I always manage to garner negative reactions from fellow movie geeks who find my sheer stern love for film rather irritating. I’m told to lighten up, I’m told that I take this stuff too seriously, and that movies are just entertainment; “They’re just movies! They’re there to entertain above everything else! Don’t be so critical!” The reason why I hold movies to such a high regard with a strong importance is because movies are a powerful form of art and expression, and images in film can hold a great deal of power that can affect everyone from casual observers to the deepest of film buffs. If it were the contrary, Warner Bros. would have included the most famous image of “The Jazz Singer” on the box of this new deluxe edition, rather than opting for an image of Jolson’s shadow in a beaming spotlight.
Almost eighty years after the release of “The Jazz Singer,” Jolson’s musical drama has remained one of the most observed and study films ever made, and to this day, the image of Jolson singing in his minstrel attire is an image that sparks debate, disdain, and sheer scorn. Even with a massive career, a legendary legacy, and a historic film that was credited with first implementing the use of sound back during the days of silent film helping to coin the term “talkie” to describe films with sound, Al Jolson is an entertainer who has never been able to live down his performance in “The Jazz Singer” as a minstrel performer donning fake nappy hair, white gloves, and a black face with wide stretched white lips. He’s forever become the symbol for negative racial stereotypes and the epitome of the minstrel shows of the period, and sadly even being the first talky doesn’t save “The Jazz Singer” from being a film that’s much more famous for its leading man portraying a cringe inducing African American racial stereotype.
This image should not be deemed offensive, nor should it be hidden away. It should be observed, it should be talked about, and it should be examined in the context just like “Birth of a Nation.” This is and was America’s mindset toward minorities and it’s a cold hard fact that Jolson embodies. As a film though, “The Jazz Singer” is just an okay little story that is too mired in soapy melodrama and Jolson’s hammy performance to rise above simple mediocrity. Sadly, its reputation precedes an otherwise forgettable musical. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get your money’s worth. This is probably one of the best DVD releases I’ve ever seen, with a Warner providing a real bang for your buck.
You receive, with your buck, a wonderfully pristine black box set featuring the original film, restored in sound and picture, as well as two DVDs featuring documentaries, commentaries, and a collection of shorts ushering in the early sound discovery, and the short cartoon spoof “I Love to Singa” which mimicked “The Jazz Singer” word for word. You will also get 10 photo cards, a 12-page Vitaphone program, a 20-page souvenir program, 4-page theater herald, 16-page book with vintage documents and DVD features guide, and a reproduction of a telegram from Al Jolson to Jack Warner. Simply, this is a DVD set the serious film collector can’t afford to miss. Jakie Rabinowitz is a young boy who has watched his rabbi father sing at many sermons at temple, and he himself has picked up to singing at local bars and taverns.
When he’s found by his father who is ashamed at his behavior, he runs away from home to become an entertainer, as his dad disowns him. On the road he manages to become a beloved performer known as Jack Robinson and even begins to romance a local showgirl, all the while he reconnects with his family after his show is set to stop by his home town. The dynamic between Jakie and his parents make up the most amusing moment of the film as Jolson succeeds in convincing us that he’s this man anxious for the approval of the people he loves, and that’s in spite of Jolson’s performance that slides from hammy and over the top to flat and mediocre. “The Jazz Singer” has strived for decades, apart from its historical significance, mainly because it’s such a simple story.
A young man is disowned after becoming a performer, comes back home looking for their approval and eventually accepts his fate as a Cantor when he loses his father in the climax; it’s a very thin approach to story that isn’t helped by Jolson’s attempts at emotions, as well as the campy dissolve into his father’s spirit looking over him. But once we enter into the black face performance form Jolson, there’s a certain tone the film takes the soon departs from the soft melodrama we’re given, especially since this look from Jolson was praised upon the theatrical release. One of the more cringe inducing moments of the film includes his friend and mother walking in on him in black face to which his friend remarks “He talks like Jakie, but he looks like his shadow.”
“The Jazz Singer” carries with it a truly resonant weight of importance and relevance even in the age of CGI and modern DV filmmaking, and even as we enter into a new age of directors and actors, films like “The Jazz Singer” will live on in spite of their quality, and Warner ushers it along into history with this wonderful DVD set. This is the collector’s treasure trove, as consumers across the country will be given a slew of extras, wonderful commentaries, shorts, freebies, and a restored picture and sound job on one of the most important films ever made. “The Jazz Singer” will provoke debate, and Warner allows that advantage for buyers.