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Warner Home Video presents
"You ain't heard nothin' yet!"
DVD ReviewThis may be the most famous movie of all time that the fewest people have seen—it's the answer to a trivia question, was an extraordinarily important technological landmark, and is popularly understood to be the tipping point from silent to sound pictures. The Jazz Singer came out in 1927, and transformed movies in a way that not even Citizen Kane would—it essentially marked the end of silent movies, but for a few stalwart holdouts, like Charlie Chaplin. As the supporting materials in this ample three-disc set make clear, the movie wasn't wholly sui generis—talking pictures had been tried in fits and starts, mostly in short subjects, but this was the first feature-length picture not only to make ample use of synchronized sound, but also to give a hint as to just what movies could do.
And you may know this, but here's the dirty little secret about The Jazz Singer: it's still pretty much a silent movie, peppered with musical numbers featuring its star, Al Jolson. Jolson plays Jakie Rabinowitz, who lives on the Lower East Side and is expected to become a cantor, just as five generations of Rabinowitz men have done before him—but Jakie has a different sort of song in his heart, and forsakes the synagogue for show biz, and his assimilation extends even to his name, as he redubs himself with the much blander and ethnically neutral moniker Jack Robin. Jakie has broken his father's heart, and he is cast out of the house—but he finds great glory in vaudeville and then on Broadway. It's a very soapy piece of melodrama—the climax of the picture comes with Jack's dilemma, as to whether he should substitute in temple for his father on Kol Nidre, or if the show must go on and he needs to be part of his first Broadway opening. It's as schmaltzy as you can possibly imagine, and then some.
But there's no doubt that seeing Jolson sing is a huge kick, even 80 years after the fact—it's like he, we and everybody on either side of the camera marvels at just how the sound and picture come together off of that little reel. The sound sequences are reserved for some of Jolson's signature numbers, like Toot Toot Tootsie and Mammy—and the movie sort of strangely ping pongs back and forth between silence and sound, sometimes in the same scene. It's weirdly disruptive, to have a sequence start with intertitles, then go to synced-up dialogue, and then back again—the film grammar is also completely that of silent movies, with huge epic closeups and no hesitation about cutting in on axis.
Jolson was on the top of the entertainment world when the movie was made, but to our sensibilities, he's kind of a strange presence—obviously, sound film acting technique was in its infancy, and Jolson's frequently braying vocal style can put you on edge, as can his sometime jerky movements and odd, pop-eyed delivery. And there's no getting around the fact that one of the signature elements of his public persona was blackface—in one backstage scene, in fact, we see him applying the burnt cork to his face, arms and neck, and put on his wig, as he prepares to go onstage in the grossest, most offensive possible parody of African-American culture. From our perspective, the storytelling pretty much stops as we gape at this—how could this have been acceptable, or deemed to be entertainment?
Not to excuse its clumsy racial politics, but this all just sort of marks it as a product of its time—and this is admittedly a relatively brief portion of the film, which actually deals with lots of classically American issues: the sacred versus the profane, the old world versus the new; the twin pulls of tradition and assimilation as parts of the immigrant experience. (Jakie's mother's worst fear, for instance, is that her prince of a son is going to fall for some shiksa.) Some of the period shots of the Lower East Side are great images from the streets, the kind of stuff that you would never get on a sound stage; and if we can't quite recapture the seismic shift that this movie brought about, it's still got a raw, lowbrow, fun and inventive energy, that might lead you to think that this talking picture thing might actually stick around for a while.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: Given the age and the poor quality of many previous incarnations of the movie, this transfer looks pretty swell—certainly there are occasional speed problems with the original, and scratches and imperfections on the negative, but I hope I look this good when I'm 80, and the care that went into the movie's restoration is evident.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The tinniness is a reminder both of the movie's innovations, and of how far talking pictures traveled so quickly—it can sound mighty thin to our ears, but it's transferred with care and little or no additional aural interference.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Singing Fool, Mammy, Wonder Bar, Go Into Your Dance, The Singing Kid
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Ron Hutchinson and Vince Giordano
Packaging: Box Set
Hollywood Handicap (10m:16s) is a short shot at Santa Anita, and shows some actual black people—but it still traffics in the ugliest stereotypes, and shows them principally doing things like eating watermelon. We stick with the ponies for A Day at Santa Anita (17m:59s), shot in Technicolor, studded with famous cameos, and telling a story along the lines of National Velvet. And finally on the first disc, along with a Jolson trailer gallery, is a 1947 Lux Radio Theater broadcast of the feature—twenty years after the fact, the piece wobbles pretty severely.
Disc Two is devoted to the technological innovations of the time, and its centerpiece is The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk (01h:25m:13s), which features a look at the four Warner brothers, many historians of the earliest days of moving pictures, and lots and lots of clips, leading up to the premiere of The Jazz Singer in October 1927—it also pays homage to Singin' in the Rain as a largely accurate portrait of the historical moment. Two excerpts (15m:43s together) from Gold Diggers of Broadway give us a look at another early musical, and The Voice from the Screen (15m:30s) is a Vitaphone short that pre-dates The Jazz Singer, hinting at the power of talkies. Finding His Voice (10m:45s) is an animated talkie from 1929, followed by three pieces of Hollywood self-promotion. The Voice That Thrilled the World (18m:03s) is a rah rah piece on the industry; Okay For Sound (19m:46s), from 1946, celebrates the twentieth anniversary of talking pictures; and When the Talkies Were Young (20m:21s), produced in 1955, is little more than an assemblage of clips from Warner Bros. pictures of the early 1930s. (Gangster pictures, featuring Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, figure prominently here.)
And Disc Three is a kind of astounding compilation, of 24 Vitaphone shorts (3h:35m:13s altogether), giving us a sense of what soundies were like before The Jazz Singer. There are some familiar faces, like George Burns and Gracie Allen; some that you might have heard of, like Baby Rose Marie, "The Child Wonder," better known to some of us decades later from The Dick Van Dyke Show; and then a tremendous gallery of flappers, dandies and fops doing the Lindy, the Charleston, and just generally cutting up. Stout Hazel Green, for instance, swings on Ain't She Sweet?, and you haven't lived, friends, until you've heard Van and Schenck sing She Knows Her Onions. Some of these have been very well restored, while others are in serious disrepair—it's a great sampler not just of the work of the period, but of the progress or lack of progress of restoration in our own time.
Finally, accompanying the three-disc set are two folders of reproductions of relevant artifacts—the program from opening night, candids from the set, telegrams sent among the participants, and so on. It's a voluminous and fantastically informative package.
Extras Grade: A+
Final CommentsThis movie is emblematic of one of the crucial, indispensable technological advancements of the twentieth century—the film itself is sort of creaky, and I doubt we'd pay it any mind if it were the second or third sync-sound feature ever produced. (Can you even name the second or third sync-sound feature?) This extensive DVD release provides ample historical context for the production of the film itself and of the transition it marked, though the unsavory racial elements of the movie are given relatively short shrift. But check it out, if only for its place in history—until you hear Jolie merrily delivering Toot Toot Tootsie, you ain't heard nothing yet.
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