Studio: Warner Home Video
Packaging/Materials: Three-disc Blu-ray DigiBook
Running Time: 1:36:14
|THE FEATURE||SPECIAL FEATURES|
|Video||AVC: 1080p high definition 1.33:1||Standard and high definition|
|Audio||DTS-HD Master Audio: English 1.0 / Dolby Digital: Polish 1.0||Dolby Digital: English 1.0, English 2.0|
|Subtitles||English SDH, French, Spanish (Castellano), Spanish (Latino), Portuguese, Korean, Polish||Variable|
If you’re like me, you heard about Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” before you ever had a chance to see it. Known as the film that changed the course of an industry with its groundbreaking use of recorded sound, it’s been hailed, dissected and parodied, to the point one need not have seen the film to know either its basic story or when it’s being referenced (though the cartoon “I Love to Singa” and musical “Singin’ in the Rain” have likely provided the lion’s share of any pop culture awareness). Released on DVD in 2007 in a fantastic three-disc deluxe edition, the film now makes its debut on the Blu-ray format, upgrading the feature’s picture and sound to high definition, re-pressing the DVD edition’s second and third discs, and re-packaging it all in Warner Home Video’s signature DigiBook case. As usual, owners of the older edition are faced with a decision whether to upgrade, but Warner offers an attractive incentive with another quality HD transfer and presentation, though it does leave off a handful of vintage trailers that were found on the DVD edition, which may give some upgraders pause. First time purchasers will have fewer things to consider, and shouldn’t hesitate about the release if they want to include this seminal film in their collections.
The following includes material from Ken McAlinden’s fantastic evaluation of the 2007 DVD edition and has been italicized for identification purposes.
The Feature: 4/5"The Jazz Singer" tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz. In the New York-set prologue, Young Jakie (Robert Gordon) earns the disapproval of his father for singing jazz in nightclubs. His father (Warner Oland) is the latest in a long line of Cantors, and as such, is a prominent citizen in the local Jewish community. After a heated exchange, Young Jakie runs away from home, and his father declares that he has no son. Several years later, we catch up with Jakie (Jolson), who has changed his name to the less ethnic "Jack Robin." His attempts to break into show business are aided in no small part by Mary Dale (May McAvoy), herself an ascending star, who puts in a good word for Jack at every opportunity, culminating in their pairing in a Broadway show. Returning triumphantly to New York on the cusp of stardom, his mother (Besserer) and family friend, Yudelson (Otto Lederer), welcome him with sympathy if not understanding, but his father remains intransigent. Tragic circumstances on the eve of opening night put Jakie in the position of having to choose between his faith and his career.
While the plot of "The Jazz Singer" was pretty tired melodrama even by 1927 standards, and the Hollywood ending actually dramatically undermines the importance of a decision its main character makes at the film's climax, it had one thing that no other feature film had in 1927: Al Jolson singing and bantering in synchronized sound. Regardless of what had come before it, this became the proof of concept for "talking pictures" and the beginning of the end for silent cinema. Far from an all-singing all-talking production, "The Jazz Singer" follows the conventions of silent cinema inclusive of title cards in place of dialog in all but a handful of scenes where Jolson is performing musical numbers and talking in between them. Over the course of the next two years, studios discovered that audiences would rather buy a ticket for a terrible talking picture than a great silent picture. By the end of 1929, every major Hollywood studio would be wired for sound, and only a few holdouts, such as Charlie Chaplin, would still be making dialog-free feature films.
Given the pedestrian plot, the film must get by almost exclusively on star power, and for the most part, it does. While Jolson's minstrel act will no doubt date it if not make it downright uncomfortable for modern viewers, there is no denying that his performance, honed considerably through countless nights in front of an audience, explodes off the screen. While far from a polished silent screen actor and much too old for the part of a struggling Broadway hopeful, Jolson acquits himself well enough in the dramatic scenes to string things along until the musical numbers, at which point audiences forgave all shortcomings. As an indication as to what audiences from different eras respond, it is interesting to note that the picture that put the original sound on disc format over the top commercially in the late 1920s featured Al Jolson, billed at the time as the "World's Greatest Entertainer." The picture that put the next sound on disc format over the top almost 70 years later featured computer-generated dinosaurs.
Sharp-eyed viewers will note cameos by future "talkie" stars William Demarest (as a friend of Jakie) and Myrna Loy (as a chorus girl discussing Jakie and Mary backstage).
Video Quality: 4/5Framed at 1.33:1 and presented in 1080p with the AVC codec, the image features deep, inky blacks and solid contrast levels in spite of the film’s 86 years of age. Not to say there aren’t moments when the image looks a bit washed out, but the clean, blemish-free picture and the material’s overall physical integrity are nothing short of impressive. Film grain appears intact with no signs of excessive digital processing, and overall detail looks great, holding up consistently from establishing shots to close ups.
Audio Quality: 3.5/5The mono DTS-HD Master Audio track is generally crisp, clear and intelligible, though of course there’s some noticeable hiss and limited sonic detail due to the nature of the original recording. However, like the video, the audio track is in remarkable condition considering the age of the source material, and should surprise first time listeners who may have expected something more “vintage” about its quality. Not surprisingly, the best sounding segments are Jolson's various musical numbers; any surrounding dialogue (as when the grown up Jakie is talking to his mother between songs) tends to suffer by comparison, but it remains a fascinating look into the early days of the talking picture.
Special Features: 5/5The wide ranging and in-depth collection of extras from the DVD edition, covering the background on the film itself to the talkie revolution, have all been carried over with the exception of five trailers from other Jolson films. While this isn’t enough to downgrade the score, it does create a wrinkle in an otherwise smooth transition to a high definition edition.
Collectible Book: Printed materials integrated into the three-disc DigiPack case include essays about the film, actor biographies, numerous promotional and production photographs, and reproductions of the film’s marketing materials, including a printed program distributed at the film’s screening. While it doesn’t include much information that can’t be found in the disc-based extras, having an item you can hold in your hands is always a nice touch.
Disc OneAudio Commentary with Ron Hutchinson of the "Vitaphone Project" and Vintage Music Expert Vince Giordano: The commentary is interesting and informative with very few gaps, although Hutchinson does repeat himself from time to time. They focus on technical aspects of the film and its presentation. They also provide background notes on Jolson and other cast members including how Jolson came to be cast over George Jessel. Hutchinson also explains the purpose and goals of the Vitaphone Project's efforts to recover lost films by matching discs in the hands of collectors with the silent prints in the vaults of studios and collectors.
Al Jolson in “A Plantation Act” (9:59, SD): 1926 short featuring Jolson in blackface in tattered overalls against a rural southern backdrop singing "When the Red Red Robin Starts Bob Bob Bobbin' Along," "April Showers," and "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody." This short was phenomenally popular when it was initially shown, and greased the skids for Warner's production of "The Jazz Singer" the following year. Jolson and the filmmakers apparently anticipated how big it would go over because there are two curtain calls editorially worked into the end of the film. It is presented with DD 2.0 mono sound and is tinted somewhere in the magenta to purple spectrum range. This was considered a lost film for over 50 years until a silent print was discovered in the 1990s mis-labeled as a "Jazz Singer" trailer, and the folks at the Vitaphone Project were able to restore a severely damaged disc to recover the soundtrack.
An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros.’ Silver Jubilee (11:15, SD): A very strange featurette, "Mr. and Mrs. Warner Bros." are congratulated on their anniversary, after which, their child, "Little Miss Vitaphone," introduces all of the stars and dignitaries in attendance including stars Loretta Young, Walter Pidgeon, Walter Huston, Frank McHugh, Joe E. Brown, Edward G Robinson, Joan Blondell, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., songwriters Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, and many others. The print used for transfer was clearly in very rough shape.
I Love to Singa (8:15, SD): A very funny 1936 Technicolor Tex Avery Merrie Melodies cartoon that spoofs "The Jazz Singer" using a family of owls whose music teacher patriarch is aghast when his son, Owl Jolson, comes out of the egg wanting to sing jazz.
Hollywood Handicap (10:19, SD): 1938 MGM short directed by Buster Keaton set at a racetrack. It features cameos from a lot of stars including Al Jolson and his then-wife Ruby Keeler.
A Day at Santa Anita (18:03, SD): 1937 Technicolor Vitaphone short also set at a racetrack that features a cameo by Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler (I guess they liked to play the ponies). Unlike "Hollywood Handicap," Jolson and Keeler get to do a quick verbal gag routine. It exhibits poor color registration throughout, but it is still fun to see Jolson in Technicolor.
June 2, 1947 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast (58:20, Dolby Digital 2.0 audio only): Presents a complete radio play of "The Jazz Singer," hosted by William Keighley and starring Al Jolson and Gail Patrick with Musical Director Louis Silvers. This adaptation appears to draw from the stage play as much as the film with the Hollywood ending altered back to something a little more reasonable. The item has no pause or fast-forward problems like before, but any chapter stops have also been eliminated.
Theatrical Trailer (7:10, SD) Used to promote the film as it (and Vitaphone sound installations) rolled across the country after the New York premiere, a newly filmed introduction and premiere footage run for four minutes before a clip from the film is even shown.
For whatever reason, the five other trailers that were included in the DVD edition – “The Singing Fool,” “Mammy,” “Wonder Bar,” “Go Into Your Dance,” and “The Singing Kid” – have not been ported over. This probably isn’t a deal breaker for most, but it’s a change nonetheless.
Disc TwoThe Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk (1:25:13, SD): This feature length documentary provides an excellent overview of the history of sound motion pictures from early unsuccessful experiments from Thomas Edison, to the sound on film experiments of Theodore Case working with Lee De Forest, to the Bell Labs breakthroughs in electrical recording and amplification in the 1920s that led to the commercialization of the sound on disc process used by Vitaphone and the improved optical sound on film process developed by Case and used by Fox Movietone, to the ultimate widespread adoption of sound on film by the early 1930s.
Technical discussions are nicely balanced with more personalized anecdotes. There is some nice background on the Warner Bros. and their working relationship in the early days of their studio leading up to Sam Warner's eventual championing of talking pictures in general and 'The Jazz Singer" in particular prior to his untimely death just before that film's premiere. The latter portions of the film deal extensively with the effect that the advent of sound had on the careers of several stars, some of whom thrived, some of whom were hurt when their voices or accents proved unsuitable for sound, and, in the case of John Gilbert, one whose career was derailed simply by the popular misconception that his voice was unsuited for sound.
Commentators from both new and archival interviews include: Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, "The Speed of Sound" author Scott Eyman, film historian Rudy Behlmer, Jack Stanley of the Thomas Edison Menlo Park Museum, Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film and Television Archives, Princeton University history professor Emily Thompson, UCLA film historian Jonathan Kuntz, Jack Warner, Jr., sound designer/director Ben Burtt, critic/historian Leonard Maltin, Case Research Laboratory Museum Director Eileen McHugh, bandleader/period music authority Vince Giordano, actress Thelma White, Broadway/TV star Rose Marie, producer A.C. Lyles, sound designer Dane A. Davis, composer/Vitaphone Studio musician Sanford Green, actor Charles "Buddy" Rogers, actor Mickey Rooney, actress Anita Page, author Mark A. Viera, daughter of John Gilbert Leatrice Fountain, and daughter of Harold Lloyd Suzanne Lloyd.
The picture quality offers a solid, if not spectacular rendering of the program, most of which was shot on 4:3 video. As one would expect, the newly shot talking-head interviews look substantially better than the handful of archival interviews, and they all look better than the archival film clips, with the possible exception of some razor-sharp excerpts from the 1952 MGM film "Singin' in the Rain," which are used to humorously illustrate some of the issues associated with the early talkie period. The closing credit titles exhibit some unusual frame jitter. If it was an intentional attempt to make it look like a piece of vintage film, it only managed to make it look like defective video.
Audio for the program is an unambitious Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack appropriate for a talking head documentary, for which most of its vintage clips are from monophonic sources.
Gold Diggers of Broadway Excerpts (15:45, SD): A mixup on the original DVD review copy has been addressed so the clips from this once lost, 1929 film are viewable as listed. The first is a musical number of “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” (5:28) and the second is the film’s finale number (10:11). The latter is incomplete, however, missing film at about a minute to the end of the clip. Its audio is intact, however, and plays to the clip’s completion.
The Voice from the Screen (15:30, SD): A technically oriented short shows how the vintage Vitaphone process works. The narration is dull and non-professional, but there are some neat technical behind the scenes shots intercut with the dry lecturing.
Finding His Voice (10:45, SD): An early sound cartoon from 1929 co-directed by Max Fleischer, the animated character Talkie plays music, talks, and interacts with Mutie, a piece of silent film with a gag around its mouth. They go to see Dr. Westin to get Mutie a voice. Technical information about how sound on film works is worked into the silly, but fun, animation narrative.
The Voice that Thrilled the World (18:04, SD): 1943 short tells the story of sound on pictures.
OK For Sound (19:45, SD): 1946 short celebrates the 20th Anniversary of the talking picture.
When the Talkies Were Young (20:22, SD): 1955 short consists of a collection of clips of early appearances by future movie stars like James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, and John Barrymore. Every movie featured is spoiled terribly, so consider yourself warned. This vintage featurette was also included on the DVD of the Doris Day film "Lucky Me."
Disc ThreeVitaphone Shorts (3:35:13, SD)
All of the shorts run between seven and 11 minutes and have complete audio tracks. Two of the shorts, identified as "Elsie Janis In a Vaudeville Act: Behind the Lines" and "Trixie Friganza in My Bag O’ Tricks," are missing film elements, although in the case of "My Bag O' Tricks," it is a minor issues since the piece that is missing, due to nitrate decomposition, is essentially the first part of a radio comedy routine being performed on film. By the time Friganza incorporates more visually interesting singing and bass playing into her routine, the visuals are reinstated. The shorts are presented in 4:3 black and white video except for a couple that are tinted.
The shorts generally feature musical and comedy vaudeville acts doing their things, and will appeal strongly to fans of jazz and novelty music of the 1920s. The camera set-ups are generally very straightforward with few cuts through the length of the shorts. One of the funnier shorts, "Joe Frisco in The Happy Hottentots," also seems to be the most editorially sophisticated with scenes shot on multiple sets. While I occasionally saw performers I recognized or have heard of before, such as William Demarest doing one of his trademark falls in "The Night Court," George Burns and Gracie Allen trading quips with a bit of soft shoeing in "Lambchops," or future TV star Rose Marie in "The Child Wonder," I was unfamiliar with most of these acts. Lack of familiarity did not prevent me from being entertained or, in the case of clown-costumed mandolin player "Berando De Pace," creeped-out a little. There is less politically incorrect material than I expected, although modern performers would certainly steer clear of the Pidgin English Chinese caricature of "Little Too Shy is the Tramp of Shanghai Now," as sung by Adele Rowland, or the stereotypically ethnic vocals of Gus Van.
In addition to providing audio/video records of infrequently filmed vaudeville stars such as Frisco, Rowland, Friganza, the Foy Family, and the team of Van and Schenk, most of the shorts are entertaining in their own right. I was particularly impressed by the all-female jazz band "The Ingenues" in "The Band Beautiful" where several members of the band would switch instruments throughout the short, turning themselves into an orchestra of banjos or accordions at different points.
The 24 shorts exhibit widely varying levels of video quality due to the deterioration of their film elements. Some of them look comparable to "The Jazz Singer" in terms of image quality, while others appear to be on the verge of disintegration at times. The compression does its level best to keep up with the varying levels of film grain, and usually proves acceptable. Edge enhancement is never an issue.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Most if not all of it appears to be from sound-on disc sources, and while the quality varies as a function of the source, it usually sounds similar in quality to the audio for "The Jazz Singer." Certain shorts that have a bass drum mic'd close or feature foot-stomping dance routines with microphones close to the floor had obvious sub 100Hz bass content, which I am not used to hearing from recordings of the era. I even pulled out some jazz CDs I have that were mastered from 78 rpm records for comparison's sake, and remained very impressed.
[*] Elsie Janis in a Vaudeville Act: “Behind the Lines” (7:26)
[*] Berando De Pace: “The Wizard of the Mandolin” (10:29)
[*] Van and Schenck: “The Pennant Winning Battery of Songland” (9:21)
[*] Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields with the Music Boxes (9:43)
[*] Hazel Green and Company (8:11)
[*] The Night Court (9:30)
[*] The Police Quartette (8:09)
[*] Ray Mayer and Edith Evans in “When East Meets West” (8:43)
[*] Adele Rowland: “Stories in Song” (9:44)
[*] Stoll, Flynn and Company: The “Jazzmania Quintette” (9:37)
[*] The Ingenues: “The Band Beautiful” (9:13)
[*] The Foy Family in “Chips off the Old Block” (7:42)
[*] Dick Rich and His Melodious Monarchs (9:37)
[*] Gus Arnheim and His Ambassadors (9:39)
[*] Shaw & Lee: “The Beau Brummels” (8:43)
[*] Roof Garden Revue Directed By Larry Ceballos (9:33)
[*] Trixie Friganza in “My Bag O’ Tricks” (10:02)
[*] Green’s Twentieth Century Faydetts (7:12)
[*] Sol Violinsky: “The Eccentric Entertainer” (7:17)
[*] Ethel Sinclair and Marge La Marr: “At the Seashore” (8:20)
[*] Paul Tremaine and His Aristocrats (9:29)
[*] Baby Rose Marie: “The Child Wonder” (8:34)
[*] Burns & Allen in “Lambchops” (8:00)
[*] Joe Frisco in “The Happy Hottentots” (10:40)
Recap and RecommendationThe Film: 4/5
Video Quality: 4/5
Audio Quality: 3.5/5
Special Features: 5/5
Overall Score (not an average): 4.5/5
Warner Home Video delivers an amazing high definition presentation for “The Jazz Singer,” the 86-year old talkie that led to a movie making revolution. The bonus material, despite losing a handful of Jolson trailers that were found on the 2007 DVD edition, remains impressive with its coverage of the film itself to the industry sea change it caused. First time buyers should have no reservations with purchasing the title, and while the change in the extras may make upgraders hesitate, they should, in the final estimation, be pleased with the release as well.