March 26, 2019

THE JAZZ SINGER (1927): An Instant History Lesson
Starring Al Jolson, Warner Oland, Eugenie Besserer, May McAvoy, Otto Lederer, Yosseie Rosenblatt. Directed by Alan Crosland. (1927/96 min).

Review by Mr. Paws😸

Contrary to popular belief, The Jazz Singer was not the first “talkie.” People had been trying to marry images and sound ever since Edison invented the moving picture, mostly with terrible results. While it’s true that The Jazz Singer was the first feature-length talkie, several short subjects were previously produced that successfully incorporated sound.

Nor is The Jazz Singer a talkie in the purest sense. Only the musical numbers and a few Al Jolson improvisations have sound. A majority of the film is still silent. The first 100% talkie was 1928’s Lights of New York, which by all accounts is terrible, but the sheer novelty made it a huge hit.

Lest anyone thinks I’m just flaunting my cinema smarts, I wasn’t aware of any of these facts until reviewing this massive three-disc set, which is just-as-much a history lesson as it is the restoration of a landmark film. Hence, this is a must-own for any cinephile.

The Jazz Singer was, of course, a game changer, more important to the advancement of film technology than any subsequent innovation you’d care to name. The film is beautifully restored on disc 1, the only Blu-ray in the set. But it’s the two supplementary DVDs that make this a keeper, especially the 90 minute documentary on disc 2, “The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk.” Dozens of historians, authors, studio bigwigs and some heirs of early sound innovators are interviewed, telling the complete story of the evolution of sound and its impact on the film industry.

How to creep your mom out.
While The Jazz Singer itself remains more noteworthy for its influence than its story, the film is still pretty entertaining. Jolson was never what anyone would consider a great actor, but he had loads of charisma and a hell of a singing voice, both of which are prominently on display. There’s been some retro-condemnation of the film in recent years – i.e. Jolson’s infamous blackface routine – which is understandable. In this day and age, these scenes are indeed cringe-worthy, but it was a different time. One needs to keep in-mind the context of when this was made, when blackface was not-only considered inoffensive, but worn at one time or another by a wide variety of Hollywood heavyweights.

It also bears mentioning that this set has been released before, back in 2013 as a Digibook, with the exact same bonus features. So there’s no need for double-dipping here. But for anyone who has-yet to experience The Jazz Singer, it is an indispensable piece of movie history.


Disc 1 (Blu-ray)
AUDIO COMMENTARY – By historian Ron Hutchinson and bandleader Vince Giordano.
THE JAZZ SINGER LUX RADIO THEATER BROADCAST – From 1947, featuring Al Jolson and May McAvoy.
JOLSON RELATED SHORTS - “I Love to Singa” (Looney Tunes Cartoon); “A Plantation Act”; “Hollywood Handicap: A Day at Santa Anita”; “An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros’ Silver Jubilee.”

Disc 2 (DVD): The Early Sound Era
THE DAWN OF SOUND: HOW MOVIES LEARNED TO TALK” - Feature-length documentary about the game-changing development of sound and its lasting impact on the movie industry. The Jazz Singer figures large in this one, for obvious reasons. The best of the bonus features and as entertaining as the movie itself.
STUDIO SHORTS - “The Voice from the Screen”; “Finding His Voice” (MGM cartoon); “The Voice that Thrilled the World”; “Okay for Sound” (20 years after The Jazz Singer, Warner Bros celebrates itself); “When the Talkies Were Young” (features excerpts of James Cagney & Spencer Tracy early in their careers).
GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY (EXCERPTS) – Two surviving scenes from one of many lost films.

Disc 3 (DVD): Vitaphone Shorts
The Vitaphone process essentially made talkies a reality. This disc contains 2 dozen shorts ranging from 5-10 minutes each, roughly spanning the first decade of talkies. Some are more interesting than others and time has diminished the video/audio quality of many of them.


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