A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1927 – The Jazz Singer
First – of course. No justification needed.
Second – a lot of people think this is the first sound film. It’s not. It’s the first feature with synchronized dialogue. Technically the first sound ever recorded on film was Thomas Edison reading ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ This is a silent movie that has sequences with dialogue and songs. The first full feature sound film was Lights of New York. But, in terms of general film history, yes, this was the first major sound feature. I just want people to be aware of the specificities before we go on making claims that aren’t wholly accurate.
That aside, it’s impossible to not consider this the biggest thing to happen to Hollywood in 1927. This movie changed the direction of Hollywood and irrevocably changed film history. Silent film ceased to exist because of this movie. (Not immediately, but within five years.)
In a way, this may be the film that changed Hollywood the most of any film ever released.
The film itself is actually more famous than it is good. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination. But it was revolutionary. And usually, film people know all about it, and can talk about it, but might not have even seen it. I didn’t see this movie until I was 23 or 24. Because you’ve seen the clips (if you’ve seen Goodfellas as many times as most of us have, you remember the “Toot Toot Tootsie” scene and how he whistles on his fingers. And can probably recite the whistles based solely on the ten seconds you hear them in that movie, while the police are searching the house and Karen and the kids are watching TV), you know all about it. So because of that you never actually get around to watching the damn thing.
Anyway, the movie itself is about Al Jolson (vaudeville star at the time, who was very popular for performing in blackface and a song called “Mammy.” In case you thought this movie wasn’t racist), a son of a rabbi, who wants to be a singer. And his father disowns him because of it. Because he has to become a rabbi too. So he goes out and becomes famous, and he’s still estranged from his father. And only when his father is dying do they reconcile. So the movie itself is not particularly great, but when you have sound all of a sudden, it’s going to be a big deal no matter what the story is.
Warner Bros. had been putting out films with sound before this, but never before had actually done dialogue. Dialogue was put into films before, but only in short films. So this was the first time a studio was going to attempt to put dialogue into a feature-length film.
And at this point, the studio was really close to bankruptcy (typically they are at the moments of their biggest triumph, as we’ll see ten years from now), and needed this movie to perform well, otherwise there may not even be a Warner Bros. studio anymore.
The first song is performed 15 minutes into the movie. And right after, Jolson speaks his first words, which are, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” which is the famous line everyone remembers from this movie (albeit oft-misquoted). Technically those are the first spoken words in a feature sound film. The song came before it, but in terms of dialogue, that is the first line.
Other than that, the film doesn’t really have that much synchronized dialogue (Wikipedia says about two minutes in all), but it was still a marvel for its time.
The premiere was apparently an exciting place to be. The audience broke out in applause after all of Jolson’s songs. They cheered when the first line was spoken. They started chanting when the dialogue scene happened. And right there, the future of cinema history changed forever.
After this, every studio immediately started working on their sound processes to record dialogue. As we saw recounted in The Aviator, Howard Hughes completely recut Hell’s Angels to have sound and dialogue because of this movie and the changing of the times. It’s like when Avatar came out and everyone was quickly rushing to convert to 3D and theaters were converting to digital projection. This movie changed everything.
Of course, the transition wasn’t completely smooth (and we won’t really be able to go over it on this list, based on the films I have chosen, but we will in great detail on the next one, I promise), and many of the films over the next four to five years were very much compromised because of the transition to sound, but it’s an exciting period for Hollywood. We basically see them learning to put sound in their movies on the fly. IF you’ve seen Singin’ in the Rain, it was very much that. “Talk into the plant!” They had to develop microphones that could pick up dialogue from anywhere without picking up each other. They had to find ways to record the sound clearly. They had to figure out how to stage scenes differently. They had to relearn how to light sets. They had to figure out how they were going to move the cameras and shoot scenes now that the cameras were big and bulky and couldn’t move, and that the lights were too loud for the microphones. Everything Hollywood thought it had figured out over the past decade was completely wiped out in a moment, and they had to relearn how to do it all again, but this time, with sound.
And it’s all because of the Jazz Singer.