The New Old: Biblical Jazz Panic

The Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) – It’s a beautiful thing when history and entertainment get to overlap with some pretty fun results.  The Jazz Singer marks a cinematic first as it tells the tale of a young man trying to make in the entertainment business. When initially released in theaters, the landscape of Hollywood changed as for the first time ever in a feature film. An actor spoke on screen as audiences were stunned and the silent era was in the rear view mirror for audiences and filmmakers alike.

Al Jolson cements his place in history as the son of a Jewish cantor who ultimately defies his rabbi father’s wishes to pursue his dream of show business and the pull of stardom and tradition effects right into his adult life on the eve of his big break when he has a potentially life altering decision to make.

Nominated for an Academy Award and the winner of an honorary one for being the first ever “talkie”, there’s no doubting the historical importance of The Jazz Singer.  That being said, as a movie it’s admittedly a little basic.  Working from the play by Samson Raphaelson and adapted for the screen by Alfred A. Cohn, one can easily see how Director Alan Crosland (who worked as an actor and director in the silents) was taking more than a bit of a risk, as the switch from singing, talking and then back to silent took a little while to get used to since it was only Jolson’s character who we can hear. Even that’s only when he’s singing but it doesn’t take you out of the whole experience all that much.

The story moves at a solid pace and always holds attention, especially considering that in 1927 95 minutes for a feature film was certainly on the longer side. The heavy themes of religion and Judaism were a little surprising considering the time frame and probably one of the biggest and most prominent displays of the Jewish faith in cinema before World War II.  The musical numbers are a lot of fun, with quite a few songs and lovely orchestral arrangements that many a movie buff will recognize.

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It’s not necessarily a movie that translates to modern times exceptionally well, but if you can put yourself in that mindset or imagine the first time any of us saw Avatar on the big screen with the new 3D process, you can appreciate how blown away audiences must have been when then actually heard Al Jolson sing on screen with the then Vitaphone recording process.

As Jakie Rabinowitz, Jolson is in many ways playing his life story, as a great deal of the play mirrored his own life. It serves as a lovely fable for many generations of immigrant children to be able to hold onto.  It’s ultimately a film that just doesn’t have a lot of meat on its bones, but to be perfectly honest no one really has a chance to develop as a character outside of the leading role.

As a standalone film, The Jazz Singer is admittedly lacking in a few areas, but as a Blu-Ray book with scads of special features is where the release truly gets to shine. A newly restored digital transfer and an immaculate soundtrack recording restored from the original Vitaphone-Sound-on-Disc recordings, the film sounds as if it had been recorded yesterday.  This 3 disc set includes a feature length commentary track with film historian Ron Hutchinson and bandleader Vince Giordano talking about all aspects of the film, a collection of rare cartoon’s and shorts including Al Jolson in A Plantation Act the first time ever that voice was recorded and synced to film.  There’s an intimate celebration of Warner Bros Silver Jubilee, a 1947 Lux Radio Broadcast starring Al Jolson and the theatrical trailer.   All that is only on the first disc!

Disc 2 is filled to the brim with historical pieces on the early sound era including a feature length documentary called The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk.  For any film buff or historian this documentary is simply a must see as it takes into the birth of dialogue and sound and all is aspects including how it was received at the time.  Surviving sound excerpts from 1929’s Gold Diggers of Broadway as well as a collection of studio shorts celebrating the early sound era.

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Disc 3 features over 3.5 hours of shorts of the Vitaphone era with some rare and historic shorts ranging from musicals to comedy.  The 88 page book attached to the release features some reproductions of vintage documents, a post premiere telegram from Al Jolson, an overview of the history of Talkies including remakes, parodies and critical essays and opinions about the overall impact of The Jazz Singer on the historical process and course of modern cinema.

The Jazz Singer is an absolute must own as an illuminating, historical set.  It shows a great deal of cinema’s past while still being an entertaining story of a young man in search of his dream.  A rare set that will working for fans and historians of the moving image. (Dave Voigt)

 

Panic in the Streets

Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan, 1950) – Before he revolutionized Hollywood realism, Elia Kazan was just another director-for-hire on the Hollywood back-lots who did his most groundbreaking work on stage. While some of the melodramas he cranked out during this period haven’t aged well (I’m looking at you Gentleman’s Agreement, despite your Oscars), there are a few gems that don’t deserve their place in obscurity. Chief among them is Kazan’s bizarre 1950 film noir Panic in the Streets.

Kazan himself once referred to the B-movie as “the only perfect movie I ever made” and while that’s a bit of a stretch, it’s something that deserves to be remembered on his resume. The combination of a particularly odd film noir mystery with Kazan’s actor-driven filming techniques led to something completely unlike anything else in his filmography or the history of that genre. It ain’t perfect, but it’s interesting, making for a damn fine night at home with your Blu-Ray player.

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Panic in the Streets opens like a typical film noir. An illegal New Orleans card game goes wrong and the loser stumbles out and is killed by the local heavy (Jack Palance in his first big screen role) and his lackeys (Guy Thomajan and, hilariously, Zero Mostel from Mel Brooks’ The Producers). A doctor (Richard Widmark) is called in to come look at the body and discovers that the corpse was infected by the pneumonic plague (bet you didn’t see that coming). With the help of the local police captain (Paul Douglas), the doctor sets out to find the source of the plague before it infects the city. They want to keep things quiet from the press to try and take care of business before public panic, with Douglas even locking a reporter up in prison to keep the story out of the spotlight. A search stretches out across New Orleans, with Kazan shooting on actual locations to soak up the city’s unique and shadowy atmosphere.

There aren’t many (if any) film noirs that deal with the plague, and if nothing else that makes Panic in the Streets unique. There’s a not-so-subtle subtext running through the movie that suggests Palance’s brand of illicit gang violence is a plague that could overtake rational society, but you don’t have to dig that deep to enjoy the movie. Rather than shying away from the strangeness of the story, Kazan makes it a virtue and creates an unpredictable entry in a genre defined by repeated tropes.

The film also benefits immeasurably from his (at the time) unique shooting style. Kazan make take at vantage of all the shadowy alleys and rotting interiors of his location, but coming from theater he’s not a filmmaker who uses traditional close-ups or coverage. All the scenes play out in one or two shots that allow the actors to play out entire scenes together rather than in bits and pieces. As a result while the story might be silly and some of the writing a little mannered, the acting is unexpectedly naturalistic. Widmark and Douglas play their roles like real people struggling in an impossible situation, but the villains steal the show. In particular, Jack Palance and Zero Mostel dig into their sleazy roles with obvious delight and often turn threatening sequences into darkly comic games of dialogue tennis. As a result, Panic in the Streets is a somewhat surreal mystery with evocative visuals and relatable human drama. You can’t say that about most classic examples of film noir, but that’s what you get when you hire Method acting maestro Elia Kazan to transform pulp into art.

Panic in the Streets debuts on Blu-ray in a small, yet pleasing package. Anyone expecting the eye-tingling transfer from Criterion’s recent On the Waterfront disc will be sorely disappointed though. This is a much cheaper production that hasn’t been archived as carefully, so the transfer is a little more contrast-y, lacking the same level of clarity. That said, it’s still easily the best the film has ever looked with the dark and brooding New Orleans streets as well as Jack Palance’s skeletal facial features and Zero Mostel’s iconic combover popping off the screen like never before. It’s not the greatest archival Blu-Ray ever released, but for a mostly forgotten B-movie it’s pretty great and is probably the best the movie has ever or will ever look. When it comes to special features, you get a pair of amusing documentaries on Widmark and Palance that dive into their careers through interviews with friends and colleagues (don’t worry, there are plenty of insights from Billy Crystal). However, the best feature on the disc has got to be the audio commentary with film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. It can be a little dry and first, but once Silver and Ursini get warmed up they drop a big stack of backstage stories and interesting analysis on Kazan, his cast, and the genre. For an obscure movie that essentially appeals only to Kazan and film noir geeks, this is a Blu-Ray package above and beyond what should have expected. If you’ve never seen Panic in the Streets before, but a realist film noir about a literal plague of crime sounds appealing, I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed. There’s really no other movie quite like this one and in this particular case, that’s a good thing. (Phil Brown)

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Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah (Cecil B. DeMille, 1949) – In the wake of recent holidays, it makes perfect sense that a lot of stories pulled straight from the Bible would be in the ether and on the minds of a lot of people right around now.  Recently remastered and now on DVD for the very first time, Samson and Delilah is a story of passion and treachery pulled from the pages of a book that millions learn life lessons from.

Samson and Delilah follows the story of the Bible’s legendary strongman (Victor Mature) and the woman who seduces and later betrays him (Hedy Lamarr) after rejecting her affection in favor of another.  As she exacts her vengeance it has consequences that neither of them would have been able to imagine.

One of the final films in the legendary career of director Cecil B. DeMille, Samson and Delilah won two Academy Awards, but it doesn’t quite have the same epic scope as some of Demille’s other bible epics. It still works as a decent piece of storytelling, though.  Through the use of some excellent art direction and vibrant costume design, DeMille shows his knack for putting us straight into the moment even though they never leave the studio lot.  With his elaborate set pieces and colourful design schemes well in hand, the narrative of the story flows at a reasonable rate. Despite the occasionally clunky moment these are stories from the Bible meant to be used allegorical. It isn’t supposed to be Shakespeare.  DeMille boils down the messages to bare basics, and it mostly works even though it gets more than a little obvious and forced at times.  The script could have easily done with a little bit of tightening up, as the overall message drifts and often gets forgotten, but they often get back on track quickly during those odd, incongruous moments.

Victor Mature was a solid well built leading man, who got a lot of work in film noirs, westerns and period war pieces, and he certainly had the look to play the iconic Samson.  The role wasn’t written with a terrible amount of range to it, but he does a fine job with what he was given.  Hedy Lamarr sizzles as Delilah, gleefully tearing into the role; chewing the scenery at every turn making her the true star of a film that she easily carries.  The supporting ensemble comes rounded out with some familiar faces of the time and some regular DeMille players including George Sanders, Henry Wilcoxon and in one of her earliest roles we see a very young Angela Lansbury.  It’s little odd to see a film of this magnitude being carried by a woman considering the time period it was made it, but LaMarr does a great job with it and it’s a shame she never really got much traction in post WWII Hollywood as an actress.

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The picture and sound quality on the DVD are very good, but sadly this DVD has no special features.

Hardly the most memorable of the Cecil B. DeMille films (if even a little forgettable),  Samson and Delilah does foreshadow some of the spectacle we would be treated to in his final two films The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments, and it’s still worth a look if you like a good solid bible epic. (Dave Voigt)

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