I was one of those that grew up associating The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond’s 1980 “Love on the Rocks” hit-spawning (but otherwise stinky) version. I knew nothing of the original 1927 film other than it was supposedly the first talkie, and (said in hushed tones) there was… blackface. Now that Neil Diamond’s film has faded into obscurity, it is the perfect time to rediscover why the original has stuck around all these years.
The Jazz Singer is a classic tale of the American dream. Little Jakie Rabinowitz (Robert Gordon), the son of a Jewish immigrant Cantor (Warner Oland), is expected to be a good Jewish kid, and be the fifth generation Cantor in his family when he grows up. The problem is, the loves “singing raggy time songs” when he sneaks out of the house to perform in jazz clubs. (Can I just say, the scene of the kid performing is hilariously awesome, as he does his goofy, exuberant raggy dance like a human rubber band.) But Jackie gets busted and beaten by his father one last time. Jackie, to his mother’s dismay, runs away.
Years later, Jakie is now a performing star who goes by the name Jack Robin (Al Jolson). Jack’s star is on the rise, and his heart has been stolen by the lovely Mary Dale (May McAvoy), another performer. When he gets the chance to perform on Broadway, he doesn’t hesitate for a second. It may be his chance to make it up with his parents, and especially try to make his father proud with his new chosen success. (Might not be that easy, Jakie!)
I was surprised that The Jazz Singer is actually about 60% silent, and only 40% talkie. I was a little confused during the whole opening scenes, as the scenes were interspersed the typical silent-film title cards. But this actually makes the first use of synchronized sound that much more effective. When Al Jolson performs “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face”, you find yourself squinting your eyes and leaning forward… that IS him, isn’t it!??!? But the real thrill happens when he finishes… Jolson, in full performer mode says, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” before breaking into the charming “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye!)”. I could only imagine that the audience must have been throwing their chairs in excitement.
Jolson was already a superstar entertainer when The Jazz Singer became the first bonafide hit talking film. Even by today’s standards, he is hugely entertaining as a performer… yes, even when wearing blackface. When Jakie’s now-elderly Jewish mother is sitting in the audience to see him in his natural element for the first time, it is a truly moving scene–even despite the curious fact that Jolson is in blackface singing a song to his “mammy”.
For the studio’s 90th anniversary celebration, Warner Bros. has released a deluxe, three-disc Blu-ray book edition. Sure, the extras are all pretty much the same as the 2007 deluxe DVD release, but this set is more compact, better looking, (apparently better synched) and just as great. The collection gives a stupendous overview of Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies. A full-length documentary The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk traces the evolution, experiments, failures, and final success of the challenge of integrating sound and film, which ultimately led to Warner Bros. taking a risk and scoring by securing the market on the first successful widely used technology to show “talkies”. Additionally, there is a whole disc of shorts using this Vitaphone technology (which basically synched a film with a 16-inch record that could only be played 20 times). The shorts are mostly of obscure vaudeville performers, who, ironically, would be pretty much made obsolete by the huge popularity of the talkies (but keep an eye out for the handful of crossover successes, like George Burns and Gracie Allen).
Among the other standout extras in this great collection are a handful of other shorts featuring Jolson, including the short Al Jolson in ‘A Plantation Act’, filmed a year before The Jazz Singer, where he sings more songs in blackface, standing in front of fake corn, and wearing huge oversized overalls. The whole thing would be cringe-inducing, but when he opens his mouth to sing, he is just so damn good! The set is contained in a booklet case that includes 90-pages of photos and reproductions of original articles and press releases about the film. Warner Bros. is careful to litter this collection with disclaimers about the content (“…The following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society…”), but it is great that the content is otherwise preserved as it was originally presented. This release is a fascinating document of a time and place not only in American history, but especially in the history of motion pictures.