Movie Reviews

DVD Review: “The Jazz Singer (3-Disc Deluxe Edition)”

(Warner Bros. 1927/2007. B&W. Not Rated. 93 minutes. 3 Discs. Full screen. Directed by Alan Crosland.) Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland, William Demarest, Eugenie Besserer, Otto Lederer, Bobby Gordon, Richard Tucker, Myrna Loy.

Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet! Outstanding box set commemorating the film’s 80th anniversary. I had never seen any version (there are two remakes, with Danny Thomas in the 50s and Neil Diamond in the 80s). The story’s the same: a young man goes into show business instead of following his father into a religious life as a cantor. Few people are around today who remember the impact of the 1927 Jazz Singer as the first widely-available film to incorporate synchronized sound (it’s actually part-silent, part-sound), but its success shook up Hollywood. Few also remember Jolson’s stature as one of the top entertainers (some say the entertainer) of the 1910s and 20s. He does fine here in what’s admittedly a very sentimental story; it’s fun to see familiar faces in small parts (Myrna Loy, Roscoe Karns) and Oland (later to be the most famous of Charlie Chans). The movie benefits greatly from a digital transfer, restored picture elements, and refurbished soundtrack. Fantastic extras include behind-the-scenes photo cards, reproduction souvenir programs, telegrams, screenplay excerpts, and other documents; the best is a new feature-length documentary, The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk. Also fun is 3 1/2 hours worth of rare comedy and music shorts spotlighting vaudeville stars – only a few of whom you’re heard, like Burns and Allen, or Baby Rose Marie (from The Dick Van Dyke Show). One caveat: part of Jolson’s claim to fame were the numbers he would perform in blackface, a common practice for white entertainers as late as the 1950s; there are two blackface numbers at the end of The Jazz Singer. Warner hedged its bets by putting Jolson’s famous kneeling Mammy stance in silhouette on the set’s outside cover. (Seems a bit of a cheat – and I’m speaking as an African-American; I’m not saying I enjoy watching such performances, but I understand their historical context.) Nonetheless, an excellent set.