The Jazz Singer (1927) on Blu-Ray

| January 8, 2013

The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length film with completely synchronized dialogue and musical sequences, will mark another milestone January 8 when Warner Home Video releases the Blu-ray™ commencing the 2013 year-long 90thAnniversary of Warner Bros. Studios. The landmark film, which brought Broadway superstar Al Jolson “alive” and seemingly singing from the screen, was an immediate sensation when it opened in 1927 and created a revolution in the history of the motion picture industry. It earned Alfred Cohn an Academy Award®* (1927/28) nomination for Best Writing (Adaptation) and Warner Bros. received an Oscar® as a Special Award — for producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which revolutionized the industry. In 1996 the film was selected for preservation in the U.S. Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for its cultural and historical significance.

When this film was initially released it was a milestone in the history of the motion picture, for it heralded the beginning of the “talking” motion picture. Until The Jazz Singer, all feature-length films were silents. In other words, there was no sound. People’s lips would move on the screen, but you would have to read a title card which would be inserted into the frame. There was live music accompaniment in the form of either a small orchestra, small band, or a piano or a pipe organ. But no sound effects. No talking voices. No soundtrack music. Can you imagine that?

Some of you may be able to. Some of you might have been alive back then. In either case, you should definitely check out this special release of this classic film. Produced by Warner Bros. with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, the movie stars Al Jolson, who performs six songs. Directed by Alan Crosland, it is based on a play by Samson Raphaelson.

The Jazz Singer tells the story of young Jakie Rabinowitz defying the traditions of his devout Jewish family by singing popular tunes in a beer hall. Punished by his father, a cantor, Jakie runs away from home. Some years later, now calling himself Jack Robin, he has become a talented jazz singer. He attempts to build a career as an entertainer, but his professional ambitions ultimately come into conflict with the demands of his home and heritage.

The Jazz Singer stars entertainment legend Al Jolson in a story that bore a few similarities to his own life story. Jolson portrays a would-be entertainer whose show business aspirations conflict with the values of his cantor father (Warner Oland). The Jazz Singer began life as a 1925 Broadway play, and was revived early in 1927, starring George Jessel. The part was offered to Jolson, who was then at the height of his popularity.

Jolson had broken new ground on the stage and sold millions of phonograph records. Just his name on the marquee of a Broadway theater, or on a piece of sheet music, almost always guaranteed success. He found the challenge of conquering the screen via the new Vitaphone technology irresistible.

The movie premiered at the Warner Theater in New York City on October 6, 1927 and soon became a national phenomenon, limited only by the relatively small amount of theaters (200) which were already equipped with Vitaphone’s sound-on-disc technology (a process developed by Western Electric and Warner Bros. wherein a 16” disc was synchronized with standard 35mm projection equipment). The film was a smash everywhere it played, and led to the installation of sound equipment all over the nation. Less than 2 years later, nearly 8000 theaters were wired for sound. Fueled by Jolson’s charisma and Vitaphone, The Jazz Singer created the momentum for “talking pictures” that couldn’t be stopped. Silent films would soon become virtually extinct.

Directed by Alan Crosland, the film co-stars Warner Oland, May McAvoy, and Eugenie Besserer. Among the hit songs featured in the film are Jolson’s trademarks, “Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Goodbye,” “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face,” “My Mammy,” and a then-new song composed by Irving Berlin …“Blue Skies.”

On April 25, 1917, Samson Raphaelson, a native of New York City’s Lower East Side and a University of Illinois undergraduate, attended a performance of the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr. in Champaign, Illinois. The star of the show was a thirty-year-old singer, Al Jolson, a Russian-born Jew who performed in blackface. Later, in a 1927 interview, Raphaelson would describe the experience as follows: “I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson—his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from a tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song.” Raphaelson explained that he had seen emotional intensity like Jolson’s only among synagogue cantors.

Some years later when he was pursuing a professional literary career, Raphaelson wrote a short story, “The Day of Atonement,” about a young Jew named Jakie Rabinowitz, and it was based on Jolson’s real life. The story was published in January 1922 in Everybody’s Magazine. Raphaelson later adapted the story into a stage play, The Jazz Singer. A straight drama, all the singing in Raphaelson’s version takes place offstage. With George Jessel in the lead role, the show premiered on Broadway in September 1925 and became a hit. Warner Bros. acquired the movie rights to the play on June 4, 1926, and signed Jessel to a contract. Moving Picture World published a story in February 1927 announcing that production on the film would begin with Jessel on May 1.

But Jessel would not be the star of the film. The story goes that Jessel was not comfortable with sound, yet. And to do a sound film Jessel wanted a bonus or else a new contract. And to do the film in blackface was something Jessel absolutely refused to do. Warner Bros. contacted Eddie Cantor to try to get him to help work things out with Jessel, but Cantor would not get involved. In the end, Raphaelson went to the man who inspired the story in the first place, Al Jolson. Jolson took the part, signing a $75,000 contract on May 26, 1927, for eight weeks of services beginning in July. There have been several claims but no proof that Jolson invested some of his own money in the film. Jessel and Jolson, also friends, did not speak for some time after—on the one hand, Jessel had been confiding his problems with the Warners to Jolson; on the other, Jolson had signed with them without telling Jessel of his plans. In his autobiography, Jessel wrote that, in the end, Jolson “must not be blamed, as the Warners had definitely decided that I was out.”

According to scholar Corin Willis the function and meaning of blackface in The Jazz Singer is intimately involved with Jack’s own Jewish heritage and his desire to make his mark in mass American culture—much as the ethnically Jewish Jolson and the Warner brothers were doing themselves. Jack Robin “compounds both tradition and stardom. The Warner Brothers thesis is that, really to succeed, a man must first acknowledge his ethnic self,” argues W. T. Lhamon. “The whole film builds toward the blacking-up scene at the dress rehearsal. Jack Robin needs the blackface mask as the agency of his compounded identity. Blackface will hold all the identities together without freezing them in a singular relationship or replacing their parts.”

Special features in this release include the full-length documentary feature, The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk. The 93-minute film covers the 30+ year struggle to successfully unite sound and image on motion picture screens. The fascinating narrative of failures and triumphs is propelled by insights from notable film historians as well as interviews from many talents who reveal their personal experiences of this tumultuous period in film history.

A separate disc includes more than four hours of extraordinary Vitaphone shorts (see more detail below), unique and historic rarities that capture performances from the era’s great entertainment legends: Burns & Allen, Baby Rose Marie, Weber & Fields, Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields and many others.

The Jazz Singer will now be offered in an extra premium 3-Disc Blu-ray book format showcasing the feature on Blu-ray for the very first time. The book also includes 90 pages of all of the reproductions, photos and content only previously available in the original 3-Disc DVD Deluxe Edition such as behind-the-scenes collector’s cards, lobby cards, souvenir program, a booklet with reproductions of vintage documents and post premiere telegram from Al Jolson.

Special features include a commentary from film historians Ron Hutchinson (founder of The Vitaphone Project) and Vince Giordano, a selection of vintage shorts and cartoons, a 1947 radio show adaptation featuring Jolson, and more.

Special Features:

·         Commentary by film historians Ron Hutchinson (founder of The Vitaphone Project) and Vince Giordano

·         Collection of vintage cartoons and shorts:

o    “Al Jolson in ‘A Plantation Act’“ – 1926 Vitaphone short

o    An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros. Silver Jubilee – 1930 short

o    I Love to Singa – Classic 1936 WB parody cartoon directed by Tex Avery

o    Hollywood Handicap – Classic 1938 M-G-M short with Al Jolson appearance

o    A Day at Santa Anita – Classic Technicolor WB 1939 short with Al Jolson & Ruby Keeler cameo appearance

·         1947 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast starring Al Jolson (audio only)

·          Theatrical Trailer

The Early Sound Era

·         Feature-length historical documentary The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk

·         Two rarely-seen Technicolor excerpts from Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929 WB film, most of which is considered lost)

·         Studio shorts celebrating the early sound era:

·         Finding His Voice (1929 Western Electric animated promotional short, produced by Max Fleischer)

·         The Voice That Thrilled The World – Warner Brosshort about sound

·         Okay for Sound 1946 WB short celebrating the 20th anniversary of Vitaphone

·         When Talkies Were Young 1955 WB short looking back at the early talkies

·         The Voice from the Screen — 1926 WB ‘demonstration’ film explores the Vitaphone technology, and looks at the making of a Vitaphone short.


Vitaphone Shorts

In the 1920’s Warner Bros. began producing a series of short films which utilized the Vitaphone process. These films ran the gamut from musical theater legends and vaudeville acts, to dramatic vignettes and classical music performances from the most prestigious artists of the era.

Most of these were shorts considered lost for decades, until a consortium of archivists and historians joined forces with a goal to restore these magnificent time capsules of entertainment history. Up until now, contemporary audiences have only been able to see these shorts via rare retrospective showings in a few large cities, or through the limited release of a restored handful of the earliest subjects, which were part of a 1996 laserdisc set.

Over 3 1/2 hours worth of rare, historic Vitaphone comedy and music shorts:

·         Elsie Janis in a Vaudeville Act: Behind the Lines”

·         Bernado Depace: Wizard of the Mandolin

·         Van and Schneck: The Pennant Winning Battery of Songland

·         Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields

·         Hazel Green and Company

·         The Night Court

·         The Police Quartette

·         Ray Mayer & Edith Evans: “When East Meets West

·         Adele Rowland: “Stories in Song

·         Stoll, Flynn and Company“The Jazzmania Quintet”

·         The Ingenues in “The Band Beautiful”

·         The Foy Family in Chips off the Old Block

·         Dick Rich and His Melodious Monarchs

·         Gus Arnheim and His Ambassadors

·         Shaw and Lee: The Beau Brummels

·         Larry Ceballos’ Roof Garden Revue

·         Trixie Friganza in “My Bag O’ Tricks”

·         Green’s Twentieth Century Faydetts

·         Sol Violinsky: The Eccentric Entertainer

·         Ethel Sinclair and Marge La Marr in “At the Seashore

·         Paul Tremaine and His Aristocrats

·         Baby Rose Marie: The Child Wonder

·         Burns & Allen in “Lambchops “

·         Joe Frisco in “The Happy Hottentots

Below are some clips from the film:

·         You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet –

·         Decisions –

·         Dirty Hands, Dirty Face –

The Jazz Singer is available beginning January 8 from Warner Home Video on Blu-ray™.

About the Author:

Del Harvey is a co-founder of Film Monthly. He is an independent filmmaker, film director, screenwriter, and film teacher, currently living in Chicago.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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