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The Jazz Singer has been showing up on clip and compilation reels for going on seventy years now, with a snatch of Al Jolson performing or saying the immortal words, "You ain't seen nothing yet!" For viewers in 1927 amazed at the sight of a talking motion picture, those words have served as the leadoff for the entire talkie revolution. Warners' box set of The Jazz Singer packages the milestone film with two additional discs of extras that include a new docu as well as dozens of original Vitaphone short subjects, all restored. But the Al Jolson feature remains the draw -- finally seen in a respectably restored condition, it's less a fossil from the dawn of sound than a fully realized star-vehicle musical that uses its talkie sequences to wow the audience.
Samson Raphaelson's basic story in The Jazz Singer is pure immigrant corn that would appeal to any group in the ethnic melting pot; American cities in the early 20th century were teeming with new citizens abandoning at least some of their Old World traditions. Cantor Rabinowitz waxes apoplectic when his Jackie wants to perform in bars instead of sing holy songs. The story avoids taking sides but identifies most strongly with 'Jack Robin', the newly minted American eager to take advantage of the freedom to seek fame and fortune. The movie gets in a timeless joke when a Jewish gossip exclaims (in a title card) that Jackie might have fallen for a "shiksa", when Jackie's defection has gotten much farther than that. With his Americanized, de-ethnicized new name, Jackie is putting his father's traditions behind him.
The movie is careful not to avoid the Jewish audience, and keeps Jack Robin's possible romance with Mary Dale way in the background. Mary leads Jack to Broadway but it doesn't look like she'll land him as a husband or a lover; when she and her rather open-minded attend the temple services, they know this world and their own just don't mix. Jack's a good boy who loves his mother, and a devout (if no longer orthodox) member of his faith. We can imagine Hollywood moguls showing this picture to their elderly, still-doubtful parents, saying "See Mom, I'm in show biz too, but it's okay!"
The Jazz Singer is shrewdly constructed. The only real conflict is between keeping the Holy Days and the dictum, "the show must go on." Jackie is unfairly squeezed into an impossible position by both sides, and the film's compromise is silly but effective. What works is the movie's unerring smarts in knowing how to use its musical numbers. Al Jolson was such a big star that it's likely that many patrons paid little attention to the plot, and instead sat wondering at his celebrity. When Jolson sings at the emotional climaxes, and finishes the film with a direct performance to the audience, the effect must have been revolutionary. The screen had 'made noise' before, but The Jazz Singer allowed Jolson to communicate right to the viewer, as in a live theater. The only other movie star that I can think of that made a career of this particular kind of performance film is Barbra Streisand.
"All Talking, All Singing" shows would follow almost immediately, but we're told that The Jazz Singer has only a couple of minutes of actual synchronized dialogue. The producers seem to have been unsure about the impact of dialogue scenes, and it's weird to watch the film switch from antique inter-titles -- "New York! Broadway! HOME!" -- to the little bit of audio improvisation as Jackie serenades his mother at the piano. A minute or so later, the film switches back to the inter-titles again ("I have no son!"). The dialogue bits are good, but the film's several synch musical numbers must have been what thrilled the crowds. Warners' DVD audio engineers have of course synchronized all of these sections perfectly, and we wonder what the success rate was in old theater presentations. How many times during each show did a Vitaphone projectionist have to correctly cue the double system sound-on-disc apparatus, to make the audio stay in synchronization?
Look close and you may catch William Demarest in a backstage scene. A young Myrna Loy is much easier to spot -- she's even given inter-title 'dialogue.'
The Jazz Singer is as clear as a bell on this disc, with audio better than many early talkies ... it's a sure bet that the audio engineers went back to original discs to piece together the soundtrack, as there's little or no hiss. Original overture and exit music cues help us imagine the added 'road show' appeal of the film's initial engagements.
The disc set has a mountain of extras. Those curious about the Vitaphone transition to talkies will find a lot to peruse, starting with a stack of reproductions of original souvenir programs, Vitaphone promotional booklets, photo cards and a pamphlet guide to the rest of the disc set's extras.
Sharing the first disc with the feature are a commentary with Vitaphone expert Ron Hutchinson and Vince Giordano, the Nighthawks bandleader. Other Al Jolson shorts include an introductory musical piece (with Jolson again in blackface) and several appearances in horse racing themed one-reelers. A Jolson trailer gallery has snippets of great songs like "She's A Latin from Manhattan" and "About a Quarter of Nine" from Go Into Your Dance, and the trailer for Wonder Bar avoids showing scenes from the jaw-dropping "Going to Heaven on a Mule" number. In addition to a radio show version also starring Jolson, Fred "Tex" Avery's cartoon I Love to Singa turns out to be a full-on Jazz Singer parody.
Disc two has a new documentary The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk, which simplifies the story of the competition to invent a winning talking movie system down to Vitaphone and sound-on-film approaches pioneered by DeForest and Case. Their internal discord resulted in Vitaphone getting out the gate first, although Case's Movietone system would become the standard only a couple of years later. Five more short subject docus on sound film are also included. Several are self-congratulatory pieces produced by Warners, and one is an animated cartoon.
We also get a couple of sound excerpts from Gold Diggers of Broadway, perhaps as a tease for a possible follow-up disc with more early feature musicals from 1929 and 1930.
Disc three is a tall list of Vitaphone shorts, all presumably filmed in New York and benefiting from easy access to New York show talent. As explained in the larger docu, these short subjects record the Vaudeville entertainers of the day, in a medium that would soon make live traveling performers redundant. Over twenty shorts are included, with everything from barbershop quartets to all-girl orchestras. Some have little plots to motivate the music, as when a group of police singers rehearse in the precinct before going to perform at the orphanage. Others just plunk the performers in front of a curtain. We see comedy teams that are still amusing and some whose popularity must be taken on faith; one lady performer arranges an entire act around the gag of hiding her indiscretions from her children by spelling out words instead of saying them. That wouldn't work in a silent movie.
The standouts are sublime. Baby Rose Marie (Rose Marie from The Dick Van Dyke Show is a five year-old knockout. George Burns and Gracie Allen are too cute to be believed.
The disc set comes in a sturdy black box with card folders to hold its many contents. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Jazz Singer (Three-Disc Deluxe Edition) rates:
1. For readers interested in the early sound period, Jeff Cohen's fascinating website called Vitaphone Varieties amounts to two or three books' worth of text, along with hundreds of listenable audio cues. The technical detail and show biz archeology are way beyond what one would expect.
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