Placed within its proper context as a pseudo-talkie, Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) most effectively marks that historic place when the golden silence of American movies yielded to a brand new invention of synchronized sound; soon to become a very costly epoch and industry standard. However, in hindsight it is important to distinguish The Jazz Singer as not being a sound film per say, at least not in the truest sense that audiences have come to regard since. In fact, The Jazz Singer was not even the first attempt at synchronization of music and effects. But it is the first to combine verbal and musical audio tracks to those flickering images on the screen, via a cumbersome wax record playback system that must have been hell to rig and execute nightly in front of a live theater audience. Most of The Jazz Singer had already been shot as a silent feature before Harry Warner deemed it the worthy contender for that grand debut of true sound recording in films.
The Jazz Singer is loosely autobiographical. Leading playwright Samson Raphaelson was inspired to write a short story, ‘The Day of Atonement’ based on Al Jolson’s real life account of how he defied his family’s hermitical Judaism to forge his own life as a stage performer. Raphaelson eventually expanded upon the idea from that story and ‘The Jazz Singer’ – the play – was born, to great critical and popular success. The play had starred George Jessel as a second generation Russian born Jew, Jakie Rabinowitz who prefers the modern age of jazz to his father’s time honored hymns sung at synagogue.
When talks first began to make The Jazz Singer into a film sound recording had yet to make inroads in the industry and Jessel was tentatively signed to recreate his role for the movie. In truth, it was not the advent of sound that prompted Jessel to withdraw from the project, but rather the complete rewrite in Alfred A. Cohn’s third act that has Jakie defy his dying father’s final request and return to the Winter Garden Theater in blackface to enthrall his audience while his devoted mother champions her son’s performance from the cheap seats. The stage play had ended with a contrite Jakie sacrificing his dreams of the theater to honor his Jewish heritage instead.
Viewed today, The Jazz Singer really is a one hit wonder – that hit being the introduction of sound to picture. And sound itself is rather sparingly used – the bulk of the film remaining faithful to the esthetics of a silent movie; the insertion of title cards to advance the narrative, the overcompensation of reactions and gestures by the cast to overwhelm the audience as in a stage play - while the story’s set pieces – mainly Jolson’s songs – are given over to the full range of Vitaphone monaural recording. Unfortunately, Cohn’s rather pedestrian screenplay isn’t up to this technological debut. If a picture is worth a thousand words, The Jazz Singer unequivocally proves that a few well-placed pop songs sung by Jolson can easily overshadow its threadbare linear narrative.
Once Jolson leers into the camera, exuberantly declaring, “Wait a minute! You ain’t seen nothing yet!” before segueing into his rousing rendition of “Toot-Tootsie, Good-bye” it becomes increasingly difficult for the audience to slip back into the interminably long portions of silent cinema that follow. We are suddenly impatient and even dissatisfied at having to sit through these melo-theatrics in silence as an orchestral score plays on until another Jolson zinger comes floating over the ether.
As our story begins, young Jakie (Bobby Gordon) is entertaining patrons inside a local speakeasy with his Vaudeville inspired buck n’ wing. He is promptly discovered by his father, the Cantor (Warner Oland) and carted off by the ear to be admonished for his blasphemy. Music is for the synagogue and Jakie will have a very long career in a house of worship once he has expunged all of the cotton, hay and greasepaint from his system and forsaken the prospect of worldly fame and riches. Young Jakie doesn’t believe this, however, and neither does his desire to become a star abate with the passage of the years.
As an adult, Jakie (Al Jolson) plays the piano in his mother, Sara’s (Eugenie Besserer) front parlor, tempting her with the promise of hobnobbing with the respectable rich Jews who live on Fifth Avenue; the Goldbergs, Greenbergs, etc. Sara is patient with her son. Moreover, she believes in him and tries her best to massage the ever frayed nerves of her husband into understanding their son, even as Jakie is tempted to pursue his dreams of becoming a star. Jakie falls in love with a Gentile, Mary Dale (May McAvoy). Although the girl is pure of heart, her presence is frowned upon by the Cantor who will not bend an inch to welcome her into the family. A rift between father and son ensues and Jakie leaves home to pursue his dreams and Mary.
The Cantor becomes ill and calls Jakie to his bedside, hoping against hope that he will abandon the theater. A strange, though hardly complete, sense of forgiveness is achieved between these two stubborn men. The Cantor dies and Jakie makes good on his own promise to give his mother an easier life by becoming a famous Vaudeville performer. In the final moments of the movie, Sara and Mary are seen together at a box inside the Winter Garden Theater as Jakie performs Mammy in blackface to tearful applause.
The Jazz Singer is so very much a product of its time that one either dismisses its story altogether as absolute tripe or embraces its quaint absurdities as pure entertainment. My vote is for the latter. Al Jolson is an enigmatic screen presence. He’s too obvious in his lascivious glances into the audience – enjoying the exercise of playing to the crowd far too much to be convincing. And his mannerisms are grand gestures, flailing arms and legs haphazardly scuttling across the stage: much too theatrical, though arguably never mechanical. Still, Jolson electrifies us with his sheer presence on film.
It is impossible to look away when he is on the screen – the fluidity embodied in his ‘do no wrong’ self-confidence so unabashedly proud and unapologetically ‘in the moment’ that we can feel his charm – if not his finesse – emanating from the screen. That quality is usually referenced as ‘star power’ and herein Jolson has it in spades. Although his subsequent movies at Warner Brothers would fare with infrequent success, The Jazz Singer remains Jolson’s moment in the spotlight and the heat he manages to generate beneath the beams from those glaring arcs is a wonderment to behold.
The Jazz Singer comes to Blu-ray via an exceptional transfer from Warner Brothers that belies the film’s age by at least a half century. Truly, The Jazz Singer has never looked better. The image not only tightens up in 1080p but manages to yield a remarkable clarity and incredible amount of fine detail throughout. Even better, the B&W visuals are free from all but a handful of age related artifacts with exceptional contrast and very accurately reproduced film grain. I was frankly astounded by how vibrant and well delineated the gray scale appeared. The audio, regrettably, is another matter.
Warner has performed a minor miracle on the old Vitaphone recordings. But no amount of digital trickery and cleanup will ever be able to conceal the inherent shortcomings of these original sound recordings. Hiss is present, as are minor pops. Dialogue is thin sounding and occasionally Jolson’s vocals are in imminent danger of being eclipsed by the band playing just behind him. Remember, all of this was recorded with extremely primitive microphones dangling just out of camera range. No prerecording and post lip sync with a mixing board. That said, I was very satisfied by what I heard. The flaws in the audio gave me a very quaint feel for the dawn of the sound era. So, bravo and kudos to Warner Home Video for this remastering effort. It won’t win any awards for sonic fidelity but it is extremely faithful to its source material.
Brace yourself, because there are a truckload of extra features. The film gets a comprehensive audio commentary by Ron Hutchinson and Vince Giordano. On the same disc as the film we also get five early Vitaphone shorts, one with Jolson performing ‘a plantation act’ in blackface. I’ll just voice my minor disappointment herein by saying that discs 2 and 3 of this 3 disc set are mere regurgitation from the DVD box of The Jazz Singer, virtually identical in their content and on DVD without the benefit of a 1080p upgrade.
Disc Two’s crowning jewel is the nearly 2 hr. ‘The Dawn of Sound: How The Movies Learned to Talk’ documentary – comprehensive and thrilling as anything produced so far. Of historical importance, we also get rarely seen two strip Technicolor excerpts from the lost film Gold Diggers of Broadway, a few shorts about sound made during the early sound era, a 1946 short celebrating Vitaphone and a 1955 short extolling Hollywood’s illustrious early sound era.
Disc Three tips the scales with almost 4 hrs. of Vitaphone musical and comedy shorts. Most merely document early Vaudeville acts doing their thing in a very static way. These shorts have been included for their historical significance. Some are truly compelling while others genuinely laughable. The quality of these shorts ranges from fairly good to downright scary – the latter yielding to the ravages of time with severe decomposition. Bottom line: The Jazz Singer and these Vitaphone shorts are history in the making. Their intrinsic value as some of the earliest historic artifacts from the sound era make them intangibly compelling. Warner’s new Blu-ray incarnation of the feature is the only way to enjoy this iconic piece of American cinema. A must have!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4 – for the Blu-ray
3 for the DVDs