It is almost unfathomable to imagine being an audience member for The Jazz Singer back in 1927. While the film plays to its audience as a traditional silent in the beginning with one exception, Jolson breaks the mold with his “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face.” He turns around to a band member and exclaims, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothing yet.” The line is almost prophetic toward Hollywood as a whole.
We have come to the point today where we deal not just with sound, but atmosphere. Jazz Singer’s limited 15-minutes of synchronized dialogue, music, and sound effects were a revolution even without the robust technology. Warner’s soon-to-die Vitaphone process was ancient, creating the need for new technology while casting out the industry’s ways of old (along with those who refused to change).
Historically, it has happened many times, sort of as a way to “save” films. Color battled radio. Cinemascope battled against the television. Home video went toe-to-toe with cable. Now, 3D and digital are embroiled against a home experience few could have imagined.
Taken without historical context, Jazz Singer is a leftover story, plucked from any number of fictional success stories. Jolson’s Jack Rabinowitz becomes an outcast due to his refusal to conform to his religious beliefs. Every generation has rebellious teens, and in terms of the silver screen, Rabinowitz might be source of them all.
Jack changes his last name to Robin, lighting up the stage as his career takes off. In a way, the modern comparison of Jolson’s powerful musical numbers is 3D. While technicians now will find an excuse to lob things at an audience, the scripting here does little between truncated narrative segments. The camera sits on a cheering crowd as they applaud, the sound enough of a draw to warrant the dry screen time.
Jolson, like the character he plays, was a natural entertainer. After his, “Wait a minute,” line, he dances, sings, and bellows with the best of them. This is a man meant to appeal to a wide audience; he was born for it. Jazz Singer slowly winds down into a jarring blackface minstrel show – a Jolson hallmark before his civil rights activism on Broadway – Jack torn between his success on stage and sickly father. The film never draws much in the way of tension, and the stage-driven theatrics are too much for the film to find its emotional heart.
Somehow, Jazz Singer recovers through technology, it’s own conceptual methods essential to any measure of success. You could ding the film for being remembered historically more than for its content, and you would not be wrong. Hardly anyone remembers Lights of New York for being the first film with completely synched dialogue, so being first in the case of Jazz Singer matters. We always remember the trendsetters though, and once in a while, they stay relevant, even with 85 years of advances.
Warner’s Blu-ray release for this 1927 icon is clearly being pulled from multiple sources. The best material is in immaculate condition, and any questions as to the restoration quality can be solved by viewing the bonuses. There sit some aged clips pulled from a heavily damaged print (or the same one prior to the clean-up) riddled with scratches.
While the end result here will find itself stuck with a little judder and the occasional speck, most of the premium source print is immaculate. Gray scale is exceptional with superb black levels and only one moment of blown out whites, immediate as the live action begins past the overture. Chances are that shot of a market was simply overexposed. It wouldn’t make sense for anyone at Warner to manipulate it.
Materials turn rough though, not only shifting in tint but drastic quality. Grain is kept level with a clean compression job until multi-generational source material comes into play. A handful of spikes can degrade not only the general image but this encode too. Artifacts will sweep in and manhandle the image. Haze, by the vintage camerawork, will add a double image-like effect to some shots complicating matters on the digital side. Thankfully, those “worst case scenario” moments are few.
True to their form, Warner has done a meticulous job on something this aged; just piecing it together from missing elements is an impressive piece of work. At its peak (where it will sit for most of the running time), Jazz Singer is a joy to see. Textures and details are evident that would never be visible on a lower resolution source. May McAvoy’s outfit for the final show is draped in sequins, all of them visible, defined, and clear.
You won’t find a feature length film with sound design more primitive than this, and yet, Jazz Singer is sonically strong. Age has added the requisite hiss and a handful of pops to Jolson’s powerful voice, while the fidelity is there. No warping or straining comes through this DTS-HD mono affair, just the smoothness of his voice. Given the limited sound capabilities of 1927, this becomes a point where the cliche line, “It sounds better than it did back when it premiered,” is unequivocally true.
There is a ton of life to the important dialogue moments, actually a cut above the orchestrated silent material. While never beyond repair, horns will waver slightly at their peak. It is just enough to to signal this is remarkably close to 100 years old, and with modern tech, preservation has won the day.
Jazz Singer comes packaged in what is likely Warner’s thickest Digibook to date, with an 88-page book plopped in the middle for a not-so-easy read. You’re fighting with two disc holders, one for the Blu-ray, and the other for two DVDs of bonuses. On the Blu-ray itself, Ron Hutcherson and Vince Giordano deliver the commentary track. In the extras menu, they’re followed with a number of shorts including Plantation Act, Merry Melodies I Love to Sing, and a promotional piece for Warner’s Silver Jubilee dinner. A Day at Santa Anita and Hollywood Handicap come into play too. All of these, of course, feature Jolson. If you want more, a 1947 radio broadcast of the Jazz Singer (with Jolson) is included in full.
Disc two focuses on the advent of sound. Through documentaries and promo reels from the ’30s to the ’50s, Warner was clearly proud of their accomplishment. The best here is a 90-minute documentary The Dawn of Sound, that follows the introduction of audio through the years. Other bonuses include Finding His Voice, a very early cartoon with synched audio. When the Talkies Were Young spends 20-minutes on the films that ushered in the new Hollywood era. A number of shorts follow that cover the success of dialogue, effects, and music.
The third disc packs in an incredible, near four hours of Vitaphone shorts from ’26 to ’36. In total, there are 24 shorts that show the loss of the silent era and the gain of the talkies. As a document into the time period, these are fantastic to look back on.
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.