Archiving America: The Vitaphone, the DVD, and Warner Bros. (re)Store Jazz History

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Jennifer Fleeger

Jennifer Fleeger

@jenniferfleeger
Speaker Website
MITH Conference Room
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
12:30 pm

In 2007 Warner Bros. released the 80th anniversary DVD edition of The Jazz Singer, a boxed set that includes 34 conversion-era sound shorts and a 90-minute documentary about the Vitaphone and the birth of sound cinema. This collection is a tempered version of Warner’s prior histories of the conversion that situate the studio squarely at the lead in what its executives unflinchingly labeled a “revolution” of the motion picture industry. While Warner Bros. explicitly appeals for a revision of its former hubris, the jazz shorts included in this volume not only support the studio’s prior nomination of Al Jolson as the leader of American jazz, they characterize American music history as a hodgepodge of white performances lacking a dominant trend and calling for a star. In this collection as in many of its other DVD releases, Warner Bros. recreates the film experience by including contemporary shorts that might plausibly (and in some cases would certainly) have been screened alongside the feature for which the disc was conceived. An attempt at historical accuracy, this practice instead constructs a spectator capable only of browsing the past for clues to what both he and the studio already know to be true. This presentation considers the practice of archiving American jazz for both the period of conversion and the present reconstruction of the era and argues that the potential for innovation enabled by digital remastering is complicated by Warner’s continued efforts to shape the reception of its historiography.

Jennifer Fleeger received her Ph.D. from the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa in 2009. Her dissertation, “Opera, Jazz, and Hollywood’s Conversion to Sound,” concentrates largely on sound shorts released between 1926 and1932 and analyzes competing film sound technologies with respect to the genres of music employed to catalogue cultural experience. She has published articles in Music, Sound and the Moving Image and an anthology on media marketing and her piece on Al Jolson and the Vitaphone is scheduled to appear this fall in The Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

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