The Birth Of ‘The Talkies’ – 90th Anniversary Of The World Premiere Of The Jazz Singer [1927]

Picture: May McAvoy and Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, 1927. This photograph was used for the film poster artwork (see below).

When Ian Hendry first appeared in films in the 50s – with minor roles in productions such as Simon and Laura [1955], Up in the World [1956], The Secret Place [1957] and Room at The Top [1959] – the fact that the voices of the actors could be heard in sync with the moving pictures was nothing untoward, it was expected. But less than 30 years earlier, it was seen as a revolutionary idea that many thought would not work and dismissed the proposed release of The Jazz Singer as a desperate attempt by Warner Bros to rescue itself from a dire financial situation. The film’s enormous success, however, was the catalyst for a dramatic turnaround in the companies fortunes and led to a period of growth and expansion overseas.

In around 1940, Warner Bros. purchased a 40% stake in the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC), originally British International Pictures (BIP), which was a British film production, distribution and exhibition company active from 1927 until 1970 when it was absorbed into EMI. Warner Bros. also owned a stake in ABPC’s distribution arm, Warner-Pathé, from 1958.

ABPC expanded into television and formed ABC TV in 1955 and their first broadcast was on 18th February 1956. ABC TV was one of a number of commercial television companies established in the United Kingdom during the 1950s by cinema chain companies, in an attempt to safeguard their business by becoming involved with television which was taking away their cinema audiences. ABC TV gave Ian Hendry his big break when he was cast in the lead as Dr. David Keel in the The Avengers in 1961 and, of course, Warner Bros. also had a share in the ABC TV company too. After Ian Hendry left The Avengers to concentrate on a career in film, it was Warner-Pathe that acted as the distribution company for one his first major releases – This Is My Street [1964].

 

Picture: Warner-Pathe complimentary ticket for two – This Is My Street [1964], Studio One, Cinema House, Oxford Street, London.

Picture: Cinema House, Oxford Street – venue for the screening of This Is My Street in 1964. On 22nd July 1952, the intricate multi-coloured neon sign on the facade was switched on for the first time. Covering the entire facade, it became a famous landmark in Oxford Street for many years.

____________________________________

This weekend we go back to that landmark moment and celebrate the 90th anniversary of the very first ‘talking picture’ – The Jazz Singer. The film’s premiere at Warner Bros. landmark theatre in New York City on 6th October 1927, marked one of the key moments in the history of film-making.

In this article, we look back on the key discoveries and developments from photography to silent films to ‘the talkies’ and reflect on the moment that The Jazz Singer turned the whole film industry ‘on it’s head’.

The Birth of Photography

Photography and film had been invented in the previous century – with the daguerreotype process being the first publicly announced and commercially viable photographic process. The daguerreotype required only minutes of exposure in the camera, and produced clear, finely detailed results. The details were introduced as a gift to the world in 1839, a date generally accepted as the birth year of practical photography.

Picture: “Boulevard du Temple“, a daguerreotype made by Louis Daguerre in 1839, is generally accepted as the earliest photograph to include people

 

William Henry Fox Talbot, however, created the earliest surviving photographic negative in 1835, taken of a small window at his home, Lacock Abbey – then the home of the Victorian polymath. Frustrated by his inability to paint and draw, he wanted to find a way to ‘fix images’. He wrote:

How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible? I asked myself.

After some experiments Talbot took an image of a window at his home Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire in 1835. This image, not much bigger than a stamp, is now celebrated as the world’s earliest surviving photographic negative.Talbot invented a process for creating reasonably light-fast and permanent photographs that was the first made available to the public; however, his was neither the first such process invented nor the first one publicly announced.

Picture: William Henry Fox Talbot, first negative taken in 1835 of a window at his home at Lacock Abbey.

Shortly after Louis Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype was announced in early January 1839, without details, Fox Talbot asserted priority of invention based on experiments he had begun in early 1834.  Fox Talbot had invented a process which involved a negative – which could then be used to produce multiple reprints and used in publishing. The daguerrotype process, however, only produced a positive image and so had a more limited commercial use.

Whilst the daguerrotype initially produced the better final image, the next stage in the development of photography belonged to the negative based process. The calotype or talbotype process introduced in 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot, used paper coated with silver iodide. Talbot’s former home is now looked after by The National Trust which now contains the Photography Museum.

 

In 1884 George Eastman, of Rochester, New York, developed dry gel on paper, or film, to replace the photographic plate so that a photographer no longer needed to carry boxes of plates and toxic chemicals around. In July 1888 Eastman’s Kodak camera went on the market with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest”. Now anyone could take a photograph and leave the complex parts of the process to others, and photography became available for the mass-market in 1901 with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie.

From Photography to Silent Films

The earliest precursors of film began with image projection through the use of a device known as the magic lantern. This utilized a glass lens, a shutter and a persistent light source, such as a powerful lantern, to project images from glass slides onto a wall. These slides were originally hand-painted, but still photographs were used later on after the technological advent of photography in the nineteenth century. The invention of a practical photography apparatus preceded cinema by only fifty years.

The next significant step towards film creation was the development of an understanding of image movement. Simulations of movement date as far back as to 1828 and only four years after Paul Roget discovered the phenomenon he called “Persistence of Vision“. Roget showed that when a series of still images are shown at a considerable speed in front of a viewer’s eye, the images merge into one registered image that appears to show movement, an optical illusion, since the image is not actually moving. This experience was further demonstrated through Roget’s introduction of the thaumatrope, a device that spun a disk with an image on its surface at a fairly high rate of speed.

The three features necessary for motion pictures to work were “a camera with sufficiently high shutter speed, a filmstrip capable of taking multiple exposures swiftly, and means of projecting the developed images on a screen”.  The first projected primary proto-movie was made by Eadweard Muybridge between 1877 and 1880. Muybridge set up a row of cameras along a racetrack and timed image exposures to capture the many stages of a horse’s gallop. The oldest surviving film (of the genera called “pictorial realism”) was created by Louis Le Prince in 1888. It was a two-second film of people walking in “Oakwood streets” garden, titled Roundhay Garden SceneThe development of American inventor Thomas Edison‘s Kinetograph, a photographic device that captured sequential images, and his Kinetoscope, a viewing device for these photos, allowed for the creation and exhibition of short films. Edison also made a business of selling Kinetograph and Kinetoscope equipment, which laid the foundation for widespread film production.

Due to Edison’s lack of securing an international patent on his film inventions, similar devices were “invented” around the world. The Lumière brothers (Louis and Auguste Lumière), for example, created the Cinématographe in France. The Cinématographe proved to be a more portable and practical device than both of Edison’s as it combined a camera, film processor and projector in one unit.  In contrast to Edison’s “peepshow“-style kinetoscope, which only one person could watch through a viewer, the cinematograph allowed simultaneous viewing by multiple people. Their first film, Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon, shot in 1894, is considered the first true motion picture. The invention of celluloid film, which was strong and flexible, greatly facilitated the making of motion pictures (although the celluloid was highly flammable and decayed quickly). This film was 35 mm wide and pulled using four sprocket holes, which became the industry standard. This doomed the cinematograph, which could only use film with just one sprocket hole.

The silent film era lasted from 1895 to 1936. In silent films for entertainment, the dialogue is transmitted through muted gestures, mime and title cards with a written indication of the plot or key dialogue. The idea of combining motion pictures with recorded sound is nearly as old as film itself, but because of the technical challenges involved, synchronized dialogue was made practical only in the late 1920s with the perfection of the Audion amplifier tube and the introduction of the Vitaphone system. During silent films, a pianisttheater organist, or, in large cities, even a small orchestra would often play music to accompany the films. Pianists and organists would either play from sheet music or improvise; an orchestra would play from sheet music.

From the very beginnings of film production, the art of motion pictures grew into full maturity in the “silent era” . In artistic innovation alone, the height of the silent era from the early 1910s to the late 1920s was a fruitful period in the history of film — the film movements of Classical HollywoodFrench ImpressionismGerman Expressionism, and Soviet Montage began in this period. Silent filmmakers pioneered the art form to the extent that virtually every style and genre of film-making of the 20th century had its artistic roots in the silent era. The silent era was also a pioneering era from a technical point of view. Lighting techniques such as three point lighting, visual techniques such as the close-uplong shotpanning, and continuity editing became prevalent long before silent films were replaced by “talking pictures” in the late 1920s.

The Silent Film To ‘The Talkies’ – The Jazz Singer [1927]

 

The Jazz Singer is a 1927 American musical film. As the first feature-lengthmotion picture with not only a synchronized recorded music score, but also lip-synchronous singing and speech in several isolated sequences, its release heralded the commercial ascendance of sound films and the decline of the silent film era. Directed by Alan Crosland and produced by Warner Bros. with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, the film, featuring six songs performed by Al Jolson, is based on a play of the same name by Samson Raphaelson, adapted from one of his short stories, “The Day of Atonement”

The premiere was set for October 6, 1927, at Warner Bros.’ flagship theater in New York City; it was chosen to coincide with Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday around which much of the movie’s plot revolves. The buildup to the premiere was tense. Besides Warner Bros.’ precarious financial position, the physical presentation of the film itself was remarkably complex:

Each of Jolson’s musical numbers was mounted on a separate reel with a separate accompanying sound disc. Even though the film was only eighty-nine minutes long…there were fifteen reels and fifteen discs to manage, and the projectionist had to be able to thread the film and cue up the Vitaphone records very quickly. The least stumble, hesitation, or human error would result in public and financial humiliation for the company.

The film depicts the fictional story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young man who defies the traditions of his devout Jewish family. After singing popular tunes in a beer garden he is punished by his father, a hazzan (cantor), prompting Jakie to run away from home. Some years later, now calling himself Jack Robin, he has become a talented jazz singer. He attempts to build a career as an entertainer but his professional ambitions ultimately come into conflict with the demands of his home and heritage.

Video: The Jazz Singer Trailer [1927] – with footage of the premiere in New York City.

The following piece by Michael Freedland reflects the rise of the talking picture – an event which would go onto to revolutionise the whole film industry.

You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: The Moment Al Jolson Sounded The Birth Of The Talkies

Ninety years ago, in October 1927, Warner Bros was facing ruin. It staked its future on a film called The Jazz Singer – and turned an entire industry upside down

It was just a short scene in a movie, in which a diminutive actor utters a few unscripted words to the orchestra leader, reciting a line that went down in history: “Wait a minute … you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” But it was a scene that changed the entertainment world and heralded the dramatic arrival of sound to the movies.

Never again would audiences have to read “titles” to explain the action or translate the sweet nothings of lovers. In the space of just over an hour, the silent film was dead.

The moment occurred 90 years ago this weekend. The owners of rival studios had thought their competitors at the near-broke Warner Bros were going out of their minds. The idea of Warners featuring Al Jolson, the biggest star on the American musical stage, actually singing in an upcoming film was madness.

The producers laughed into their martinis as they smoked their cigars and contemplated picking up the spoils after Warner Bros filed for bankruptcy, as it surely would. Jolson plainly couldn’t survive either. Or could he? No. It was all a recipe for failure. For starters, The Jazz Singer, the story of the son of a synagogue cantor who breaks his father’s heart by going into showbiz, had to be a crazy choice.

Those rivals predicted trouble and drank and laughed some more. They could have had no idea how much trouble was coming. The arrival of sound brought disaster, bankruptcies and unemployment to a whole range of people – from silent movie stars to theatre cleaners.

The other studio heads had asked themselves what would happen if the machine controlling the records synchronising sound with action broke down? And those voices? Few stars sounded as good as they looked.

It had to be a flop. Didn’t it? Just a year before, Warners had made Don Juan, starring Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Astor, which didn’t exactly set the Hudson river on fire, despite sound effects like the clash of swords or chairs being thrown – all to the accompaniment of the New York Philharmonic.

The reason Sam Warner, the technical genius of the brothers, thought that adding a human voice would make all the difference was a series of shorts brought in as a late addition to the Don Juan programme. Giovanni Martinelli, principal tenor at the Metropolitan Opera, sang Pagliacci. The leader of the Philharmonic played his violin and Al Jolson sang When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along).

They were a secret success. The New York press hardly noticed, but audiences did – and loved them. What would be known as “the talkies” were coming out of the fairground.

It was Sam Warner’s idea to team up with the Western Electric company to buy its Vitaphone synchronising system. He had the faith that few others possessed, but sadly died of a mastoid infection of the brain the day before the hugely successful premiere of The Jazz Singer.

The youngest brother, Jack, had brought in Jolson – who said yes because The Jazz Singer was virtually his own life story. There was another reason – he was also promised a slice of the profits.

The brothers proved the naysayers wrong. Crowds outside the Warners’ theatre on Broadway that October evening were filmed waving hats as broad as the smiles on their faces. Acting with “blackface” – the then widely used makeup subsequently abandoned as racist – Jolson was a hit. The audience loved his plucky character. He might have been playing a stable boy on stage, but he told the man playing his boss to dust his own boots. On film, he was only expected to sing, not talk. But that wasn’t the way he was. The orchestra tuned up – and Jolson announced: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, I tell yer, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

Video: The controversial “blackface scene – a common practice at the time, which is now widely viewed as racist.

Jack and Sam realised that was not just unexpected, it was momentous. So they added a short scene in which Jolson plays the piano and tells his mother how great he is. That was the moment that killed the silent film. And then the problems began – for everyone in the industry except the Warners.

The other big studios were forced to convert their silent movies to sound – while their chiefs went about eating their words and ringing their bank managers. Smaller outfits, notably most of those in New York, went out of business. Cinemas all over the world closed their doors because their owners couldn’t afford the new equipment. Everywhere, piano players were fired. (No cinema had been without a musician in front of the screen, playing fast for a race across the western plains, and soft and smoochy for the inevitable love scenes.)

No one now wanted the people who wrote the “titles”. The theatre closures meant no work for the men who had turned the handles or controlled the reels for the old-fashioned projectors – to say nothing of those cleaners.

Most obvious casualties were the actors – people such as the silent heartthrob John Gilbert whose voice was pronounced too squeaky, although the story was that Louis B Mayer claimed he sacked him for being drunk.

There was something else that no one seemed to consider at the time: where would the world market for Hollywood’s output go? Now, films in English couldn’t be sold in other countries. There were two answers: films would be shot again and again, in French, German or Spanish, sometimes using the original actors such as Maurice Chevalier, who delighted his fellow countrymen by not having to speak English with an exaggerated French accent. Even Laurel and Hardy thought they had mastered phonetics and spoke in cod French or German.

Eventually studios realised that voices could simply be dubbed, which was not always a good idea.

The talkies, however, were hailed a good idea by the cinemagoers. As Jolson told them 90 years ago: “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

Michael Freedland is the author of Jolson (Vallentine Mitchell) and a biography of the Warner Brothers

Source: The Guardian

Until next time,

Neil Hendry
Editor, Official Tribute To Ian Hendry

Further Reading

A detailed account of the life and work of Ian Hendry in the new biography:

Read: ‘Send in the Clowns – The Yo Yo Life Of Ian Hendry’ by Gabriel Hershman

Send In The Clowns - The Yo Yo Life of Ian Hendry

More From Ian Hendry

×

Comments are closed.