- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2007

This weekend marks the 80th anniversary of “The Jazz Singer,” which had its first public showing on Oct. 6, 1927, at the Warners’ Theatre in New York City. It was predominantly a silent film, derived from a Broadway play of recent vintage, written by a young dramatist named Samson Raphaelson, destined for later cinematic esteem as a screenwriter for the great comedy director Ernst Lubitsch.

Acquired by Warner Bros., “The Jazz Singer” was transformed by one phenomenal performer and a handful of sound interludes. The movie showcased the country’s most dynamic recording star and vaudeville headliner, Al Jolson, cast as an entertainer supposedly torn between an auspicious Broadway debut and Yom Kippur obligations to an estranged, infirm father. The pivotal song-and-patter sequences, recorded on a sound-on-disc system called Vitaphone, were the culmination of a partnership between Warner Bros. and Western Electric, the experimental and manufacturing branch of American Telephone & Telegraph.

Mr. Jolson had helped validate Vitaphone a year earlier when appearing in a short called “A Plantation Act,” which featured him in blackface performances of three signature songs, “April Showers,” “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along” and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby.” His subsequent audio-visual impact in the feature-length “Jazz Singer,” in which the trademark numbers are “Blue Skies,” “Mammy” and “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye,” proved so astonishing and irresistible that a reluctant movie industry was compelled to recognize a watershed event.

About 30 years after the first attempts to synchronize movie images with recorded sound, a shift to talking pictures had become feasible and commercially imperative. During 1928, film companies commenced an inevitable transition to sound. Initial theater conversions on the East and West coasts spread across the entire country. They were more or less complete by 1929 — before the onset of the Depression, fortunately. In a relative blink of the eye the art of the silent screen, still flourishing and even splendid in 1927-28, was a beloved but outmoded tradition.

The Motion Picture Academy is hosting an anniversary screening of “The Jazz Singer” tomorrow at 8 p.m., if you happen to be in Beverly Hills. General admission tickets will duplicate the very pricey $5 charged for the best seats at the Warner 80 years ago. Turner Classic Movies will devote the evening of Oct. 16, to a commemorative program that begins with a showing of “The Jazz Singer” at 8 p.m. It will be followed by a selection of Vitaphone shorts, though not “A Plantation Act,” curiously enough.

Later in the evening, TCM revives three of the features with recorded musical scores and sound effects that preceded “The Jazz Singer” into release — “Don Juan,” “When a Man Loves” (both starring vehicles for John Barrymore) and “The Better ‘Ole.” In their first run they were accompanied — and sometimes overshadowed by Vitaphone shorts.

On the same day, an auspicious gift item will be released by Warner Home Video: a three-disc “Anniversary Collector’s Edition” of “The Jazz Singer.” A $40 DVD set, it augments a freshly restored and remastered print of the movie with numerous supplements; they include an admirably informative feature-length documentary about the film’s historical context, “The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned To Talk.” Mr. Jolson’s “Plantation Act” Vitaphone reel is a part of this collection, along with an entire disc devoted to other Vitaphone shorts.

Scott Eyman, the author of “The Speed of Sound,” the best recent history of the making of “The Jazz Singer” and the talkie transition, is a prominent interview subject in “The Dawn of Sound.” He makes a point in his book that seems to elude useful repetition in the documentary. The fact that “The Jazz Singer” was a fragmentary sound feature magnified its impact, because one experiences an emphatic sense of loss when Mr. Jolson finishes his songs or ad libs and the movie reverts to pantomime and dialogue read on title cards.

The immortal Jolson catchphrase, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” was brilliantly appropriate for the dawn of talking pictures. It playfully fuels a hunger to hear more — certainly more than this creaky domestic-backstage tearjerker can provide. I’ve always wondered why Warner Bros. didn’t go back and record the star doing selected dialogue scenes in the wake of the movie’s success, then release an augmented talkie version in 1928. Of course, the Jolson asking price might have been prohibitive by then.

When his voice vanishes, it’s like being expected to do without running water or electricity. You don’t want less of this form of enhancement. You certainly don’t want to find it abruptly withdrawn. The Vitaphone shorts had already whetted appetites. The singing-ad libbing highlights inserted in “The Jazz Singer” confirmed the desirability of a long-awaited and postponed sensory upgrade of movie illusion. Mr. Jolson’s follow-up vehicle, “The Singing Fool,” doubled the frequency of sound sequences and became a bigger hit than “The Jazz Singer.” For better or worse, there was no turning back.

TITLE: “The Jazz Singer”

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1927, decades before the advent of a rating system)

CREDITS: Produced by Sam Warner. Directed by Alan Crossland. Screen adaptation by Alfred A. Cohn, based on the play by Samson Raphaelson. Titles by Jack Jarmuth.

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes

DVD EDITION: “Anniversary Collector’s Edition” available Oct. 16 from Warner Bros. Home Video

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

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