Jazz Singer Sounds Death Knell for Silent Movies

An advertising  poster for The Jazz Singer distributed by Warner Brothers
An advertising poster for The Jazz Singer distributed by Warner Brothers

by Ray Setterfield

October 6, 1927 — The Jazz Singer premiered on this day at the Warner Theatre in New York. Starring Al Jolson, it was the first feature film with synchronised speech as well as music and sound effects. It revolutionised the motion-picture industry and marked the end of the silent-film era.

In truth, The Jazz Singer was not the first film to have pre-recorded sound, but it was the first feature-length movie to have pre-recorded dialogue.

In his book, A History of Narrative Film, movie historian David A. Cook describes the effect of The Jazz Singer's one dialogue scene, between Al Jolson's character and his mother:

"This was the only spoken dialogue in the film, yet its impact was sensational. . . Suddenly, here was Jolson not only singing and dancing but speaking informally and spontaneously to other persons in the film as someone might do in reality.

"The effect was not so much of hearing Jolson speak, as of overhearing him speak, and it thrilled audiences. . .

". . . We say that the 'talkies' were born with The Jazz Singer not because it was the first feature-length film to employ synchronised dialogue, but because it was the first to employ it in a realistic and seemingly undeliberate way."

Warner Brothers were on the verge of bankruptcy in 1926 and in a last throw of the dice the studio decided to risk its future by investing in the new Vitaphone sound system.

It was this that made The Jazz Singer a box-office success the like of which no one had previously known and it turned Warner Brothers from a shoestring operation into Hollywood's leading film factory.

In total, the movie contains barely two minutes worth of synchronised talking. The rest of the dialogue is presented through caption cards, or intertitles, standard in silent movies of the era.

One newspaper thought it was "scarcely a motion picture. It should be more properly labelled an enlarged Vitaphone record of Al Jolson in half a dozen songs."

But that was another major factor in the film's success. By 1920, Jolson had become the biggest star on Broadway and to see – and hear – him sing and dance was irresistible.

Born in Lithuania in 1886 as Asa Yoelson, the man to become world-famous as Al Jolson moved with his family to the United States when he was aged seven. He became a popular entertainer and singer in New York and appeared in several musicals.

In one of them, Sinbad, made in 1918, he took a relatively unknown composition by George Gershwin, Swanee, and made it into his trademark song. It was to sell more than two million recordings.

Another musical, The Whirl of Society, propelled his career on Broadway to new heights. Jolson would tell the audience, "You ain't heard nothin' yet" before performing additional songs and introducing his signature blackface character, "Gus."

Jolson, self-billed as “the World’s Greatest Entertainer,” was one of many artists who would often perform in blackface, a hangover from 19th-century minstrel shows. It seems inherently racist now but Jolson's defenders say that in The Jazz Singer he used blackface as nothing more than a theatrical device.

The film tells the story of a young Jewish man (Jolson) blessed with a fine singing voice who is torn between a career as a singer, especially of jazz and ragtime tunes – black music – and following his father's wishes that he become a cantor at the synagogue.

In blackface, he felt free to sing ragtime and jazz songs, but he didn't otherwise impersonate the race.

Harlem's newspaper, Amsterdam News, certainly was not offended by The Jazz Singer, calling it "one of the greatest pictures ever produced." And it said of Jolson: "Every colored performer is proud of him."

For Warner Brothers, the next step was to make a feature-length film that was ALL talking. And so, in 1928, Lights of New York became the first movie in history to rely entirely on audible dialogue to tell its story.

It was a box office triumph and by the end of 1928 – barely a year after The Jazz Singer – it was apparent to Hollywood that the age of silent movies was at an end.

Published: September 20, 2018

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