It's one of the most famous titles in film history, and everybody knows why: in a handful of sequences in The Jazz Singer
, sound and image are excitingly synchronized. By 1927, some short subjects had already been "talkies," and a few features had synchronized music, but The Jazz Singer
gets the prize as the breakthrough. Because the film is largely without dialogue, you can--even watching the film today--almost palpably sense the shift in movie epochs, as cinema takes an evolutionary leap from one form to the next. The movie itself, based on a successful Broadway show by Samson Raphaelson, is strictly melodrama of an ancient kind. Young Jakie Rabinowitz is expected to follow in the long line of family Cantors, but his heart yearns to sing "Toot Toot, Tootsie" instead of "Kol Nidre." Al Jolson plays Jakie (later Jack Robin of footlights fame), and you get a taste of why he was widely considered the greatest entertainer of his time; watch him with a tearjerker such as "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face" and you'll see the skillful, completely irony-free manipulations of a master storyteller. Equally fun is Jolson's non-singing patter--in fact, this is where you get the thrill of talking pictures, more so than the songs. "You ain't heard nuthin' yet," he burbles, and it's hard not to catch the excitement.
Jolson's numbers include his blackface act, a longstanding tradition of minstrel shows and music halls, and an unavoidable source of awkwardness for later viewers (see The Savages for an amusing account of the embarrassment this can cause). Blackface is a bizarre show business reality, and it's part of the movie, so some historical context is required.
Warner Bros. rightly considers The Jazz Singer a key moment in the studio's history, and this three-disc DVD package gives the deluxe treatment. The film itself is beautifully restored, and reproductions of original supporting materials (souvenir program, stills, ads) are fun. A booklet on early Vitaphone shorts clearly predates The Jazz Singer, for Jolson is mentioned only as a star of Vitaphone shorts, and George Jessel is tabbed as the future star of The Jazz Singer (he'd played Jakie on Broadway). A 90-minute documentary gives a fine account of how the Vitaphone system worked, and how other systems actually became the industry standard.
Supplemental short films are a true treasure trove. A Plantation Act is more Jolson blackface, Hollywood Handicap a studio short comedy directed by Buster Keaton, and I Love to Singa a hilarious 1936 Tex Avery cartoon--a spoof of The Jazz Singer starring a bird named Owl Jolson. A flabbergasting collection of Vitagraph shorts--over four hours' worth--makes up disc 3 of this set: utterly weird and wonderful performances by some of the strangest acts ever to kill vaudeville. There are a few names here: George Burns and Gracie Allen in a short called Lambchops, the Foy Family doing wacky stage business. But the cornball timed jokes of Shaw & Lee, the saucy songs of Trixie Friganza, not to mention "The Wizard of the Mandolin," Bernardo De Pace--these are gems, folks. Anyone with a taste for showbiz past will love them. --Robert Horton