The Jazz Singer - the movie that changed cinematic history!

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TheJazzSinger_1927-wikipedia.pngThis year Warner Brothers celebrates 90 years of quality entertainment, and as part of that celebration they recently released The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, on BluRay in a really cool 3-disc booklet complete with pictures and all kinds of historical information about the movie.

The original release of The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, was a big thing as it promised to take the film industry to a whole new level with the synchronization of music, talking, and background sounds into the production . However, its production history is every bit as momentous as it's famous debut at the Warner Theater on October 6, 1927.

For years, Thomas Edison, inventor of the gramophone, had been trying to figure out a successful way to add sound to movies, and it just wasn't happening. Various studios had tinkered with the idea but nothing would come out right, as it was difficult to synchronize the sound with the script or to even get the sound right in the first place.

It is said that the first sounds recorded and synchronized to movies were in various shorts, and included aesthetic sounds - wheels turning, dishes clattering, that sort of thing. Apparently viewers weren't too impressed with this, so generating further public interested in movies with sound was seen as more of a challenge than production companies were willing to work with, so the idea was shelved by most.

VitaphoneDisc.pngSam Warner, though, of Warner Brothers, had hooked up with Western Electric to work with Vitaphone, a disc player that was synchronized with film. It played a 16-inch disc at a speed of 33 1/3 RPM while the film was projected onto the screen, and both the film and the disc were cued so that the equipment operator would know where to start each, and they would run simultaneously. Each reel would have an accompanying disc, both lasting approximately 10 minutes or so apiece.

The birth of the talkies, of course, changed cinematic history forever. To even show the film, movie houses had to invest in new equipment, such as the Vitaphone in order to be equipped to show the movie in the first place. This turned out to be a worth while investment, though, as we can see an overall picture of a thriving film industry today.

Excitement for a feature length movie with sound grew, but it was difficult to find a star, because the popular performers at the time were afraid of killing off their careers if they participated. This gives us a wee bit of insight into the controversy of the production itself - back in those days, as today, one's career in the industry was largely set by their reputation and work.

High end performers aren't cast into low quality roles - nor should they allow themselves to be. Perhaps, then, in those days, there was concern for the quality of the production. There is no doubt whatsoever that this idea was a bit of a gamble, and many weren't willing to take the risk.

mammy.pngBut Al Jolson was, and it worked for him and Warner Brothers both, as it was hailed by the press as "remarkable", "perfect", and "revolutionizing", with Jolson being labeled as as the "greatest box office attraction".

It wasn't just the cinema houses that saw change, either. It was also acting itself that had to undergo changes. No longer did actors "need" to portray their characters with such strong exaggeration and facial expression. Now they needed to adjust to using sound, and not all of the actors had the "voice" for sound quality motion pictures.

This was a time when voice coaching became a Hollywood staple. Actors now needed to learn to adequately project their voices while enunciating clearly. To be able to do that and sound natural on film was a learning curve for most.

Additionally, musicals were a trendy issue of the early talkies, so not only were the players learning how to talk, they were also learning how to sing. I suppose it may be a matter of one's personal tastes as to whether some Hollywood actors should have been given singing parts, but it was all part of the transition into the era of the talkies.

Some actors were unable to make the transition, while others - like Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Bob Hope, and Abbott and Costello were able to embrace the transition well despite any hesitations any of them may have had at first, and those who transitioned well found that their careers managed to not only survive the transition, but to grow right along with it. It is unfortunate, though, that so many others did not transition well and their careers were ended as a result.

Not every actor, director, or producer chose to attempt to transition into sound - at least at first. Charlie Chaplin simply ignored it - until his famous 1940 production, "The Great Dictator". Apparently that along with his political ideology landed him in a bit of hot water, as his US Visa was not extended and he was refused further entry into the US. Had his politics not been an issue, one wonders whether he would have eventually successfully transitioned. We see that he made at least one attempt, anyway.

Sound vs. Silent: Controversies extended?

hand-whistles.pngThere is no industry without its fair share of controversy, and the entertainment industry is certainly no exception. There was already competition between stage and film actors who would argue about who was "really" acting. "Real" acting was on a stage, where you had to remember your lines and enunciate and perform - you couldn't stop for a take and fix a scene - you had to be perfect before a live audience. Some stage actors would argue that film acting didn't require so much skill, because if they erred during a scene, they could do a retake. Stage acting, however, required the skill of getting it right the first time, or being able to flawlessly ad lib around a mistake.

So enter the talkies for more fun - the rift between whether using voice and not was similar to that between the stage and screen actors. Being able to talk in a production was viewed by some as "cheating" and "lazy acting" in the industry because you didn't have to project with your whole body to the point where you were exaggerating your movements so highly.

By the way, we see some very good examples exaggerated gestures and expressions in The Jazz Singer, especially during Jolson's performance of Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Goodbye as you'll see in the video below. His performance looks out of place and even clownish by today's standards, but they fit in quite well with the times, which is part of what makes this film such an important and priceless piece of cinematic history. Today we are honored to be able to see it on DVD and BluRay.

" ain't seen nothin' yet!"

Before The Jazz Singer was produced, there were some shorts with sound that were produced, one of those was a roughly 9 minute and 23 second sound production called A Plantation Act in which Jolson performs a variety of songs in blackface, dressed as a slave. His performance wasn't nearly as comical as Toot-Toot-Tootsie..., but he was cute. He also spoke the same famous historical line in this short that he did in The Jazz Singer: "… you ain't heard nothin' yet…". That was the phrase that changed the course of the film industry forever, delighting millions all across the nation, who would remember and quote it for years to come.

Jolson in Blackface

TheJazzSinger_1927_moviepostershop.pngI can't answer the question as to why they needed a blackface routine in this movie, but I can speculate that the reason could have had something to do with Jolson being a well known vaudevillian who was popular for his blackface routines, which - in those days - was considered a perfectly acceptable form of entertainment. Today, however, blackface is seen as an insult to the black community and is no longer performed. In fact, many productions that have blackface in them are either banned or voluntarily withdrawn so as to not offend the black community.

The history of blackface itself is rooted in stage performances during times when blacks and whites were not allowed, by law, to share the same stage at the same time. In some areas, blacks were banned from performing altogether, which is sad. Since many of the routines that were performed were traditional negro ballads and spirituals, in keeping with their spirit, white performers took to wearing dark makeup both to keep the performances of those songs with the spirit intended and as a protest against laws that didn't permit blacks on the same stage as whites. Because the white performers weren't black - it was only makeup - there was nothing authorities could do about the performances, and audiences loved them - so the show went on.

Eventually, however, there were some racist opportunists who used blackface for less than honorable reasons, which pretty much spoiled its use, turning it into a negative thing with racial overtones, and this is the reason why it became an offense to the black community. I need not delve into US History any further at this point - it was a very difficult and trying time for all, and we should be thankful that those days are over.

It is important, though, that I bring this up because of Jolson's appearance in blackface in The Jazz Singer and I want people to understand that while it may appear needless by today's standards, this is the history behind that, and I don't think it was meant to be derogatory to the black community, by any means. If anything, I see it as a tribute to the talent of the black community and the beauty of black entertainment. Entertainment in those days was much different than today's entertainment, and what is considered racist today wasn't back then, although it did exist in those days and was just as wrong then as it is today.

That having been said, we can not erase the past, or undo it, yet banning or destroying these works would be a disservice to the public, because they are a part of film history and American history depicting different times, and the public deserves the ability to see what our past was made of in order to continue to create and appreciate a better future.

All things considered, Jolson's performance is fabulous! His presentation was energetic and we can see that he embraced this new challenge and made it work.

An endearing tale

dancing.pngThe Jazz Singer is about a young jewish boy, Jakie Rabinowitz, whose father is a 5th generation cantor, and wants him to be the next generation cantor in the synagogue. But the young boy has other aspirations - he has a natural love for jazz music, so off he goes, doing his own thing while his father thinks he's being rebellious. When his father discovers him singing in a saloon, they have a falling out and the young boy runs away from home while the father reacts to this by disowning him.

cantor.pngAs years go by, the young boy becomes a man who now calls himself Jack Robin, and after years of trying, finally gets his big break. But something draws him back home to visit his mother and father, which turns out to be an unpleasant excursion. Torn between opening night of his big break and "doing the right thing", he has a very difficult decision to make. What is the right thing? Does he honor his parents or his destiny? If he honors his parents, there goes his once in a lifetime break. If he honors his destiny, he breaks his parents hearts - again.

One can easily find themselves on the edge of their seat watching this and thinking to themselves, "Why should this be a struggle?" only to realize that we face similar struggles in our own lives in this day and age all the time, so this is a very gripping story.

I won't spoil the end - but I will say that Jolson's performances are spectacular and I think you'll enjoy this movie if you've never seen it before.

parents.pngThere are some wonderful performances in this movie - Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer deliver a riveting performances as Jakie's parents, and you'll hear the lovely voice of Cantor Joseff Rosenblatt singing in a recital of sacred songs. What a lovely tenor voice to rival the voices of other famous classical tenors of his time! Absolutely beautiful!

Mary.pngAnd May McAvoy gives a very sincere performance as Mary Dale - Jakie's apparent crush who really pushes him at one point when he is faced with the decision of a lifetime. Her performance was so strong at one point that I began to get emotional. I didn't know whether to be angry or happy at how pushy Mary was at one point - and I'm still undecided as to whether she's a villain or a heroine. I guess it all depends on the perspective one sees the storyline with. What a terrific actress!

If there is anything that I recommend for your classic movies collection, this is definitely it - because of it's entertainment and historical value both.

Where to buy:

The Jazz Singer was released January 8, 2013 on BluRay, and can be purchased at the Warner Brother's Shop on line.

If you prefer, you can also purchase it on DVD in a 3-disc collector's edition.

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From Warner Brothers

boxart.pngThe Jazz Singer, the first feature-length film with completely synchronized dialogue and musical sequences, will mark another milestone January 8 when Warner Home Video releases the Blu-ray™ commencing the 2013 year-long 90thAnniversary of Warner Bros. Studios.

About The Release:

The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length film with completely synchronized dialogue and musical sequences, will mark another milestone January 8 when Warner Home Video (WHV) releases the Blu-ray™ commencing the 2013 year-long 90thAnniversary of Warner Bros. Studios. The landmark film, which brought Broadway superstar Al Jolson “alive” and seemingly singing from the screen, was an immediate sensation when it opened in 1927 and created a revolution in the history of the motion picture industry. It earned Alfred Cohn an Academy Award®* (1927/28) nomination for Best Writing (Adaptation) and Warner Bros. received an Oscar® as a Special Award -- for producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which revolutionized the industry. In 1996 the film was selected for preservation in the U.S. Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for its cultural and historical significance.

Special features include the full-length documentary feature, The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk. The 93-minute film covers the 30+ year struggle to successfully unite sound and image on motion picture screens. The fascinating narrative of failures and triumphs is propelled by insights from notable film historians as well as interviews from many talents who reveal their personal experiences of this tumultuous period in film history.

A separate disc includes more than four hours of extraordinary Vitaphone shorts (see more detail below), unique and historic rarities that capture performances from the era’s great entertainment legends: Burns & Allen, Baby Rose Marie, Weber & Fields, Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields and many others. 

The Jazz Singer will now be offered in an extra premium 3-Disc Blu-ray book format showcasing the feature on Blu-ray for the very first time. The book also includes 90 pages of all of the reproductions, photos and content only previously available in the original 3-Disc DVD Deluxe Edition such as behind-the-scenes collector’s cards, lobby cards, souvenir program, a booklet with reproductions of vintage documents and post premiere telegram from Al Jolson.

Special features include a commentary from film historians Ron Hutchinson (founder of The Vitaphone Project) and Vince Giordano, a selection of vintage shorts and cartoons, a 1947 radio show adaptation featuring Jolson, and more. The Jazz Singer Blu-ray Book will be available for $35.99 SRP.

The Film

The Jazz Singer stars entertainment legend Al Jolson in a story that bore a few similarities to his own life story. Jolson portrays a would-be entertainer whose show business aspirations conflict with the values of his cantor father (Warner Oland). The Jazz Singer began life as a 1925 Broadway play, and was revived early in 1927, starring George Jessel. The part was offered to Jolson, who was then at the height of his popularity.

Jolson had broken new ground on the stage and sold millions of phonograph records. Just his name on the marquee of a Broadway theater, or on a piece of sheet music, almost always guaranteed success. He found the challenge of conquering the screen via the new Vitaphone technology irresistible.

The movie premiered at the Warner Theater in New York City on October 6, 1927 and soon became a national phenomenon, limited only by the relatively small amount of theaters (200) which were already equipped with Vitaphone’s sound-on-disc technology (a process developed by Western Electric and Warner Bros. wherein a 16” disc was synchronized with standard 35mm projection equipment). The film was a smash everywhere it played, and led to the installation of sound equipment all over the nation. Less than 2 years later, nearly 8000 theaters were wired for sound. Fueled by Jolson’s charisma and Vitaphone, The Jazz Singer created the momentum for “talking pictures” that couldn’t be stopped. Silent films would soon become virtually extinct.

Directed by Alan Crosland, the film co-stars Warner Oland, May McAvoy, and Eugenie Besserer. Among the hit songs featured in the film are Jolson’s trademarks, “Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Goodbye,” “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face,” “My Mammy,” and a then-new song composed by Irving Berlin …“Blue Skies.”

Special Features:

  • Commentary by film historians Ron Hutchinson (founder of The Vitaphone Project) and Vince Giordano
  • Collection of vintage cartoons and shorts:
    • “Al Jolson in ‘A Plantation Act’“ - 1926 Vitaphone short
    • An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros. Silver Jubilee – 1930 short
    • I Love to Singa - Classic 1936 WB parody cartoon directed by Tex Avery
    • Hollywood Handicap – Classic 1938 M-G-M short with Al Jolson appearance
    • A Day at Santa Anita - Classic Technicolor WB 1939 short with Al Jolson & Ruby Keeler cameo appearance
  • 1947 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast starring Al Jolson (audio only)
  • Theatrical Trailer

The Early Sound Era

  • Feature-length historical documentary The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk
  • Two rarely-seen Technicolor excerpts from Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929 WB film, most of which is considered lost)
  • Studio shorts celebrating the early sound era:
    • Finding His Voice (1929 Western Electric animated promotional short, produced by Max Fleischer)
    • The Voice That Thrilled The World - Warner Bros. short about sound
    • Okay for Sound 1946 WB short celebrating the 20th anniversary of Vitaphone
    • When Talkies Were Young 1955 WB short looking back at the early talkies
    • The Voice from the Screen -- 1926 WB ‘demonstration’ film explores the Vitaphone technology, and looks at the making of a Vitaphone short.

Vitaphone Shorts
In the 1920’s Warner Bros. began producing a series of short films which utilized the Vitaphone process. These films ran the gamut from musical theater legends and vaudeville acts, to dramatic vignettes and classical music performances from the most prestigious artists of the era.

Most of these were shorts considered lost for decades, until a consortium of archivists and historians joined forces with a goal to restore these magnificent time capsules of entertainment history. Up until now, contemporary audiences have only been able to see these shorts via rare retrospective showings in a few large cities, or through the limited release of a restored handful of the earliest subjects, which were part of a 1996 laserdisc set.

  • Over 3 1/2 hours worth of rare, historic Vitaphone comedy and music shorts
    • Elsie Janis in a Vaudeville Act: “Behind the Lines”
    • Bernado Depace: “Wizard of the Mandolin”
    • Van and Schneck: “The Pennant Winning Battery of Songland”
    • Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields
    • Hazel Green and Company
    • The Night Court
    • The Police Quartette
    • Ray Mayer & Edith Evans: “When East Meets West”
    • Adele Rowland: “Stories in Song”
    • Stoll, Flynn and Company: “The Jazzmania Quintet”
    • The Ingenues in “The Band Beautiful”
    • The Foy Family in “Chips off the Old Block”
    • Dick Rich and His Melodious Monarchs
    • Gus Arnheim and His Ambassadors
    • Shaw and Lee: “The Beau Brummels”
    • Larry Ceballos’ Roof Garden Revue
    • Trixie Friganza in “My Bag O’ Tricks”
    • Green’s Twentieth Century Faydetts
    • Sol Violinsky: “The Eccentric Entertainer”
    • Ethel Sinclair and Marge La Marr in “At the Seashore”
    • Paul Tremaine and His Aristocrats
    • Baby Rose Marie: “The Child Wonder”
    • Burns & Allen in “Lambchops “
    • Joe Frisco in “The Happy Hottentots”

Where to buy:

The Jazz Singer was released January 8, 2013 on BluRay, and can be purchased at the Warner Brother's Shop on line.

If you prefer, you can also purchase it on DVD in a 3-disc collector's edition.

NOTE: Classic Cinema Online wishes to thank Warner Brothers for the use of the images.