Warner Bros. // 1927 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // February 7th, 2013
You ain't heard nothin' yet.
By the mid-1920s, the Warner Bros film studio was in full swing, but weren't the force they would emerge as over the next decade. This is due in no small part to how they embraced the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process that would lay the groundwork for sound-on-film and usher out the silent era of filmmaking. The studio, along with a few others with different processes, had released a fair number of short films that featured synchronous sound, it wasn't until 1927 and the release of The Jazz Singer that the public and the studios realized the future of cinema. This landmark of cinema history was released as a three-DVD collection for the film's 80th anniversary and, now, this stellar set arrives from Warner Bros on Blu-ray.
For five generations, the men of the Rabinowitz family have served in the respected role of their synagogue cantor. This is a new age, though, and young Jakie (Al Jolson, The Singing Fool) has a different kind of song in his heart, a jazz song. This doesn't sit well with his father (Warner Oland, Charlie Chan in London), who forbids him to sing these modern songs. Jakie defies him and runs away to join the stage, taking the name of Jack Robin, he becomes a hit and, after a successful West Coast tour, he's coming to Broadway. Darn the luck, though, when the show's premiere comes on Yom Kippur, his father is sick, and his family begs him to sing "Kol Nidre" at the service, forcing him to decide between his career and his family.
I've seen plenty of films from this era, but The Jazz Singer always escaped me for some reason. Maybe I was scared off by the idea of watching Jolson perform in blackface, something that is painful and abhorrent to modern eyes, but I never let it cross my path. Little did I know that the movie, in spite of that obvious problem, is actually quite strong.
While it's still a silent film in essence, complete with title cards and typical pantomime style from most of the performers, Al Jolson's charismatic stage performing resonates with pathos even after all these decades. The songs themselves certainly are not my favorite, but he makes such a connection with the audience, whether that's us or the cinematic one, there's no question why he was such a big star.
The film, directed by Alan Crosland (Don Juan), moves swiftly through the story of family versus career and conflicting obligations. It's sometimes clunky, but no more so than many other family dramas of the time. The backstage theatrical details may or may not be completely accurate, but they're an interesting look at Broadway of the time, and Robin's costar Mary Dale (May McAvoy, The Enchanted Cottage) is a delightful presence. Classic Hollywood fans should also look out for a brief appearance from Myrna Loy (The Thin Man) in an early role as a dancing girl.
The family business, while sometimes corny, has its interest, as well. Eugenie Besserer (Flesh and the Devil) was quite experienced at playing silent mothers, and does as well as she can. Her only real job is to play foil for her husband, Cantor Rabinowitz, whose relationships with his synagogue and his son makes up the dramatic thrust of the film. He's not an evil character (there are no true villains anywhere in the movie), but he is more dedicated to what he believes Jakie should do that what his son actually wants. It's a common theme in films of this era and it works well here, culminating with Jolson's classic performance of the Jewish cant, "Kol Nidre," which is a great cap on this fine piece of classic cinema.
Warner Bros may have simply rereleased the greater majority of their 80th Anniversary edition of The Jazz Singer, but that doesn't change the fact that this DigiBook Blu-ray is a plainly stellar collection. The one big difference is the important one: the improved technical features on the Blu-ray disc. The film looks fantastic in high definition, with a 1.37:1/1080p image transfer that couldn't be better, given the age of it. Blacks, whites, and greys are all contrasted with one another brilliantly, with great clarity and surprising detail. There are a few frames missing here and there, which is the only problem, but that's understandable for a film of this era. The fact that there's so little print damage is good enough for me. The sound, as well, is stellar, despite being a single channel Master Audio track. It's bright and clear, with good definition between the vocals and the music. There is nearly no hiss, either, which is frankly astonishing given its original sound-on-disc recording. Even if you purchased the 2007 set, even though all the supplements are the same, it's worth the upgrade for this alone.
If you don't own the older release, though, and you're a classic film fan, this release is a true must-own. Disc one's extras start with a very good audio commentary featuring film historian Ron Hutchinson and bandleader Vince Giordano, which is chock full of valuable information on early film, the dawn of sound, and the details of the movie itself. The complete 1947 radio production of the musical, starring an older but still quite capable Jolson, is fun to listen to, but not nearly as dynamic or compelling as the film. This disc finishes out with a series of short films, three featuring Jolson and all pretty racist, but interesting historical documents nonetheless. The classic 1936 "Merrie Melodies" short, I Love to Singa is a great addition. The celebration of Warner's silver anniversary, however, is not so great, though it is ridiculous enough to be worth a watch.
The other two discs are DVDs instead of Blu-rays. Disc two is the informational disc, starting with the feature length documentary, The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk which, personally, I hated. It begins with big bloviating statements about the catastrophic changes that The Jazz Singer caused in Hollywood, only to describe the slow, slow process of sound's invention and acceptance in cinema. It's not just that; while its information is all correct, it's painfully dull with only some interesting footage to make it palatable. A pair of surviving clips from 1929's lost Gold Diggers of Broadway continues the disc, which the rest of it features promotional shorts on the same topic as the larger documentary. They aren't much better, such as they go, but their vintage nature makes them more enjoyable.
Disc three closes out the collection with a full two dozen short films from the Vitaphone collection. Each lasts around ten minutes and, while after all the rest, watching this many early musical shorts in succession becomes something of a beating after a while, taking them in shorter stints would be highly enjoyable. The highlight for me here is the George Burns and Gracie Allen piece, a duo that I find pretty hilarious even after all these years. Finally, a thick booklet comes bound within the DigiBook, featuring essays, original playbills, reviews, photos, and more.
Truly, fans of early cinema can't ask for more from this phenomenal set. The Jazz Singer may have its problems, but with Jolson's clear charisma in the role and a collection of supplements that could make a great start for a college syllabus, The Jazz Singer (Blu-ray) DigiBook instantly becomes one of the better boxed sets in my collection.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1927
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Radio Broadcast
* Vintage Cartoon
* Short Films