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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

THE JAZZ SINGER -- Blu-Ray/DVD review by porfle




It wasn't really the first time the movies had talked.  But when Warner Brothers released "The Jazz Singer" in 1927, it was the first such film to become a commercial sensation, thus heralding the ultimate demise of the silent era.

Warner Home Video's 3-disc set THE JAZZ SINGER gives film buffs and novices alike the opportunity to view the original classic in all its pristine glory, with a practically flawless print and a robust soundtrack taken from the original recording discs once used to accompany the film when projected.  This Blu-Ray presentation also comes with two DVDs containing a wealth of extras that reflect the diligent work of various film preservationists.

As for the film itelf, it's the story of a young jazz singer named Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson) whose rigidly conservative father disowns him because he refuses to become a cantor in the synagogue.  Despite five generations of Rabinowitzes being cantors, Jakie would rather sing songs like "Toot Toot Tootsie" and "Dirty Face, Dirty Hands" under the name "Jack Robin" than to serenade the faithful, which will eventually drive his father to his deathbed as his heartbroken mother looks on in anguish.

When Jakie meets and falls in love with Broadway star Mary Dale (a sparkling May McAvoy), she recommends him for the lead role in a Broadway revue that promises to propel him to stardom.  But the night of his debut coincides with the services for the Day of Atonement, in which Jakie must perform as cantor lest his father die of disappointment.  It's the classic dilemma, plunging both Jakie and the viewer into a world of heartrending melodrama.


It may be difficult to understand now, but at the time Al Jolson was considered the world's greatest entertainer.  Indeed, he's earnest and engaging when performing even though his material seems incredibly corny and even maudlin nowadays.  While the majority of THE JAZZ SINGER is silent, Jolson's performance numbers are done with sound, including his ad-libbed patter between songs.  His famous quote "Wait a minute, wait a minute...you ain't heard nothin' yet!" is the line that first introduced most viewers to the world of talking cinema. 

Later, when the banished Jakie comes home to visit his beloved mother, he serenades her at the piano as Jolson ad-libs up a storm between lyrics.  His extensive dialogue here is what most impressed initial viewers and critics who found this synchonization of picture and sound to be irresistibly exciting.  Jolson's performing style continues to carry the film to new heights in the final Broadway sequence, in which he makes cinematic history belting out his heart-on-the-sleeve rendition of "Mammy" on bended knee.

While his use of minstrel-style blackface continues to be a sticking point for many viewers--Warner Brothers leads off the lengthy enclosed booklet with a disclaimer about "ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society" and is careful to feature a white-faced Jolson on the DVD cover--Jolson himself doesn't stress the usual stereotype while in the makeup and uses it mainly to get into character for his sentimental songs.  How tolerable one finds this is up to the individual viewer.

Storywise, THE JAZZ SINGER mixes the lighthearted jazz scenes and the warm, stereotypically Jewish humor with strong somber overtones that are reflected by the lovely theme music by Louis Silvers (overture and exit music are included here and are a treat).  Director Alan Crosland's lean, efficient work is augmented by some priceless opening shots of New York's lower east side.  


Swedish actor Warner Oland, who would become famous for his portrayal of Chinese detective Charlie Chan, makes an impression as Jakie's unyielding father, the quintessential old fogey, while Eugenie Besserer is Jakie's long-suffering mother Sara.  Otto Lederer adds to the Jewish-related humor as neighborhood kibitzer Moisha Yudelson. 

But it's Jolson who makes THE JAZZ SINGER as fun and involving as it is, despite being about as creaky and over-the-top sentimental as a story can be.  (Critics of the time thought so, too.)  While his performing style takes some getting used to, he's unfailingly charming and enthusiastic every second he's on the screen, giving his all during every musical number and applying himself diligently in his acting requirements as well.  It makes one wonder just how effective he must have been while interacting with a live audience.  

Disc One contains not only the film itself but also a wonderfully informative commentary by film historians Ron Hutchinson and Vince Giordano.  A 1926 Vitaphone short, "The Plantation Act", features Jolson in blackface in a performance that prompted the Warners to cast him as "The Jazz Singer" over George Jessel, who had made the role his own on stage and expected to be a shoo-in for the screen version. 

Also included are the short, "An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros. Silver Jubilee", the Tex Avery cartoon "I Love to Singa", the shorts "Hollywood Handicap" and "A Day at Santa Anita", a 1947 Lux Radio Theater broadcast featuring Jolson, and the film's trailer.

Disc Two begins with a feature-length documentary, "The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk" and two rare Technicolor excerpts from the lost film "Gold Diggers of Broadway" (1929).  Also included are the following WB studio shorts: "Finding His Voice" (1929 animated cartoon produced by Max Fleischer), "The Voice That Thrilled the World", "Okay for Sound" (1946), "When Talkies Were Young" (1955), and "The Voice from the Screen", a 1926 demonstration film which explains the new technology in incredibly boring fashion.

Disc Three offers over three and a half hours of vaudeville stars in musical, dramatic, and comedy performance shorts, many of which have been newly restored by film archivists and historians.  They run the gamut from the hilarious verbal comedy of Shaw and Lee in "The Beau Brummels" and Burns and Allen in "Lambchops" to the song stylings of Baby Rose Marie ("The Child Wonder") and the music of Dick Rich and his Melodious Monarchs.  Most of these shorts are in fine condition, but some have been pieced together from existing footage.

Some may find THE JAZZ SINGER a bit of a chore to sit through.  I myself was a little bored now and then upon first viewing, but I found that it really started to grow on me after watching it for the second or third time.  It's best to pretend that you're sitting in the audience for a crowded, anticipation-charged showing in 1927, and witnessing firsthand the triumphant advent of sound as a blackfaced Jewish guy belting out "Mammy" rings the death knell for silent cinema.


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