Arts & Events

Moving Pictures: The Movie Heard ‘Round the World

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday November 30, 2007

The great thing about DVD is that it has given the major studios the opportunity to finally do right by the classics in their archives. For the first six or seven years of the format’s existence, the studios were, for the most part, content to simply reissue their back catalogues in cheap editions, often without any attempt to remaster the image.  

But over the past few years, as box-office receipts have declined, studio bosses finally seem to be coming around to the reality that if these films are going to survive and be seen, they will be seen in the home, and thus it pays to provide definitive editions that will endure. 

Thus Warner Bros. has just released a lavish boxed-set edition of the film that put the studio on the map back in 1927. The Jazz Singer almost single-handedly ended the silent era and launched Hollywood on whole new trajectory. 

D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation ushered the art form into its maturity in 1915, kicking off the first great era of motion picture innovation and achievement; The Jazz Singer brought the great cinematic decade of the 1920s to a close, halting the entire medium in its tracks for a couple of years as filmmakers struggled to harness and master the new sound technology.  

One of the unfortunate aspects of these two cinematic milestones is that they are both marred by racism, a fact that greatly obscures their legacies. In 1999 the Directors Guild of America changed the name of its highest award, which since 1953 had been named for Griffith, in light of the stereotypes perpetuated in his most famous film. And The Jazz Singer, though widely known by name, is rarely seen today. 

The fact is, The Jazz Singer isn’t that good a film anyway. Important, yes, and largely misunderstood, but not good. It’s really a silent film, with just a handful of sound sequences, most consisting of the ever-energetic Al Jolson singing and sweating and dancing, often in blackface. The combination of silence and sound proves an awkward hybrid at best. 

The legend says that it was Jolson’s singing that drove a stake into the heart of silent film, but the truth is both more subtle and more interesting. Audiences had experienced sound pictures before, usually in the form of musical interludes, but these were of such crude quality that the innovation didn’t stick; the clumsiness of the available technologies only intruded on the dream-like quality of silent film. What startled audiences of The Jazz Singer and got them hooked on sound was a few improvised minutes of dialogue. Jolson, seated at the piano, finishes a song, turns to his mother and engages in some insignificant patter. The off-hand nature of the exchange gave the illusion that the audience was eavesdropping on a real-life moment, and it was that sense of intimacy and verisimilitude that truly launched the sound era.  

Sound had been a huge gamble for Warner Bros. At the time, the studio was at the bottom of the heap and desperate to climb to the top. So they took a chance on sound and came up with the hit they so desperately needed. Their success sent them to the forefront of the industry, with all the other studios playing catch-up. The new medium brought with it a host of technical problems—satirized with great accuracy in Singin’ in the Rain (1950)—leading to a period of static, stage-bound films with little artistic merit. As stated in The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk, an excellent documentary included in the set, it seemed that audiences preferred mediocre sound films to great silent films. 

The new three-disc set includes a wealth of material placing the film in its proper historical context, including commentary by film historians Ron Hutchinson and Vince Giordano; short films of Jolson from the era; The Dawn of Sound, which provides a great overview of the advent of synchronized sound, the impact of The Jazz Singer, and the demise of the silent film; and a full disc of Vitaphone sound shorts, films of Vaudeville acts of the 1920s. These films may be quaint, static and strange by modern standards, but they provide a valuable and rare historical record of the sort of entertainment that movies replaced, and to which The Jazz Singer pays tribute. 




Three-disc set featuring commentary, documentary and Vitaphone sound films of Vaudeville acts. $39.95.