1927 is perhaps the single most important year to date in the development of the film medium. It is the year when first the Hollywood continuity system and subsequently the cinema of the entire world was at a turning point between two paths, that of pure image, or that of image combined with sound. The latter of these does not inherently suggest a greater level of realism, though in practice it has nearly always been the case that sound is used to create a more naturalistic, authentic mise en scène in narrative films, particularly in American cinema. Thus the sound/silent distinction can be sketched as the difference between poetic abstraction versus solidity and narrative clarity, and committing definitively to the latter of these fundamentally shifted the development of American cinema forever after. In recognition of the sheer magnitude of this development, our Hollywood Century marathon will be spending a little extra time in 1927, considering two of the most important and iconic movies of that year. Let us now consider the movie that sealed the doom of silents and proved that sound cinema was going to be the only way forward hereafter.

For another look at the cinema of 1927, elsewhere I consider Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

It is a funny thing that the two most technologically important films of the early Hollywood era - 1912-1929 are the dates I'm using - are both impossible to talk about in the modern age without first grappling with the fact that they are unpleasantly, irreconcilably racist. The first is, of course, 1915's The Birth of a Nation, the film that poularised editing in its modern form by thrillingly assembling in an almost unprecedented series of cross-cuts an action-packed adventure in which members of the Ku Klux Klan heroically save a white woman from the impossible fate of being touched by a black person. The other film, 1927's The Jazz Singer, isn't nearly as jaw-dropping in its odiousness: the first feature-length film with synchronised dialogue just has blackface. But let's be blunt, "just blackface" is one of those relativisms that you only get to trot out in the presence of something as profoundly problematic as D.W. Griffith's Klan epic. I would expect no sane modern viewer to make it all the way through The Jazz Singer without being deeply concerned by the great narrative privilege granted to blackface, not even to the degree that I can take a deep breath in front of the 1936 Fred Astaire film Swing Time, or the 1921 Buster Keaton short The Play House - masterpieces both of them, you understand - and release it with a hissed "the times were different, weren't they?" The Jazz Singer is, among other things, about blackface, in a really complicated and specific way that has much to say about ethnic and racial attitudes in America, in some awfully depressing if singularly historically illuminating ways.

On the other hand, the times were different, weren't they, and there is a remake of The Jazz Singer which saw fit to put Neil Diamond in blackface also. And that happened in motherfucking 1980. In comparison with which the '27 picture is the most decent, progressive thing you will ever watch.

Let's return to that, because it matters, but it's also not the only thing that matters. As everybody knows, The Jazz Singer is the first sound movie, because everybody is wrong. It's not even the first movie with synced human speech, only the first feature-length film with sync-sound passages. The Vitaphone technology (sound on phonograph discs) had already been used in multiple features with full music soundtracks and an assortment of sound effects released by Warner Bros., and this was not the only sound technology available to filmmakers in '26 and '27 - there were also three distinct sound-on-film formats in use at the same time, and of course this much more foolproof system would end up winning out just a couple of years into the sound era. And primitive attempts at sound cinema are as old as the so-called "Dickson Experimental Sound Film" from 1894 or '95.

So like everything important, The Jazz Singer wasn't as monumentally revolutionary as it's meant to be. But it still matters more than all those many shorts and musically-scored features and God knows what else, because it made an enormous shitload of money. And it is perhaps the first time that sound dialogue - straight-up, unadorned dialogue of people communicating thoughts to other people - was used in a narrative context, and this is key. Of the great national cinema styles - poetics in France, Expressionism in Germany, experimental editing in the Soviet Union - only the Hollywood style was explicitly about increasing clarity and realism. Every major development in the American filmmaking vocabulary to that point, and ever development in the decades since other than, perhaps, widescreen, was focused on answering the question, "how do we make these movies more akin to daily human life?" This being the case, the appeal of hearing people speaking words is obvious; particularly in the case of The Jazz Singer's big showcase dialogue scene, in which the words are of an entirely flat, small, domestic sort. It is not by any means a flashy scene: just a singer talking this his mother comfortably and pleasantly. It is, I believe, entirely because the talkie scene was so utterly unexceptional that it made such a gigantic impact, for it demonstrated the ability of sound to seem quite absolutely normal, presenting people just like you or me doing things that you or I do.

(Separated from The Jazz Singer by almost nine decades, I will confess that I still don't understand why movies that make artifice look like real life are considered desirable; if I want to see real life I can look at everything in the world but movies. I acknowledge, though, that I am on the wrong side of history in this intransigent distrust and dislike of cinematic naturalism; indeed, I was on the wrong side of history before I was even born).

But we still haven't really talked about the movie at all. The Jazz Singer is based on a play based on a story based on the life of Al Jolson, born Asa Yoelson the cantor's son who became one of the most popular singers in the world in the '10s and '20s. In a fortuitous redundancy Jolson plays "himself", Jack Robin Jakie Rabinowitz, taking over the role after George Jessel, who played the part on Broadway, rejected it. This worked out well for everybody, given that in 1927 as now, the film's primary value lies in its preservation of several Jolson performances - as perhaps the single most acclaimed performer of the first quarter of the 20th Century in America, being able to analyse and study Jolson's performance style and the relationship he attempted to bridge with the camera in place of his theatrical audience is a thing of clear value to the student of theater, music, and film history alike.

Which is not the kind of phrase you trot out to discuss a really fun movie to watch that has all sorts of keen artistic achievements to keep you coming back, because The Jazz Singer is very much not that movie. It's as close as I can think of to a film whose appeal is almost solely historical, for a multitude of reasons: the unfathomable gap between the way that Jolson performs and the way anybody more modern than he by even just a few years does, including the dreadful fact of blackface; the drawling tedium of the hopelessly overbaked melodramatic plot, a silly and hokey thing even by the standards of backstage biopics; the incredible limitations of early sound filmmaking, though to give full credit to director Alan Crosland (the first sound specialist in cinema history, we might say - his work includes Don Juan, the most important Vitaphone production prior to this one), he did as much as possible to give The Jazz Singer a kind of visual flexibility that wasn't found in just every early sound movie, with their arid static camera set-ups and bunched-up compositions that make it easy to tell even from a still where the microphones were hiding, since all the actors were facing a single point. Virtually all of its numbers (six performed by Jolson, four by others) involve cutaways to people listening in the audience, though the singing is all presented from a static angle; this sounds like absolutely nothing, but it does represent a certain leap of faith to edit a talkie scene like any normal sequence, and it leaves The Jazz Singer feeling more like a movie than a lot of its immediate successors. Even more cunningly, there are moments in which silent scenes viewed from a distance are overlaid with random background sound effects, as though the reason we're not hearing people even though we see their mouths move is because there's too much noise. And this is an outright brilliant gesture that we find nowhere in the trenches of 1929, for example.

Still, a few attempts to do things with the gimmick of sound beyond sheer novelty doesn't disguise the fact that The Jazz Singer is a parched movie, with a completely bland visual style that does nothing to help grind the story along. The quick version of the story, for those not in the know: Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) expects his son to follow along in the family business; but Jack would rather become a great singing star, and he is banished from the family, ending up in Illinois where the pretty gentile star Mary Dale (May McAvoy) helps him get a leg up. Eventually, Jack has to choose between the devotional music of his fathers or the emotionally roiling pop songs that his heart adores, and he finds a way to get both, pleasing his dying father and bringing tears to the eyes of his ever-adoring mother (Eugenie Besserer). It's stock nonsense, but even stock nonsense has to come from somewhere, and it was kind of Jolson's own life.

Heck, the movie might have even worked as a pleasantly corny family melodrama, with somewhat stronger performances and a director more eager to go for broke, instead of a director who seems palpably disinterested in any scene that doesn't have audio (the film was, essentially, a silent film with songs: all the talking is contained in scenes involving singing, and there are only about two minutes of dialogue, including the all-time legendary "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing yet" - a preexisting bit of patter from Jolson's show that is only the perfect first line of dialogue in the history of talking pictures by sheer accident). The film is at its unmistakable best when it involves Besserer or especially Oland, whose performance is several levels above anything else in the movie; it is raging, gesture-driven piece of Old World theatricality that fits the milieu perfectly. Jolson, bless him, was a singer, not an actor; he has a genial charisma that carries him through the worst of it, but there is hardly a single moment where he seems to project any kind of feeling whatsoever, particularly affection for his nominal romantic interest. He's just smiling pleasantly, nodding a bit, sometimes sweeping his arms; a poseable mannequin who fits precisely the wholly generic medium shots that dominate the film, biding their time until the next song comes along. And I will confess at this point that I can't stand Jolson the singer; his breath sing-speak technique annoys me a little, and his taste in songs does not align with my own by much (though who, in the 21st Century, could claim to love "Mammy" without feeling at least slightly horrified with themselves)?

The film has at least some sociological interest as a depiction of Jewish community identity in the early 20th Century, and for its fascinatingly queasy implication that the reason Jolson performed in blackface was because it was the best way for him to utterly disguise his Jewishness - the scene where he finally applies the burnt cork is played as a weirdly triumphal moment, the instant in which he finally achieves his dream of shedding Jakie Rabinowitz for Jack Robin, become just a white guy pretending to be a black guy. It's kind of awful on two levels: first because of the inherent distastefulness of minstrelsy, in which black identity is appropriated and black musical art warped into something carefully denuded of cultural markers for mass - i.e. white - consumption; second, because it is explicitly cast in this case as a victory for Jewish assimilation into a white Christian majority culture (it is a very assimilationist film overall really, and it feels right that it should come from the Warner Bros. studio, given that the Warners were among the most successfully, prominently assimilated Jews in America). There's no way to claim with a straight face that The Jazz Singer is "ashamed" of Judaism - the depictions of the "Kaddish", sung by superstar cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, and the "Kol Nidre", are too loving for that to be the case. I suspect, indeed, that for a huge percentage of the film's early audiences, this was their first exposure ever to Jewish liturgy, and by that measure, we could call it an outright piece of pro-Jewish boosterism. Still, the plot very emphatically presents Jack Robin's consistent growth away from his Jewish roots, and his brief stopover to sing on the first night of Yom Kippur doesn't remotely imply that he intends to arrest that development. The film's last image, after all, is not of Jolson in a prayer shawl, but of Jolson in blackface and white gloves.

Basically, it's a really damn hard film to like: visually bland, dramatically lumpy, and lustfully infatuated with fitting in with the broadest culture you can. For all its technological radicalism, it is an exaggeratedly conservative movie, in its themes and its aesthetics, competent but never truly well-made, and almost punishingly straightforward, as though the desire to foreground the talking sequences came with the charge to make sure that nothing would pull focus from them anywhere else in the film (the only - only - scene that seems cinematically aware of the developments of the last four or five years is a double exposure where Rabinowitz's spirit is seen to briefly put his hand on Jack's shoulder during the "Kol Nidre", one of the film's handful of actively fine moments). It is safe, it is generic, and it is boring. And this, my friends, is the movie that set the stage for the rest of American film history. The cynicism feeds itself.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1927
-Clara Bow shows she has It
-WWI epic Wings, the future winner of the first Best Picture Oscar, is released
-Cecil B. DeMille directs the massive life of Christ film The King of Kings

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1927
-Fritz Lang's monumentally influential sci-fi parable Metropolis is made in Germany
-Alfred Hitchcock directs his early masterpiece The Lodger in Great Britain
-in the U.S.S.R., Sergei Eisenstein's contribution to the 10th anniversary of the revolution is October: Ten Days That Shook the World