Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky thinks Al Jolson has some serious mommy issues.
Our reviews of The Jazz Singer: 25th Anniversary Edition (published November 11th, 2005), The Jazz Singer (1927) (Blu-ray) DigiBook (published February 7th, 2013), and Jerry Lewis as The Jazz Singer (published January 29th, 2012) are also available.
"It is as honorable to sing in the theatre as in the synagogue!"—Jack Robin (Al Jolson)
The first talking blockbuster out of Hollywood, now in a three-disc set. But wait—you ain't heard nothing yet.
Facts of the Case
Jazz music's hottest new star, Jack Robin (Al Jolson), hides a secret under that burnt cork and winning smile: he's the Jewish son of a cantor (Warner Oland) and he has given up a life of latkes and Kol Nidre to sing his heart out on the stage for the goyim of the world. Can he teach his father and beloved mother (Eugenie Besserer) that the new music—and his new shiksa girlfriend (May McAvoy)—are kosher, or is it "Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye" to his family forever?
A handful of American films arrive on your doorstep with so much baggage that it is impossible to talk about the films on their own, as objects of pure entertainment. Birth of a Nation. Citizen Kane. Song of the South. They must be placed in "context," plucked and cleaned like exegetical turkeys, explained into submission. They are films of "historical relevance." And don't you forget it.
The Jazz Singer. I suppose, for some people, the name conjures images of a sequined Neil Diamond belting out tunes that are, well, quite far from jazz. For anyone with a basic background in film history, however, the first image that appears in your mind—and there it is—dwell on it for a moment. There he is: on one knee, the tips of his gloved fingers pressed to his heart, pleading, praying…for Mammy. Al Jolson in blackface. It is the quintessence of an era, a time of watermelon-eatin', step-n-fetchit caricatures. There, I just made you a little uncomfortable, didn't I?
There is no apologizing for minstrel shows. I won't make any effort to justify them, nor will I smack them down simply to prove something. They were what they were.
The strange thing about watching The Jazz Singer, as long as we are on the subject, is how ambivalent it actually is about race. The details of Jewish home life in the Jazz Age are treated with sympathy and respect, rooted in the childhood experiences of Al Jolson himself. Oddly, George Jessel starred in the stage version of The Jazz Singer as the wayward son of Cantor Rabinowitz (played on screen by Warner Oland). But the movie is Jolson's show all the way.
Jolson, the former Asa Yoelson, pretty much plays himself in playing Jakie Rabinowitz. Jackie rejects his Jewish heritage in favor of the "raggy time" songs of the wild saloon crowd. Threatened with a whipping by his domineering and pious father, Jakie runs away, leaving his doting mother (Eugenie Besserer), to whom he dedicates his entire performing career. Daddy only capitulates when Jakie sings a few showstoppers for mom, who announces that his talent "belongs to the whole world now." Then, the elderly cantor dutifully passes away, leaving Jakie to sing for his Mammy forever and ever. Freud would be proud.
If anybody else had tried to make The Jazz Singer work, even George Jessel, we would probably be looking at the film as a mere historical curiosity, only famous because of its good timing as the first wide-release talkie. But Jolson, already tremendously popular before the film, finds in Jakie the ideal fusion of role and performer. There is something about the complete conviction with which he belts out the songs, from the charming piano act he does for mom to his iconic "Mammy," that makes you believe movies are as much about sound as image. In finding its voice with The Jazz Singer, cinema finally became a complete medium—and it never looked back.
The new Warner Brothers DVD set of The Jazz Singer tries hard to surround the film and the various controversies surrounding it with plenty of "context," but ultimately, the film itself must survive on its own merits. So the company has apparently put some of its efforts into restoration. And the film restoration is revelatory. Jolson really did have an electrifying presence as a musical performer, and this energy comes across in the sound sequences, where he belts out the tunes with conviction. The silent sequences are what you expect: melodramatic and fairly tedious. The Jazz Singer really did need to be a sound film. There is just no way it could work any other way. Indeed, it is a film in which the tenuous balance between sound and silence is exploited to full effect. When Jakie's rabbi father steps on screen in the middle of one of Jackie's vocal performances to yell "Stop!"—and the film immediately does—the audience realizes that the silent era must come to an end.
Ironically, the Vitaphone technology used for the film was a dead end: Warner Brothers could not convince exhibitors that the sound-disc system was worth the conversion costs, and the film industry moved to the more effective sound-on-film system still used today. In their commentary track, Vitaphone historian Ron Hutchison and jazz bandleader Vince Giordano provide historical background and technical details about the Vitaphone sound process (and how many of the innovations, like 33 1/3 RPM records, became industry standards). Their commentary is excellent, and they are candid about the runny Camembert of a plot and Jolson's use of blackface.
The main disc of this three-disc release of The Jazz Singer adds, on top of the commentary track, a 1947 Lux Radio production of The Jazz Singer. Twenty years saw jazz evolve past Jolson's vocal stylings, but he could still carry a tune. There are a bunch of shorts here too, starting with a scratchy bit of minstrelsy starring Jolson on a plantation set (even the chicken in the background seems a little embarrassed), then a corny short toasting the 25th anniversary of the Warner studio (a couple well-known names like Walter Pidgeon and the musical duo of Rogers and Hart join a ton of "stars" you've never heard of so Warners can promote its Vitaphone process). Jolson turns up among a "galaxy of stars" (including Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, and Dorothy Lamour) for a couple of seconds in a 1938 comedy short called "Hollywood Handicap," directed by Buster Keaton. Try not to cringe as the black performers in the house band do some demeaning shtick between some great music. The celebrity footage is mostly taken at the Santa Anita racetrack, where Jolson must have spent a lot of time. I make this assumption because he also appears briefly in "A Day at Santa Anita," a sentimental 1937 color short about a precocious girl and her beloved horse. The Jolson footage seems to be the main justification for including the short here, because it sure ain't here because of its maudlin plot, dated black caricatures, or cheap traveling matte effects. There is also the 1936 Warner Brothers cartoon, "I Love to Singa," which also recently turned up on the Happy Feet DVD.
If this were only a single disc release, the quality of the commentary track and selection of basic supplements would still earn a strong recommendation. But somebody over at Warners went just a little crazy packaging The Jazz Singer. There is a packet containing a reproduction of the original souvenir booklet, a Vitaphone promo booklet, a theatrical ad, and a telegram from Jack Warner to Al Jolson. Another packet includes a booklet of script excerpts and a bunch of behind-the-scenes photo cards.
Plus, you get two other discs. One contains a feature-length documentary, The Dawn of Sound. It is a bit dry and slow (apart from illustrative, satirical clips from Singing in the Rain), but it is stuffed full of rare footage and very thorough, with everything from a failed Edison experiment in synchronized sound to Jolson's blockbuster The Singing Fool to a host of stars' first sound roles. This documentary on its own makes this DVD set worth the price of admission for anyone interested in the history of cinema.
Disc Two also features a couple of surviving clips from the mostly lost, two-strip Technicolor 1929 dancefest Gold Diggers of Broadway. The new sound technologies are explained to audiences in a 1926 Western Electric demo reel (spotlighting the sound-on-disc system) and a 1929 Max Fleischer cartoon (explaining the sound-on-film system). A 1943 short, "The Voice That Thrilled the World," traces the history of film sound all the way back to the 19th century, including recreations of Edison and other inventors at work; the 20th anniversary of The Jazz Singer occasioned Warner Brothers to release a promotional short celebrating itself, "Okay for Sound." The 1955 compilation short "When the Talkies Were Young" offers clips of young stars James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, and others in 30s crime dramas.
Disc Three is a nearly four-hour tour of the Vitaphone years, from 1926 to 1936. Two dozen shorts (some of which are missing footage) appear, many of which consist of musical and Vaudeville performances. Highlights include a "wizard of the mandolin" dressed as Pierrot, a barbershop quartet dressed as cops, six of the Seven Little Foys, The Dick Van Dyke Show's Rose Marie when she was still a child star, and comedy stalwarts George Burns and Gracie Allen.
I have to admit that by the time I was through all the shorts on Disc Three, I was a little exhausted and ready to simply capitulate to Warners' sincere effort to convince me that The Jazz Singer deserves its pedestal. I mean, what do you say after all those hours of early talkie stars, none of which have the charisma of Jolson in his prime? (Although, you do have to check out the Foy Family dancing, even if their comedy act is lame.) We rip on Jolson now as a sentimental sop reinforcing racist stereotypes, but damn, that guy could put on a show. It is clear that almost every Vaudeville dreamer in the years following The Jazz Singer was chasing Jolson's shadow, judging from the hours of footage on this three-disc set.
The Jazz Singer is definitely worth a look on its own, but packaged up with a great commentary track and enough extras to teach a film history course in early Hollywood, it may be one of the best DVD releases of the year. Not bad for an eighty year old movie…
Mazel Tov, little Jakie! Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary Track
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