Reviews of the First “Talking Movie” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

These documents represent a pair of reviews–one artistic and the other technical–of The Jazz Singer, the first movie to use synchronized dialogue during the film. The use of such technology was a watershed moment in the film industry, marking the beginning of the end of silent films. What made it possible was a system called the Vitaphone, which linked sound disks to the movie reels, allowing them to operate together in a coordinated movement, syncing the visual and audio parts of the movie. The two reviews here touch on the movie and its plot, but both (and especially the second) are interested in the way in which the Vitaphone system changed the experience of viewing a movie. By presenting audio dialogue, as well as integrated music, with the scene on screen, moviemakers could now provide an added depth to the medium and make it more enjoyable for all types of audiences. The second review, in particular, discusses the technology behind The Jazz Singer and the way it revolutionized the film industry, turning cinema into the massive enterprise it is today.

Summary Overview

These documents represent a pair of reviews–one artistic and the other technical–of The Jazz Singer, the first movie to use synchronized dialogue during the film. The use of such technology was a watershed moment in the film industry, marking the beginning of the end of silent films. What made it possible was a system called the Vitaphone, which linked sound disks to the movie reels, allowing them to operate together in a coordinated movement, syncing the visual and audio parts of the movie. The two reviews here touch on the movie and its plot, but both (and especially the second) are interested in the way in which the Vitaphone system changed the experience of viewing a movie. By presenting audio dialogue, as well as integrated music, with the scene on screen, moviemakers could now provide an added depth to the medium and make it more enjoyable for all types of audiences. The second review, in particular, discusses the technology behind The Jazz Singer and the way it revolutionized the film industry, turning cinema into the massive enterprise it is today.

Defining Moment

Before The Jazz Singer, no full-length film had ever been produced with synchronized sound. (There were only a few shorter, test films released in the year prior.) Movies were silent, and the only words employed were those displayed on placards (“title cards”) inserted between shots or screens, often breaking up the momentum of the scene. While music would often play while the actors were on screen, in order to provide emotional force and aid with the understanding of the plot, the interactions among characters had largely to be interpreted by audience members. The Jazz Singer completely changed the face of movies and broadcasting technology for the future. The film tells the story of a young Jewish man and the perennial conflict between family and dreams. More important, it launched a social, cultural, and technological revolution in cinema that still affects us today, as film technology continues to advance.

Although the two reviews included here came out several years apart, they touch on similar ideas about the Vitaphone system and the benefits it added to movies. The Variety magazine piece gives a more artistic review, talking about the ways in which the actors contributed to the story and how the lack of a central love story did not diminish the overall plot, even though its absence was notable. In the Radio News piece, the focus is more on the nature and impact of the Vitaphone. While The Jazz Singer was still a relatively recent film when this piece was written, other Vitaphone movies had been made since and the author takes account of that fact. Still, the piece demonstrates the importance of The Jazz Singer in having introduced “talking movies,” or “talkies,” to the American public.

Author Biography

The first review, which is unsigned, comes from Variety magazine, a weekly that began publication in 1905 and is still in circulation today. This magazine has always been concerned with the entertainment industry, but after the explosion of the movie trade in the 1930s, it created an offshoot, Daily Variety, which dealt exclusively with film. The article reproduced here predates that time, but is a fine example of Variety’s interest in the film industry. The second article, by Charles Feldstead, was published in Radio News, which began in 1919 and ended publication in 1959. Radio News dealt almost exclusively with the technology associated with the radio, movie, and, later, television industries. Charles Feldstead, an industry sound engineer, is representative of its contributors.

Document Analysis

These articles have two main themes: the quality of The Jazz Singer as a film and the efficacy and impact of the Vitaphone system on the film industry. The first of these is addressed only in the Variety magazine article, while the second is the main focus of the Radio News article and sections of the Variety piece. These articles show that the true star of The Jazz Singer was not the movie or the actors themselves (with the possible exception of Jolson), but the great technological leap that it employed in being the world’s first feature-length “talkie.”

Because Variety magazine has always been focused on the movies, their plot and audience impact, rather than on the technology, it follows that its review would be more centered on the actors and the quality of their performances. Most of the article deals with the actors’ performances and the interplay between the film’s characters, explaining, in some detail, the main plot points and key songs of the movie. At the same time, information about the Vitaphone system is not lacking in the piece. The review notes that some of “the orchestral accompaniment to the story is scratchy,” yet the reviewer, as most everyone else who saw the film at the time, was delighted by both the technology and the movie as a whole. The only downside to the film, according to this article, is its lack of a love story subplot. Clearly, this suggests, there is a desire among filmgoers for a romantic interest in a film story.

Radio News, in contrast, was always styled as a technology magazine. That coupled with the fact that this particular article came out in 1931, four years after The Jazz Singer was in theaters, shows that the article was not especially interested in the aesthetics of a single film; rather, it sought to look at the use and improvement of the Vitaphone as whole, from a slight historical perspective. The article examines the increasing use of synchronized dialogue in film and argues against anyone who believes that film with Vitaphone is a passing fad. If anything, the author writes, it is the traditional theater that faces going out of business as the movie industry continues to grow and develop. This is a somewhat remarkable claim, albeit one that was in circulation in popular opinion at the time. Another impressive statement is that, in the future, films can be expected to be in color, like the natural world, and eventually to have “depth,” or three dimensions, as well. Both of these developments, of course, later came to pass. It is interesting that author Feldstead anticipated them by nearly a decade in the case of color, and by a few decades in the case of three-dimensional cinema.

Essential Themes

The first article in this selection, from Variety magazine, raves about The Jazz Singer and the ways in which the actors bring the characters to life. But it also focuses on how suitable this storyline is for Broadway, the gold standard of the entertainment business. The singing is what brings to life the story, but without the music numbers, as presented through the Vitaphone, the story and main actor become lacking in presence. It is interesting to note that there is a large flaw in the production of the movie–namely, that had it not been for the Vitaphone and its newness, it may not have done as well at the box office given the lack of connection the audience has with the main character. The Variety review lines up well, in fact, with the impression that The Jazz Singer has left on audiences and critics over time. It is considered to be groundbreaking work on the technological side, but a somewhat nostalgic and overly sentimental production in its plot devices and conclusion. (One can also say that it takes quite a leap of imagination for modern viewers to get into the vaudevillian spirit of the stage performances on screen and to appreciate Jolson’s use of blackface, a long-ago abandoned, and disparaged, method of acting.)

In the second, Radio News article, the author opens by stating that “talkies” are here to stay. His confidence has been confirmed in the three or four years since their arrival, with Hollywood and the film industry having continued to grow in the intervening years. What is most interesting about this piece, at least in terms of its long-term influences, is the author’s clear understanding about how the new technology, as good as it is, needs improving and the steps that must be taken, and the people that must be trained, in order to make that happen. In his last paragraph Feldstead even lays out a few of the futuristic ways in which movies will eventually be presented, with in-house systems, natural color, and “depth” of picture, or three-dimensionality.

Another thing to note in the second review is the author’s idea that the theater, or stage, will likely “fall into disuse;” at best, he says, it might be used for movie premieres. Clearly, this assertion has proven to be false in the long run, as theater shows remain a vital part of many nations’ cultures and theater companies continue to tour nationally and internationally. While the stage may not have the same prominence it once had, it has not fallen out of favor or interest, but rather has adapted, much like its cinematic counterpart, to ever-changing interests and influences.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Barrios, Richard. A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
  • Crafton, Donald. The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926–1931. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. Print.
  • Eyman, Scott. The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926–30. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.
  • Geduld, Harry M. The Birth of the Talkies: From Edison to Jolson. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1975. Print.
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