Premieres as the First “Talkie” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The commercial success of The Jazz Singer began the era of talking pictures and led to a restructuring of the film industry.

Summary of Event

The opening of the film The Jazz Singer in New York City on October 6, 1927, represented the culmination of one in a long series of attempts to bring synchronized sound to motion pictures. Thomas Alva Edison Edison, Thomas Alva [p]Edison, Thomas Alva;motion-picture technology[motion picture technology] had invented the motion-picture camera in 1891, not because he saw a great commercial future in film but because he wanted a visual accompaniment to another of his inventions, the phonograph. Edison’s idea was that sight and sound should combine in one home entertainment machine. Thirty-five years later, he had failed to accomplish that goal, as had numerous inventors who saw commercial potential in talking films. When the introduction of storefront film theaters, called nickelodeons, created a boom in the film industry beginning in 1905, more attention was devoted to improving the technology of motion pictures. Nobody, however, could solve the problem of synchronizing sound with the moving image. [kw]Jazz Singer Premieres as the First “Talkie,” The (Oct. 6, 1927) [kw]First “Talkie,” The, Jazz Singer Premieres as the (Oct. 6, 1927)[First Talkie, The, Jazz Singer Premieres as the (Oct. 6, 1927)] [kw]"Talkie," The, Jazz Singer Premieres as the First (Oct. 6, 1927)[Talkie, The, Jazz Singer Premieres as the First (Oct. 6, 1927)] Jazz Singer, The (film) Motion pictures;The Jazz Singer[Jazz Singer] Sound recording technology;motion pictures Warner Bros.;The Jazz Singer[Jazz Singer] [g]United States;Oct. 6, 1927: The Jazz Singer Premieres as the First “Talkie”[06920] [c]Motion pictures;Oct. 6, 1927: The Jazz Singer Premieres as the First “Talkie”[06920] [c]Entertainment;Oct. 6, 1927: The Jazz Singer Premieres as the First “Talkie”[06920] Jolson, Al Warner, Harry Warner, Jack Warner, Sam Craft, Edward B.

The solution to this tricky technological problem was finally found in the laboratories of Western Electric, Western Electric Manufacturing Company the research and manufacturing subsidiary of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). Western Electric’s scientists had invented a system of electrical recording based on vacuum tube amplifiers, which had been perfected in their laboratories. The sound was picked up on microphones, amplified, and recorded onto disks. Loudspeakers were developed to complement the system. The first commercial application of this technology was the public-address system, introduced in 1920, which could fill a large auditorium with amplified sound. The chief engineer of the Western Electric laboratories, Edward B. Craft, saw many potential applications for this technology, and in 1922 he obtained permission from his superiors at AT&T to perfect it and begin its commercial application.

Craft demonstrated electrical recording to film producers and record companies in 1924, but without success. Both groups had large investments in existing technology, and the film industry had not forgotten the string of failures of talking-picture technology, not the least of which was Edison’s disastrous and highly publicized kinetophone Kinetophone of 1913, which was booed off the stage in many theaters.

It was therefore left to a smaller company to see the advantages of Western Electric’s system and manage its commercial introduction. The Warner brothers had started in the nickelodeon business in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, at the turn of the century. Sam ran the projection machine, Jack sang in the pit, and the oldest brother, Harry, ran the business. From these small beginnings, they moved to Hollywood and produced their first feature film in 1918, repeating a process by which many film exhibitors had moved into the production of motion pictures. The Warner Bros. film company grew steadily in the 1920’s, and by 1925 it was attempting to build a distribution network of film rental services and theaters to market its growing output.

The Warner brothers’ initiation into the new technology of vacuum tubes and amplification of sound came when they built a radio station to enter the broadcasting business. They recognized that this was an important new form of entertainment and that it could be used to advertise their films. Sam Warner, who managed this operation, heard about Western Electric’s new technology from radio experts he consulted. His brothers saw that electrical recording could be married to Western Electric’s public-address equipment of amplifiers and loudspeakers to fill theaters with recorded sound. Their business strategy was to replace the professional musicians in theaters, enabling smaller exhibitors to provide the kind of musical accompaniment that was heard in the big picture palaces. It was never the Warner brothers’ intention to make synchronized sound tracks for motion pictures; all they wanted was background music of recorded sound.

Warner Bros. entered into an agreement with Western Electric in 1925 to introduce the sound-on-disk system. The brothers formed a joint company, the Vitaphone Corporation, and set about recording an orchestral accompaniment to a silent picture. Their first attempt was Don Juan, which was released with several Vitaphone Vitaphone short features in 1926. Critical and audience reaction was favorable, but none of the major film producers saw any reason to convert to sound. The Warner brothers were convinced that the future was in the “talkies,” however, and they acquired a Broadway play to turn into an elaborate, full-length picture.

The studio convinced Al Jolson to play the leading role in the planned film. As one of the most popular vaudeville stars in the United States, Jolson was a major attraction, and his presence ensured that the film would not go unnoticed. The Jazz Singer tells the story of a young Jewish man who abandons his family and the traditional music of his religion to become a star in the world of popular entertainment, a plot that reflected Jolson’s own career. It was to be another silent film with short musical interludes until Jolson ad-libbed his famous line, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet!” during a rehearsal. It was therefore by accident that The Jazz Singer introduced synchronized speech to films. The finished film contained only a few scenes with speech and Jolson singing; the rest was silent, with the usual titles interjected to display dialogue for the audience to read.

The Jazz Singer premiered in New York City at Warner’s Theater on October 6, 1927. It was not an immediate success. The audience was thrilled when Jolson spoke from the screen, but neither critics nor leading filmmakers were very impressed. In the weeks that followed the premiere, Warner Bros. mounted a national press campaign to attract attention to the innovation of sound. Despite lukewarm reviews, attendance for the film grew rapidly as it opened in theaters across the United States. In 1928, The Jazz Singer began to set records for the length of run, and it finally grossed the unprecedented sum of three million dollars. By the end of the year, the returns from The Jazz Singer and other sound films convinced Warner Bros. to shift all of its film production into “talkies.” The other major filmmakers soon followed.

Western Electric pressed Warner Bros. to return its initial exclusive license and then formed Electrical Research Products Inc. (ERPI) to market the technology to the film industry. Several large film companies took out licenses from ERPI in 1928, and by the end of the year every major film producer was making talking pictures. The process of wiring up film theaters for sound moved ahead rapidly, and in a very short time about fifteen hundred of the largest theaters in the United States were equipped to show talking pictures.

In the same year that Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer, William Fox Fox, William demonstrated his Movietone Movietone sound system system, which recorded sound directly onto film. There were now two competing technologies for synchronized sound. Sound on film had the advantage of being easier to operate because there were no disks to be mixed up or broken. Filmmakers could also edit talking pictures by cutting and rejoining lengths of film, a task impossible with sound on disk. Another system of sound on film was developed by the Radio Corporation of America, which organized Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) to make and show sound pictures. By 1930, all the major filmmakers had graduated to sound on film, and the technology made famous by The Jazz Singer was obsolete.

Significance

The Jazz Singer began a transition to a new form of motion-picture technology that completely changed film production and restructured the film industry. In only three years, sound recording was incorporated into filmmaking, sound equipment was installed in theaters, and silent films had all but vanished. Thousands of actors and musicians lost their jobs, and only one major star of silent films, Charles Chaplin, managed to survive in the new order of the “talkies.”

The five largest film studios—Loew’s/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Universal, Paramount, First National, and United Artists—prudently waited until The Jazz Singer was a proven commercial success before they moved into sound. By that time, the Warner and Fox companies had taken the lead in applying the new technology to filmmaking. Warner Bros. followed the success of The Jazz Singer in 1928 with The Singing Fool, which also starred Al Jolson and commanded the record admission price of eleven dollars for its premiere. The Singing Fool Singing Fool, The (film) was a great success and one of the highest-grossing Hollywood features of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The enormous enthusiasm for talking pictures generated record levels of profits for the film industry. Warner Bros. and Fox took the lion’s share of the early rewards. From 1928 to 1929, profits at Fox increased by $3.5 million, and those at Warner Bros. increased by an astounding $12 million. Both studios began to acquire theaters and other film producers at a rapid rate. Warner Bros. took over First National, and Fox temporarily took control of Loew’s/MGM. The two pioneers of sound quickly became major forces in the film industry.

In 1930, the major film producers were Paramount, Loew’s/MGM, Warner Bros., Fox, and RKO. The Big Five, as they were known, went on a buying spree, acquiring film theaters, buying out smaller competitors, and purchasing music publishers and record companies. Each company controlled a network of film theaters to exhibit its films. Warner Bros. became the first integrated entertainment empire, with holdings in film, radio, music publishing, and records. As one example of integration, The Singing Fool promoted Al Jolson’s songs, which were recorded on the Brunswick record label, controlled by the Warners, and were owned by music publishing companies under Warner control. Two songs from the film, “Sonny Boy” and “There’s a Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder,” were the best-selling records of 1928.

Talking pictures ushered in a period of great profits for exhibitors as well. The novelty of sound captivated audiences, and the five years after the premiere of The Jazz Singer saw unprecedented levels of enthusiasm for motion pictures. It has been estimated that on average every person in the United States over the age of six went to a film theater once a week during this period. The onset of the Great Depression severely damaged other entertainment industries, but the motion-picture industry appeared to be immune to depression.

The popularity of film musicals, which provided the best showcase for the new technology, made film producers the leading consumers of music in the entertainment business. They acquired the rights to numerous Broadway musicals, and a stream of songwriters and artists made their way west to work in Hollywood. The average cost of a motion picture began to rise as filmmakers indulged themselves in ambitious musical productions involving large casts and highly paid stars. Musicals such as The King of Jazz, made by Paramount for about $2 million in 1930, overshadowed the great epics of the silent era in terms of spectacle and set a precedent for the Hollywood musicals of the 1930’s.

The transition to sound favored larger film companies, for only they could raise the money to pay for it. The complex process of putting sound on film required great amounts of capital and considerable technical expertise. Adopting the technologies of synchronized sound required a massive construction program, because new film studios had to be built to accommodate sound recording and all theaters had to be converted to reproduce film sound. Sound was an important factor in the consolidation of the film industry. A small number of fully integrated companies came to dominate both film production and theatrical exhibition. The corporate structure that emerged in reaction to the advent of sound was to define Hollywood in its Golden Age of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Jazz Singer, The (film) Motion pictures;The Jazz Singer[Jazz Singer] Sound recording technology;motion pictures Warner Bros.;The Jazz Singer[Jazz Singer]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bandy, Mary Lea, ed. The Dawn of Sound. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989. Published in conjunction with an exhibition and series of films commemorating the introduction of sound to film. Contains several excellent short essays that describe the technology and its history. Includes many rare photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cameron, Evan W., ed. Sound and the Cinema. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Redgrave, 1980. Collection of essays by scholars and technicians on the transition to sound in film and its development as an important feature in motion pictures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crafton, Donald. The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997. Discusses all aspects of the shift from silent films to films with sound, including the public’s reaction to talking pictures and the effects of sound on the aesthetics of filmmaking. Includes bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eyman, Scott. The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Comprehensive history of the period in Hollywood filmmaking when silents gave way to sound. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freedland, Michael. Jolson. New York: Stein & Day, 1972. Entertaining, concise biography is short on detail in some respects, but still a first-rate telling of Jolson’s story. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geduld, Harry M. The Birth of the Talkies: From Edison to Jolson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. Excellent discussion of the development of sound in films. Highlights the roles of the pioneers who developed sound technology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldman, Herbert G. Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Classic biography, well written and detailed. Includes numerous photographs from all aspects of Jolson’s life and an extensive listing of Jolson’s appearances on stage, in films, and on records.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gomery, Douglas. Movie History: A Survey. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1991. History of the American film industry written by the leading authority on the conversion to sound. Provides a good introduction to the transformation of the industry following the introduction of sound. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyman, Darryl. Great Jews on Stage and Screen. Middle Village, N.Y.: Jonathan David, 1987. Includes a section on Al Jolson that provides an overview of the entertainer’s career, including brief discussion of The Jazz Singer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sarris, Andrew.“You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film—History and Memory, 1927-1949. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Comprehensive history of American cinema since The Jazz Singer by one of the most respected American writers on film. Features an index of films and an index of names.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shipman, David. The Story of Cinema. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Well-written history includes a chapter on the development of sound films. Features numerous photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warner, Jack, with Dean Jennings. My First Hundred Years. New York: Random House, 1964. Personal account of the making and impact of The Jazz Singer by one of the Warner brothers; entertaining and full of important insights. Presents a firsthand look at the trials and tribulations of introducing a new technology into the motion-picture industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weis, Elisabeth, and John Belton, eds. Film Sound: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Collection of scholarly articles addresses every aspect of the conversion to sound and shows its effects on filmmaking and the film industry.

Edison Shows the First Talking Pictures

Warner Bros. Introduces Talking Motion Pictures

Sound Technology Revolutionizes the Motion-Picture Industry

Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age

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