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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Jazz Singer (1927) Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) is concerned and upset because his son Jakie (Al Jolson), shows so little interest in carrying on the family’s traditions and heritage. For five generations, men in the family have been Cantors in the synagogue, but Jakie is more interested in jazz and ragtime music. One day, they have such a bitter argument that Jakie leaves home for good. After a few years on his own, now calling himself Jack Robin, he gets an important opportunity through the help of well-known stage performer Mary Dale (Mary McAvoy). But Jakie finds that in order to balance his career, his relationship with Mary, and his memories of his family, he will be forced to make some difficult choices. Starring Al Jolson, May McAvoy, and Warner Oland, this “talkie” is famous for being the first full length motion picture to feature synchronized audio. The film also features a slew of added material such as vintage cartoons and a film documentary.

 
 

Film (1 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The Jazz Singer stars Al Jolson as Jakie Rabinowitz, in a story that was loosely based on his life as written by Samson Raphaelson. The movie is historically and culturally significant as it was the first feature length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences and its success led to the rise of the “talkies” and the start of silent movies’ slow disappearance. It ushered in a new era for film-making and cinema has never been the same since. Naturally, Warner Brothers takes great pride in this achievement that many derided them for and have released this stellar Blu-ray release that honors its historical significance. I just wish the movie itself was as deserving on its own merits rather than be remembered mainly for the technological leap it signified.
 
The movie starts with Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Orland) fretting about his son Jakie, who has no interest in continuing the family tradition of being a Cantor in the synagogue. Jakie would rather be a jazz singer and work in clubs where he can sing his ragtime music. In fact, while his father is kvetching about him, Jakie is at the Winter Garden Club singing his heart out as only an ambitious young boy could. It’s not long before one of the synagogue’s followers sees Jakie and reports back to his father who is of course furious. The Cantor hurries to the club and drags Jakie home to whip him for disobeying him and embarrassing the family. Jakie warns him that if he whips him then he would run away from home and never return which he does when it happens.
 
Time passes and Jakie now known as Jack Robin, still occasionally sings in clubs but he yearns to hit the big time and star on Broadway. One night when he is called up on stage at a cabaret to sing a couple of songs (and also provide the first synchronized dialogue in a feature film), he’s lucky enough to have a well known stage actress by the name of Mary Dale (May MacAvoy) in the audience. She tells him after the show that ”There are lots of jazz singers, but you have a tear in your voice,” and she offers to help him out professionally. Their relationship grows into something more and Mary does indeed help him by recommending him for the big Broadway revue she just got hired to star in. Jakie is excited to not only finally star on Broadway, but also to return back to his home of New York.
 
As soon as he return to New York, Jakie heads back home despite his vow to never return. His mother is thrilled to have him back and hear him sing his new songs but when his father discovers him, he throws him out of the house and he declares that he has no son. Resigned that things haven’t changed, Jakie returns to rehearse for his Broadway debut only to be visited by his mother and a family friend who ask him to take the place of his ailing father during the upcoming Atonement Day. Unfortunately, the Atonement Day ceremony will take place the same time as his final dress rehearsal and no amount of guilt from his visitors will keep him from that. Later when his father’s condition gets worse, Jakie is visited again and told that it’s his father’s dying wish to hear him sing their traditional songs again. Torn between his dream of starring in a Broadway show, his relationship with Mary, and his father’s desires, Jakie will have to make some difficult decisions and decide which life he wants to have.
 
While I can understand and appreciate this film’s historical and cultural significance, I can’t vouch for it’s quality. There’s plenty of movies from this era that I enjoy and admire, but The Jazz Singer is not one of them. It has a hackneyed script, a bunch of actors who have no concept of restraint, and a lead actor who could not be any more hammy if he tried. He was called the world’s greatest entertainer but I have to say that I just don’t know why. I realize that audience back in 1928 had different expectations than those today, but for the life of me I just don’t understand how he got so famous. He’s not that great of a singer and his effeminate mannerisms and cheesy acting don’t help him stand out as a leading man. Not to mention, I really thought his blackface performances were offensive. Singing in blackface may have been common during that time, but there’s no reason for it and doesn’t excuse it. The fact that doing that improved his career just makes me lose even more respect for the man. I fully realize and acknowledge that my opinions are probably in the minority as he was a big box office draw (especially thanks to his next film The Singing Fool) and a huge recording star. I’m sure that this film has many fans, but beyond its rightfully deserved recognition in motion picture history it has no other interest for me.
 

Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

I’ve been impressed with several of Warners restorations in the past, (particularly The Adventures of Robin Hood), so I was hoping that they would do an equally good job on one of their milestone movies and they have. It’s obvious how much time, money, and attention was spent on restoring The Jazz Singer to look even better than it did when it was originally released. This black and white 1080p (1.33:1) transfer looks glorious with its blacks, grays, and whites all incredibly balanced and delineated. Considering that the film came out in 1927, the detail present is astounding and so fine that you’d never believe that the film was coming up on being ninety years old. There’s some normal grain present that hasn’t been overly scrubbed with DNR which keeps it looking cinematic and natural. The title cards look sharp and distinct and other than some missing frames this is an excellent transfer.
 

Audio (4 out of 5 stars)

The Jazz Singer’s orignal Vitaphone soundtrack has also been restored and it’s amazing just how good it sounds even after all of this time. This new DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track offers an extremely clear and dynamic soundtrack that sounds a lot better than many of the other silent movies of its time. The Jazz Singer is mostly a silent movie complete with title cards for the dialogue, but in the few instances where Jolson gets to sing (and speak dialogue twice), the dialogue is clear and the songs come across very nicely. I can imagine how thrilled the audiences were at the time to get to see a perfectly synced dialogue scene for the first time in a movie. While the songs and dialogue weren’t my cup of tea, I can still appreciate the innovation and dedication by Sam Warner and others to bring sound to the movies. (It’s just a shame that Sam Warner died the day before this movie opened).
 

Extras (5 out of 5 stars)
Warners went all out with these generous extras which could easily satisfy anyone interested in the history of sound and movies. The extras have been ported over from the previous three disc DVD set (two of those discs have been included here) and the rest of the extras have been included in the excellent Digibook that’s part of the case.
 
Disc 1 (Blu-ray)
  • Commentary with Ron Hutchinson and Vince Giordano - Sometimes, these commentaries for older movies are pretty dry, but these two guys not only know their stuff, but they keep it interesting too. Ron Hutchinson is a co-founder of the Vitaphone Project, while Vince Giordano has an orchestra called the Vince Giordano Nighthawks that focuses and plays music from this era. They not only talk about The Jazz Singer’s production and historical impact, but they also discuss what was going on at the industry at the time and how the transition to sound came to be.
  • A Plantation Act – A short starring Jolson where he appeared in blackface and sang several songs. Warners liked this short enough to greenlight The Jazz Singer. Once again, I don’t agree with popular opinion.
  • Hollywood Handicap - A short that features a bunch of stablehands betting on a horse with appearances from several stars including Jolson. It’s kind of humorous but seems really dated now.
  • A Day at Santa Anita - Here’s another short at the racetrack but this time its about a girl named Peaches and her horse Wonderboy.
  • An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros.’ Silver Jubilee - This is one of those self-congratulatory short where the studio brags about their movies and their stable of stars. The only problem is that almost all of these stars never became famous. If I remember correctly, the only one I recognized was Edward Robinson.
  • I Love to Singa - A Warner Brothers Merrie Melodie that parodies The Jazz Singer with The Owl Singer, a young owl that just refuses to follow his father’s demands and becomes a jazz singer. It’s cute and more enjoyable than the movie it’s based on.
  • Radio Show Adaptation - At almost an hour long, this radio broadcast from June 2, 1947 is an adaptation of The Jazz Singer and Jolson returns to play his role again.
  • Theatrical Trailer
Disc 2 (DVD)
  • The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk - For me, the highlight of this set was this hour and a half documentary about the history of sound and its incorporation into the movies. We see the earliest beginnings with Thomas Edison and his team’s efforts on through Lee and Cases’ work too. When Lee tried to diminish Case’s contributions, Case took his research to Fox where they put it too good use on their Movietone newsreel shorts. Warners continued on with their Vitaphone use and ended up licensing it to other studios once they understood that sound in movies was no longer a fad. We get to hear all about the wars between studios and how long the industry took to adopt sound. We also get to hear from knowledgeable sources including: sound designers Ben Burtt (Star Wars!), Dane A. Davis, Ron Hutchinson and Vince Giordano (from the commentary), critic Leonard Maltin, and film historians Rudy Behlmer, Scott Eyman and Robert Gitt.
  • Surviving Sound Excerpts from 1929′s Gold Diggers of Broadway - There’s many lost films from this era but there’s some surviving footage from two early films containing sound: ”Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Finale”. Some of the vaudeville footage is very cool and my son loved seeing the acrobatic parts.
  • The Voice from the Screen - This is a demonstration of the Vitaphone for the New York Electrical Society by Edward B. Craft of Bell Telephone that was recorded on Oct. 27, 1926. Excepts from this are in the main documentary too.
  • Finding His Voice – This is a cartoon made to teach viewers how sound was added to film through cartoon characters who get a “voice”. This cartoon from 1929 was co-directed by animation legend Max Fleischer!
  • The Voice that Thrilled the World - This is another almost twenty minute look at the history of sound in movies that was directed by Jean Negulesco.
  • Okay for Sound - This is another self-congratulatory featurette where Warner Brothers and Vitaphone celebrate their twenty years of sound in movies. Expect a lot of clips and self-promotion.
  • When the Talkies Were Young - This is a documentary from 1955 that contains short talkies with stars like James Cagney and a very young looking Spencer Tracy. These clips also give away a lot of of the movies they are promoting, so if you want to stay spoiler free for those movies, don’t watch these clips.
Disc 3 (DVD)
This third disc contains a bunch of Vitaphone shorts from the Warner Brothers vaults. Some of them are missing footage and some aren’t in the best of condition, but it’s still interesting to see this glimpse into the past. What’s a shame is that many of these vaudeville performers did their skits on film which later left them out of work as these new shorts with sound were want the audiences wanted. Here are the shorts included:
  • Elsie Janis in a Vaudeville Act: “Behind the Lines”
  • Bernado De Pace: “Wizard of the Mandolin”
  • Van and Schenck: “The Pennant Winning Battery of Songland”
  • Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields with the Music Boxes
  • Hazel Green & Company
  • The Night Court
  • The Police Quartette
  • Ray Mayer & Edith Evans in “When East Meets West”
  • Adele Rowland: “Stories in Song”
  • Stoll, Flynn & 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”
  • The 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”
DigiBook – A lot of times these digibooks are basically just glossy fluff, but not this time as all thirty-nine pages included offer a ton of behind the scenes photos and information. We also get the original souvenir program from the film’s premiere, the signing of Jolson to the movie, a program fro Vitaphone, and more personal items like Al Jolson’s sympathetic telegram about the passing of Sam Warner. There’s also a table of contents that lists what’s on each disc which is nice.
 
Summary (4 out of 5 stars)

I’m not a fan of this movie but I do love how Warners put this set together and the restoration job they did. The video and audio are extremely good for a film from 1927 and there’s a ton of extras on here too. Even if you don’t care about the movie this is still a great Blu-ray to pick up just for all of the historical movie information about the transition to sound. Warners has obviously gone to a great deal of effort to bring this historically important movie back in a big way and fans of the movie should be very happy with the results!
 
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