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Category:    Home > Reviews > Musical > Drama > Religion > Show Business > The Jazz Singer – The 80th Anniversary Edition (1927/Three-Disc Deluxe Edition DVD Set)

The Jazz Singer – The 80th Anniversary Edition (1927/Three-Disc Deluxe Edition DVD Set)


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: A-     Film: B



After D. W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation established blackface and racism as acceptable visual vocabulary in American Cinema for more decades than it should have, Alan Crosland’s 1927 The Jazz Singer (permanently establishing sound in film) and 1939’s Gone With The Wind (establishing color and epic lengths for sound films) made for a trilogy of institutionalized racism in Classical Hollywood that only began disappearing in the 1960s.  While Birth is racist pro-Klu Klux Klan propaganda that got lucky and Wind has transformed into many other things, Jazz Singer more or less disappeared altogether.  Part of this was because of the blackface, the other because the film was simply not being preserved.  Now, for its 80th Anniversary, Warner Bros. (owning the film again after loosing it for over forty of those years to a TV catalog deal) is issuing the sound classic in a lavish 3 DVD set.


The big question is, outside of the blackface issue and obvious technical breakthrough with sound, is the film any good?  Does it hold up?  Does it have any additional value?  Surprisingly, the answer is yes.  It is a Backstage Musical, one of the first of its kind, is surprisingly (and refreshingly) forward about Judaism in its storyline and “blacking up” notwithstanding, AL Jolson is amazing in the film as actor and singer.


Funny enough, the film is not a total “talkie” with many scenes still silent and using only title cards, but this knowingly only builds up suspense for the sound moments.  The story of a son who wants to do Jazz and new music, rejected by his strict cantor father, running away to success, only to want to come home again is a melodramatic classic.  Fortunately, the film knows how to build on this, even if some of the ways are obvious or problematic.


The moments of privileged Jewish religious ceremony is practically documentary and even hauntingly beautiful, adding to the idea of home, warmth and closure that Jack Robin (Jolson) has to leave behind with his real name, Jakie Rabinowitz.  As Robin, he becomes huge commercial and critical success, but his relationship with his family needs resolved and the falling out was with his month, not father.  He wants closure with both.


In between, we get all-time American Music classics like Toot Toot Toosie (Goodbye) and Blue Skies, the kind of songs that helped Warner compete with MGM and the other majors as a serious force in the Hollywood Musical, made the Warner Music empire possible, added to the genius of their animated shorts and are among the greatest achievements in music ever, then comes the convincing performances of the cast.  As a huge Charlie Chan fan, the performance of Warner Oland as his father is stunning and a testament to just what an amazing actor Oland was.

But then there is that blackface moment, as bad as it is, note its placement in the film.


Singing the infamous My Mammy number, it is at a theater in public.  He is in blackface of course, but something else is going on instead of a sick racist joke (which it cannot get away from being, no matter who you revise or cut it), but it is also Jakie hiding behind the false face so he is speaking directly to his pain and his mother (spoiler!!!) he finally reunites with.  Though digitally removing the blackface would not work as Jolson has stereotypical body language to go with the face, a misguided revision attempt would be to imply identification with the most oppressed social group in the country as if his pain of losing his mother was the deepest possible.


In a more important way connected to today’s music, white artists who think they are black (you don’t need to do blackface in Hip Hop if you are white to feign blackness, but note Eminem is smart enough to omit the N-word as this film doesioHi) are essentially doing the same thing to gain what we now know as “street cred” to attempting current R&B forms (sadly and problematically skipping the classic and classy period of the 1950s to the Disco Era) which in sampling are denatured (and postmodern to boot) are really not much different.  The existence 80 years later of Vitaphone descendent vinyl and the turntable specifically in DJing and Hip Hop is one of the greatest ironies of all.


This is why, even if offensive blackface cannot be (and should not be) removed from the work, a film this key is just too important to forget and even its flaws challenge us to think, to wonder, study and understand how it was such a huge success beyond a few trite, short answers.  With so many films that could be Musicals, have blackface, have Jolson, have a great cast, have a studio back it up and have the timing to hit as well, why did this Jazz Singer work?  Because it still did so much so well at the time that it was years ahead of all other product at the time, like the first Star Wars was for visual effects, fantasy and comedy/action before George Lucas kept updating it, sometimes for the worst.


That is why all films should be preserved as they first were as much as they can be, so we know the history and the truth.  That is what Warner gives us in this 3-DVD 80th Anniversary Edition.  It is more than enough that everyone who loves film should experience the whole set.  You may just surprise yourself.




The 1.33 X 1 black and white image has been restored very well thanks in part to the early preservation efforts of Ted Turner, resulting in a print with decent detail, good Video Black, accurate gray scale and cleanness that shows the work paid off.  The Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono sounds good, coming form a new master off of the original Vitaphone acetate disc, which offered better fidelity than any optical mono and shows how good the format was (the forerunner of still-prized vinyl records) though the early discs were only good for 20 plays before the old discs would be shot.  I just wish this was 2.0 Mono.


Extras are very extensive and amount to an amazing archive of both the history of this film and the rise of sound filmmaking.  The two folders come with the foldout DigiPak in the slide box.  One contains ten black and white still cards with captions on the back and booklet with a reproduction of part of the Brass Tacks publication from 1927 celebrating the film and listing of the contents on the three DVDs.  The second offers reproductions of a Western Union telegram from Jolson to Jack Warner, coming to announcement page, Vitaphone pressbook introducing the format and a 4-color Jazz Singer magazine.  DVD 1 adds a must-hear feature length audio commentary by Ron Hutchinson (founder of a restoration arrangement dubbed The Vitaphone project) and Nighthawks Bandleader Vince Giordano, Lux Radio Theater  version of the film, six trailers for Jolson films including this one and four shorts with Jolson including the infamous “A Plantation Act” where he performs the classics When The Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along, April Showers & Rock-A-Bye-Baby “with a Dixie melody” plus “Mammy” laced in as introduction and the refrain and “Owl Jolson” in the great animated 1936 Warner Bros./Merrie Melodies/Technicolor classic I Love To Singa.


DVD 2 has the amazing The Dawn Of Sound: How The Movies Learned To Talk documentary that is a must-see, surviving sound excerpts from Gold Diggers Of Broadway and five related shorts including full length versions of those sampled in the documentary like the hilarious animated Finding His Voice (1929 at 10:45) where a silent piece of film asks a sound one how he got his voice!  Animation fans will love it.  DVD 3 has 24 Vitaphone shorts that are the results and fruits of the Vitaphone Project, including one with an 8-year-old Rose Marie, best know for her work on The Dick Van Dyke Show decades later.


Needless to say, this set is very archival and very collectible indeed.  It also shows why, despite the racism of blackface, the film was not just a one-trick pony with a blackface act, but a giant step forward for mass communication despite that blemish on its legacy.  Even if Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang have kept the greatest songs here alive long past their debut here, here is where they started and if you can handle the history, you can see why The Jazz Singer became a classic and a hit.


Remade a few times, you can read more about the 1980 remake on DVD at this link:





-   Nicholas Sheffo


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