According to Hollywood legend, Warner Bros. launched a revolution in cinema when the studio released the first “talking picture,” 1927’s The Jazz Singer. Except that it wasn’t the first—not by a long shot. There had been experiments with adding sound to movies since the 1890s, and even a few feature-length films employing synchronized sound. Plus, Warners’ proprietary “Vitaphone” process—which relied on phonograph records synched with the image—had been used in a string of short subjects prior to The Jazz Singer, including 1926’s “A Plantation Act,” featuring three songs by The Jazz Singer’s star, Al Jolson. That’s why Warner Bros.’ three-disc special edition of The Jazz Singer (previously available on DVD, now on Blu-ray) emphasizes the context in which the film was released. Between the documentaries and the package of vintage shorts in the set, it’s pretty clear that The Jazz Singer was just the crest of a wave.
Yet the film was a legitimate phenomenon. Upon its release in October of 1927, theaters wired for sound were largely confined to New York and Los Angeles. But by spring of ’28, hundreds of sound systems had been installed across the county, and by the end of the year the number was in the thousands. And often these theaters would re-open with a booking of The Jazz Singer, so people in the community could see what the fuss was about. The movie business had been fumbling toward “talkies” for decades, and even though The Jazz Singer contains only a couple of scenes with spoken dialogue, and just a handful of musical numbers recorded live, it showed that sound could be viably integrated into a primarily visual medium, not just as a gimmick. It was clearly a turning point.
As for its quality as an actual movie, well, The Jazz Singer is hardly great, but it provides solid melodrama and a valuable look at the ethnic stereotypes of early-20th-century entertainment. Samson Raphaelson wrote his short story “The Day Of Atonement” after seeing Al Jolson on stage in 1917, and later adapted it into the stage play The Jazz Singer, with George Jessel playing the vaudeville-bound son of a disapproving Jewish cantor. Jessel reportedly balked at the changes planned for the movie (including the musical numbers), so Warner Bros. cast the man who inspired the original story, calling on Jolson’s talents for cabaret performance and minstrelsy to play a showbiz phenomenon who wishes his parents could appreciate him.
The Jazz Singer is rooted in the ghettos of New York and the purity-driven culture of orthodox Judaism, which the movie criticizes for being hidebound and hypocritical. But it’s also about the great melting pot of the entertainment business, such that when Jolson puts on blackface, he’s meaning—however clumsily and grotesquely—to honor the contributions of different races and ethnicities to the modern age.
That’s why what was so exciting about The Jazz Singer in 1927 remains fairly invigorating today: The movie is very much of its time, for better and worse. There’s a spirit of ingenuity to the way director Alan Crosland works within the conventions of silent cinema for 85 percent of the film and then periodically springs these full-sound sequences, like little surprise visitations from a world in flux. (It’s a reminder that the entire history of cinema is as much a technical achievement as an aesthetic one.) And there’s something touching about seeing the over-emoting, 40-year-old Jolson as the representative of youth and progressivism. These transitional moments in popular culture are never clean. The art and artists who lead the way are flawed, and often more reactionary in retrospect than they seemed at the time. But when Jolson swivels his hips and whistles while singing “Toot Toot Tootsie,” he has such vitality that he makes it impossible to imagine why anyone would want to see and not hear him. Jolson and The Jazz Singer didn’t just provide the supply for sound cinemas; they provoked demand.
Key features: A scholarly commentary track, a Jolson-starring radio adaptation of the film, a 90-minute documentary on the early history of sound in cinema, some vintage Hollywood short subjects about how sound came to movies, and more than four hours of early-sound comedy shorts, newsreels, and cartoons.