In the 1920s, Al Jolson was known as "The World's Greatest Entertainer," and for good reason. The charismatic singer had dozens of hit songs, and his exuberant performances kept Broadway and vaudeville theaters packed.
But in 1927 he created a sensation when he sang and spoke in The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue and musical sequences. It ushered in the revolutionary onslaught of "talkies" and signaled the inevitable end of the silent film era. The three-disc Jazz Singer Blu-ray Book (1927, Warner Bros., not rated, $36) brings the groundbreaking film to home video in high definition for the first time.
The hardbound set, which kicks off the yearlong 90th anniversary celebration by Warner Bros., comes with an 88-page book stuffed with essays about the development of sound in films and the making of the movie, archival photos, biographies and other artifacts. In addition to the movie itself, there are several documentaries, commentaries by film historians, numerous shorts and cartoons from the era, and a look at The Jazz Singer remakes and parodies in pop culture.
The film tells the sentimental tale of Jakie Rabinowitz, son of a fifth-generation Jewish cantor (Warner Oland) who expects his child to follow in his footsteps. But 13-year-old Jakie (Bobby Gordon) yearns to sing popular music and defies his father's wishes. The grown-up Jack Robin (Jolson) becomes a star, but is torn between pursuing his dreams and fulfilling his dying father's wishes as he is being urged to do by his beloved mother (Eugenie Besserer).
When Jolson was picked for the lead role in the film, it had already been a Broadway hit for two years starring George Jessel. He was also a major star at the time and was set to star in the movie, but demanded more money when he learned there would be dialogue. He and Warner Bros. couldn't agree on a contract, and Jolson was hired instead. Among the songs he performs in the film - some in blackface - are My Mammy, Blue Skies and Mother of Mine, I Still Have You.
His famous first lines come in a scene at a cabaret after an exuberant performance of Dirty Hands, Dirty Face, when he asks the audience: "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet! Wait a minute, I tell ya! You ain't heard nothin'! You wanna hear Toot, Toot, Tootsie? All right, hold on, hold on..." He then instructs the piano player: "Lou, listen. Play Toot, Toot, Tootsie - three choruses, you understand? In the third chorus, I whistle. Now give it to 'em hard and heavy. Go right ahead."
Ironically, the film's story had been originally inspired by Jolson, and it echoed his own life's story. Writer Samson Raphaelson was awed by Jolson in the 1917 musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr. He published a short story, The Day of Atonement, five years later based on Jolson's early life as a Jewish boy torn between the religious demands of his family and his desire to be an entertainer. Raphaelson adapted that story into The Jazz Singer stage musical.
The Jazz Singer was a major hit when it was first released in 1927, but silent films didn't disappear right away because not all theaters were equipped to show them. But within two years, as the filmmaking process for talkies became standardized, the number of theaters across the country that could play them expanded exponentially as studios phased out silents.
Jolson, who was born Asa Yoelson in what is now Lithuania in 1886, remained popular for years, playing in several musical films in the 1930s. The biographical 1946 Oscar winner, The Al Jolson Story, starred Larry Parks, but dubbed in Jolson's singing voice. He was the first star to entertain troops overseas after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and also entertained troops in Korea in 1950. He died not long after returning from that trip at age 64.
A broad range of stars - including Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Wilson, Elvis Presley and David Bowie - have cited him as a major influence on their careers.