Reliving the `talkie' revolution

DVD release reveals power of `The Jazz Singer,' despite blackface

Critical Eye

October 14, 2007|By CHRIS KALTENBACH

Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet."

Before it was a cliche, it was a prophecy: Eighty years ago this month, audiences watched - and listened - as a character in a major motion picture spoke to them for the first time. The actor was Al Jolson, and the movie was The Jazz Singer.

The effect was revolutionary. Within two years, talking pictures were everywhere, no one was releasing silent films, and three decades of silent-filmmaking was obsolete - tossed on the scrap heap.

As The Jazz Singer's first DVD release arrives Tuesday, we can experience what 1927 audiences did: a classic story, vividly told and buoyed by Al Jolson's charisma. Modern viewers, however, are likely to perceive it differently - less as an entertainment artifact than a historical one, at least partly because of Jolson's use of blackface.

But with its legacy blaring every day from television sets, movie screens and YouTube, The Jazz Singer persists as a work of almost incalculable significance.

"The only other film I can think of that had even close to an equivalent impact is Jurassic Park, which completely obliterated all other special effects technology - stop motion, animation, etc. - in favor of CGI," says Scott Eyman, a Palm Beach Post editor and author of The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution.

Perhaps. But even after Jurassic Park had been seen by everybody and earned nearly $1 billion worldwide, people didn't stop watching the original King Kong - not to mention Jason and the Argonauts or Star Wars. But after The Jazz Singer, silent movies became strictly yesterday's news. By the dawn of the 1930s, only one mainstream filmmaker, Charlie Chaplin, was still making movies that didn't talk - and even he would make only two more, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936).

Scores of silent films were literally thown away. Filmmakers had to learn their craft all over again. Actors, well versed in pantomime, had to learn new acting methods, as well as how to enunciate properly (which explains why many foreign-born stars found their careers suddenly ended). Scores of theater musicians, who had provided live accompaniment, lost their jobs. Concession sales skyrocketed (and necking became possible) as audiences realized they didn't have to always watch the screen anymore, because their ears could keep track of the narrative.

The film also catapulted Warner Bros. into the big time - and with this exemplary, three-disc DVD collection, the studio repays the favor. In addition to a visually stunning print, the set includes crystal-clear sound; a 90-minute documentary, The Dawn of Sound: How the Movies Learned to Talk; and more than three hours of early sound shorts, many pre-dating The Jazz Singer, most featuring long-since-forgotten vaudeville acts.

Seen today, The Jazz Singer holds up. The story is as basic as they come: A cantor's son is bent on singing popular standards and finding success in show business, despite his father's insistence that he save his voice for the synagogue. Eight decades later, onscreen sons still chafe at the dictates of their onscreen fathers.

"It's a surprisingly good film. The documentary shots of [New York's] Lower East Side are startlingly vivid and interesting," says Eyman. "Thematically, it doesn't date, because every generation of immigrants, from whatever country, has to play out the drama of trying to assimilate their parents' values ... with those of America."

And, as Eyman notes, The Jazz Singer "moves right along, as Warner Bros.' movies tend to."

The film's biggest revelation may be Jolson himself. Tagged as the world's greatest entertainer, he was a Jazz Age phenomenon, a jumping, writhing, gesticulating bundle of energy who would sell a song for all it was worth; anyone who thought Elvis Presley was the first singer to swivel his hips in front of an audience is in for a surprise. It was Jolson's audaciousness, so vividly on display in The Jazz Singer's singing and talking sequences, that so thrilled audiences.

"Jolson's electrifying personality comes through and grabs the audience by the lapels when he sings and dances and talks - not so much when he's silent," says Eyman. "The film inadvertently characterizes silent movies as less immediate than talkies. ... If the film had starred anybody else, talkies might not have arrived for another five years."

Jolson was also famous for performing in blackface, which he does in The Jazz Singer while, notoriously, singing a staple of his act, "Mammy." The sequence doubtless will leave modern audiences cringing.

But Jolson, like many performers of the day, saw blackface as a style of performing, not as a mockery of a race of people. The film historians on the DVD's commentary track note that some singers used blackface as a technique to make their features more expressive and visible. Bert Williams, one of the greatest black performers of his era, sometimes performed in blackface.

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