"Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nuthin' yet." --Al Jolson
Movies have been with us for well over a century, yet it continues to amaze me how good film photography has always been and how the accompanying sound, when there was sound, always struggled to keep up. The fact is, good, restored black-and-white photography from a hundred years ago doesn't look too much different from good black-and-white photography today. About the only improvements in film photography over the years have been in terms of wider screens and color. Ah, but what a difference there has been in sound.
For the first three or four decades of moviemaking, there was virtually no sound in films. Instead, there were sporadic attempts to match live voices, live musical instruments, and gramophone recordings with movements on screen from as early as the 1890s. But it wasn't until 1926 with the movie "Don Juan" that the Warner Bros. Vitaphone process synchronized recorded music with pictures and then 1927 with "The Jazz Singer" that WB added speech to the process.
Perhaps it seems odd to us today that the movie industry initially had reservations about adding sound to movies at all, yet that's the case. Film studios weren't sure viewers who had grown up with silent films would accept "talkies." They weren't sure the costs involved in buying and developing new equipment would be worth the trouble. They weren't sure theater owners would spend the money to convert their movie houses to sound. They weren't sure they wanted to dub their films for foreign audiences when silent films could reach everybody, regardless of language. And actors weren't sure their voices would be up to the task of entertaining filmgoers.
Then, when sound did finally arrive, it remained in a single channel for many years, with studios dabbling in stereo and multichannel in the 1940s and beyond but not fully embracing surround sound until the 1990s. Then, too, there were the problems of background noise, hum, and hiss, and the difficulties of reproducing strong dynamics and a wide frequency range, things we take for granted today. And yet it all came, and most people nowadays credit "The Jazz Singer" as more-or-less the start of the sound era.
"The Jazz Singer" cost Warners a whopping half million dollars to produce, an enormous sum in those days and quite a gamble for the studio. But it paid off. "The Jazz Singer" took in over three million dollars at the box office, and within a few years every major studio in Hollywood had changed over to talkies, using one sound technology or another. Warner Bros. themselves would continue using their original Vitaphone synch process (using recorded discs with film) for a short while, but by the early 1930s they would switch to the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, while still retaining the Vitaphone designation for a dozen or more years.
Anyway, "The Jazz Singer" is a landmark film, and it's good to have it in so good a restored digital print and with so good a restored soundtrack. Warners chose Alan Crosland to direct the film because he had directed their earlier "Don Juan" sound effort, and, I suppose, they trusted him. Next, they found a suitable vehicle for sound in the Samson Raphaelson play "The Jazz Singer"; and for the lead they tried to get the stage show's original star, George Jessel, but he wanted too much money, and then Eddie Cantor, who declined. So the role went to Al Jolson, the biggest name on the New York musical scene and an actor just acquiring a Hollywood name. The movie was a sensational hit.
Today, I daresay many people don't even recognize the name Jolson, or if they do, they probably think of him as that guy who sang in blackface, now in racist disrepute. Yet in Jolson's time, blackface was an accepted show-business practice, a conventional entertainment that came up through the ranks of minstrel shows and was performed by entertainers both black and white. Anyway, in "The Jazz Singer" you'll see Jolson singing some of his most popular songs, and, yes, in several of them he is in blackface.
But enough of why the film is historically important. Does it remain watchable--and listenable? Fortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, yes. Of course, the movie is remarkably sentimental and mushy, the story line may seem hopelessly maudlin to modern audiences, and there is the business of the blackface; yet the underlining feeling and, naturally, the music retain their appeal. They got to viewers in 1927, and I daresay they continue to get to viewers today.
The movie begins with about four minutes of overture (and ends with another couple of minutes of exit music), so you know right away it's a big production. The setting is New York City, and Jolson plays Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor, a Jewish religious official who conducts the musical part of the services. The father (Warner Oland) wants his son to continue the tradition of five generations of Rabinowitz cantors, but young Jakie wants to sing jazz. The words "jazz singer" fall from the father's lips like something evil or corrupt, as the father disowns the boy. The mother (Eugenie Besserer), meanwhile, has little to say in the matter. The son and his parents part ways, and a number of years go by, Jakie now assuming the stage name of Jack Robin and struggling to make a name for himself in show business.
A star dancer named Mary Dale (May McAvoy) befriends Jack, and helps him with his career, which almost takes off were it not for a concluding conflict that finds Jack having to choose between his budding stardom and his religious faith.
Here's the thing, though. We like to think of "The Jazz Singer" as the first talkie, but Hollywood wasn't quite ready to embrace dialogue entirely. So the film still uses written intertitle cards for most of the talking and narration. Luckily, the filmmakers chose to leave in some of Jolson's ad-libbing, and when audiences heard it, there was no going back. They had to have all-talking pictures.
The story moves crisply along, with little waste. Yes, it's corny and melodramatic, with an exaggerated acting style left over from the stage; you live with that. But you can't take away from the music, Jolson singing some of his most-memorable songs: "My Gal Sal" (Bobby Gordon as the young Jakie), "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face," "Toot Toot Tootsie," "Blue Skies," "Mother of Mine," the liturgical prayer "Kol Nidre," and the big finale, "My Mammy."
Trivia note: More people--men and women--probably wore more goofy hats in 1927 than at any time in world history. They are kind of fun, actually.
Warner Bros. restored and remastered the film from the best sources they could find, and the results look exceptionally good given the film's age, this its eightieth anniversary. The 1.33:1 ratio black-and-white picture holds up remarkably well, with contrasts perhaps a trifle lighter than they might be, yet good just the same. The definition is sharp, and the screen is clear of almost any grain or age marks. As I mentioned at the beginning, good black-and-white photography hasn't changed much over the years, so enjoy.
Although you'll notice some expected and understandable background noise from the soundtrack, you'll also find that as the movie goes on, you don't notice it. Remember, WB used phonographic equipment to record and play the sound initially, then a few years afterward added it to the film strip. The midrange is what counts, and here you'll find an ideal clarity and natural balance. You'll also note the limitations on bass and upper treble, but stick around and you'll hear the lower treble coming through fine. Of importance, too, the background music sounds splendid.
Disc one of this Three-Disc Deluxe Edition contains the feature film and an assortment of worthy bonus items. First, there's an audio commentary by Ron Hutchison, founder of the Vitaphone Projects, and Nighthawks bandleader Vince Giordano, who has worked with music of the 1920s for many years. Together, they offer an amiable discussion of the film's history and stars. Next, there are several vintage Warner Bros. short subjects, including Jolson (again in blackface) in "A Plantation Act," which delighted movie audiences in 1926; followed by a radio adaptation of the movie and a classic cartoon, "I Love to Singa." In addition, there are twenty-six scene selections; a Jolson movie trailer gallery; English as the only spoken language; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
But wait a minute, folks, wait a minute; you ain't seen nuthin' yet. Disc two provides a newly made, feature-length documentary, "The Dawn of Sound: How the Movies Learned to Talk," eighty-five minutes long and divided into eighteen chapters. Then, there are sound excerpts from 1929's "Gold Diggers of Broadway," plus five more WB studio shorts celebrating the early sound era. And on disc three we get several dozen rare, historic Vitaphone comedy and music shorts, many of them, as the cover note tells us, "recently recovered and restored after being thought lost forever." Among them you'll find entertainers like Baby Rose Marie, the Foy Family, and, my favorite, Burns and Allen in "Lambchops."
Finally, the box contains separate packets of studio stills and movie memorabilia, including a reproduction of the movie's original theater bill and various related items, complete with an apology for the blackface tradition of the day.
The movie's story line, characterizations, and acting styles may seem stilted, but there's no taking away from the movie's heart and Jolson's singing. Whether you're a film historian, an old-time movie buff, or just an ordinary music fan, "The Jazz Singer" remains a classic of its kind.