'You ain't heard nothin' yet!' Anniversary screening of early talking pic 'The Jazz Singer' at historic Loew's
by Ricardo Kaulessar Reporter staff writer
Nov 05, 2007 | 645 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It was known as the movie that popularized the use of sound in motion pictures and pretty much ended the silent picture era.

Now in its 80th anniversary year, people will have an opportunity to view "The Jazz Singer" in one of its few screenings on the East Coast before year's end, when it shows at the historic Landmark Loew's Jersey Theatre in Jersey City on Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m.

The 1927 movie starring the legendary entertainer Al Jolson is the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young Jewish boy who bucks the cantor tradition of his rabbi father and grows up to become popular "jazz singer" Jack Robin, only to return to his estranged family as his father is on his deathbed.

The film is first-rate melodrama that doesn't necessarily distinguish it from the many of the films of its era. But it became one of the top films for Warner Bros. Pictures the year of its release and was nominated for two Academy Awards. It currently ranks No. 90 on the American Film Institute's 100 greatest films list.

It is acknowledged by film historians for being the first feature-length Hollywood film to feature sound not just for a score and sound effects but also for dialogue and musical numbers. This was done by utilizing the Vitaphone process, a sound-on-film technology used on features and nearly 2,000 short subjects produced by Warner Brothers from 1926 to 1930.

"The Jazz Singer" also benefits from Jolson's oversized presence on screen, whether it is performing show-stoppers such as "My Mammy" and "Blue Skies," or literally stopping the show to utter improvised dialogue such as the immortal "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"The Vitaphone Project

The screening, which will also include the showing of early sound shorts, will be introduced by film aficionado Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, a group of record collectors and film buffs who have since 1991 have sought out missing soundtrack discs and film elements of Vitaphone talkies.

"It's a great film because of its success and it gets to be seen in a historic movie palace like the Loew's," said Hutchinson about the theater that opened only two years after the Jazz Singer hit the big screen. From LA to JC

Colin Egan, co-founder of the Friends of the Loew's volunteer group, said last week the screening is taking place thanks to help from a former Loew's employee.

"A technician who used to work with us at the Loew's now works on West Coast, and he contacted me about screenings that took place out there," Egan said.

Screenings of "The Jazz Singer" were held earlier this month in California at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood and at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. There was a showing on Turner Classic Movies on Oct. 6, and a three disc DVD set has been issued this month by Warner Home Video.

Egan continued, "We weren't planning to screen The Jazz Singer, but since this is the 80th anniversary and it's a pretty important film, we felt what better place to show it than at the Loew's, one of the first theaters designed for sound."

Egan said what also moved forward the special anniversary screening was their longstanding relationship with Warner Bros., as the Loew's theater has over the years held hundreds of screenings of classic movies in new and restored prints provided by Warner Bros. including a new, pristine 35 mm. print of the Jazz Singer.

Egan said while the Friends group is elated to show this classic, he is not sure how many people will be showing up and is not going to get too preoccupied over audience size.

"To be honest, it will be an experiment, as it's slightly more esoteric than what we normally show," Egan said. "But I am not doing it for the audiences, but for the historic value of the film." What is Vitaphone?

People think of movies before the 1930s as being all-silent, with piano music playing over the action and characters were moving quickly.

But there were attempts at meshing sound technology with motion pictures since the turn of the 20th century.

It wasn't until the late 1920s when Warner Bros. and Western Electric developed the Vitaphone process that would see its greatest success after the Jazz Singer took audiences by storm.

This is how it worked: A 35mm projector had a turntable on which 16-inch disks (about the same size as an LP record) were played just like a record player. That turntable was connected to the same gears that moved the film, and if started at the same time as the movie, both film and record would play in sync.

With the Vitaphone Project, Hutchinson has tracked over 3,000 12- and 16-inch shellac soundtrack discs around the world, and has assisted on the restoration of over 35 shorts and 12 features. Amongst those disks found were two for a 1929 MGM movie that had been stored in a cabinet in the projection booth at the Loew's. Egan said he has kept those disks in the same cabinet, and the theater also acquired two non-operating Vitaphone projectors in recent years.

He said Vitaphone helped bring top stage performers of the day to the neighborhood movie theater.

"Instead of people paying hundreds of dollars to go to New York to see Al Jolson or some other top act of the day, they could see a Vitaphone short and hear them perform," Hutchinson said. Dealing with blackface

The Friends group also is working with the Afro-American Historical & Cultural Society of Jersey City to create a display to be placed in the lobby of the Loew's Theater on the history of entertainers, both black and white, performing in blackface.

Blackface is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, used on actors to affect the countenance of an iconic, racist American archetype.

Jolson, as was customary amongst his peers at the time, performed numerous times in blackface during his career, including several numbers in "The Jazz Singer."

Egan points out Jolson while employing blackface in the movie, does not engage in gestures in the movie that was blatantly racist, but said the public should be informed about how and why the practice was done.

"The Jazz Singer, like many movies of its time has a less enlightened view about various racial and social groups, not just with the blackface, but also the Jewish caricature," Egan said. "With that said, Jolson performing in blackface was not him trying to imitate black people, but it's just Jolson in makeup." The Landmark Loew's Jersey Theatre is located at 54 Journal Square in Jersey City.
Admission for the Nov. 10 screening will be $6 for adults, $4 for seniors, students with ID and children 12 years old and younger. For more information, call (201) 798-6055. For comments on the story, contact Ricardo Kaulessar at rkaulessar@hudsonreporter.com
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