THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE JAZZ SINGER"
The Jazz Singer - Own it on Blu-Ray January 8
The Jazz Singer, released in 1927, is a landmark in cinema. As everyone knows, it was the first movie to feature synchronized dialogue, and its technological innovation helped change motion pictures forever. A picture with such an important place in history deserves a top-tier home video release, and it gets one with Warner Home Video's magnificent Blu-Ray book.
This is the story of Jakie Rabinowitz (played by Al Jolson), a young Jewish singer who aspires to fame on the stage. This is much to the dismay of his traditional cantor father (Warner Oland), who would prefer Jakie follow his lead of singing in the synagogue. When his father disowns him, Jakie says goodbye to his beloved mother and tries to make it in the Big Time. On the eve of his big break, his mother shows up to inform him of his father's illness. Jakie must decide whether to make amends with his disapproving father or take to the stage for opening night.
The quality of The Jazz Singer is well established. Some now-offensive elements (i.e. Jakie performing in blackface) aside, the film is an emotional and engaging story about the tug-of-war between family and career. Jolson gives a sympathetic performance, while his musical numbers display both his musical talent and his screen charisma. What caught me by surprise was how good the film looks on this Blu-Ray. Magnificently transferred, its images are sharp and crisp, with nothing to indicate that the movie is more than 85 years old. It probably looks even better now than it did in 1927. Knowing that classic movies can be preserved in such pristine condition warms this film buff's heart.
In addition to a flawless print, The Jazz Singer Blu-Ray comes with enough supplementary material to keep you glued to your HDTV for days. The first disc, which contains the feature itself, offers something of a historical perspective on cinematic stereotypes. (An accompanying note reminds viewers that “such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.”) The short film “A Plantation Act” features Jolson, again in blackface and rags, performing a musical number next to a ramshackle hut. “Hollywood Handicap” is another short, this one centering on a group of African-American stable hands working a horse race. They do an entire musical number with their mouths impersonating orchestral instruments, while a chef grills up a rack of ribs. (“Time to pick the ribs!” he gleefully shouts.) While undeniably offensive today, these segments nonetheless illustrate how other races were portrayed on screen in an earlier era, and are notable for their educational value. Less offensive is “An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros.' Silver Jubilee,” a promotional piece in which various studio actors and composers are introduced to the audience. “A Day at Santa Anita” is a horse race short, and “I Love to Singa” is a vintage Looney Tune. Disc One also has a 7-minute theatrical trailer (hilarious because the on-screen announcer is visibly and awkwardly reading cue cards), plus an hour-long radio play featuring Jolson.
Also included in the set are two DVDs of bonus material. Disc Two contains “The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk,” a 90-minute documentary on the early sound era in motion pictures. The doc takes you through the introduction of sound recording and how it changed the movies and those who made them. Also on this disc are surviving sound excerpts from 1929's Gold Diggers of Broadway as well as five studio shorts from, or celebrating, the early sound era.
Disc Three is dedicated to Vitaphone shorts, with over four hours of rare and historic footage that has been recovered and restored after being thought lost forever. There are 24 in total, spanning a range of genres. One of them is an early Burns & Allen short. Again, this is all valuable material that, through the magic of modern technology, has been saved for current and future generations of cineasts to study.
All in all, The Jazz Singer Blu-Ray is a must-own for hardcore film buffs who have a particular interest in the introduction of sound in cinema. Packaged with an attractive, informative 90-page book that contains rare photos and background material, it's an A+ home video release.
For more information on this title, please visit the official WB Shop.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!