The Jazz Singer Special Features (The Cornfield #10)

Shaw & Lee

The Jazz Singer Deluxe Edition DVD came out in 2007, but these Cornfield offerings are the opposite of timely reportage, so fine. And if you’ve never considered looking into this three-disc package, please think again – not so much for the technical breakthrough of the movie itself, which is what it is. But the extras (I guess we’re supposed to call them Special Features) include an amazing array of short Vitaphone sound subjects, as well as a great Tex Avery-directed 1936 cartoon, I Love to Singa, which riffs on Jolson and The Jazz Singer (a pop-crooning bird, named Owl Jolson, loves to, ah, singa despite his professorial father’s insistence on classical music only within the hollowed-out tree called home).

The four hours’ worth of Vitaphone shorts range from 1926 to 1936. They are a window onto a vanished era of both music and comedy, as well as a very peculiar idea of entertainment. Novelty musicians abound, such as Bernardo De Pace: Wizard of the Mandolin and Sol Violinsky: The Eccentric Entertainer. The Ingenues, an all-female orchestra, perform in a short called The Band Beautiful; after their first number they launch into a second in which eight of the players switch from their instruments to accordians, led by a new accordian soloist; lead player Frances has her name studded onto her instrument and spends her solo looking into the wrong camera, but no matter. The spectacle of a big-band arrangement with a nine-accordian lead is something to see, and hear. However, when the entire band goes to banjoes, the thing really begins to take flight.

Comedians Shaw & Lee do nonsense songs in tandem and tell some deadpan jokes with elaborate double-take reactions. The routine might be two hundred years old; you can imagine John Wilkes Booth in the audience. Ethel Sinclair and Marge La Marr do At the Seashore, two gals dishing at Atlantic City (of a handsy date, “He asked me, ‘Darling, how do you feel,’ and I told him, ‘If anyone knows, you should'”). George Burns and Gracie Allen appear in Lambchops, a slice of their evergreen act, Gracie proving again that the particular personality of a performer, when loosed by a skilled artist, can triumph even over stale material.

Baby Rose Marie, a five-year-old pre-Shirley Temple singer who would later become the brassy co-star of The Dick Van Dyke Show, gets her own showcase, proving herself a hilariously savvy little mugger. At least with Rose Marie and Burns and Allen, you have a pretty good idea what became of the person in question; so many of the people gathered here call out from a scratchy, black-and-white time capsule: Paul Tremaine and his Aristocrats, Green’s Twentieth Century Faydettes. Even a well-known vaudeville performer like Trixie Friganza is exotic, an ambassador of a kind of shtick that doesn’t fly anymore but that is admirable for its expert timing and complete mad commitment.

The bigger amazement is that these thing exist. Disbelief and pleasure sit side-by-side as you watch them, along with idle thoughts about how 2010-vintage entertainment will look in 2099. You have to see this stuff.

The Ingenues in The Band Beautiful.