Friday, January 25, 2008

dvd review: the jazz singer ultimate edition

The Jazz Singer. It made entertainment history, and yet it was your average sentimental film. It stands as monument to determination, vision and persistence- and yet it was only several minutes of dialogue and music the made such a sensation. It is remembered as the first, even though it really wasn't. So why is it so important? It is the first feature film to demonstrate the potential of sound to a skeptical industry (As so ably depicted in Singin' in the Rain). The public, which had previously panned the few efforts at sound in pictures, embraced this film and made it a hit. It didn't hurt that the story was a previous Broadway smash or and that the star was an already popular entertainer either. The fact that it was so popular helped to lead other movie studios to follow in Warner's lead in using sound, where they had previously dismissed it.

Warner Brother's release of The Jazz Singer is one of their best releases of 2007 (it made our Shelf Top 5 of 2007!), and not just for the fact of all the bells and whistles included as extras. It is also because of the wonderful restoration work done on the film and the effort to locate an original Vitaphone disc sound recording to digitally recreate the sound to the film. All of this attention to detail and effort went to, not just restoring, but in reality, preserving The Jazz Singer. We are better off for it. Now, this is usually the part where I ask you if this DVD is worth your hard earned dollars. Who am I kidding? Of course it is, but I would still love for you to check out The Shelf review of The Jazz Singer to see why.

The Hard Facts:

The Jazz Singer: Ultimate 80th Anniversary Edition
3 Discs in a folding case with extras
Studio: Warner Brothers
Black & White
Pan & Scan, Wide Screen
Original Studio: Warner Brothers
Release Date: 10/16/2007
Rated: NR
Stars: Al Jolson

The Jazz Singer rightly has a place in Film History, but is remembered for perhaps the wrong reason. Most people who discuss the film, label it as the first "talkie". It was not. For a time, several studios had experimented with synchronized music and sound effects. Shorts were the medium of choice as they were simple and more inexpensive to produce; in other words they were less of a gamble to test new technology. Audience reaction to most of these shorts were mixed, however the Vitaphone Short series began to draw interest as they featured more artists (notably from vaudeville circuits) that rural audiences would never see. Although several inventors were working on sound methods, Vitaphone seemed to have the most success, especially because it was backed and bankrolled by Sam Warner of Warner Brothers fame.

Sam was convinced that sound was going to open a whole new frontier for film. He convinced his brothers to back him. Their first full length feature to incorporate Vitaphone was actually Don Juan, made in 1926. Don Juan, starring the 20s matinee idol John Barrymore, was really the first feature length film to take a dip and add synchronized sound effects to sword fight scenes. While the general critical reception was lukewarm at best, Don Juan did well enough financially to convince Warners to carry on. Sam Warner should really be remembered as an important figure in this story, as the reason why The Jazz Singer was important has to do with his efforts. The real reason that The Jazz Singer is important is not because it was first, but because it was a hit and made money for a studio that was struggling financially. Sam Warner had gambled, and when the success of The Jazz Singer was apparent to other studios, the race to produce more sound films was on. Sadly, Sam Warner would not see the revolution he helped to bring about; he died in 1927 at age 42, the day before The Jazz Singer was to debut in New York City.

Why was The Jazz Singer a success? It was indeed the first full feature length film to include spoken dialogue as part of the sound. That impressed audiences, but more for who was speaking rather than the words themselves. Al Jolson was a wildly popular performer even before his film debut. A popular figure on Broadway and the Vaudeville circuit because audiences loved his personal style. Instead of standing still and singing, as was the usual form, Jolson moved and really performed the song. Audiences flocked to his shows and bought his songs and recordings.

Strangely enough, though Jolson seemed tailor made for the film, he was not Warner's first choice. Eddie Cantor and George Jessel turned down the role before Warners offered it to Jolson. It was indeed based on Al Jolson. Author Samuel Raphaelson had seen Jolson perform and was so impressed by him that he wrote a short story based on Jolson's life entitled The Day of Atonement. Later he turned it into a stage play where it was a hit on Broadway, where Jessel had performed in the role. It was a story that appealed to not only the immigrants of the country, but also many studio executives, who themselves were immigrants or children of immigrants. It's no surprise that it was considered a hot property, and Warner's adapted it for film. While dialogue wasn't necessarily planned for sound in the film, the Warner's wanted to take advantage of Vitaphone to capitalize on Jolson's popularity and several of his songs that were already hits. It was during the recording and filming of these numbers that movie history was made. As was his want, Jolson sang and add libbed during his performance. The first words were spoken after his first number: "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet!" But what came later in the film really charmed audiences. In a scene with his on screen mother, Jolson sings "Blue Skies" and throws in dialogue talking about how we will take care of his mother when he really makes it big. No one was really prepared for Jolson to do this, least of all actress Eugenie Besserer, who played his mother. As you can hear in the film, Besserer actually responds some and laughs at Jolson's add libs. The scene really is endearing.

Initially, although it did well, The Jazz Singer wasn't considered monumental. It was a bit of a corny story, even for 1927, which capitalized on the novelty of Vitaphone and the popularity of a star performer. The industry was really impressed with what followed. With a genuine success on their hands, Warner's followed up with Jolson in The Singing Fool,with even more spoken dialogue. The film was an even greater success and the other studios realized that talkies were no longer a fluke, they were the new frontier. Studios scrambled to fund their own companies and scientists to develop their own technology, but Vitaphone was such a proven and conventional technology, the investment of money and time wasn't worth it. Warner had licensed the process and other studio's used it. It wasn't until the better and streamline Movietone process was developed that Vitaphone faded away. Within a year of The Singing Fool, most studios were in the process or making plans to convert to sound films. Hollywood was never the same again.

The Film:
The above title should really say "films" because there really are two films in the set, and really the whole set is sort of a film history class in a box. The 3 disc set includes the feature film as well as the new feature length documentary film, The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk. We'll deal with that film in the bonus features section.

Warning : if you haven't seen the film, there are some spoilers ahead.

The Jazz Singer
Religious singer, Cantor Rabinowitz (played by Walter Oland who would later play detective Charlie Chan), expects his son to follow in his footsteps as the singer (or cantor) for their synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto of New York City. His son, Jackie has other ambitions. He wants to perform in the "jazz style" singing popular songs and performing for audiences. While his father forbids it, a young Jackie is caught singing at a restaurant by a family friend, who immediately goes and tells his father. Cantor Rabinowitz forcibly removes his son from the stage and takes him home. Knowing whats in store for him, Jackie tells his mother and father that he will run away if his father whips him again. Both are unyielding; his father whips him and afterwords Jackie kisses his mother goodbye and leaves for good.
Years later, Jackie, now going by the name Jack Robin, is becoming a locally popular "jazz singer" and is spotted one night at a club. He is encouraged to perform for the crowd (look for a young William Demarest in this scene, eating with Jolson). Jack performs a ballad and wows the crowd, especially a young actress and dancer in the crowd, Mary Dale. Mary introduces herself to Jack and eventually gives him his first shot at a touring show. Jack becomes a hit on the circuit (look for a very young Myrna Loy as a dancer in an off stage scene) and his career flourishes. Later he is cast in a big Broadway revue alongside Mary, with whom he has fallen in love.

When he arrives in New York, Jack goes to visit his mother, with whom he has secretly kept contact with all along. It happens to be his father's 60th birthday, and Jack figures maybe now is the time to reconcile. When he visits his mother he sings Irving Berlin's Blue Skies for her. (It is in this scene that the first true bit of spoken dialogue in a feature film is performed, even if it is add lib.) While he is singing, Jack's father walks in and witnesses his son's performance. He yells "Stop!" and Jack turns to face his father. Although a success and willing to reconcile, Jack doesn't find any sympathy with his father. His father insists that he will not have a "jazz singer" in his home and banishes Jack again.

Jack continues to ready for his big premiere, but two weeks later the choice of his life comes. His father becomes gravely ill, and his mother and the members of the synagogue beg Jack to stand in his father's place at Yom Kippur service, which happens to be opening night. It becomes a choice that symbolizes not just his own division within his soul, but what many immigrants must have felt at the time- the urge to assimilate, but the longing for the old ways. Although his producer warns Jack that if he doesn't appear, he'll never get another role on Broadway. In the end, Jack agrees to sing in his father's place. As he is singing, his father hears him from the window near his bed. He tells his wife, "Mama, we have our son again," and then quietly passes away. While Jack performs in the synagogue his father's spirit appears next to him. But his mother knows what is happening- Jack is still a jazz singer, but as she observes he is a "jazz singer — singing to his God."

The film is excellent, although it sounds mundane. It will very much seem dated to modern audiences, who may not be able to relate to Jack's problems, but it is very charming and endearing. It is easy to see why Jolson was so popular. He is energetic and captivating when he sings, and is very expressive on film. Modern audiences will no doubt be uncomfortable with the black face performances in the film. It was indeed in vogue at the time for entertainers like Jolson to perform jokes and songs in blackface, which had been around for sometime since the popularity of minstrel shows in the later half of the 19th century. Some film scholars have argued that its importance as a theme in the film and how it relates Jack's idea of identity, or that there is a theme of the adopting of minority styles in entertainment as a way to assimilate. I'm not going to delve into the argument for the purposes of this review, but it should be noted that while the practice is abhorrent to us today, it was commonplace then. That does not mean, however, that blacks or other Americans did not oppose the practice. Many argued and fought against the harmful stereotypes of minstrel shows since the days of Frederick Douglas. However blackface remained a standard entertainment performance until it's popularity waned after World War II. For more information, please read this informative article from Wikipedia. Despite the scenes in blackface, and whether or not they are integral to the film, they are there and we have to deal with the film as it is rather than dismiss it and diminish its value or importance. If anything it is a reflection of it's time. In it's own way it is a commentary and look at ethnicity and assimilation and family and religion and dreams and ambitions. All in all, The Jazz Singer is an excellent and important film, and one that should be seen to really learn about film history, if not to be enjoyed for it's own merits.

Bonus features:

Bonus features abound in this wonderful set and they include:the new feature length documentary, The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk; Commentary by film historians Ron Hutchinson and Vince Giordano; several cartoons and shorts that directly relate to the film, including Tex Avery's famous parody, I Love to Singa; Lux Radio Theater adaptation; Several rare Technicolor shorts that demonstrate how sound films work; over 3 and 1/2 hours of Vitaphone comedy and musical shorts; reproduction lobby cards, a reproduction of the original release souvenir program book; a booklet with vintage document reproductions and DVD features guide; and in a nice touch, a reproduction of the post-premiere telegram from Al Jolson to Jack L. Warner of his condolences in regards to Sam Warner's death. Wow! I'm out of breath just writing all that!

The Vitaphone shorts are hit and miss as far as interest goes. Some of them are very entertaining, including a very funny short featuring the famous Foy Family. Most film history buffs and vitaphone afficinados will love them. I did, but I admit some weren't as entertaining as others. Nonetheless kudos to Warner's for recognizing their value and placing so many of them in the set. The documentary was the real kicker for me as it really goes into the story of sound in film from the stand point of the industry and not just Warner Brothers. Many efforts and many names who contributed to the technology and its acceptance with audiences are featured. If you think that you know the story, think again. The documentary is a winner. And just as a side note, I love Tex Avery's I Love to Singa. I have for years. I just had to say that.

The video has been cleaned and restored with an all-new digital transfer and the audio features a refurbished soundtrack from restored picture elements and original Vitaphone-Sound-on-Disc recordings. If you've seen it on television or on video- the DVD is a revelation. The sound is crisp and clean and I can actually make out most of the dialouge between Jolson and Bessemer. Warner's was able to find an original Vitaphone recording that was in excellent condition to digitize and add to the film. As a nice added touch the disc themselves look like Vitaphone records. All in all, fantastic. I was not disappointed.

The Bottom Line:
This set is really a love letter from Warner's to itself and to the film industry about it's history. It has been lovingly restored and put together. If not for the Ford at Fox set, this would perhaps have been our choice for DVD of the year. It is that good. It is that important. Warners was really at the top of their game with this release, and hopefully the will continue to release fantastic sets such as this one, with such detail and attention paid to what's important. Bottom line- this set deserves to be on the shelf of any student or fan of film. Period.

Review Rating:
Rating the films and features:
The film: A
The documentary: A
Audio/Video: A+
Bonus Features A+

The Jazz Singer set is a Must Have!

The Shelf rates The Jazz Singer:
5 stars (Groucho Glasses)

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet!


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Terrific post. I've not actually seen this film in years. I'm glad such attention to detail was involved in the restoration. A real window on an era.

J.C. Loophole said...

Thanks for your comment, and you are spot on: it is a window on an era. Like I said it is really film history in a box.


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