Though The Jazz Singer is “about” the pressures of a new and changing secular culture on a religious family and its traditions, it is also “about” the pressures technological change was placing on the film industry of the late 1920s and on its traditions.
In the movie, a cantor has raised his son to carry on as the sixth generation following the father's path; the son, however, has felt the allure of jazz, turning from religion to a secular belief equally strong. But that’s not the whole of the film: Just as the son feels pressure to respect his father's wishes even as he turns irrevocably to jazz, the makers of the movie show that they also appreciate and understand the elders they are out to replace, those who saw the advent of sound as debasement of the art of their sacred silent movies—even if they disagree. In both cases, the pressure for change elicits response and the movement towards the secular appears irrevocable but—and this is the key point for my project—the tools of the secular are eventually turned towards new sacred ends. The religion of the cantor has not died within his son. [One of the ironies of the movie is that the new secularists in Hollywood could not do the same. They destroyed much of the old art rather than finding ways of incorporating it in the new.]
Given the momentous nature of the change The Jazz Singer has come to represent, it is not surprising that questions concerning its content are often given short shrift, importance of form dwarfing consideration of content. Add to this the movie’s unfortunate utilization of race and avoidance of its content becomes understandable. It is true, as Corin Willis writes, that:
The Jazz Singer is not a film which generally features in discussions of cinema art. In the 2002 Sight and Sound poll of the 'ten greatest films' it failed to attract a single vote from the hundreds of directors and critics consulted. The meaning that the film has, its place in popular memory, arises from the material conditions of its production, from its status as the first talking picture. In more recent times the sense of The Jazz Singer as a film defined by its context has been compounded by the attention which has been paid to Al Jolson's use of blackface.” [“Meaning and Value in The Jazz Singer” in Gibbs, John and Douglas Pye, ed. Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 127]
The fact of the movie's unique place in the history of film, exacerbated by a racist aspect anathema to modern scholars, has left the movie as an unexamined marker rather than as a contributor to any content discussion, let alone to examination of questions of the impact of technology on the sacred and the secular. Yet, aware of the significance of what they were doing, the filmmakers certainly did incorporate the context of the change they were exhibiting as part of the content as well. The coupling they produced deserves attention it has never had, especially as an exemplar of future couplings of secular technology and the sacred.
Specific to discussion of the sacred and the secular within the context of a changing entertainment and communications media is the placement of speech in The Jazz Singer. Speech “appears” only in two of the movie's scenes. In the first, speech starts with the famous “Wait a minute, wait a minute: you ain't seen nothin' yet” and is followed by instructions to the pianist... about the “jazz” Jolson's character wants played. The scene explicitly links the secular with technological innovation, leaving the earlier silent, caption-carded films as part of a sacred tradition that, while never disparaged in the movie, will clearly have to change to survive. The second scene encompasses a conversation between Jolson's character and his mother (though she hardly gets a word in). Here, he talks of the future, imagining vistas of success and joy—just as did the promoters of new sound movies. The conversation ends with Jolson playing a jazzy tune (connecting back to the first instance), only to be interrupted by the entrance of his character's father, who shouts his one audible word of the movie, “Stop!”
The way the word is utilized shows that even the cantor (as a representative of religious tradition) is going to have to move into this new world whether he knows it or not, whether he likes it or not. His only way of resisting the change bedeviling him is, ultimately (says the movie), to use what change offers. He will fail if he says nothing; jazz, having invaded his home, will stay.
By allowing his word to be heard instead of shown on a caption card, director Crosland undercuts the very command, making it a part of the world the cantor is trying to resist. This, in terms of the dual themes of technological change and change in the family from the sacred to the secular, is perhaps the central statement of the movie. The cantor must say “Stop!” But his word emasculates his desire. This genie cannot be forced back into the bottle, no matter the belief or the passion.
The tensions between the sacred and the secular go much further in The Jazz Singer than that shown by the analogy to the change to sound film. Jolson's character’s use of blackface becomes a metaphor for the movement from a sacred Jewish life to one where his character is “passing” in a secular culture he wants to be a part of, but that is not, in at least one essential aspect, his. Not yet, at least. The stage is set for this earlier in the movie, when the character’s mother worries that a woman mentioned in a letter is a “shiksa.” She is advised not to judge on the name, that many Jews in theater have changed their names, anglicizing them, “passing,” as Jolson's blackface, applied while he speaks of the Jewish “race,” makes clear that he will do, too. As he already has, changing his name from Jakie (probably “Jacob”) Rabinowitz to Jack Robin.
The point of the example of The Jazz Singer here is that, way too often, consideration of the impact of technological change is often conducted within too narrow a framework. It wasn't simply the technology that needed changing in the movies of the late 1920s, but the attitudes towards technology, and even towards art. As there is a constant, long-term tension between the sacred and the secular, its use as a metaphor for tensions in other areas assures a lasting impression, understandable to almost any generation. At the same time, technology, generally first embraced by the secular, consistently moves towards utilization for sacred purposes. By refusing to look at just technology, or just the secular and the sacred, new light can be shone on even eighty-year-old movies and even on technological movements that continue today.