BEHIND THE SCENES AT WARNER BROTHERS : Sound and Fury : The Making of the First Talkie, ‘The Jazz Singer,’ Is a Story of Hollywood’s Jewish Heritage
IN 1925,Sam Warner invited his older brother Harry to a meeting that would change the course of movie history. Harry thought it was to be a meeting of Wall Street bankers. It actually turned out to be a demonstration of sound movies. Harry admitted later, “I am positive if (he had) said talking pictures, I would not (have) gone.” But, watching a short of a jazz band and realizing that sound shorts could be used as appetizers before the main feature, Harry conceded to experiment with sound, and on June 25, 1925, Warner Brothers contracted with Bell (which owned the Vitaphone sound process) to make a series of sound films.
Sam Warner, the family’s greatest enthusiast for sound, was put in charge of the project and immediately began preparing short films at the old Vitagraph studios in Brooklyn, while Jack Warner, out in Hollywood, was preparing a feature with a musical track, “Don Juan,” starring John Barrymore. In pursuing sound, the Warners were very much mavericks, but while the Hollywood Establishment may have resisted them, the winds of change were blowing.
The morning after the successful premiere of “Don Juan,” Variety issued a special edition in acknowledgement of the impending revolution. Warner Brothers stock soared from $8 to $65 per share. The Warners became very wealthy men overnight.
If the investment markets were convinced of the future of sound movies, the industry itself was less sanguine. Vitaphone equipment, which consisted essentially of a large record player synchronized to a projector, was cumbersome and unreliable. Many theaters refused to install it, sending Warners’ stock plummeting, and the company wound up losing close to $1 million in 1926--which was, however, less than they had lost the previous year.
But having bucked the conventional wisdom and staked their future on sound, Warners continued to produce sound shorts featuring some of the biggest names in vaudeville.
As the momentum from “Don Juan” dissipated early in 1927, they realized that what they really needed were more full-length Vitaphone films. The second was an inconsequential comedy starring Charlie Chaplin’s brother, Sydney. The third, an adaptation of the swashbuckling “Manon Lescaut,” starring Barrymore again, seemed a better prospect. But the fourth, the one that would become a milestone in the history of motion pictures and would make Warners Brothers one of the major forces in Hollywood, was a very unusual choice--one that seemed a highly unlikely prospect for immortality. It was a Jewish drama.
“The Jazz Singer” opened Oct. 6, 1927, a date that would be engraved in motion-picture history as the real beginning of the sound era. Even at the time, everyone seemed to recognize the stakes. Since “Don Juan,” the industry had been waiting for a confirmation, a sign that sound was part of the natural evolution of the movies and not just a short-lived novelty.
The evening was brisk and clear, and the theater on Broadway was filled with notables. If they were waiting for an answer to the question of sound, they soon got it. One young Paramount executive raced into the lobby during intermission and called his boss in California: “This is a revolution.” When the movie’s star, Al Jolson, strode to the stage to be showered by the audience’s plaudits, tears rolled down his cheeks. The next morning Adolph Zukor called about 50 Paramount executives to his Savoy-Plaza suite and demanded to know why they hadn’t made a sound film. The same scene was being re-enacted throughout the industry.
As a historic milestone, “The Jazz Singer’s” significance was incontrovertible. It more than revived the sound movement; by ad-libbing a few lines, Jolson had made it the first feature film with speech (“Don Juan” had only music and effects) and introduced a whole new set of possibilities. As a movie, however, it was decidedly less than monumental. But even if it failed as drama, “The Jazz Singer” did something extremely rare in Hollywood: It provided an extraordinarily revealing window on the dilemmas of the Hollywood Jews generally and the Warner brothers specifically.
HOLLYWOOD BEGAN WITH a paradox. The American film industry, once called “the quintessence of what we mean by ‘America,’ ” was founded and for more than 30 years operated by Eastern European Jews who themselves seemed to be anything but the quintessence of America. The much-vaunted “studio system,” which provided a prodigious supply of films during the movies’ heyday, was supervised by a second generation of Jews, many of whom also regarded themselves as marginal men trying to punch into the American mainstream. The storefront theaters of the late teens were transformed into the movie palaces of the ‘20s by Jewish exhibitors. The most powerful talent agencies were run by Jews. Jewish lawyers transacted the industry’s business, and Jewish doctors ministered to the industry’s sick. A battalion of Jewish writers wrote the stories, and above all, Jews produced the movies. All of which led F. Scott Fitzgerald to characterize Hollywood carpingly as “a Jewish holiday, a gentiles (sic) tragedy.”
The real tragedy, however, was certainly that of the Jews. Their dominance became a target for wave after wave of vicious anti-Semites--from fire and brimstone evangelicals in the teens and early ‘20s to red baiters in the ‘40s for whom Judaism was really a variety of communism. The sum of this anti-Semitic demonology was that the Jews, by design or sheer ignorance, had used the movies to undermine traditional American values. The irony is that the Hollywood Jews were desperately embracing those values and working to enter the power structure. Above all things, they wanted to be regarded as Americans, not Jews; they wanted to reinvent themselves here as new men.
The Hollywood Jews, at least the first generation that built the movie industry--Carl Laemmle of Universal, Adolph Zukor of Paramount, William Fox, Louis B. Mayer and the Warners--were a homogeneous group with remarkably similar childhood experiences. They were first- or second-generation immigrants from Hungary, Poland, Germany and Russia. What united them in spiritual kinship, however, was less their Eastern European origins than their absolute rejection of their pasts and their equally absolute devotion to their new country. To enter America and be accepted as Americans, however, was a formidable challenge in the early part of this century, when nativism and xenophobia were rampant. Beyond the barricades erected by America’s guardians, the Jews saw an America of gentility, respectability and status, but they were prohibited from entering those precincts.
The movie industry held out a number of blandishments to these Jews, not the least of which was that it admitted them. There were no social barriers in a business as new and faintly disreputable as the movies. Financial barriers were lower too. But in order to understand what may have been the chief appeal of the movies to these Jews, one must understand their hunger for assimilation and the way in which the movies could satisfy that hunger. If the Jews were proscribed from entering the real corridors of gentility and status in America, the movies offered an ingenious option. Within the studios and on the screen, the Jews could simply create a new country--an empire of their own, so to speak--where they would not only be admitted, but would govern as well. They would fabricate their empire in the image of America as they would fabricate themselves in the image of prosperous Americans.
BENJAMIN WARNER was a strapping Polish peasant, a bulvon who emigrated to Baltimore in 1883, lured by the sunny lies of a townsman who had preceded him. A cobbler by trade, he set up a shoe-repair shop. Within a year, he had earned enough to send for his family and promptly began increasing their number. For years he roamed the East and Canada, peddling notions from a wagon, before settling the family in Youngstown, Ohio. With a hint of condescension, his son Jack would later say, “He cared more for people than for money,” and that certainly characterized his career.
Benjamin Warner’s solace was his belief. He was a devout Jew. Even in America he frequently spoke Yiddish, kept kosher and always lived within walking distance of the synagogue out of respect for the Talmudic injunction that one not ride on the Sabbath.
Benjamin Warner’s religion and the messianism that went with it created a moral fault line across which the family divided. On one side were Benjamin and the older children, Anna, Rose, Harry and Albert. These were the more religious and moralistic, the less assimilated. On the other side were the younger Warners (there were nine surviving children), especially Jack and Sam. These were the more gregarious, assimilated and rebellious. Harry could read, write and speak Hebrew by the time he was 7. Jack took no interest whatsoever in religious instruction, and when his father hired a rabbi to tutor the children, Jack said, “I didn’t dig it at all.”
When Harry, Jack, Sam and Albert formed their eponymous company, it was Harry and Jack who would set its agenda, establish its tone and ultimately provide its energy. Jack and Harry loathed one another.
Harry once chased Jack around the studio lot with a lead pipe, shouting that he was going to kill him, and had to be restrained and disarmed to keep from making good on his threat. On another occasion, Harry and Jack were engaged in a typical shouting match when Harry suddenly grabbed an object on his desk and threatened his brother. This time Jack’s young son intervened. At one point, neither of the brothers would enter the studio commissary if the other was there. If Harry had a low boiling point, Jack was a veteran provocateur . One writer described him as a “fast-talking Broadway type, who’s got a flippant manner, thinks of himself as a witty man and has pretty bad taste in the stories he tells.” When Albert Einstein visited the studio, Jack boasted of having told him: “You know, I have a theory about relatives, too--don’t hire them.” He dressed in loud jackets, yachting blazers and patent-leather shoes.
He was not only crude, vulgar, shallow, flashy, contrary and galling, but also unlike the vast majority of Hollywood Jews, who coveted respectability, he actively cultivated these qualities.
He seemed to enjoy creating embarrassment--especially embarrassment for Harry. Once, Harry had escorted a visiting rabbi to the dining room when Jack arrived. “Harry introduced the rabbi to Jack,” remembered one witness, “and Jack said, ‘How’re ya, rab? I caught your act at the Palace. You were great!’ Harry, as always, would look around and say, ‘My brother, you know--sometimes he makes jokes that are not so good.’ . . . He was always apologizing.”
Harry was antithetical to Jack in almost every way--sober where Jack was loud; self-conscious where Jack was thoughtless; severe where Jack was cocky--though this was probably less coincidence than design. Jack wanted to be everything Harry despised. Writer Leo Rosten described Harry as “a folksy, homey guy, who made no pretensions about himself. . . . He was a devoted family man . . . you never heard about him going to a nightclub, being mixed up in a scandal.”
The Warners had launched themselves into the film industry in 1903, setting up a tent in their yard in Youngstown and charging admission to see “The Great Train Robbery,” a copy of which had come with the projector they had pooled their savings to buy.
A few weeks later, they took their projector to Niles, Ohio, where a carnival was bivouacked, and rented an empty store. They made $300 in one week. Afterward Sam and Albert, armed with their print of “The Great Train Robbery,” traveled a circuit of small towns until, weary of the road, they decided to find a permanent location. The place they chose was New Castle, a good-sized steel town about 15 miles south of Youngstown across the Pennsylvania state line.
The Cascade, as they called their theater, did well, but Harry realized that the profits would be far greater if one bought and then rented films than if one simply exhibited them. So in 1907, after a year in New Castle, the brothers moved to Pittsburgh to set up the Duquesne Film Exchange.
Like that of all the successful movie-industry Jews, the Warners’ progress after Pittsburgh could be measured by leaps and bounds, surging with the boom of the movies themselves. Eventually, they landed in production and set up their headquarters in New York. Their first success as producers--"My Four Years in Germany,” a firsthand account of the years leading up to this country’s entrance into World War I--netted the brothers $130,000 on $1.5 million in gross receipts. They decided to leave distribution altogether. Harry and Albert stayed in New York to conduct the company’s business, while Jack and Sam set up a studio in Los Angeles and embarked on a small but steady production schedule.
No one would ever accuse Warner Brothers of being the classiest studio in Hollywood, but within a few years, most would concede that it was the most aggressive and cantankerous. It was this iconoclasm that led the Warners to what might have seemed a quixotic crusade for sound movies and, ultimately, to “The Jazz Singer.”
THE MATERIAL on which “The Jazz Singer” was based originated as a short story by a young Jewish writer named Samson Raphaelson and had come to the attention of the man called the greatest entertainer of his time: singer Al Jolson. Jolson felt that the story’s conflict between an aged cantor and his young, assimilated son, who wants to enter show business, reflected the tensions in his own life. According to one account, Jolson tried to interest D.W. Griffith in the material, and when Griffith refused on grounds that the story was too “racial,” he brought it to the attention of several studios--all of which rejected the story on the same grounds. Raphaelson apparently knew about none of this. When he and Jolson met at a nightclub, Jolson told him he wanted the story adapted as a musical revue. Raphaelson objected, and on his own initiative adapted it into a drama.
The play, starring George Jessel, opened on Broadway to generally tepid reviews. But it glided along for a 38-week run that ended only because Jessel signed a contract with Warner Brothers. The day before the play closed, the Warners also secured the film rights for $50,000, presumably as a vehicle for Jessel.
The irony that ate at Jessel for the rest of his life was that he never got to play the lead in the film version of “The Jazz Singer.” Jack Warner said that Jessel was assigned the role--and the trade papers all announced that he would star. But when he learned that it was going to be a Vitaphone production, the star demanded $10,000 more. Jack quickly agreed, but Jessel demanded that Harry also approve. Here he badly miscalculated. The last thing Jack Warner wanted was to be held accountable to his brother. Jessel was dismissed. Years later, Jessel would claim that his was less a squabble over money than over script changes Jessel saw as a betrayal of the material.
Probably neither story got at the truth, which may have been that Jessel was considered too Jewish for the kind of assimilationist fable Jack Warner had in mind. Even though Harry had bought the material and had wanted to make the film, it was Jack and Sam who supervised the production, and for them “The Jazz Singer” was less a plea for racial tolerance than a dramatization of the conflicts in their own lives and within their family. Jack and Sam could never have identified with a strident Jew like Jessel.
Al Jolson, who finally got the role, was not only an assimilated Jew, but his experiences so closely paralleled those of the play’s protagonist, Jakie Rabinowitz, that he was practically playing himself. (In fact, Raphaelson had been inspired to write the story after seeing Jolson perform.) Jolson’s father was a Russian immigrant, an intransigent rabbi / cantor in Baltimore who abhorred his son’s attraction to the secular world. “The chief difficulty in our home life,” wrote Jolson’s brother, “was that Al and I had been absorbed by American customs, American freedom of thought and the American way of life. My father still dwelt in the consciousness of the strict, orthodox teachings and customs of the Old World.”
THE PLOT of “The Jazz Singer” is simplicity itself. Cantor Rabinowitz, the seventh Rabinowitz to become a cantor, assumes that his only son, Jakie, will follow the tradition. But Jakie would rather sneak off to the local saloon to entertain, and when his father catches him and forbids him from setting foot there again, the boy runs away.
Years pass, and Jakie Rabinowitz has become Jack Robin, a nightclub singer. But Jack is barely scraping by until a pretty chorus girl named Mary persuades a producer to sign him up for a new musical revue. Though Jack now returns home and is welcomed back by his mother, his father is unforgiving. The dilemma is set when Cantor Rabinowitz cannot sing the Kol Nidre, the Jewish plea for forgiveness, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement and the holiest of Jewish holidays. The congregation presses Jack to stand in, but Jack’s Broadway revue happens to be opening the same night. As the screenplay puts it, “Jack is besieged by the old life and the new, filial duty against his life’s ambition, the past against the future.”
What “The Jazz Singer” really examines is the relationship between these two lives and the difficulty of reconciling them. As the film characterizes them-- Judaism identified with the desiccation and doom of the past; show business identified with the energy and excitement of the future--one wouldn’t really want to reconcile them. Jack Warner never did. But “The Jazz Singer” acknowledges something that many of the Hollywood Jews themselves would acknowledge (though only privately, for fear it might seem to compromise their loyalty to America): Judaism somehow fructifies show business. It was one of the sources of their success in the movie industry and one of their advantages over Gentiles.
The movie defines this advantage as something like soul. “You sing jazz,” says Jack Robin’s girlfriend, Mary, “but it’s different. There’s a tear in it.” “You must sing it with a sigh,” he is advised by his father. The inheritance of the Jews and their gift, the film seems to say, is that they inform what they do with their hearts and their pain. After centuries of persecution, Jews feel more. It is one of the things that distinguishes and exalts them, though even within the context of the movie Jack seems reluctant to broadcast this. He appears on stage, as Jolson himself did, in blackface--one minority disguised within another. It is his way of making his “soul” palatable to the Gentiles.
Jack’s quandary is that he can bring Judaism to show business, but he cannot bring show business to Judaism--which is to say that Judaism cannot be revitalized in America or by America. It is alien to it. In the end, Jakie / Jack can’t resolve his dilemma. His father won’t let him be an American; America won’t let him be a Jew. Like the Hollywood Jews, he is caught between the old life and the new. In the play, Jack yields to Jakie and replaces his father on Yom Kippur. Of course, this surrender would never do for Jack Warner. In the film, Jakie / Jack satisfies both masters: His Broadway premiere is postponed while he sings the Kol Nidre in the synagogue. Then, in an epilogue, he brings down a packed house singing “Mammy,” one of Jolson’s trademarks, while his mama beams approval in the audience.
How did Jakie / Jack’s and the Jews’ intractable problem suddenly get resolved? It is certainly not because Jakie / Jack has found some way to navigate between these competing claims or because one has capitulated to the other. The answer is that the movie, swiftly and painlessly, dissolves the problem altogether. The movies, after all, are a world of possibility where anything can happen, and of all the themes in “The Jazz Singer,” this might have been the most important and the most telling for the Hollywood Jews. The movies can redefine us. The movies can make us new. And that is precisely how the Hollywood Jews would use them.
AFTER “THE Jazz Singer,” the rush to sound began. Warners’ stock, which had dipped back to $9 a share when the bloom was off “Don Juan,” climbed to $132. By 1930, Harry Warner had increased the company’s assets to $230 million; he was acquiring one new theater a day; collecting record companies; radio stations and foreign sound patents, and he was financing shows on Broadway. At the depth of the Depression, only MGM was as well diversified as Warners and only MGM would weather the hard times as well.
But the success of Warner Brothers coincided with personal tragedy and dissension. None of the Warners had been present at the opening of “The Jazz Singer,” their greatest triumph. Sam Warner, who had been largely responsible for the film, died of complications from a sinus infection the day before the movie premiered. It was Sam who had held the balance of power in the family by managing to be Jack’s ally without being Harry’s enemy. His death destabilized the tender truce between the family’s factions.
What finally split the family and brought Jack and Harry’s mutual enmity into open warfare, however, wasn’t death, it was sex. Jack was a self-confessed womanizer, and with the power of his position he never lacked opportunities. In 1915, he had married a young woman named Irma Solomon, but by the ‘20s he had dropped even the pretense of faithfulness to her. He had fallen in love with the wife of a Valentino imitator. Ann Page Alvarado was a bit actress and a remarkably beautiful woman. A Catholic from New Orleans, she was also as remote from a Jewish woman as one could possibly be. Jack was infatuated. Before either’s divorce was final, he and Ann were living together openly. His father and Harry were indignant. Harry regularly excoriated Jack and called Ann a whore. Nor was this a private war; everyone at the studio knew about it.
Then, in April, 1935, the brothers’ mother died after a brief illness; several months later, Benjamin Warner suffered a stroke and died. If Harry had regarded himself as the family’s leader before his father’s death, with Benjamin Warner’s passing he assumed full command. “You’re the oldest of my sons,” he quoted his father as saying, “and it’s your responsibility to keep your brothers together. As long as you stand together, you will be strong.” Harry took this injunction as further cause to goad and harass Jack. Jack responded to the death differently. Barely two months later, he and Ann were married in New York. His one concession to his father’s memory was that a rabbi officiated at the ceremony. By this time, however, the family breach was irreparable.
Jack’s remarriage may have given the quarrel new impetus and definition, but it was essentially the same old battle: the young assimilated American Jew defying the authority of the past to establish the supremacy of the future. This, of course, wasn’t just the Warners’ battle. The Warners’ saga, marked as it was by the split between Harry and Jack, between obligations and aspirations, between the old and the new, between Judaism and America, was a kind of paradigm of the tensions of assimilation generally, just as “The Jazz Singer” was its clearest, most paradigmatic artistic expression.
Unlike most Hollywood Jews, the Warners were energized not by the desire to appease and enter the Establishment, but by the conflict that tore them apart. It was, as social historian Isaiah Berlin once wrote in a similar context, a tension that “sharpens the perceptions and, like the grit which rubs against an oyster, causes suffering from which pearls of genius sometimes spring.” There was no possible rapprochement between Harry’s suffocating authority and Jack’s brazen defiance or between the provincial Judaic world and a new world without the old moral coordinates. For them, the only course was to continue the fight.