What Hap­pened Next…

Al Jol­son shocks and de­lights the world with the first fea­ture-length ‘talkie’, fea­tur­ing a full two min­utes of di­a­logue

History Revealed - - FROM THE EDITOR -

‘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.

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