The Jazz Singer appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Given the age of the material, this was a nice presentation.
Sharpness mostly came across well. A few shots seemed somewhat ill-defined, and a gauzy look from the lighting made things a bit hazy. Nonetheless, the majority of the flick appeared acceptably distinctive and detailed. I noticed virtually no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, and edge enhancement was minimal.
Blacks looked tight and deep, and despite the occasionally overblown lighting, contrast seemed solid. Print flaws were quite minimal for a movie of this one’s vintage. The biggest distraction came from thin vertical lines, as those cropped up sporadically through the film. A few other specks, flickering and marks appeared, and some jumps occurred during a couple of scenes, but these weren’t much of an issue. Really, when I considered the flick’s age, it seemed remarkably well-preserved. I thought it deserved a “B+” for this surprisingly strong transfer.
In addition, The Jazz Singer presented a more-than-adequate monaural soundtrack. Nothing about the audio excelled, but it seemed solid for its age, especially given its historical importance. Speech and singing demonstrated pretty positive clarity. Of course, those elements tended to be shrill and trebly, but that was inevitable given the age of the recordings.
Effects were acceptably clean and accurate; they didn’t demonstrate much range, but they lacked much distortion and were fairly concise. Music seemed similarly restricted but sounded fine for its age. The score was reasonably full and replicated the source material acceptably. Light background noise cropped up during the movie. For an 80-year-old movie, this was a perfectly solid soundtrack. I went with a “B” because I felt there were too many issues to warrant a higher grade, but that doesn’t mean the audio seemed less than fine when viewed as part of its era.
Tons of extras come along with this three-disc edition of The Jazz Singer. On DVD One, we open with an audio commentary from Vitaphone Projects founder Ron Hutchinson and Nighthawks bandleader Vince Giordano. Both sit together for this running, screen-specific piece. The commentary looks at the original stage production and its adaptation for the movies, cast and crew, the Vitaphone process and the history of sound on film, sets and locations, music and songs, the flick’s non-politically correct material, the picture’s success and impact, and other subjects related to Hollywood of the era.
Expect lots from Hutchinson and only a little from Giordano. Not only does Giordano seem to have little to say, but also Hutchinson is such a chatterbox that he naturally dominates. And that’s fine with me since Hutchinson a) seems to know his stuff, and b) makes sure we get lots of good info. The track starts a little slowly, but it soon picks up steam as we learn about the film industry in the 1920s, the impact of sound, and specifics connected to Jazz. This becomes an informative and useful piece.
Plenty of shorts come along as well. These include Al Jolson in A Plantation Act (9:56), An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros.’ Silver Jubilee (11:13), I Love to Singa (8:12), Hollywood Handicap (10:17) and A Day at Santa Anita (17:59). 1926’s “Act” gives us blackfaced Jolson as he hangs out in a cotton field and croons. I wouldn’t call it entertaining, but it’s a good clip to have for its connection to Jazz.
1930’s “Dinner” proves more interesting. It’s a fanciful celebration and it become amusing in its oddness. As for “Singa”, the 1936 cartoon features an owl who just wants to croon some jazz despite his dad’s hatred of the genre. It’s a fun clip.
Directed by Buster Keaton, 1938’s “Handicap” appears here because Jolson has a small cameo. It’s not exactly PC, though at least it’s not as offensive as “Plantation” and it has some entertainment value. Finally, 1937’s “Anita” shows up for similar reasons, as Jolson shows up for another quick turn. It includes other legends like Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis. Those cameos make it watchable, but the main story of a young girl and her horse is pretty lame.
DVD One also includes a 6/2/1947 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast. This 58-minute and 15-second program stars Al Jolson as he reprises his movie role in an audio adaptation of The Jazz Singer. Usually these radio renditions of films abbreviate their inspirations, but Jazz goes in the opposite way, as it actually fleshes things out a little better. The story is still sentimental and schmaltzy, but this is a fun way to experience the tale.
Finally, DVD One presents an Al Jolson Trailer Gallery. In addition to the promo for The Jazz Singer, we find clips for The Singing Fool, Mammy, Wonder Bar, Go Into Your Dance and The Singing Kid. It’s a nice collection of trailers.
As we shift to DVD Two, the main attraction comes from The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk. This one-hour, 25-minute and 13-second documentary mixes archival elements with comments from Hutchinson, Giordano, The Speed of Sound author Scott Eyman, film historian/author Rudy Behlmer, Jack Stanley of the Thomas Edison Menlo Park Museum, the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Robert Gitt, Princeton University Professor of History Emily Thompson, UCLA film historian Jonathan Kuntz, Jack L. Warner’s son Jack Warner, Jr., Paramount Pictures producer AC Lyles, sound designer/director Ben Burtt, film critic/historian Leonard Maltin, Case Research Lab Museum director Eileen McHugh, movie sound designer Dane A. Davis, Vitaphone studio musician/composer Sanford Green, Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy author Mark A. Vieira, actor John Gilbert’s daughter Leatrice Fountain, actor Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd, and actors Thelma White, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Mickey Rooney, Anita Page and Rose Marie.
“Dawn” looks at the lives of the four Warner brothers and their development in the film industry. It also follows the development of sound films, the work of Warner in that field, and the use of the Vitaphone process. We see some early entries in that realm and also learn about competing sound film formats. From there we see the path to Jazz Singer, its impact, and further movement in the industry.
From start to finish, “Dawn” offers an excellent look at the development of sound films. It covers the origins of the field well and moves through all the changes to give us a full picture of the related issues. I definitely like that the show continues even after the release of Jazz Singer. It easily could have used its release as a climax and ended there, but instead it lets us see the specifics of how sound spread through Hollywood. Some of the stories from the actors who had to make the transition are particularly entertaining, and I love the use of Singin’ in the Rain to illustrate the problems. Add to that tons of excellent archival footage and this turns into a simply terrific documentary.
Next we get Gold Diggers of Broadway Excerpts. The 15-second and 43-second area offers two segments of this “lost” early talkie. We get “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Finale”. Or we’re suppsed to see those. If you activate “Tip Toe”, you’ll see “Finale”, and if you select “Finale”, you’ll find a ballet clip from The Rogue Song. Warner Bros. will correct this on future pressings and replace your copy if you get the wrong one.
Five more shorts fill out DVD Two. These include The Voice from the Screen (15:30), Finding His Voice (10:45), The Voice That Thrilled the World (18:04), Okay for Sound (19:46) and When the Talkies Were Young (20:22). “Screen” debuted on October 7, 1926 and acts as a demonstration of talking pictures. It tells us how they were made at that time. It’s not especially entertaining, but it’s interesting to see for its historical value.
“Finding” comes from 1929 and provides “an animated cartoon synchronized to voice and sound”. It’s not the first “talkie” cartoon – Mickey Mouse was speaking a year earlier – but it’s an entertaining look at early sound animation and it gives us another demonstration of the audio recording techniques of the day. “Thrilled” comes from 1943 and documents the evolution of recorded sound and movies. Due to a rather excitable tone, the short isn’t what I’d call a serious documentary. Nonetheless, it presents a nice overview of the way sound films went from theory to reality.
1946’s “Okay” visits the 20th anniversary of sound films and offers another retrospective on the topic. It’s similar to “Thrilled” and often more of an ad for Warner Bros. films than an actual documentary, but it’s still fun to see. Finally, 1955’s “Young” is really just a compilation of clips from early appearances by actors who became famous later. We see shots of James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson, Boris Karloff, Barbara Stanwyck, and Clark Gable. It creates a fun collection of clips.
If the 10 shorts on DVDs One and Two aren’t enough for you, head to DVD Three. There you’ll find another 37 shorts! If you think I’m going to list all 37… you’re right. Here’s what we find:
Elsie Janis In a Vaudeville Act: “Behind the Lines” - 7:26;
Berando De Pace: “The Wizard of the Mandolin” - 10:23;
Van and Schenck: “The Pennant Winning Battery of Songland” - 9:17;
Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields with the Music Boxes - 9:38;
Hazel Green and Company - 8:08;
The Night Court - 9:27;
The Police Quartette - 8:04;
Ray Mayer and Edith Evans in “When East Meets West” - 8:38;
Adele Rowland: “Stories in Song” - 9:39;
Stoll, Flynn and Company: The “Jazzmania Quintette” - 9:33;
The Ingenues: “The Band Beautiful” - 9:10;
The Foy Family in “Chips Off the Old Block” - 7:42;
Dick Rich and His Melodious Monarchs - 9:33;
Gus Arnheim and His Ambassadors - 9:39;
Shaw & Lee: “The Beau Brummels” - 8:38;
Roof Garden Revue Directed By Larry Ceballos - 9:31;
Trixie Friganza in “My Bag O’ Tricks” - 10:00;
Green’s Twentieth Century Faydetts - 7:08;
Sol Violinsky: “The Eccentric Entertainer” - 7:11;
Ethel Sinclair and Marge La Marr: “At the Seashore” - 8:17;
Paul Tremaine and His Aristocrats - 9:23;
Baby Rose Marie: “The Child Wonder” - 8:30;
Burns & Allen in “Lambchops” - 7:56;
Joe Frisco in “The Happy Hottentots” - 10:36.
Many of these simply show acts as they sing, dance and/or joke around for the camera. Those shorts don’t attempt stories or anything flashy; the participants just perform like they’re on stage. A few go for broader goals, though. Clips like “The Night Court” and “The Happy Hottentots” attempt comedy sketches along with their singing and dancing and come in particular circumstances, not just stage settings.
What fun do we get from these clips? Not much, at least not for me, to be honest. I just don’t take much enjoyment from the musical styles of this period, so the songs don’t entertain me,
A few glimmers of amusement do emerge, though. “Chips” has some surprisingly effective comedic bits, largely because it’s so darned odd. The violent telling of “Little Red Riding Hood” is worth the price of admission alone. In addition, some of the acts are so weird that they prove perversely entertaining. We get oddballs like Trixie Friganza and Sol Violinsky. They show little actual talent, but they’re strange enough to keep us interested.
Elsewhere, Baby Rose Marie proves that annoying and precocious kiddie performers have been around forever. (Rose Marie would develop into a fine comedic talent as an adult, though.) In terms of name value, Burns and Allen are easily the best-known participants here. That makes it fun to see them in their earlier days, though they’re nearly recognizable in their youth. In fact, I couldn’t recognize either by appearance, but their voices made sure I knew who they were. I liked their short more than almost all of the others, as it showed real wit and cleverness.
Most of the acts just seem dated and stale, however. I must admit I found it rough-going to plod through all these clips, but that doesn’t mean I’m not really happy they’re here. While the entertainment value of the shorts is extremely hit or miss, they’re all valuable to have for historical purposes. It’s great that this package collects so many of them – it’s a treasure trove for film buffs.
A few paper materials finish the set. We find a 20-page reproduction of the Jazz Singer souvenir program plus a 12-page Vitaphone program. We also locate a four-page theater herald for Jazz, a reproduction of a telegram from Al Jolson to Jack Warner, 10 behind-the-scenes photo cards, and a booklet. The last one shows some archival elements along with a guide to the DVD’s extras. All of these pieces help add even more value to this excellent set.
As a piece of movie history, The Jazz Singer falls into “must see” territory. As a piece of entertainment, it’s a dud – at least by modern standards. I think the film relies on its gimmick too much and fails to develop into a flick with enough substance to succeed. The DVD presents picture and audio that seem very good given the movie’s age and origins, while the extras flesh out the package to a terrific degree. They provide a ton of vintage shorts along with plenty of information about the film and its era. It may have taken a long time for Jazz Singer to hit DVD, but this set was worth the wait. Although the main movie itself isn’t very good, the package offers so much great material that it’s a must have for film buffs.