The last three times that Bryan and I have taught our Writing New York lecture class, we’ve assigned Alan Crosland’s 1927 film The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. Often described as the first “talkie” because of its use of the Vitaphone recording process, the film serves several of our course’s storylines: theater in New York, representation of ethnic cultures New York, the interplay of word and image in New York “writing,” and New York’s competition with Los Angeles to the site where the national popular culture is produced.
We ask our students to consider:
- What does it mean for the son of Jewish immigrants to be a Jazz Singer? To replace immigrant patriarchy with American sentimentalism (“Mother!”)?
- In what ways and to what effect does this film preserve older or competing forms of cultural expression (print, stage, live music)?
- What do these preservations say about the relationship between New York and Hollywood as cultural capitals?
But teaching the film has always been a big problem for us, because it hasn’t been available on DVD and the VHS version is out of print. We’ve had to make do with letting the students view the library’s worn copy, which we’ve supplemented with personal copies purchased used through Amazon. And we’ve arranged film screenings. But we’ve never been able to require that students study the film closely, because of the difficulty of obtaining a copy.
No more. Warner Brothers has just released a three-disc deluxe DVD edition of The Jazz Singer, with sound taken from original Vitaphone discs. If the review of the DVD in the New York Times is to be believed, we ain’t heard nothin’ yet until we’ve heard the way that “Mammy” and the “Kol Nidre” now sound.
The set also includes a new documentary, ”The Dawn of Sound: How the Movies Learned to Talk,” produced by Turner Classic Movies; a variety of promotional shorts from the period; a Tex Avery cartoon parody starring “Owl Jolson”; and a full disc’s worth of Vitaphone shorts, many recovered through the work of a non-profit group called The Vitaphone Project.
According to the Times, “These fascinating documents may belong more to the history of American theater than of American film: perfect records of some of the most celebrated vaudeville performers, nightclub singers and opera stars of the day, performing exactly as they would before a live audience.” Which means that the discs are perfect for our course’s account of the film.
I can’t wait! Amazon’s sending mine as I write.