THE DVD SHELF: Jolson's "Jazz Singer," "ShowBusiness" and a Fragrant "Ratatouille"

THE DVD SHELF: Jolson's "Jazz Singer," "ShowBusiness" and a Fragrant "Ratatouille" This month's column discusses the long-awaited arrival of the early talking picture "The Jazz Singer," with a stunning array of extras; Dori Berinstein's musical theatre documentary "Show Business: The Road to Broadway"; and the delectable animated charmer, "Ratatouille."
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The owners of catalogues of vintage movies are coining a mint, presumably, by issuing all these old films on DVD. In the process, though, they have seen the wisdom of cleaning up and restoring many of their titles. Cleaning up is not the operative term for "The Jazz Singer," that legendary Al Jolson title that has gone down in history as the first talking picture ever — which, in fact, it isn't. Or, as Mr. Jolson might say, it ain't. But close enough for our purposes.

Fans of legendary old movies — or theatre fans curious to get a glimpse of what this greatest entertainer of his era was really like in performance — might well have caught "The Jazz Singer" before, either in a revival house or on late-night TV. In either case, it was undoubtedly old and scratchy, a primitive print of a primitive film. In this case, the above-mentioned wisdom of the owners of the old Warner Bros.-Vitaphone catalogue has paid off handsomely for the consumer. Here is the "Three-Disc Deluxe Edition" of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer [Warner]. You might well turn to this in expectation of a state-of-the-art restoration of the 1927 film, and you will be more than satisfied with the results. But — to once more quote Mr. J. — you ain't seen nothin' yet.

The numerous bonus features include "An Intimate Dinner in Honor of Warner Bros. Silver Jubilee," which is basically a command appearance of Warner employees in evening clothes at a banquet table bowing sheepishly to the camera. This being in September 1930; significantly enough, Mr. Jolson is neither seen nor mentioned. (Warner stars Barrymore, Arliss and Barthelmess are off on location, but they send cables for the occasion.) Most of these stars are long gone and forgotten, but the banquetgoers include some very special guests who were coincidentally on contract just then: Jerome Kern, looking especially uncomfortable, sitting with his collaborator Otto Harbach; Lorenz Hart, smiling and happy, with his partner Richard Rodgers (whose ears are sticking out); and Oscar Hammerstein, shy and silent, with Sigmund Romberg. None of them had an especially good time with the Bros. Warner, although they each went on to make fine film musicals elsewhere; but here they are, and the evidence is most happily presented for us to see. The short is capped with the smiling and vivacious Marilyn Miller, another sample of Broadway royalty who was wasted by Warner and never did establish herself on screen. Although perhaps the owners of the catalogue will one day give us "Sunny," so we can see for ourselves.

The third of three discs includes 24 Vitaphone shorts, or I suppose we should say vintage Vitaphone shorts. These were used as filler programming, as well as teasers for Vitaphone features. Watching these serves as a virtual vaudeville revue, as many of these are simply transplanted acts. Of interest among the group are Elsie Janis, Lyda Roberti, Eddie Foy Jr. (wearing vampire teeth and doing eccentric dancing), Baby Rose Marie (30 years before she joined Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore), and George Burns and Gracie Allen doing their set piece, "Lambchops." But all this takes us away from discussion of "The Jazz Singer" itself. This was a 1925 hit drama about the son of a cantor who forsook his religious upbringing for ragtime. Cast out of the house by his stern father, the boy grows into a great stage star. George Jessel, who starred in Samson Raphaelson's play on Broadway, refused to sabotage his career by playing it on the screen. Jolson wound up with the part, and the rest — as they say — is history. This is not what we might call a talking picture; most of the film is a standard silent, with subtitle cards. When the time came for singing, though, Warner and Vitaphone saw the wisdom of giving the ticketbuyers access to the great Broadway star Jolson singing just like he did at the Winter Garden on Broadway. Vitaphone had been in use for more than a year prior to the opening of "The Jazz Singer," initially with a musical track for the 1926 John Barrymore-starrer "Don Juan." Talking had been heard from the screen as well; Jolson himself made a short called "Al Jolson in A Plantation Act," singing three of his hits in front of a prop shack with a couple of live roosters in the background. (This short is among the bonuses that come with "The Jazz Singer," and gives us a rather more authentic feeling for Jolson's performance style than the musical sections of "The Jazz Singer.")

All in all, this is a remarkable box set; not so much for "The Jazz Singer" itself — a creaky and not especially timeless motion picture — but for all that accompanies it. And let us add that, yes, Jolson performs in the grotesque makeup popularly known as blackface; in a dressing room scene, the director actually shows us — and the film's blonde leading lady — the star transforming himself from Jolson to the Mammy singer.

"The real drama is behind the curtain" is the tag-line for ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway [Liberation], and that just about describes it. Dori Berinstein, one of the producers of Legally Blonde, Fool Moon and other shows, took it upon herself to document a season of Broadway musicals, namely the 2003-2004 semester. Berinstein and her crew set up cameras all over Times Square, it seems, and accumulated hundreds of hours of film. Not knowing, of course, what the season would bring, or what she would end up with.

The resulting documentary turns out to be a fascinating snapshot of what some perceptive lyricist once called "the business we call show." (All right, it was Lee Adams.) If the season in question was not one of the more exciting ones in recent memory, that is neither here nor there. The drama — or shall we say, the real drama — was pretty strong. This was the year of (in alphabetical order) Avenue Q; Caroline, or Change; Taboo; and Wicked — two wonderful musicals, two not-wonderful musicals, two hits, two failures. The titles in column A are not quite the same as in column C, at least in my opinion; but that is one of the realities of Broadway, and one of the points of the film.

This quartet, it turns out, gave Berinstein a wide canvas upon which to work, and the show people involved gave Berinstein and on-screen co-producer Alan Cumming full and candid access. (At least, let us say that many of those involved granted candid access; there are certain people who seem to be missing in action.) Among the prominent and perceptive on-screen participants are songwriters Stephen Schwartz, Bobby Lopez & Jeff Marx, Jeanine Tesori and Boy George; performers Tonya Pinkins, Idina Menzel, Euan Morton and Raúl Esparza; librettist Jeff Whitty; director George C. Wolfe; and producers Rosie O'Donnell and David Stone. Threaded into the proceedings are ongoing discussions with press agent Chris Boneau, advertising exec Nancy Coyne, and a half-dozen or so theatre journalists.

This last group, who usually toil in virtual anonymity, provide a highlight (or lowlight?) of the documentary. There they sit at Orso, trading in personal opinions and gossip about this show and the other; it is hard to overlook such pronouncements as the opinion that the puppet show will certainly close by January. The critics are revealed to be precisely what they are: enthusiastic theatre fans, with strong opinions (just like most enthusiastic theatre fans) and the ability to make said opinions known. They calls 'em like they sees 'em; sometimes they are right — which is to say, they praise shows that the public turns out to like — and sometimes not. Wicked is a case in point; producer Stone, interviewed as the reviews come in, looks like he is attending a funeral. During the early weeks of the run, he is optimistically cautious; by the end of the season, with the show breaking all-time box office records and well on its way to being one of the most successful American musicals ever, the harsh words of the most important and supposedly "critical" critics are forgotten. We watch as Wicked receives one last slap in the face on Tony Awards night; but from the vantage point of today, Wicked seems to have done okay. Even though it was decidedly not "Popular" among critics and voters.

Ben Brantley of The New York Times is present as well, although cloistered from the other critics. Brantley appears at what seems to be his office desk, which is dominated by a veritable pyramid of books the likes of which no art director, or even Santo Loquasto, could hope to design. Leaving one to wonder, where does Mr. Brantley keep his cappuccino?

"ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway" is studded with Broadway personages; part of the charm of the film is that Ms. Berinstein seems to have everyone on camera, pauper or prince. Look, there's Broadway's most famous composer with someone fixing his tie! Is he identified with a voiceover or one of those graphic overlays? Nope. Doesn't matter. Those that recognize him, do; otherwise, it doesn't matter. There's a prominent record producer having his nose bit off mid-recording session by a Kate Monster. It's all part of the tapestry against which the Broadway season functions (or dysfunctions). The playgoer goes home after their two-and-a-half hours at a musical with visions of the actors and chorus, along with perhaps the back of the head of the man or woman in the pit waving a stick; but the Broadway musical isn't about performers, it is about community. The musicians and stagehands, the dressers and hair-makeup people, the producers and rehearsal staffs, the advertising agencies and press departments and more. The Broadway musical is a community, and "ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway" gets it precisely right. Berinstein apparently set out to compile a visual counterpart to William Goldman's ever-relevant 1969 chronicle of Broadway, "The Season." Look, there's Goldman himself dispensing some wisdom. What's that prominently placed on the bookshelf, stage left of his ear? The Holy Bible? Interesting detail. But "ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway" is brimming, every frame, with interesting detail.

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Little need be said about Ratatouille [Disney], the newest animated comedy from the Disney/Pixar combine, except that it is quite wonderful. Funny, smart and fragrantly delectable. Well-written, too, with the sort of comic sensibility we like to see in the theatre. We generally restrict this column to DVDs with at least some connection to the stage, so let us add that the key character of Anton Ego — while a restaurant critic by trade — is surely inspired by one of Broadway's most renowned, least lovable and arguably legendary sniveling penpushers. And deliciously voiced by Peter O'Toole, who is joined by the likes of Ian Holm and Brian Dennehy. Bonuses include deleted scenes and a new short featuring Remy, the culinary hero of the occasion. "Ratatouille" makes a joyful diversion, and is sure to please even the most egocentrically critical among us.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)