BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE JAZZ SINGER

By • Apr 18th, 2007 •

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(Warner Bros Home Entertainment) 1927. Three-disc set.

Growing up as a pre-teen film fanatic, I noticed all the film history books were divided into two parts. The first part concentrated on the development of silent films. The second covered the sound era. The crucial dividing mark was the October 20, 1927 premiere of Warner Bros’ THE JAZZ SINGER, heralded as the first sound motion picture. Wanting to see all the important films listed in these books, THE JAZZ SINGER was at the top of my “must see” list. Finally, THE JAZZ SINGER was scheduled to play on TV. I was pumped. I felt like I was going to witness an historic event like the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

It was basically a silent movie, with title cards and a music score, but a few minutes into the film, Jackie Rabinowitz, a young Jewish boy, sings way off-sync in a pre World War II New York City saloon. This scene was filmed at silent speed, so synchronization problems arose. The rest of the film is dead-on as far as sync. Jackie’s irate father, Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland, later of Charlie Chan fame) storms into the bar, and punishes him for singing “raggy” songs, when he should be learning to sing in the synagogue. (Side-note: The young Jackie is played by Bobby Gordon, who in the 1950’s had an affair with Allison Hayes, of ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN fame. I’m sorry, The Jazz Singer and the 50 Foot Woman kissin’ in a tree…. Had to throw that in.) The film hops back to a silent movie after young Jackie finishes singing. Jackie runs away and grows up to become “Jack Robin”, a jazzy night-club singer. This was my first introduction to the film’s star- Al Jolson.

Al Jolson, one of the most popular singers of the Roaring Twenties, secured a place in film history by starring in the first talkie feature. His on-stage persona was speedy, energetic, and partially lunatic. His best film roles came years later, with Lewis Milestone’s depression era comedy, HALLALUJA I’M A BUM (1933), and Busby Berkeley’s unbelievable tragic musical comedy, WONDER BAR (1934). However, here, Jolson’s all energy. Talkies got a good start with Al.

When Jolson sings and whistles “Toot-Toot Tootsie”, while making wildly energetic hip/leg movements, I felt like I was watching something from another planet!
This is a remnant from a bygone era, and while I was blown out of my willing suspension of disbelief by the out-of-control campiness, I was thrilled that this form of entertainment will be forever preserved.

Warner Brothers made the wise choice for THE JAZZ SINGER to go silent except for the singing parts (and some terrific improvisational dialog by Jolson, especially when he happily talks to his long estranged mother.) Having some of the dialog in sound and some with title cards would have been awkward. It’s especially fun here to see and watch Jolson sing on stage, and director Alan Crosland cuts to behind-the-stage reaction shots of his mother, and she’s speaking silent, with a title card, while Jolson sings.

THE JAZZ SINGER may be a tad melodramatic for modern audiences, with the drama between the old-world Cantor and his jazz-singing son. The film ends with Jolson on Broadway signing “Mammy” while his mother has a front row seat. (Jolson’s in blackface here, and you best be very, very forgiving of old school entertainment when you see this film! Relax! You’re watching technical and cultural history unfold!) Jolson ends his song with high energy, there is a fade out, and “The End” title pops up. That’s what I love about early Warner Brothers’ films like THE PUBLIC ENEMY, I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG and 42ND STREET- their last few seconds were on a high octane level, so after “The End” fades away in a few seconds, you are leaving the theatre all pumped up.

While THE JAZZ SINGER is the film that whetted the world’s appetite for “talkies”, it is not the first film with synchronized sound. Experimental sound shorts were being made much earlier. Warner Bros has released this fantastic three-disc DVD set of THE JAZZ SINGER with early sound shorts dating from 1926 to 1929. There are also several documentaries about early talkies, some from the period of the development of sound film.

The Vitaphone Process, which was used to record early talkies, was recorded onto a record that ran at the same speed as the film projector. In the early thirties, when Vitaphone became obsolete, talkies were transferred to the conventional, and still used, sound-on-film process (Where the audio is on an optical track next to the picture frame.) This transferring caused a severe generation loss, so for many years, early talkies like THE JAZZ SINGER, THE COCOANUTS, and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONTsounded like they were recorded on tinny telephone answering machines. This DVD release used the crisp sound off the still surviving Vitaphone discs, so Al sounds great here. Included in this set is a pretty successful experiment with sound film from 1913! There’s a clip from 1923 of D.W Griffith introducing his then latest film, DREAM STREET, and a 1926 piece with top movie censor Will Hay telling audiences about the upcoming talkie revolution.

As a side-note, I found it interesting that last month, when the Internet Movie Data Base announced the release of THE JAZZ SINGER DVD set, they only talked about the film’s plot, and not one mention that this is the film that started the talkie revolution eighty years ago. The studios seem to be frightened to let the public know that these are old films. Warner Bros apparently also has a contractual demand that in any text written of their classic cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, there be no mention that these cartoons were made back in the 1940’s and 1950’s.


Disc Two and Three include Early Sound Shorts (1926 to 1929), several documentaries on the early sound process, and theatrical trailers for Al Jolson films.

Crew:
Written by Samson Raphaelson, Alfred Cohn, Jack Jarmuth.
Cinematography by Hal Mohr.
Original Music by Louis Silvers.
Directed by Alan Crosland.

Cast:
Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland, Cantor Joseff Rosenblatt, Eugenie Besserer, Otto Lederer, William Demerest, Myran Loy, Roscoe Karns.

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