Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet! Wait a minute, I tell ya! You ain’t heard nothin’!!
When Al Johson uttered this sentence in 1927s, in the film The Jazz Singer, it changed the world of Film Industry overnight. True to his words, Jolson spoke the first dialogue to be ever spoken on-screen. This marked the arrival of the Talkies, which eventually put an end to the Silent Films, forever.
Before proceeding forwards, let’s clear out few things about The Jazz Singer:
- It wasn’t The First Sound Film.
- It wasn’t The First Vitaphone Feature Film. (It was Don Juan, 1926)
- It wasn’t The First All-Talkie Film. (It was Lights of New York, 1928)
So what makes The Jazz Singer so important?
It was the first film to include dialogues and music which ran along with the filmstrip. It caught the imagination of audience with sound.
Sound to a Film, is like Stars to the Sky. It adds, Flare!!
The story revolves around a young Jewish boy named Jakie Rabinowitz. Jakie, the son of Jewish cantor wants to be a Jazz Singer. But his father, Cantor Rabinowitz believes it would better for Jakie to carry the family tradition by singing in a cantor, instead of using his gifted voice in performing ”raggy time songs”.
Jackie leaves his house in order to follow his dreams. After years of hard work, Jackie who is now known as Jack Robin becomes a popular Jazz Singer.
As he climbs the ladder of success, the void of the family starts to haunt him. On one hand, where his mother supports him, his father is disgusted by the idea of his son being a Jazz Singer.
The drama intensifies during the climax where Jackie is stuck in dilemma.
Jackie is about to get his Big Break by opening as the star of a Broadway Musical.
The same night, his father falls seriously ill. Jackie has to choose between giving up on his life-long-dream or breaking his mother’s heart. Not a surprise that he gives up on singing at the Broadway and sings Kol Nidre at the synagogue.
The film ends with Jackie getting another shot at opening a show.
Full Cast & Crew
Al Jolson as Jackie Rabinowitz (Jack Robin)
Warner Oland as Cantor Rabinowitz
Eugenie Besserer as Sara Rabinowitz
May McAvoy as Mary Dale
Otto Lederer as Moisha Yudelson
Richard Tucker as Harry Lee
Yossele Rosenblatt as Himself
Music: by Louis Silvers
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Edited: Harold McCord
Samson Raphaelson – Prior to the film, he wrote a hit play based on his own short story, ‘The Day of Atonement’
Alfred A. Cohn – was the one to adapt the play into a script.
Directed: Alan Crosland
Before The Jazz Singer, there was an era of Silent Films. Ironically, these so-called-silent-movies were not so silent. They were mostly accompanied by music. From live orchestra, to record player, to a narrator, were performing in the background during the initial shoot of the movie.
But the 1920s brought technological advancement when Bell Laboratories developed a technique that allowed an audio track to be placed on the film itself. This new technology was called Vitaphone. Don Juan, a 1926 blockbuster used the same process in its making. The movie had music and sound effects in it, but NO Spoken Dialogues.
Samson Raphaelson had written a short story called ‘The Day of Atonement’. Later, he developed the same story and a hit play was made with George Jessel. Warner Bros. acquired the rights to the play in June 1926. The production dates were set for April 1927. Whereas, the filming was done from 11 June 1927 – August 1927.
Warner Bros.s last few hits were made with their Vitaphone sound system. Alan Crosland, the director who had worked with a Vitaphone system in Don Juan and Old San Francisco, was chosen to direct the film. For the lead role of Jackie, Al Jolson was signed. Jolson was paid $75,000 for his 8 weeks of service.
After Don Juan’s success, the music of the film was handed over to George Robert Groves. He was a film sound engineer who played an important role in developing the technology that brought Sound to the Silent Movies. He has credited for being Hollywood’s First ‘Sound Man’ as he was the Recording Engineer of the movie, The Jazz Singer.
Initially, the film would only have synchronized music, NOT SPEECH. But Al Jolson drops the famous line ”You ain’t heard nothing yet.” after the song ”Dirty Hands, Dirty Face.”
Sam Warner, the founder of Warner Bros. and creative mind of the film, insisted that Jolson’s ad-libbed speech to be included in the movie. In reality, Jolson iconic line was an ad-lib. The director agreed with the idea and the line was wisely left.
Al Jolson went on to speak 60 words in one scene and 294 words in another. The film also included 6 chart buster hits. The sound disc lacked memory for entire movie with sound thus; the rest of the movie was in silent. The title cards were used, just like all-silent-films.
While filming, each of Jolson’s musical acts was mounted on the separate reel. Each reel was accompanied with a sound disc to go along with it. During editing, the total of 15 reels and discs were combined along with the rest of the footage to create an 89-minute film.
The movie was filled with drama, overload of emotions and cliché dialogues like ”He is not my boy anymore. He belongs to the world.”
The movie didn’t do well in front of critics. But this didn’t stop The Jazz Singer from becoming a major success. With the budget of nearly half a million dollar, Warner Bros. venture made a whopping $7.6 million dollars at the box office.
“The supreme triumph the world has ever known in the Motion Picture Industry” was one of many tags given to The Jazz Singer.
The First Honorary Academy Award for Technical Achievement 1927-28, was presented to Warner Bros. for producing The Jazz Singer – the outstanding pioneer talking picture which revolutionized the industry.
Sound system used in earlier years of Hollywood:
Vitaphone Company was founded by Warner Bros. and Western Electric. Whereas, the sound-on-disc system was developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories.
From 1926 till 1931, Warner Bros. and First Nation studios used Vitaphone for production of their 1,000 short films and few feature-length films.
In a Vitaphone system, a film projector and a record player were rigged up. Hence, when the projector was turned on, so would the record player. While mounting the film, the projectionist carefully synced the film to a spot on the record sent with the film. Ultimately the disc would run alongside projector, adding sound to the film. Thus in theory, a film was synched with the accompanying sound.
In 1926, Alan Crosland directed Don Juan became the First Full-Length film to utilize the Vitaphone Technology. The movie had synchronized musical score and sound effect, but No Dialogue. The film was a major success. The Vitaphone process received a massive ovation for its efforts.
Two months later, Warner Bros. released The Better ‘Ole, the second full-length film to utilize the Vitaphone Process.
In 1928, Warner Bros released Lights of New York, filmed with Vitaphone sound-on-disc sound system. The movie made from the budget of $23,000, went on grossing $1.2 million.
Many studios started converting from silent to sound film production. Even theatres rewired for the sound effect. Warner Bros. went into great debt by investing around $3 million to build ‘picture places’ to show Vitaphone Films.
Although, Vitaphone’s fame was short-lived, making it the last method of sound on disc used in Hollywood.
Reasons of Failure of Vitaphone:
- Arrival of Fox-Movietone.
- This unmanageable equipment did not create a demand for more talking films.
- The quality of the synchronized sound system was inconsistent.
- Vitaphone films were hard to distribute, as distributors had to send out disc along with the film. Plus, the projectionist had to be skilled enough at syncing.
In 1926, William Fox of the Fox Film Corporation collaborated with General Electric in creating Movie tone. In this process, a sound was directly printed onto film.
The sound was recorded as a variable-density optical track on the same film strip which recorded the picture. In contrast to Vitaphone, this turned out to be far more effective and efficient method.
On 21st January 1927, R.Meller’s short film What Price Glory? was shown at Sam H. Harris Theatre in New York City. Though the short film wasn’t quite synchronized, this was the first demonstration of Movietone to the public. Eventually, in the same year, the same movie was re-released with complete sound effect and Movietone synchronization.
The Same year, Fox released the movie, Sunrise. It was the first feature film released using the new Fox Movietone system. Sunrise also became the first professionally produced feature film with an actual soundtrack.
On 20th May 1927, Fox released a Fox-Movietone News newsreel of the Lindbergh takeoff from New York for his flight across the Atlantic towards Paris. This became the First Sound News Film.
A few days later, Fox-Movietone came with a 5-minute short film named ‘They’re Coming to Get Me.’ This black and white short film was the first ‘talkie’ using the Movietone system.
Alongside Warner Brothers Vitaphone and Fox-Movietone, DeForest Phonofilm and RCA Photophone were some other sound system available in the 1920s. In fact, Phonofilm was an earlier version of Movietone.
In 1928, the sound-on-film process RCA Photophone was adopted by studios such as RKO Radio Pictures and Paramount Pictures.
Writer: Sid Parab