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Monday, May 21, 2018

The '27 Victory Of Vitaphone

Revisiting Show Biz History With The Jazz Singer

Another of those landmarks too famous for its own good, The Jazz Singer is met at last on even ground that is Warners' Blu-Ray, a fairest shake for the talking pioneer since Vitaphone discs first spun to nitrate accompany. Revivals of The Jazz Singer since 1927 tended toward re-record of sound, then re-record from re-records, losing for generations fresh impact the revolutionary process had. Accounts from the time confirm that when it worked, Vitaphone had no peer for clarity and amplification. There were snafus, plenty, but audiences understood what these shows could sound like, so were patient as kinks ironed out. All knew a future was upon them, talkies a given, whatever might become of silent traditions. The Jazz Singer would not wipe out an era single-hand; it took a couple more years and many all-talkies to fully achieve that, but ease of reference permitted The Jazz Singer to define transition as overnight, an expediency more manageable than truth. What I note from seeing and hearing The Jazz Singer in High-Def is what an enjoyable experience it now is, memories of 16mm and TV broadcasts purified by cleansing wave that is digital.

There continues to be discussion, ninety years going, on just what electrified crowds at 1927 runs and inspired their coming back. There had been Al Jolson on talking screens the previous year in single reel A Plantation Act, which played as Vitaphone partner to full-length The Better 'Ole, a Sydney Chaplin comedy with music overlay and no dialogue per se. A Plantation Act was Jolson addressing us with three songs, limited patter, then three bows as he withdrew. This priceless short went missing for many decades until WB found the picture portion and a busted-to-pieces Vitaphone record that was miraculously reassembled. So why didn't A Plantation Act create a 1926 sensation? From myriad of reasons, I'd submit one, that being Plantation Al directing his tunes to unseen viewers (us), while The Jazz Singer had him performing songs before an on-screen audience. Their response is enthusiastic, and more important, infectious. The nitery where grown-up "Jack Robin" first sings is filled and noisy. His songs tap into the excitement and we too are engaged, a first time, I'd propose, when shadow viewers could entice live ones to join their applause. Jolson later singing to his mother allows us to react with her, added energy coming of the emotion they and we invested. This had been a commonplace since film began, but never before with talking plus music. A new way of enjoying movies was born with these two at an upright piano, and a new day for intimacy shared with characters on a screen.

I've seen a lot of reference to what a bombastic over-actor Al Jolson was, but on evidence of The Jazz Singer, I don't buy it. The move from silence to sound affected him as it would a number of players, even though Jolson had no prior experience with the film medium. He certainly would have had plenty as a spectator, however, and must have somehow convinced himself that to talk in pictures was to turn switches full-on. As a voiceless participant in The Jazz Singer, however, Jolson stays on pitch with others of the cast and does not hog scenes. He underplays with Warner Oland (as his father) and makes moving their conflict. When he does speak, Jolson sells the personality and songs, which was, of course, what he was hired for. I realize much got out of hand later when Jolson felt his oats and overestimated a public's lust to see and hear him, and maybe it's my perception that misreads what to others would be a hoke performance in The Jazz Singer, so to scoffers I'd only say, watch it again, but please do so with the Blu-ray or a TCM broadcast in HD.

Earliest musicals caught beautifully the whiff of backstage life, and never mind gritty truth where putting on shows. Most of Hollywood had known that life, Jolson certainly, for he had been at it since childhood. There is a sequence in The Jazz Singer that I would put among his best, despite there being no sound or song. Al is talking (in titles) at his dressing table with May McAvoy. He's focused more on the conversation than application of cork for a blackface number, a process that would by now have been pure reflex for Jolson. How many thousands of times had he blacked up to perform? --- enough to go beyond his calculation, and ours. Watch how he covers every trace of white, including all of both ears, his hands a deft instrument that doesn't need a mirror to know the job's being done right. Here is a lesson in stagecraft long past, and done minus trick or cuts, a highlight of The Jazz Singer overlooked thanks to razzle-dazzle of oncoming sound. Myth attached to The Jazz Singer thanks to Warners appropriating the film as Exhibit A of their courage for having made it. The Great Gamble That Paid made splendid press even if the truth was something different. There was enough accuracy at least to make the difference not matter so much, and certainly the public did not cry foul, even if too few of them actually saw The Jazz Singer with sound.

Hick towns and outliers could but dream of Al Jolson singing from screens. They'd wait, in some cases several years, for talk to be installed in rural houses. In a meantime there were follow-up Jolsons, at least one, The Singing Fool, a bigger hit than The Jazz Singer. Still, the latter had the legend, and whatever of Al's the old-timers saw, they'd invariably recall the experience as The Jazz Singer. It became a generic Jolson title just as Laurel and Hardy's tit-for-tat silent comedies would assume memory's label of The Battle Of The Century. Warners could claim immortality by association with The Jazz Singer, but generating fresh cash from revivals was something else. A re-booking at New York's Warner Theatre for Easter-Passover weeks 1931 (where the film first played) slunk out after five deadly days, the bloom judged permanently off Jolson's rose. Variety's critic took account of picture-making "having changed more in three and a half years since (The) "Jazz Singer" than in 20 since "Birth Of A Nation." The scribe noted 184 titles in The Jazz Singer that took up twenty-three minutes of the film's eighty-eight minute running time, which was decidedly not an endorsement. "The story is sentimental to the saturation point of tear-shedding," said this observer as he noted "less than 150 people" at the Warner Theatre's 3/30/31 evening show.

The Jazz Singer would henceforth be seen mostly in clips, but these were considerable, as each time WB congratulated itself for introducing sound, out would come Jolson kneeling to sing Mammy. The oft-seen highlight was enough to make many imagine they had seen The Jazz Singer in toto. Films out of rival companies nodded to WB's pioneering, The Jazz Singer cited for decades as the one that talked first. Television sale of Warners' pre-49 library made The Jazz Singer available to local stations, this following a theatrical window through Dominant Pictures for some of titles, including The Jazz Singer. There was fresh paper offered to showmen (the one-sheet at right), but so far, I've found no ads for an actual theatre run. Did any venue roll dice on The Jazz Singer in 1956-57? Revival houses steered wide of most things Jolson for the blackface wrinkle, plus fact he was distinctly un-cool except to ancients who'd stay home in front of their TV in any event. The Jazz Singer can be seen better than ever on Blu-ray, but by how many? All of its initial audience is gone or pushing 100 (I'm saying that a lot lately), so we who care can only imagine what impact was felt when Vitaphone saw Jolson performing on his knees for a public brought to theirs by 1927's modern miracle.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I would venture that the 1931 reissue flopped because the moviegoers had been there, done that. For the first run, people wanted to witness this historic "first," and seeing it again later didn't matter much. I'd compare it to the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 -- think of how many millions insisted on watching astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins... and then consider how many just had to see subsequent Apollo missions.

8:20 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I always thought Warners kept THE JAZZ SINGER out of the pre-1949 sell out to United Artists. Am I wrong?

9:14 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

In 1980 I brought motion picture sound pioneer Bernard B. Brown to Toronto. His career had started at 16 playing first violin in the orchestra which accompanied THE CLANSMAN (THE BIRTH OF A NATION) through its first run at Clune's Auditorium in Los Angeles. In 1927 Mr. Brown directed the sound recording on THE JAZZ SINGER. He can be seen in the film. He said, "Audiences remember strongest what they hear last." It was his contention that hearing Jolson speak and sing at the end of the film spelled the death knell of silent films. I think he's wrong. That moment in the middle of the film when Jolson returns home, speaks and sings to his mother and then his father comes in to shout, "Stop!" is so natural and real it is wonderful. After the father shouts, "STOP!" the film returns to the stylized silent film acting that had preceded that moment but now the acting I had accepted looks nakedly, painfully unreal. I bought my own 16mm print of THE JAZZ SINGER for that occasion because the local office of Warner Brothers 16mm did not have one. It was an excellent print. I had brought Mr. Brown to Toronto to celebrate the 50th anniversary of LOONEY TUNES for which he not only did music but also directed a couple and because I felt that THE BIRTH OF A NATION properly scored would be as powerful today as it had been in 1915. I had already built a good score. Mr. Brown had left Warners to head film sound at Universal. He got eleven Academy Award nominations and 2 Oscars for his work on film sound (which he taught at UCLA on retiring). I learned a helluva lot from him. After he returned I was invited by the Toronto Film Society to present THE BIRTH OF A NATION with the score I had built. The auditorium sat 600. When the film ended the entire audience was on its feet applauding and cheering just as they had done in 1915. The Director of the TFS Silent Series ran up to me shouting, "Reg, that score was brilliant!" Too often silent films are scored like church services (especially with organ). I score them for people who would not be caught dead in a church. Those folks demand, "Impress me!" They are right to. I bought the dvd of THE JAZZ SINGER when it came out. Unfortunately there was no mention in it of Bernard B. Brown. On a further note I was walking my dog, he was not on a leash and about to cross a road. A police car was heading straight for him. I started to shout, "Don't cross the road," then remembered Brownie's "We hear strongest what we hear last." Instantly I realized what my dog would hear last would be "Cross the road." I boiled it down to one word: "Stop." My dog stopped. The police car stopped. Two streetcars, all the vehicles and all the pedestrians for two blocks stopped. My dog was saved. That night as a friend gave me a cup of tea she said, "Don't drop the cup." I watched in horror as on hearing, "Don't DROP THE CUP" my fingers opened and it fell to the floor. In that instant I understood St. Paul's, "The seed of sin was sown with the ten commandments." After all they state, "You shall not commit adultery, murder, steal, etc.." What we hear last is "Commit adultery." I learned a helluva lot from Bernard B. Brown. I'm looking forward to the Blu-ray of THE JAZZ SINGER.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

9:37 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

The Warner Theater at Broadway and 52nd Street is a long lost treasure. When I was a Senior at Penn State I came to New York for a student conference on journalism (met Walter Cronkite [ask your grandparents]). While there I went to the first-week opening of 2001. I say first week because Kubrick made a few cuts and editorial changes to the film after that initial exposure to the public and the critics. What sold the now-unwatchable JAZZ SINGER to the audience was, I think, the scene where he is sitting at the piano and talking to his mother--it sounded natural, like real life. The Wolf, man.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I had seen The Jazz Singer on TV and a revival house in the '70s, but never got its power until its original DVD release in 2007. The restoration job on the audio and visual elements was terrific. I guess the Blu-ray must be even better, but I can't imagine how.

My daughter, then 11, watched the DVD with me in fascination. Now that she's a 22 year-old college grad, she thinks Jolson is a racist. Well, it was fun while it lasted.

12:24 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

What it is not mention by anybody is that the status of THE JAZZ SINGER was 1936? At the time, newspapers began to run stories about the introduction of sound, obviously pumped by the studio, and this film was mentioned an celebrated in those articles over and over again, gaining the status and reputation that it holds today.

The other thing that is systematically ignored and never mentioned is that outside the United States this film has always been absolutely irrelevant. Although Warners and the Fox Film Corporation pioneered sound recordings for movies, they did not make them available until early 1930. In fact, the authentic pioneers of bringing sound films or talkies to the world are MGM and Paramount since they did it in 1929 when they decided to do it.

By the time THE JAZZ SINGER opened in the world (in Argentina, it did in March 1930), people were already exposed to talkies and the Jolson movie was unremarkable and better movies were available then. Silent movies were still available up until at least 1932 and I keep getting hand programs from them from Uruguay with dates printed in them to prove what I am saying.

The real landmark is not THE JAZZ SINGER but THE BROADWAY MELODY, which was the very first talkie shown in the majority of the world. In Argentina, it was also the first movie to be shown with Spanish language subtitles.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

How M-Bare-assing!! It was the Capitol Theater, not the Warner for 2001. As Roseanne Rosannadanna would say..."Never mind!" The Wolf, man. Apparently I AM a robot....

2:24 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Noting that Cantor Josef Rosenblatt (sometimes just "Cantor ROSENBLATT") appears in some of the ads. As I recall, he appears as himself, singing in a theater where Jolson's character is in the audience. I think it's the only non-Jolson number in the movie.

Was Josef Rosenblatt famous enough to be a draw? Or was the title "Cantor" sufficient to indicate audiences would hear more than Tin Pan Alley tunes?

The film focused on Jolson being pulled between show biz and religion, but I don't recall any hint of prejudice (although intertitles about "his god" instead of just "God" seemed a little odd). In the final scene -- tacked on? -- he has both without compromise, including the gentile girl friend. Was there any blowback from any quarter?

6:02 PM  
Blogger bufffilmbuff said...

Warners re-made THE JAZZ SINGER with Danny Thomas as star in 1953. It never shows up even on TCM and I doubt it ever got a home video release. Has anyone seen it.

8:11 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I saw the 1953 JAZZ SINGER on television 50 years ago (gack) and enjoyed it at the time but don't remember a thing about it now. It's been out on DVD for seven years.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Donald Benson: I think that "his God" thing was fairly common at the time, in movies and books, when it came to non-Christians and non-white Christians alike.

Josef Rosenblatt was a big deal at the time, cut a lot of records, performed concerts. His 78s were re-released in album form into the 1970s, maybe even later.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Yes, Scott, I've seen it and the Danny Thomas version is as bad as one might imagine. The Wolf, man.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

All I really remember about the Danny Thomas remake of JAZZ SINGER is Peggy Lee, who got to sing a few songs, including her hit "Lover."

There was also a production of THE JAZZ SINGER staged for television in 1959, with Jerry Lewis in the lead.

9:39 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I think there was some controversy about the casting of Thomas, who was Catholic.

Then there was the '80 remake with Neil Diamond - and Laurence Olivier hamming it up as the cantor father. At least the soundtrack sold well, with "Love on the Rocks" and "Coming to America" getting much airplay.

9:07 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon has some observations about performers applying their own makeup:

Your observation of a scene in "The Jazz Singer" where Jolson dons blackface makeup at his dressing room table almost by 'Braille' is astute and evocative. I love to watch that kind of thing, too, for its evocation of the same thing, a no-fuss, practical approach to getting ready to 'go on' as must have been practiced by all stage veterans of a given era. I never forgot the impression of seeing something on TV, even though I have forgotten its context, showing the beloved veteran circus clown Emmett Kelly putting on his familiar tramp makeup, and the same kind of economical/methodical approach he took, along with the simplest of tools. What a contrast to the fussbudget methods, to say nothing of materials and tools, utilized by contemporary makeup people to achieve similar (if even as effective) results. And as you know, I have some basis for an opinion here! Not to say that earlier generations of actors were slapdash in their approach to stage makeup. Many were painstaking and meticulous, and consequently extremely skilled and effective. Th young Hal Holbrook did his own makeup as Mark Twain for his pioneering 'one man show' about the great writer, which he began doing as a college kid. It was superb, by the time he'd done it for several years. I believe Laurence Olivier did his own makeup for many of his Shakespearean roles on stage, both when young and older, and some of these were exceptionally well done. As a makeup artist, another thing I admire about all of these is that the emphasis was on character and communication. Today, it's too often diluted or even pushed aside by a too great preoccupation with presumed realism or naturalism. I suppose this has a parallel in the nature of what passes as 'drama' in films and on stage, today, too. Atmosphere and suggestion and the reduction (in the best sense, like brandy from wine) of life into something essential are passé, in acting, in settings, in costume, makeup, lighting, cinematography.

12:32 PM  

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