October 6, 1927: a date which will live in infamy! It was on this day that an audience at New York's Warners' Theatre watched -- and, more importantly, heard -- The Jazz Singer, a film starring the immensely popular Al Jolson and featuring his actual voice. The Jazz Singer holds a significant place in film history for being the first "talkie," so the answer to the question of what's the big deal about it is self-evident. But let's smear black greasepaint on our faces -- no, on second thought, let's not do that -- and dive in.
The praise: At the very first Academy Awards, held in May 1929 and honoring films from 1927 and 1928, The Jazz Singer earned a special citation as "the pioneer outstanding talking picture which has revolutionized the industry." It was also nominated for best adapted screenplay and best "engineering effects" (i.e., special effects). Contemporary reviews were understandably focused more on the movie's technical innovations than on its story or production, but it was generally regarded as a good film, if not a remarkable one apart from the whole talking thing.
The context: In the 1910s and '20s, Al Jolson (1886-1950) was by far the most popular entertainer in America, selling out show after show on Broadway and around the country. His style was revolutionary for its time: wildly energetic and extroverted, he would turn an ordinary concert of popular tunes into a spectacular. The St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture observes that "Al Jolson was to jazz, blues, and ragtime what Elvis Presley was to rock 'n' roll.... Jolson was a rock star before the dawn of rock music."
Upon seeing him perform in the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr. in 1917, the writer Samson Raphaelson was struck by Jolson's emotional intensity and star power. Five years later, Raphaelson published a short story, "The Day of Atonement," based loosely on Jolson's life as a young Jewish man who became a popular singer. He then adapted the story into a stage play called The Jazz Singer, which opened on Broadway in 1925 to great success. George Jessel, a popular entertainer in his own right (and a friend of Jolson's), starred in the show, and was the obvious choice to appear in the film version when Warner Brothers bought the movie rights. But the Warners (still the actual original brothers in those days) couldn't come to terms with Jessel about his paycheck or the screenplay, the first version of which deviated from the stage play significantly and offended Jessel.
This was good news for movie history, though, because the Warners' offered the role to Al Jolson, who was phenomenally popular and was the original inspiration for the story anyway. Would Jessel, as fine a performer as he was, have electrified movie audiences the way Jolson did? Would it have been as magical to hear Jessel's voice coming from the screen as it was to hear Jolson's? Perhaps these questions are answered in a parallel universe, but in this one we can only guess.
Then there was the matter of sound. Movie theaters had used live music, ranging from a single piano or organ to a full orchestra, to accompany films since the beginning of the medium, so it was only natural that someone would seek to simplify the process by including recorded music in the films themselves. Inventors as far back as Thomas Edison had experimented with the idea. The most obvious solution -- to have a phonograph record accompany the film -- also had the obvious drawback of being very, very easy to screw up. Just a tiny skip in the record and the movie's out of synch -- and that's if you can synch them up correctly to begin with.
The system that some smart engineers came up with, and which I am not smart enough to fully grasp, was sound-on-film. Basically, the sound waves were converted to patterns of light and shade and included on the film strip next to the images. Some magic thing in the projector would convert the patterns back into sound, and voila. Synchronization wasn't a problem, and if part of the film was damaged and had to be cut out, the corresponding sound was cut out too. Technology for sound-on-film had existed since around 1910, but it wasn't until after World War I that people started getting serious about it.
Meanwhile, a company called Vitaphone (a department of AT&T) was perfecting sound-on-disc with an expensive projection system that used a phonograph player and a sophisticated synchronization apparatus. After being turned down by the major Hollywood studios, Vitaphone found a buyer in Warner Brothers, still a minor company in 1926 but looking to aggressively expand. The Warners spent $800,000 to lease the Vitaphone system (which included exclusive rights to sublease it to other studios), and another $3 million to promote it. They weren't thinking of talking pictures, though; the idea was simply to have synchronized music accompany their films, which would make them more successful in smaller theaters that didn't have orchestras.
The Warners launched Vitaphone in August 1926 with Don Juan, a lavish costume drama starring John Barrymore and accompanied by a magnificent score recorded by the New York Philharmonic. The feature was preceded by a program of short films that also had sound, including one in which the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America gave a speech lauding the new process. The whole affair was an enormous hit, and the Warners were emboldened. They hired Don Juan director Alan Crosland to make The Jazz Singer.
And so, as you can see, The Jazz Singer was NOT the first movie to have pre-recorded sound. It was the first feature-length movie to have pre-recorded dialogue. Don Juan had music and sound effects but no talking (and so did The Better 'Ole, also in 1926), and a handful of shorts had music and talking but were not feature-length.
The movie: A young Jewish man (Al Jolson) blessed with a fine singing voice is torn between a career in show business and following his father's wishes that he become a cantor at the synagogue.
What it influenced: Have you seen a movie recently? Did it have talking in it? Then you have beheld the influence of The Jazz Singer!
Or perhaps that's an overstatement. As noted, The Jazz Singer was the first feature-length movie to have recorded dialogue, but not the first instance of synchronized sound in the cinema. "Talking pictures" had been the dream of many filmmakers from day one; it was only a matter of waiting for technology to catch up. Everything came together in the 1920s. If The Jazz Singer hadn't been the first talkie, something else would have been, and probably not more than a year or so later.
But producing one talking picture isn't the same thing as fundamentally transforming movies forever. For that to happen, your talking picture has to strike a chord with audiences, to make it clear that it is not merely a novelty but the next step in the evolution of the art form. The Jazz Singer was a major hit -- partly because of the novelty factor, sure, and partly because it was a good movie. More than that, though, it demonstrated the potential of sound, showing it to be more than a mere gimmick.
Film historian David A. Cook describes the effect of The Jazz Singer's one dialogue scene, between Jakie and his mother:
"This was the only spoken dialogue in the film, yet its impact was sensational. Audiences had heard synchronized speech before, but only on formally contrived and easily anticipated occasions, such as the speech that preceded Don Juan. Suddenly, though, 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.... Thus, we say that the 'talkies' were born with The Jazz Singer not because it was the first feature-length film to employ synchronized dialogue, but because it was the first to employ it in a realistic and seemingly undeliberate way" (A History of Narrative Film, 4th ed., p. 210).
Though it was the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system that introduced talkies to the world through The Jazz Singer, that method was soon discarded in favor of sound-on-film, which had always been the ideal solution but had been difficult to produce from a technological standpoint. When The Jazz Singer rocked everybody's world and signaled the beginning of the Sound Era, the engineers got busy perfecting sound-on-film, and it became the official worldwide industry standard in 1930.
For the Warner Brothers, the next step after The Jazz Singer, which only had a few minutes of dialogue, was to make a feature-length film that was ALL talking. That was Lights of New York, released in 1928 to great financial success as the first movie in history to rely entirely on audible dialogue to tell its story. By the end of 1928 -- barely a year after The Jazz Singer -- it was apparent to all of Hollywood that silent movies would be gone sooner rather than later. Production of sound pictures was ramped up, and silent films that had been shot in the meantime had sound hastily added to them, the 1928 equivalent of 3-D post-conversion. Nearly every cinema in America had been wired for sound by the end of 1929. Attendance rose from 60 million in 1927 to 110 million in 1929.
The Jazz Singer was directly remade in 1952 (with Danny Thomas) and 1980 (with Neil Diamond). The basic story of an entertainer choosing between his heritage and his desire to perform has become an archetype of its own.
What to look for: Your first surprise might be that hey, wait a minute, this is mostly a SILENT MOVIE! There are several musical numbers, some stage patter from Jolson (including his famous declaration that "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"), and a dialogue scene between him and his mother. But the bulk of the film is in the traditional format known at that time: musical accompaniment throughout, with narration and dialogue provided by intertitles. (Having the music prerecorded rather than performed live was new in 1927, but to someone watching it today, on DVD, the thrill of that novelty is gone.)
The movie is therefore rather typical of silent dramas from that era, and may seem overly melodramatic and slow-paced to a modern viewer. The story now feels incredibly familiar, even predictable. In short, while it's a movie that every devoted film lover should see, it's not necessarily a movie that every devoted film lover will love. Its value as a historical artifact is tremendous, though.
Oh, right. The blackface thing. Jolson was one of many popular entertainers who would often perform in blackface, a holdover from 19th-century minstrel shows. The idea is inherently racist, of course, and many of the performances were overtly racist in their exaggerated and stereotypical depictions of black characters. But in The Jazz Singer, Jolson uses blackface as nothing more than a theatrical device. When he's in blackface, he's free to sing ragtime and jazz songs -- i.e., black music -- but he doesn't otherwise impersonate the race. Embarrassing though it is today, it was through blackface performances that many white people first encountered jazz, blues, and ragtime music. The Wikipedia entry on the subject offers a good overview, and goes into more detail than I can do here.
Further reading: Corin Willis has an excellent essay about The Jazz Singer in the book Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film. He particularly addresses the blackface scene, and ties it to the movie's larger themes of cultural identity and assimilation. You can read most of the essay online through Google Books.
The contemporary reviews in The New York Times and Time magazine are fascinating snapshots of people's reactions to the advent of sound. Mordaunt Hall seems perplexed by some of the technicalities: "There are also times when one would expect the Vitaphoned portions to be either more subdued or stopped as the camera swings to other scenes. The voice is usually just the same whether the image of the singer is close to the camera or quite far away."
As always, Tim Dirks' detailed analysis is also useful. You don't need to worry about spoilers too much with this film, so read up.