Immersed in Blu-ray: The Jazz Singer

With the Academy Awards right around the corner, it’s a great time to revisit the landmark Warner Bros. “talkie,”  The Jazz Singer (Warner Home Video), currently available on Blu-ray in a lavish three-disc set that also includes vintage shorts on two DVDs, the informative doc, The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk, and expert commentary from  Ron Hutchinson (co-founder of the Vitaphone Project) and Vince Giordano (Nighthawks orchestra leader);  sound designers Ben Burtt and Dane A. Davis; historians Leonard Maltin, Rudy Behlmer, and Scott Eyman; and restorer Robert Gitt.

Al Jolson was the first musical superstar of the 20th century and this biopic (based on the play by Samson Raphaelson, the great Ernst Lubitsch collaborator) loosely traces his life story from dissatisfied cantor’s son in the Jewish ghetto to jazz sensation in vaudeville. It was the perfect combination of immigrant and entertainment success stories. Even today, his talent and charisma are powerful and Sinatra, Elvis and every other singer is indebted to Jolson. His iconic performance of “My Mammy” (in blackface, which took its inspiration from coal miners) with his legendary patter was a cinematic revelation along with the other performances. It was like being there in concert with him. Indeed, Warner Bros. found the right project with which to introduce Western Electric’s game-changing Vitaphone recording system.

The digital restoration by Warner Bros. MPI is brilliant: Hal Mohr’s cinematography looks luminous and the DTS-HD MA 1.0 sound makes great use of the Vitaphone soundtrack.

But, as Jolson used to say, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” There’s also a treasure trove of shorts:

  • Vintage Shorts Featuring Al Jolson
    • A Plantation Act (480i; 1.33.1; 9:59): In this 1926 short, Jolson gives a straightforward musical performance of several songs, in blackface amidst a plantation settting. It was the success of this short that persuaded Warner Bros. to proceed with The Jazz Singer.
    • Hollywood Handicap (480i; 1.33:1; 10:19): Jolson makes only a cameo in this 1938 short set at the Santa Anita racetrack. The main story concerns a horse called Susy Q, which is owned by the stable hands, who also happen to be musicians.
    • A Day at Santa Anita (480i; 1.33:01; 18:03): Another racing short in which Jolson makes a brief appearance (but this time with lines), this 1937 production has the distinction of being “photographed in Technicolor”. The story is about a perky girl named Peaches and her horse called Wonderboy.
    • Surviving Sound Excerpts from 1929′s Gold Diggers of Broadway (15:45): As explained in intertitles, Gold Diggers of Broadway is one of many “lost” films from Hollywood’s early days. These are two surviving excerpts, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Finale”.
  • Studio Shorts from or Celebrating the Early Sound Era
    • The Voice from the Screen (15:31): A demonstration of the Vitaphone system by Edward B. Craft of Bell Telephone, recorded on Oct. 27, 1926, at a presentation before the New York Electrical Society.
    • Finding His Voice (10:46): Co-directed by Max Fleischer, this 1929 cartoon features a character named “Talkie”, who explains how he got his voice.
    • The Voice that Thrilled the World (18:04): This short documentary about the history of motion picture sound was directed by Jean Negulesco.
    • Okay for Sound (19:46): In this self-congratulatory 1946 short, Warner Bros. and Vitaphone celebrate the twentieth anniversary of talking pictures.
    • When the Talkies Were Young (20:22): A 1955 documentary short featuring clips from the early days of future stars like James Cagney and Spencer Tracy.
    • Vitaphone Shorts from the Warner Bros. Vaults (1926-1936):
      • Elsie Janis in a Vaudeville Act: “Behind the Lines” (7:26)
      • Bernado De Pace: “Wizard of the Mandolin” (10:29)
      • Van and Schenck: “The Pennant Winning Battery of Songland” (9:22)
      • Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields with the Music Boxes (9:43)
      • Hazel Green & Company (8:12)
      • The Night Court (9:30)
      • The Police Quartette (8:09)
      • Ray Mayer & Edith Evans in “When East Meets West” (8:43)
      • Adele Rowland: “Stories in Song” (9:44)
      • Stoll, Flynn & Company: The ‘Jazzmania Quintette’ (9:38)
      • The Ingenues: “The Band Beautiful” (9:14)
      • The Foy Family in “Chips off the Old Block” (7:42)
      • Dick Rich and His Melodious Monarchs (9:37)
      • Gus Arnheim and His Ambassadors (9:40)
      • Shaw & Lee: “The Beau Brummels” (8:43)
      • The Roof Garden Revue Directed by Larry Ceballos (9:43)
      • Trixie Friganza in “My Bag O’ Tricks” (10:02)
      • Green’s Twentieth Century Faydetts (7:13)
      • Sol Violinsky: “The Eccentric Entertainer” (7:17)
      • Ethel Sinclair and Marge La Marr: “At the Seashore” (8:20)
      • Paul Tremaine and His Aristocrats (9:29)
      • Baby Rose Marie: “The Child Wonder” (8:34)
      • Burns & Allen in “Lambchops” (8:01)
      • Joe Frisco in “The Happy Hottentots” (10:41)
Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Blu-ray, Cinematography, Movies, Shorts, Sound, Tech

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