Senior HTF Member
- Feb 20, 2001
- Livonia, MI USA
- Real Name
- Kenneth McAlinden
The Jazz Singer- Three Disc Deluxe Edition
Directed By: Alan Crosland
Starring: Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland, Eugenie Besserer, Otto Lederer
Studio: Warner Brothers
Film Length: 89 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, English SDH
Release Date: October 16, 2007
Ten years into the "DVD Era", Warner Home Video has released "The Jazz Singer", arguably the most important film in the history of Warner Bros. Studio in a lavish three-disc set. The second and third discs are far more than a collection of supplements, though. They each would have made worthy releases on their own. The centerpiece of Disc Two is the interesting and informative feature length documentary, "The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk". Disc Three contains a collection of two-dozen vintage Vitaphone shorts produced from the mid-1920s until the early 1930s. Due to the significance of this content and the fact that it is not directly related to "The Jazz Singer", I have tweaked my review format slightly to emphasize the contents of the latter two discs rather than collecting them all in the "Extras" assessment.
The Jazz Singer
"The Jazz Singer" tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz. In the New York-set prologue, Young Jakie (Gordon) earns the disapproval of his father for singing jazz in nightclubs. His father (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 (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, Yudelman (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).
The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk
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 who's 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 third disc contains a collection of Vitaphone short subjects that run three hours and 35 minutes if "Play All" is selected. All of them run between seven and eleven 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 partially 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 she incorporates more visually interesting singing and bass playing into her routine, the visuals are re-instated. 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.
Shorts presented on the disc are:
- Elsie Janis in a Vaudeville Act: “Behind the Lines”
- Berando De Pace: “The Wizard of the Mandolin”
- Van and Schenck: “The Pennant Winning Battery of Songland”
- Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields with the Music Boxes
- Hazel Green and Company
- The Night Court
- The Police Quartette
- Ray Mayer and Edith Evans in “When East Meets West”
- Adele Rowland: “Stories in Song”
- Stoll, Flynn and Company: The “Jazzmania Quintette”
- The Ingenues: “The Band Beautiful”
- The Foy Family in “Chips off the Old Block”
- Dick Rich and His Melodious Monarchs
- Gus Arnheim and His Ambassadors
- Shaw & Lee: “The Beau Brummels”
- Roof Garden Revue Directed By Larry Ceballos
- Trixie Friganza in “My Bag O’ Tricks”
- Green’s Twentieth Century Faydetts
- Sol Violinsky: “The Eccentric Entertainer”
- Ethel Sinclair and Marge La Marr: “At the Seashore”
- Paul Tremaine and His Aristocrats
- Baby Rose Marie: “The Child Wonder”
- Burns & Allen in “Lambchops”
- Joe Frisco in “The Happy Hottentots”
The 4:3 black and white video for "The Jazz Singer" is substantially better than any prior presentation I have seen on video or via broadcast. It still has source related issues, as one would expect from an 80 year old film. Compression is above average considering the amount of grain in the image, and edge enhancement is minimal to non-existent.
"The Dawn of Sound: How the Movies Learned to Talk" 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 exhibited some unusual frame jitter. If it was an intentional attempt to make it look like a piece of vintage film, it only managed to look like defective video to me.
The 24 Vitaphone shorts included on the third disc 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 was never an issue.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio for the "Jazz Singer" is a complete revelation compared to any previous presentation I have heard. The soundtrack was mastered from actual Vitaphone discs whereas all previous video masters were generated from a sound on film source that was created for reissue prints after the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process became obsolete. Dynamic range is very impressive for a film of its era. While high frequency content is somewhat limited and surface noise intrudes throughout, there is an impressive amount of bass content for an 80-year-old film soundtrack.
The Dawn of Sound: How the Movies Learned to Talk" is presented with 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.
The audio on the Vitaphone short subjects on Disc Three 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.
All extras are presented in black and white 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound unless otherwise indicated.
Extras on Disc One begin with a screen specific audio commentary by Ron Hutchinson of the "Vitaphone Project" and vintage music expert Vince Giordano. They sat together for the recording, which is presented in stereo with Giordano mixed to the right. 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.
Next up is "Al Jolson in 'A Plantation Act'", a just under 10 minute short from 1926 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" Is a very strange featurette running just over eleven minutes. "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 Sing-A", running just over eight minutes, is a very funny 1936 Technicolor Tex Avery Merrie Melodies cartoon that spoofs the "Jazz Singer" featuring 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" is a just over ten minute 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" is a just under 18 minute 1937 Technicolor Vitaphone Short also set at a racetrack that also features a cameo by Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler (I guess they liked to play the ponies). Unlike "Hollywood Handicap", Jolson and Keeler even get to do a quick verbal gag routine. It exhibits poor color registration throughout, but it is still fun to see Jolson in Technicolor.
"6/2/1947 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast" is an audio-only feature that presents a complete 58 minute plus 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. It is encoded with chapter stops every three minutes, although for some reason, the "Pause" and "FF" functions of my DVD remote were locked out. I guess the disc authors did not want me to skip any soap commercials.
"Jolson Trailer Gallery" runs just under 23 minutes if "Play All" is selected, and includes the following trailers:
- The Jazz Singer - This seven minute plus trailer was used to promote the film as its release (and Vitaphone sound installations) rolled across the country after its New York premiere. A newly filmed introduction and premiere footage run for four minutes before a clip from the film is even shown.
- The Singing Fool - This trailer for the 1928 follow-up to "The Jazz Singer" was apparently for a re-release of the film and is a very brief montage of stills with narration and Jolson musical clips including the popular song "Sonny Boy".
- Mammy - The trailer for this 1930 film features unique footage of a scripted backstage interview with Jolson as well as film clips. The clips are in black and white, although the actual film was shot in an early Technicolor process.
- Wonder Bar - The trailer for this 1934 film features fairly standard narration and clips with titles emphasizing the star-studded cast. It includes a good chunk of a Jolson musical number and hypes the "Going to Heaven on a Mule" production number without actually showing much of it.
- Go Into Your Dance – This 1935 film gets a standard text over film clips presentation emphasizing "Ruby Keeler co-starring for the first time with Al Jolson". It includes a bit of Jolson singing the title song.
- The Singing Kid - This trailer features newly created footage of a female chorus singing a promotional song. It includes clips of Jolson singing "I Love to Sing-A" and Cab Calloway advising audience members to "Keep that Hi-De-Ho in Your Soul"
In addition to the excellent "Dawn of Sound…" documentary reviewed above, Disc Two includes the following bonus features:
"'Gold Diggers of Broadway' Excerpts" is supposed to include two surviving excerpts from the lost film. According to the menu, they are "Tip Toe Through the Tulips" and "Finale". Strangely, selecting "Tip Toe…" results in the finale playing while selecting "Finale" results in a ballet sequence from a completely different film playing. Hopefully, Warner Bros. will offer replacement discs with the correct clips at some point. Both clips are in an early, non-full-range color process.
"The Voice from the Screen", running fifteen and a half minutes, is a technically oriented short showing 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" is an early sound cartoon from 1929 co-directed by Max Fleischer. Animated character "Talkie" plays music, talks, and interacts with a piece of silent film (w/gag around his mouth) name "Mutie". 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" is a 1943 short running just over eighteen minutes that tells the story of sound on pictures.
"OK For Sound" is a 1946 short running just short of 20 minutes celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the talking picture.
"When the Talkies Were Young" is a 1955 short running just over 20 minutes consisting 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, including "Night Nurse" due out on DVD as part of the forthcoming "Forbidden Hollywood Volume Two" set, so consider yourself warned. This vintage featurette was also included on the DVD of the Doris Day film "Lucky Me" released a few months ago.
"The Jazz Singer" Three Disc Deluxe Edition is afforded a suitably deluxe packaging from Warner Home Video. The discs are packaged in a thick cardboard box with foil-enhanced artwork that puts the famous image of Jolson singing to his Mammy in silhouette (striking a balance between historical verisimilitude and good taste considering they want this thing displayed on store shelves). Inside the box is a tri-fold digipack that contains all three discs as well as two separate cardboard folders. The first folder includes a booklet that both reproduces some historical documents related to the film and details the disc contents as well as a number of cards reproducing vintage behind the scenes photographs of Al Jolson. The second folder includes reproductions of vintage materials including the original theatrical program book for "The Jazz Singer", a Vitaphone Program book, a four page promotional booklet for "The Jazz Singer", and a telegram from Jolson to Jack Warner sent after the untimely passing of Sam Warner. In a slick touch, the artwork on all three discs mimics the inner label of an actual Vitaphone disc. You are, however, under no obligation to check off a number each time you watch your DVD and discard it after twenty plays.
Calling this release a "Deluxe Edition" is almost an understatement. In addition to a first rate audio/video presentation of "The Jazz Singer", Warner Bros. Home Video has also treated us to two additional discs that would be worthy of purchase on their own for fans of the early talkie era of cinema. It is all tied together with super-lavish packaging including informative and interesting printed materials. There appears to be a SNAFU with the "'Gold Diggers of Broadway' Excerpts" special feature on the second disc, but other than that, this is a just about perfect DVD release for anyone interested in the film itself, Al Jolson, movie sound technology, or late 20s music and entertainment in general.