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.
A strong central love story has been the unifying force in movie musicals for generations. The Jazz Singer didn't settle for just one. It actually had four of them--almost as if Warner Brothers was trying to break the rules of the movie musical game before the game even started. The Jazz Singer was a love story to a young man's mother, sweetheart, chosen profession, and religion.