The Jazz Singer

The first "talkie" told the story of a Jewish man seeking his future on Broadway.


Excerpted with permission from Reel Jewish (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).

By the time The Jazz Singer was remade for the second time in 1980, the Hollywood musical, with very few exceptions, was all but dead. If it had any life left in it at all, Neil Diamond and company seemed only too pleased to say “Toot, toot, tootsie good­bye.”

Once upon a time, the Hollywood musi­cal was as common as the nickel matinee. Between The Jazz Singer of 1927 and The Jazz Singer of 1980 more than 250 musicals were produced for the American cinema, both imports from Broadway and originals written directly for the screen. Very few of them concerned the Jewish experience or cel­ebrated its inimitable joys and daily challenges–and many of those that did have a certain Jewish flavor almost never made it to the screen.

The first Jazz Singer, for example, ran into trouble right away when George Jessel, who played the role on Broadway and was signed to reprise it on film, had a major disagreement with the studio, Warner Broth­ers. Yentl, Barbra Streisand’s personal film crusade about a young yeshiva student, was turned down so many times that the actress-director could almost have made a movie about Yentl as a grandmother instead.

That’s why a bomb (by most critical ac­counts) like the Neil Diamond version of The Jazz Singer is especially troublesome. With that Jewish-flavored failure forever looming in the marketing minds of Ameri­can filmmakers, we can almost be assured that there is unlikely to be a major movie musical in the future from which Jewish audiences might shep a little nachas, that is, to derive some special pride from the story.

A Love Letter to Judaism

Still, it’s nice to know that in 1927, the original Jazz Singer, which featured Jewish characters with Jewish hearts and conflicts (and even a few Hebrew prayers) not only made a lot of money for its studio but made history as well. As the first motion picture to use several sequences of synchronized dia­logue and music (it was otherwise a silent film), The Jazz Singer is generally considered both the first talkie and the first movie mu­sical. That a movie of such importance is also in some respects a love letter to Juda­ism is certainly reason enough for Jewish au­diences to shep a little nachas of their own.

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Joel Samberg, a humor and opinion columnist, also is the author of The Jewish Book of Lists.

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