story is of a prodigal son of the Jewish American experience.

Then after a decade has passed and going by the assimilated name of Jackie Robins, he is finally given a big-break. Jackie would be offered the promise of success as a singer when after catching the attention of the musical theater crowd, and is then offered the lead role in a new musical.

In this film the son would return at one point to try to explain his love for modern music to his family, only getting himself ultimately banished by the appalled cantor. The cantor father banishing him with the stern line, “I never want to see you again — you jazz singer!

However, a couple of weeks after their fight the cantor would then fall seriously ill, just the day before Yom Kippur. And for the first time the Jewish congregation is left without anyone to lead the services for the Day of Atonement. And so they appeal to the young Jackie, whose father has been dreaming of his son singing Kol Nidrei in his place, musing that surely if Jackie would do this one thing he would surely be forgiven.

However, filling in for his father on Yom Kippur would mean Jackie sacrificing the opening night of his new Broadway musical, a move which he is told would end his entire entertainment career. He is advised that if he is a no-show, he will never work on Broadway ever again.

Jackie is then forced to choose between his Jewish identity and his career.

In the end, young Jackie would cancel the show opening. And he would return back to the synagogue of his family and of his youth, and would sing the grand liturgical opus of Kol Nidrei; written in Aramaic and ordered according the solemn procedures of Jewish law, it is said for the annulment of all vows in preparation for the day of atonement and forgiveness. Jackie ascends to the bimah and sings these profound melodies for the congregation as cantor, in his father’s place.

The yiddish prodigal son had returned, their bad vows are annulled and forgiveness is found.

The film concludes with the young man seemingly blessed with parnasa; as he ends up finding career success as an entertainer.

And most importantly, in this story we see that this Jewish American son is able to ultimately prove to his old world religious family that he has truly chosen the right path for his life; and even his non-Jewish friends also come to accept him “as jazz singer – singing to his G-d.”

It is one of the best stories ever told.

But where did the inspiration for this movie come from?

The story of The Jazz Singer was adapted from a short story written by playwright Samson Raphaelson titled, Day of Atonement. The story was based on the early life of Al Jolson (born Asa Yoselon, in the village of Srednike in Lithuania). Raphaelson, a native of New York’s lower eastside, had first seen Al Jolson in 1917 performing in blackface in Illinois, and was instantly absorbed by his stage presence. Noting that he had only ever heard such emotional intensity of singing among synagogue cantors, which he adventured to ask Jolson about. Raphaelson said: “He told me a little of his background. But I had already guessed it. I knew there was the spirit of cantors in him, the blood of cantors in him.” [See: How I Came to Write “The Jazz Singer” by Samson Raphaelson]

The play would be written in 1922, and first performed on stage at the Warner Theater in NYC in 1925. Due to the great success of the stage play, in 1927 it was announced that Warner Bros. was going to produce a film version of the story starting in June; with the filming with the actors beginning in the month of July. In the month of August the Vitaphone sound sequences were completed. And then on September 23rd it was announced that the film was completed.

The film was then released on October 6, 1927 at the flagship Warner Bros. Theater in New York City, the opening was planned to coincide with Yom Kippur, which the plot of this story largely revolves around.

It is this Yom Kippur – Kol Nidei theme which has made this a seasonal favorite during the High Holy Days.

Rosenblatt, on stage in the movie "The Jazz Singer." (1927)

Chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt performing in “The Jazz Singer” (1927)

Now it should be noted that Al Jolson was actually trained and coached in the Jewish cantoral musical style by none less than the great Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt himself, considered the greatest Jewish liturgical voice of all time. Cantor Rosenblatt was offered $100,000 by Warner Bros. to play the part of Jolson’s cantor father; a part which he turned down, because he felt that Kol Kidrei was too sacred for him to sing in this film.

Instead Cantor Rosenblatt takes a smaller roll in the film, in which he plays himself singing liturgical songs in a theater, which melts the heart of the strayed son and reminds him of his cantor father; all of this moving the narrative towards demanding a reconciliation.

Again it is important to note that Jolson was coached for this part by Cantor Rosenblatt himself. However, the story is told among professional cantors to this day that Al Jolson was actually a really difficult student to try to instruct; as Jolson just wanted to do it all his own way. And it is said that as a result the cantoral pieces Jolson he had recorded were actually rather dismal performances. And so when the movie was finally cut, it was said to have only presented the most essential and best pieces of the liturgical songs they had captured.

Still I think his singing is all together lovely.

Now it must be noted that even though the story is written from an east coast perspective – having scenes depicting places in New York and in Chicago – the movie was very much filmed in Los Angeles.

Interestingly, one of the first rumors I ever heard surround the film The Jazz Singer (1927) is that the movie was often said to have been filmed at the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles.

Even though this rumor is false, begin that the Breed Street Shul was the largest Jewish congregation west of Chicago, it is understandable why people would assume that the producers would have automatically chosen this site. However, the synagogue scenes for this production were actually filmed on a Warner Bros. Studios sound stage off Sunset Blvd., today the location of KTLA Television in Hollywood.

Nonetheless the often repeated claim of being the location where the famed The Jazz Singer (1927) was filmed is also retold by members of several other Los Angeles synagogues. Some of these claims are just assumptions and mistaken leads. While other claims are actually correct about a version of The Jazz Singer being filmed at their site, however they are often just mistaken about the version.

Due to the success of this film it would be remade several times over the years. And a latter version of this movie would indeed be filmed in Boyle Heights.

This is a topic we will further explore in this three-part series.

HISTORICAL CONNECTIONS: Even though The Jazz Singer (1927) was not filmed at the Breed Street Shul, the film does have a tangential connection to the cast of this film. In that year Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt came out to Los Angeles to play himself and sing in this feature film. Though he turned down the lucrative offer to actually sing Kol Nidrei for this Warner Bros. film, he did end up another offer to sing this liturgy for a Los Angeles synagogue that year. In that year of 1927 Cantor Rosenblatt was hired to officiate the High Holy Day for Congregation Talmud Torah – The Breed Street Shul; being paid $5,000 for three days of performance, which is what most people worked two whole years to make. [See: “Sounds of Jewish High Holidays in Classic Boyle Heights”]


The Warner Bros. and their Sunset Blvd. Studios, late 1920’s.

REMEMBERING SAM WARNER: Samuel Louis “Sam” Warner (born Szmuel Wonsal, August 10, 1887 – October 5, 1927) was an American film producer who was the co-founder and chief executive officer of Warner Bros. Studios. He established the studio along with his brothers Harry, Albert, and Jack L. Warner. Sam Warner is credited with procuring the Vitaphone technology that enabled Warner Bros. to produce the film industry’s first feature-length talking picture, “The Jazz Singer” staring Al Jolson.

This movie was a technical and financial challenge for Warner Bros. With a total price tag of $422,000 it was one of the most expensive films in the studio’s history, nearly bankrupting the Warners. It was reported that one of the brothers hocked his wife’s jewels to cover production costs. They really needed this film to succeed in order to save the studio.

“The Jazz Singer” ending up breaking box-office records, establishing Warner Bros. as a major player in Hollywood, and single-handedly launched the talkie revolution which ended the silent film era.

The world premier for “The Jazz Singer” was set to coincide with Yom Kippur, on account of the Kol Nidrei theme which runs through the film. However, Sam and his brothers would not attend the world premiere of this most famous film, which was set to open in their flagship theater in New York City.

Sam Warner died of pneumonia at the age of 40 years old, just the day before the film’s enormously successful premiere; so they left New York to return to Los Angeles to bury their brother in the family tomb at Home of Peace Memorial Cemetery in East Los Angeles.

Today is his yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing according to the Hebrew calendar.


Related Articles:

Kever Avot: Visiting the Graves of the Ancestors

The Jewish tradition of visiting the cemetery during the High Holy Days

EAST LOS ANGELES – It is a very special Jewish custom that during the Days of Awe – the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – that one visit the cemeteries, to consider our mortality like that of our forefathers. And to visit the graves of our ancestors.

I recently went to the annual Kever Avot memorial service at Home of Peace Memorial Park in East Los Angeles. Several families from my synagogue have loved ones buried here and so were in attendance on this day. And I also have many friends who have loved ones buried here as well. So I came out to pay my respects to our eastside mishpacha and some of my favorite Jewish heroes.

 

So what is this custom of visiting the cemeteries during the holy days?

In the Jewish calendar there are two very important dates in the fall. The first is Rosh HaShanah, the head of the year; when every year one acknowledges the Divine as being King over us all. On that day we celebrate with anticipation the hope of being declared for a good new year by the King.

Though on Yom Kippur the day is more solemn; it is the day of atonement. When we consider G-d as the King sitting in judgment over us for based on our deeds; and therefore we seek atonement for our sins through repentance, prayer and charity. It is a day of fasting and people wearing white garments like a burial shrouds. On this day we remember that we are but mere mortals, who will one days perish and all that will remain is the memory and merit of our deeds.

And likewise it is also said in the Jewish tradition, on Rosh HaShanah the declaration is written in the Book of Life, who will live and who will die in that year. And on Yom Kippur, this fate is then sealed.

So in the ten days between these two most holy days, one is encouraged to visit the grave sites of their loved ones and teachers. To reinforce this understanding in the most vivid way.

Although I must make the case that most Jews also come out to visit the graveyards on these days between the high holy days for less pious and mystical reasons.

The graveyard visits became a pervasive custom since days of old for more obvious reasons; because when the holidays come people just miss their loved ones so much. And it’s felt most deeply during the high holy days.

It can be overwhelming sometime, when someone you love and have spent a lifetime of joyous holidays memories with, and then for them to no longer be there. And sometimes it just really hits one at the core, as you hear that holiday melody your zaydie taught you. And as you make that recipe that you and your bubbie used to make together. And as a mother and father passes away, while they remain alive to you in your vivid holiday memories; it can be entirely overwhelming.

The Jewish tradition recognizes this. It has given us several ways of affirming that sense of loss and turning it into soulful remembrance. One is the visiting of the resting places of our dearly departed. The other is special memorial services with solemn prayers that are recited during the midst of the holidays; the Yizkor service; the name comes from the Hebrew word zachor, which means to remember.

And that is how the tradition of the Kever Avot – which in Hebrew literally means the grave of the ancestors – has come to be.

In this video I invite you to come with me to observe this tradition today at Home of Peace Cemetery, and a quick peek into the lesser known Mount Zion and Agudath Achim orthodox cemeteries.

Home of Peace Cemetery is the oldest of the Jewish cemeteries that in continual use to this day, and is the relocation of the original “Old Jewish Cemetery” founded by the Hebrew Benevolent Society near Chavez Ravine, near the base of today’s Dodger Stadium until it was evicted at the start of the 20th century; as discussed on my Lost Cemeteries of Los Angeles Tour.” In the years between 1901 and 1903 almost all of the 360 burials were transferred to this then newly dedicated Jewish sacred burial site. Making this site one of the most deeply historical Jewish sites in all of the city.

And to me, it is all together lovely. Where I hope to come to my final rest some day.

DID YOU KNOW? In the most ancient times of Jewish history the Yizkor service was only recited once a year; during Yom Kippur. However, eventually it became four times a year according to the widespread Ashkenazi tradition of Central and Eastern European Jews. In the aftermath of the massacres of the middle-ages and crusades that had decimated their communities. Thereafter people were so grieved that they began demanding more liturgical opportunities during the holidays to acknowledges their loved ones. In the Sephadic and Mizrahi tradition this is generally not the custom, though it is has come to be adopted by some western-influenced Sephardic synagogues in America.