Blu-ray: Al Jolson is 'The Jazz Singer'
You ain't heard nothin' yet!
"The Jazz Singer" (Warner)
The era of sound had been knocking at the doors of silent cinema for years, but synchronized sound remained a gimmick until Warner Bros. took the leap and collaborated with the Vitaphone company to turn the Broadway musical "The Jazz Singer" into a hybrid silent film with synchronized sound sequences of the musical performances.
Al Jolson replaced stage star George Jessel and performed some of his best known hits live on film, but his impromptu dialogue in two scenes was as thrilling to the audience as the music: "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!" And they hadn't. It was 1927 and it was a sensation, the first step in what became the rush to sound and the beginning of the end for the silents.
As a film, "The Jazz Singer" is absurdly maudlin, a creaky story of a modern American son (Jolson) with "jazz music" in his soul banished from home by his old-world Cantor father (Warner Oland). And Jolson performs in blackface, a minstrel show style that was inappropriate then (despite its popularity through the early 20th century) and hard to overlook now. But Jolson is an entertainer first and foremost, a larger-than-life personality who seems to take the audience into his confidence as he mugs and shimmies his way through songs like "Toot-Toot-Tootsie Goodbye" and "Blue Skies" on his way up the show-biz ladder. And he is at heart, after all, just a nice American kid living the American dream, but never turning his back on his dear old mother, despite what his papa decrees.
This restoration is remastered from earliest surviving nitrate film elements and original Vitaphone sound-on-disc recordings, and the Blu-ray features commentary by film historian Ron Hutchinson and bandleader Vince Giordano, plus vintage shorts, an 1947 radio adaptation with Jolson (audio only), and other supplements. The entire three-disc set is a lavish tribute to the birth of sound and the early Vitaphone shorts, but while "The Jazz Singer" is full 1080p HD, the two accompanying supplementary discs are the same (very good) DVDs right out of the 2007 set.
The feature-length documentary "The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk" traces the development of the technology from the experiments and early shorts up through industry's complete transition to sound, and the third disc features 24 rare Vitaphone comedy and musical sound shorts, mostly vaudeville acts (including Baby Rose Marie and Burns & Allen), many of them the kinds of acts that killed vaudeville. The set also include, vintage Jolson shorts, bonus archival featurettes, and postcard-sized reproductions of stills, programs, and other archival goodies.