If you’re any sort of discerning cinephile — and if you’ve taken the time to visit our fine site, I’m going to assume you are — you’ve probably heard of The Jazz Singer. Of course, for the movie-going public in the late 1920s, The Jazz Singer was unlike anything they’d ever heard: the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue. Or, put more simply, the first “talkie.” Though you probably know it revolutionized the film industry, I’m betting it’s a lot less likely you’ve actually seen The Jazz Singer.
I liken it to Jackie Robinson’s place in sports history. Most of us know Robinson was the first African-American Major League baseball player in the modern era, but I suspect a much smaller number of us have seen footage of Robinson in action. Similarly, The Jazz Singer’s place in film history has been secure for decades, but even movie nerds with more than 700 titles in their collections (hi there) haven’t gotten around to watching it. Fortunately, Warner Bros. has released a spiffy new Blu-ray of the groundbreaking 1927 film to help remedy this situation.
The three-disc release includes a high definition upgrade for the 96-minute feature — more on that in the Video and Audio sections — along with hours (and hours) of bonus material dedicated to the history and development of sound on film, as well as vintage shorts from the era. To me, that ratio seems just about right because the circumstances leading up to and following the release of The Jazz Singer are more interesting and significant than the film could ever hope to be.
Don’t get me wrong: The Jazz Singer is not at all bad and remains impactful 85 years after its debut. The story, of course, is stunningly simple and based on star Al Jolson’s own life as a Jewish cantor’s son obsessed with becoming an entertainer. Jolson plays Jakie Rabinowitz — eventually Jack Robin — who has the love and support of his loving, saintly mother (Eugenie Besserer), but draws the ire of his domineering, traditionalist father (Warner Oland). As Jack’s career begins to take off, the conflict with his father escalates and he has to decide whether to place his dreams of superstardom above his complicated family life.
Here’s the first surprise for me: despite its reputation as the first talkie, roughly 80 percent of The Jazz Singer is a silent film. (Trivia alert! Warner Bros. released the first all-talking feature film — Lights of New York — one year later.) Director Alan Crosland conjures up some striking, memorable images. (Robert Gordon, who plays Jakie at age 13, has a particularly communicative face.) Since filmmaking was still in its relative infancy, there are some glaring editing issues with actors jumping from one place to another in a given scene. The synchronization between the singing on screen and what is heard on the soundtrack is also way off during early parts of the movie, including young Jakie singing a ragtime song.
Once Jolson appears on screen, however, everything falls into place. His performance of “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” was impressive, but the real wonder came when he briefly bantered with the crowd prior to launching into “Toot, Toot, Tootsie.” Hearing words come out of his mouth in perfect synchronization to the image on screen was legitimately jarring. (And I’ve been watching movies and TV shows this way my entire life.) A brief scene where Jolson lovingly ad-libs with an overwhelmed Besserer is even stronger. The idea of putting sound on film wasn’t originally meant for features. Instead, it was intended to be an alternative for theaters that couldn’t afford live orchestras and it was initially used exclusively for shorts. To make the leap to feature films viable, they needed someone like Jolson, considered by many to be the “world’s greatest entertainer.” Jolson was an undeniably electrifying performer — and quite a good, if melodramatic, film actor — but we have to talk about the blackface.
While Jack is trying to decide between helping his family or achieving his professional dreams, Jolson casually applies blackface makeup as he prepares for a pivotal dress rehearsal. Had The Jazz Singer been made during more enlightened times, one could reasonably argue the scene is an example of the ugliness of show business or how it changes an individual who has turned his back on his family and values. Of course, that theory sort of gets blown to hell when we see Jack triumphantly singing to his sweet ol’ “Mammy” towards the end. (I refuse to issue a *SPOILER ALERT* for an 86-year-old movie.) To be fair, Jolson wasn’t exactly alone: his Swedish co-star Oland would go on to retroactively draw heat for donning yellowface on film, most famously as 1930s detective Charlie Chan.
As cringeworthy as they may be today, the minstrel-style performances that perpetuated these racist images and attitudes were a prominent theatrical tradition throughout the 19th and 20th century. And Jolson was one of the most successful theatrical performers of his time. It’s not difficult to connect the dots. I’ll just say that I’m glad Warner Bros. has consistently presented the movie in its original form and as a product of its time. (I can’t say the same for Disney, which locked away the complete version of Song of the South a long time ago and seems to have thrown away the key.) An 88-page Blu-ray booklet that accompanies the discs — and contains a lot of unfortunate-in-hindsight press material — begins with a disclaimer stating that pretending these attitudes didn’t exist doesn’t help anybody. I agree.
The story in The Jazz Singer may be plain and something we’ve seen countless times in subsequent years. However, the story behind The Jazz Singer is fascinating. Simply put, it was a game changer. There were only about a dozen theaters in the world that were even able to play the film. (Wrap your mind around that one as the latest blockbuster du jour opens in 4,000+ screens in the U.S. alone.) Remember how some people lost their minds about The Hobbit being shown at 48 frames per second? Multiply that brouhaha by about 10,000 and you’ll get a sense of the impact The Jazz Singer had on the film industry. I’m not saying 48 frames per second is going to become the industry standard any time soon, but I guarantee you the idea of synchronized sound in films for dramatic effect was a much more radical notion.
Jolson-as-Jack turned out to be absolutely right when he tells a fawning audience, “you ain’t heard nothing yet.”
The Jazz Singer is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 22 mbps. The video presentation is absolutely worth the price of admission. The first thing I noticed is a surprising amount of detail and clarity in the wide NYC crowd shots establishing the film’s setting. The rest of the transfer is not nearly as consistent, but is remarkable nonetheless. The image occasionally appears a bit soft around the edges during close-ups — resulting in halos around the actors — but the nearly 90-year-old print is free of any significant blemishes. There is gorgeous grain throughout that lends the film a sort of haunting quality during the dramatic scenes in the Rabinowitz house. Most importantly, especially for a black-and-white film, contrast and black levels are excellent.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track has been restored from the original Vitaphone sound-on-disc recordings. Sound-on-film recording didn’t become the industry standard until 1931. The film opens with a four-and-a-half minute overture that showcases the lovely score from Louis Silvers and gave each of the speakers a nice workout. Dialogue, in the few instances someone speaks, is audible if a bit wan when compared to the score, Jolson’s exciting musical numbers and the film’s sound effects. Beyond that, a mono recording by any other name is still a mono recording. That means there’s not a tremendous amount of nuance to the track and occasional hissing. Overall, it remains an impressive track when you consider the film’s age.
I Love to Singa on Disc 1 — which also includes the feature film — is presented in HD, but the rest of the bonus material appears in standard definition. Same goes for the special features on Disc 2 and 3, which are presented on standard definition DVDs. Disc 2 focuses on the early days of the sound era, while Disc 3 offers a massive collection of Vitaphone shorts.
Unfortunately, the special features on Discs 2 and 3 were all previously available in a 2007 Deluxe DVD release of The Jazz Singer. For that reason, as well as the lack of an HD upgrade for any of this stuff, I have to slightly downgrade my rating for the otherwise excellent bonus material.
Commentary by film historian Ron Hutchinson and bandleader Vince Giordano: The informative track covers a lot of the same points as the Blu-ray book and the supplemental discs, but the duo’s enthusiasm keeps things interesting. For what it’s worth, Hutchinson points out that Jolson used his own voice — rather than imitating African American caricatures — when he performed in blackface. Giordano tidily sums things up by saying, “it was just another time.” Not essential, but certainly worth a listen.
Rare Cartoon and Collection of Shorts: Includes the funny, animated Jazz Singer homage from Tex Avery called I Love to Singa (8:15), as well as two star-studded, horse racing-centric shorts: A Day at Santa Anita (18:03) and Hollywood Handicap (10:19), which was directed by Buster Keaton and features a cameo from Jolson. Jolson also appears in A Plantation Act (9:59), in case you didn’t find his relatively brief blackface performance in the feature film offensive enough.
An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros.’ Silver Jubilee: (11:15) A short film celebrating 25 years of Warner Bros. with “Mr. and Mrs. Warner Bros. Pictures” introducing their daughter, “Vitophone.” “Vitophone” goes on to list the WB’s slate of stars at the time, including Loretta Young, Walter Huston and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who each make an appearance.
1947 Lux Radio Theatre Broadcast: (58:20) Twenty years after film’s release, Jolson — noticeably older, but still in fine voice — starred in this radio adaptation. The Jazz Singer began its life as a 1922 short story titled “The Day of Atonement” by Samson Raphaelson before morphing into a 1925 Broadway drama starring George Jessel called The Jazz Singer. Audio only.
Theatrical Trailer: (7:10) We don’t usually talk about trailers, but they don’t make them like this anymore. This vintage clip is touted as the “first living Vitophone announcement” and features shots of crowds trying to get tickets for a Jazz Singer screening, along with (oh, right!) clips from the film.
The Dawn of Sound — How Movies Learned to Talk: (1:25:19) This excellent documentary examines the filmmaking climate in the early part of the 20th century and all the circumstances surrounding the release of The Jazz Singer. The prevailing feeling at the time was that everyone was perfectly happy with silent films and talking pictures couldn’t be profitable. A small army of film historians discuss the impact of the Warner Brothers and how dead-on the plot of Singin’ in the Rain actually is. Also features invaluable clips of experimental short films that predated The Jazz Singer.
Sound Excerpts: (15:46) Features an amusing short called Tip Toe Through the Tulips and most of the visuals from 1929’s Gold Diggers of Broadway, a showcase of phenomenal dancing and athleticism. (The final minute or so from the short is missing, so we get a black screen.)
Studio Shorts: This collection of shorts was created to explain and promote the concept of sound on film to a mass audience. Some of them have a more scientific bent, while others (like the animated Finding His Voice) were probably intended to appeal to children. Includes Voice from the Screen (15:32), Finding His Voice (10:47), The Voice That Thrilled the World (18:05), Okay for Sound (19:48) and When Talkies Were Young (20:23).
Vitaphone Shorts: (3:35:26) Before making the leap to feature films, Vitophone technology was used to produce a slew of shorts starring vaudeville performers capable of singing and playing music to better test out the recording process. Of course, they inadvertently contributed to their own downfall when moviegoing replaced live theater as the primary source of mass entertainment in the United States. Anyway, there’s some incredible talent on display throughout these shorts. Some of my favorites included the rowdy Night Court, Van and Schenck’s The Pennant Winning Battery of Songland and Roof Garden Review directed by Larry Ceballos. (Can’t explain why, but I’m just a fan of that guy.)
This is a beast of a Blu-ray befitting such a monumental film. If you don’t have time for the hours of material on the supplemental discs, at least make sure you give the 88-page booklet a look. (Don’t be scared: most of the pages actually contain great, vintage pictures. The book itself serves as a CliffsNotes version of the special features.) I just wish the booklet wasn’t attached to the Blu-ray case.
I’m a bit disappointed at the lack of an HD upgrade for the bonus material, but I understand it. Thankfully, the video presentation alone is worth the upgrade if you already own the Deluxe Edition DVD. If you’ve never seen The Jazz Singer, this Blu-ray is also a fine way of seeing — and hearing — an important piece of film history for the first time.
01/11/2013 @ 5:20 pm
Thanks for the article on the Jazz Singer. I thought the comments were thought provoking in more ways than one. I know about most classic movies, but have actually sat down and seen very few of them.
One of the themes you brought up, the racism of the 1920’s pop culture, I found particularly impactful. I’d always seen Jolson as a negative. It’s enlightening to think of Jolson, as many were back then, a product of his times. With that in mind, I can finally watch Jolson and be okay with seeing it, even if the thought of sitting through “Mami” makes my skin crawl.
If you’ll allow me to digress just a bit, the review, and the new perspective on race in America in the 20’s got me thinking about modern pop culture, and of NBC’s show “1600 Penn” in particular.
I take issue with several elements of the show. Aside from the erroneous comparisons to Modern Family and the show’s insulting lack of actual humor, my biggest issue with 1600 Penn is how it reflects what seems to be TV’s institutional racism.
With President Obama on his second term, the show opted to cast a white guy as President (Bill Pullman, who looks an awful lot like Mitt Romney), gave him a platinum blonde trophy wife, a Seth Rogan-esque slacker manboy son, two walking caricature milquetoast kids and a token black character. Are these people serious? I keep thinking 1600 Penn is some sort of April fools joke we all haven’t been let in on yet.
Much as Jim Crow, How the West Was Won and Gone with the Wind were seen as the north’s “apologies” for reconstruction, 1600 Penn feels like NBC’s way of saying “sorry” to red state America for Obama’s victory.
How hard would it have been to create a similar show with a mostly black cast? NBC’s executives can’t seriously believe that a show about a black family wouldn’t appeal to a wide audience, when the same network brought us the Cosby show more than 20 years ago.
NBC can’t think America would have trouble accepting a fictional Black President, can they? Even Fox (on the show 24) had a black President on a fictional show.
In many ways it seems the networks keep wanting to take a step backwards. For every show that demonstrates an acceptance for America’s rapidly shifting demographics, there seem to be multiple shows that continue to seek out the America of Normal Rockwell’s paintings. We can forgive the pop culture of the 1920s as a product of its time, but what’s the excuse these pop culture creators have in this day and age?
Anyway, great review. It’s not often that a blu-ray review gets my wheels to turn.