Thursday, January 12, 2012

AFI/BFI #196: The Jazz Singer (1927)

Director: Alan Crosland
Writer: Samson Raphaelson, Alfred A. Cohn and Jack Jarmuth
Composer: Louis Silvers
AFI Rank:  90 (1998), - (2007)
BFI Rank: -

       76%
     

There is a lot of myth that surrounds The Jazz Singer and whether it deserves to hold such an important place in movie history. The fact that it got dropped from the AFI 100 in 2007 is in itself an indication. No, it wasn't the first picture to feature sound. And that often quoted line that supposedly kicked-off the talkies? It makes for a great story but it is not the first sound heard in the film. Yes, the plan was only to include the songs in the picture. But, by ad-libbing between two numbers with his signature catch phrase Al Jolson managed to surprise his audience in a way that had never happened on such a scale before.

What makes The Jazz Singer special is not anything that would put it in the Guinness Book of Records but more that it straggles a cinematic epoch with a foot in both worlds and as a result perfectly captures the birth of sound in motion pictures. Much of the movie is rooted firmly in the silent genre. As expected there are the title cards standing in for the spoken dialogue, but also the camera work and staging is freer in those silent scenes. The invention of sound would set back the art form by several years simply because of the technology needed to capture sound on set. Instead of the edit cuts there would be camera cuts, filming as in television with multiple cameras so as to maintain the continuity of sound. This in turn impacted the lighting and overall generally reduced the creativity that had been possible to that point.

It is the moments in The Jazz Singer when we move from silent to sound and back that are therefore all the more striking. The whole picture changes and becomes more static visually in a way that is much more immediately evident than you could experience otherwise. If the whole film had been recorded with sound then it would not be as significant.

Because of this it is difficult to find an analogy. Certainly it must have been pretty spectacular for an audience watching Méliès' A Trip To The Moon a quarter of a century earlier as the hand colored sections appeared on the screen, but it is not the same shift. Adding color did not affect the way the story was told, how the actors delivered their performances or how the shots were composed.

Possibly the only close approximation is the advent of CGI and how it has freed filmmakers to show whatever they can imagine. It has also set moviemaking back at times as the focus becomes the effects and not the story. There are of course exceptions. But even this was more evolutionary than revolutionary. It took time and although there are real milestone films such as Jurassic Park, they cannot do what The Jazz Singer does. Their advances and innovations are only appreciated when viewed alongside their counterparts. The moment is much less evident within the film itself. Of course Spielberg still manages to get close by using his trademark slow reveal on the first dinosaur and then on the herds almost as if we the audience are as astounded as the scientists to see living, breathing dinosaurs for the first time.


”Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!”

 This then gets us back to the question of whether The Jazz Singer deserves the credit it has, its place in cinema history and its addition to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1996 (interestingly just 2 years before the first AFI list was assembled). This is not all nostalgia. Warner Brothers received an honorary oscar in 1929 "For producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry". Surprisingly as I mentioned up front it dropped off the AFI list in 2007 with Swing Time, the next in up in my queue, taking it place.

All of its significance and gimmicks aside it is a damn good film and I can honestly say I really enjoyed it. It is simply a great story with a great cast. I won't delve too deeply into the face blacking scenes. Plenty has been written already and I urge you to view this with an open mind. Should it be considered offensive today? Of course. However I promise no spoilers so all I can say is that there is real significance to the act of blacking up in this story and the message it is trying to deliver is less about racism directed towards african americans and more about anti-semitism in the 1920s.

I watched The Jazz Singer on DVD as there is no high definition version available and it truly looks much better than it has any right to do given its age. There is a three disc deluxe 80th anniversary edition which contains a lot of contemporary material that although only somewhat loosely related it is difficult to obtain these quirky and wonderful vaudeville shorts any other way and they make for a nice bonus.

With all the myth and legend stripped away The Jazz Singer is still an exceptional movie and offers a rare glimpse into one of the most significant moments in the history of cinema. It is unquestionably Crucial Cinema.


        

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