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The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson.
The late 1920s saw the birth of a new performing art form,
musical film. The earliest
Hollywood musicals were mostly clumsy, and it would be several years before filmmakers
recognized this new genre's unique artistic needs and possibilities, but
from the beginning, audiences embraced screen musicals with tremendous
Technologically primitive "talkies" with synchronized sound were
introduced as a vaudeville oddity as early as 1907, but audiences were not impressed. The
earliest technology was plagued by tinny sound quality and weak amplification. Hollywood
had built a multi-million dollar industry using a wordless language of image and gesture
that the whole world responded to, so few people in the business believed
that sound films would ever be more than a minor sideline.
But Hollywood always had its share of newcomers who were hungry
enough to try something new. By the mid-1920s, several studios were experimenting with
improved sound systems. Warner Brothers Studio had been around since
1918, but had long been plagued by financial problems and an uneven creative
reputation. In 1926, Warners took a gamble on Vitaphone, a system
which coordinated filmed images with sound recorded on large phonograph disks.
Vitaphone's strength was an amplified speaker system that could fill large theatres with
clear sound. From the start, the executives at Warners were not interested in making films
talk. Harry Warner said, "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? The music that's
the big plus about this."
Don Juan (1926)
starring John Barrymore was the first feature film released with a full-length
synchronized soundtrack. There was no dialogue, but rather a background score
performed by the New York Philharmonic, plus a few selected sound effects. It was shown with
several Vitaphone short subjects starring well-known opera and vaudeville stars. The premiere
at Warner's Theatre in New York City on August 6, 1927 drew rave reviews, particularly for
tenor Giovanni Martinelli's rendition of Pagliacci's "Vesti la giubba."
This Vitaphone program then toured to other cities (there were too
few technicians to enable a general release). Vitaphone technology was fragile -- the sound
disks had to be replaced after every ten uses, and it was easy for the picture and
discs to fall out of synch. But audiences responded
to the new technology with awe. The Warner brothers were so impressed that
they decided to use prerecorded background scores for all
their future feature films, but dialogue and songs were still not in the plan.
The sound fad grew as Fox Studios started using Vitaphone in its popular newsreels,
including appearances by politicians and celebrities. With change knocking at the
door, the rest of Hollywood decided to stonewall. In
A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film (NY: Oxford, 1995),
film historian Richard Barrios tells us that most of the major studios
(including MGM, Paramount and Universal) met behind closed doors and secretly agreed that
"the threat of sound should be officially ignored. abrogated, or at least forestalled
as long as possible." Even the studios that accepted sound were
convinced silent features would remain the norm.
All of the industry's denials and objections would be swept aside by a tidal wave
of audience demand -- a wave provoked by a Broadway legend in black face minstrel
The Jazz Singer
Warner Brothers' The Jazz Singer (Warner
Bros. - 1927) was the first full-length feature to use recorded song and dialogue.
Original plans were to film it with vaudeville comic George Jessel,
who had starred in the 1925 Broadway production. When Jessel increased
his salary demands, the studio heads realized that they would be better off
investing in a major star like Al Jolson. With
"the world's greatest entertainer" heading the cast, Warners also decided
to insert a few songs. What would be the point of paying for Jolson if
audiences couldn't hear him sing?
Viewers today are often surprised to find this landmark film is mostly silent,
and mostly slow going. Only Jolson's brief sound sequences vibrate
with life. No dialogue had been planned until Jolson began ad-libbing lines
in his musical sequences. While filming a nightclub scene, he responded to
an audience of audience of extras by shouting his familiar stage motto, "You ain't
heard nothin' yet," then improvised a few sentences of dialogue before breaking into
his trademark hit song "Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye." The resulting
footage was so vivid that more opportunities for "spontaneous" dialogue
were added. Because Vitaphone recording equipment and technicians were scarce, all of the
sound scenes had to be filmed during the last nine days of the film's month long shooting
Rabinowitz (actress Eugenie Besserer) kvells as her beloved son Jackie (Al Jolson)
serenades her with Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" in The Jazz
The Jazz Singer tells the story of an Orthodox Jewish
cantor whose talented son must choose between following his father's musical
tradition or pursuing success as a jazz "shouter" on Broadway. In a
memorable scene, Jolson chats with his doting mother before treating her to
a snappy rendition of "Blue Skies," igniting his father's outrage.
Accounts differ on whether Jolson's banter was scripted. Although the piano
accompaniment (a studio musician played while Jolson fingered a silent keyboard)
was well rehearsed, co-star Eugenie Besserer is so visibly flustered in her
responses that it is reasonable to assume that Jolson was not slavishly
following a script. Most likely he was engaging in the same kind of
improvisation that marked his stage performances.
"You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet"
The Jazz Singer premiered at Warner's Theatre in New York City on Oct. 6, 1927,
just one day after the untimely death of co-producer Sam Warner. Audiences showed tremendous
enthusiasm, but so few movie theatres were wired for sound that much of America saw it as a
silent film, with the neighborhood pianist banging out accompaniment. That did not
prevent the film from raking in a major profit. Produced for approximately
$422,000, The Jazz Singer grossed $2.6 million. Although not a
record-breaking amount, it was extraordinary considering how few
theatres were wired for Vitaphone.
Although The Jazz Singer pointed towards serious change, most
people in the motion picture business reacted with yet another wave of denial, insisting that
the film did nothing more than prove Al Jolson's amazing popularity. Industry publications
like Variety downplayed sound film, repeatedly pointing out how only a few dozen
theatres were wired for sound, and that these systems were unreliable, and
far too expensive for small theatres to install. Most of Hollywood was still
insisting that sound film was no more than a fad! But professionals who attended
The Jazz Singer's Hollywoo premiere in December 1927 were shaken --
As the film ended and applause grew
with the houselights, Sam Goldwyn's wife Frances looked around at the
celebrities in the crowd. She saw "terror in all their faces,"
she said, as if they knew that "the game they had been playing for
years was finally over."
- Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution
(NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997, p. 160).
The Jazz Singer played to packed
houses in city after city. As popular demand for more sound films grew, a
"fad" became an inevitability.
More Vitaphone shorts and features with musical soundtracks
appeared, each new entry stoking the public's appetite. By the time Jolson's
next sound vehicle, The Singing Fool (1928), was released, Warners
had equipped a nationwide chain of theatres with Vitaphone sound systems.
The Singing Fool is a maudlin, partially silent melodrama about a
singer who loses the young son he loves. Jolson's tear-stained rendition of
"Sonny Boy" packed theatres, and for the first time the commercial
impact of sound film became evident. The Singing Fool (which cost a
mere $388,000 to make) grossed $5.6 million worldwide, a record-setting figure
that some sources claim would not be surpassed until
Gone With the Wind came along a decade later.
Change was no longer knocking at Hollywood's studio doors -- it was
blowing those doors off their hinges.
Next: Film 1927-30 -