What Happened Next…
Al Jolson shocks and delights the world with the first feature-length ‘talkie’, featuring a full two minutes of dialogue
‘Talkies’ mark a new age for movies
At a New York City cinema on 6 October 1927, filmgoers gathered to watch the premiere of a new Hollywood movie, The Jazz Singer. The plot revolved around young Jewish singer Jakie Rabinowitz, torn between his orthodox family and his love of jazz. When Jakie (played by singer Al Jolson) exclaimed, “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet”, viewers gasped with surprise and joy. After all, this was the very first motion picture to feature dialogue and spoken word, otherwise known as a ‘talkie’.
Today, few are aware that the story was in fact inspired by Jolson’s own life – like Jakie, his father was a cantor (a leader of hymns in synagogues). After seeing Jolson singing in concert, playwright Samson Raphaelson was inspired to write a play about him, which proved a hit on Broadway. Warner Brothers acquired the movie rights, and it was only right that Jolson play the lead. But to appreciate his dazzling vocals, the audience would have to hear his voice. In the era of silent movies, this would be a challenge.
In 1926, the company had introduced a pioneering sound system that would change the industry forever – Vitaphone. Sound would be recorded on a disc, and it was the job of the cinema projectionist to sync the audio to the picture. Crucially, it meant both dialogue and song could be used in filmmaking. Though Warner Bros had already released two productions using this system, neither contained actual speech.
The Jazz Singer cost a monumental $422,000 to make ($5.7 million today), and almost bankrupted the studio. Harry Warner even sold his wife’s jewellery and moved to a smaller home, just to save his beloved studio. Sadly, Sam Warner – Harry’s brother and the film’s co-creator – died the day before the premiere.
Filmgoers who flocked to Warners’ Theatre soon realised that something magical was happening to the movies, and the public and critics alike raved about the new technology. Although only around 100 cinemas in the US were equipped to show the film with its soundtrack, there was a mad rush soon after The Jazz Singer’s release for Vitaphone audio equipment. Ever since Jolson’s moving songs brought audiences to tears, the film industry hasn’t looked back.