THE JAZZ SINGER
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland, Eugenie Besserer
Director: Alan Crosland
Audio: DTS HD Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 89 Minutes
Release Date: January 8, 2013
“Wait a minute…you ain’t heard nothing yet!”
Not many films truly earn the moniker of “landmark”, but The Jazz Singer certainly is one. It was the first feature length film that talked. Sure, in the years leading up to it, more films were experimenting with synchronized soundtrack, but it took this movie to take it to the next level, and begin closing the door on one era of cinema while opening the door to the next.
It gave many people their first good look at Al Jolson, who was already an established singing and stage star. His voice and popularity made him the ideal choice to usher in the new world of sound.
He plays Jakie Rabinowitz, son of a cantor (Oland) and one in a long generational line of cantors. However, he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps…at a young age, he is secretly going to nightclubs to sing jazz. When his father finds out, he punishes Jakie, causing him to run away and create a permanent rift in the family.
As a young man, Jakie, now going as Jack Robin, is still seeking out his big break. He gets it when offered a chance to perform “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” and the show stopping “Toot, Toot Tootsie”. He attracts the attention of a young dancer named Mary Dale (McAvoy) on her way up, and soon young Jack is on his way with her.
After touring with a successful stage show, Jack finally gets his chance: a starring role in a Broadway show alongside Mary. However, his opening night falls on Yom Kippur, which delivers the news that his now-ailing father is too weak to sing “Kol Nidre” at the synagogue. For the first time in generations, no Cantor Rabinowitz will deliver the sacred song.
Jack is torn between the show that he’s been working for his entire life and his devotion to his faith and his alienated father. The choice is between ending his career just as it’s taking off, or never repairing the bridge between himself and his father before time runs out.
The movie was based on a successful stage show, and is thankfully more than just a landmark film, but a good film as well. Jolson is charismatic and energetic, and even radiates genuine emotion to help carry some of the pathos of the story.
Yes, he does appear in blackface, but in all honesty, it’s more tasteful than you might imagine. He doesn’t do it as mockery or buffoonery, but instead, to capture the spirit and emotion of a music and a people who, like him, were struggling to find their place. Black audiences at the time enjoyed his performance, and those who new Jolson knew he was no racist. Enough said.
The curious aspect of the film is that even though it’s billed as the first “talkie”, it’s actually mostly silent, with title screens and the works. Only a few places allow for spoken words and songs. It’s mostly the music that comes through with synchronized sound, but in a lovely scene between Jack and his mother (Besserer), they share a few words in between choruses of “Blue Skies”. So in other words, don’t be surprised when you have to do a little reading here and there.
Ironically, the company that made talking films possible, Vitaphone, wouldn’t have long to wait before becoming obsolete in its own technology. Vitaphone’s breakthrough was a projector that would sync to a pre-recorded record, but that technique would soon vanish in favor of putting soundtracks directly on the film…which is still being used today.
Still, they ushered in a big change…maybe still the biggest change in cinema history. It’s fun to put yourself into the mindset of 1928 audiences hearing this new revolution for the first time, but it’s also fun just to be a modern viewer and simply enjoy the pleasure of a terrific star in a great performance in a very good film.
I wasn’t expecting much from a film that’s 85 years old, but I was quite blown away with the quality of this high definition transfer. The restoration and preservation was exactly what a film of this magnitude merits, and despite the age, this is a clean and crisp presentation with very, VERY few telltale signs of aging. Exhilarating!
Considering the original audio was on a scratchy vinyl disc, Warner has done a remarkable job in bringing it to the new millennium. No, it will never be as clean or as dynamic as a modern film, but still, the clarity and cleanliness considering the age is more than remarkable.
Where to begin? This beautiful set from Warner is absolutely loaded. I’ll start with what you see first, which is the packaging: a gorgeous hardbound book featuring photo cards, souvenir programs, vintage document reproductions, photos, stories and more. This is the kind of thing serious movie lovers (like me) drool over.
Then there are three discs’ worth of goodies to boot. The first disc, the Blu-ray of the movie, includes a commentary track by two film historians, some vintage Al Jolson shorts, including one that preceded The Jazz Singer with Jolson performing his stage act, and one that was directed by Buster Keaton. There is also a vintage radio play from the 1940s, the original trailer (talking, but STIFF), and the wonderful classic Warner cartoon “I Love to Singa”.
The second disc has the full length documentary “The Dawn of Sound”, showing the evolution of film from silent to talking. A bit studious, but again, for the right fan (read: me), a terrific and insightful treat. There is also surviving sound excerpts from the 1929 movie Gold Diggers of Broadway, plus some extra shorts about the sound era, including an animated one from Max Fleischer.
The last disc has nearly 4 hours of classic Vitaphone shorts, featuring some early vaudeville, comedy and music performances…these have been restored and, in some cases, almost literally brought back from extinction.
This is as good as a features package can get!
Welcome to the first truly great Blu-ray release of the year. The Jazz Singer looks and sounds great, and is packed with plentiful, delightful and historic extras for fans. Wholeheartedly recommended.