The Jazz Singer: An Excerpt from 6 Degrees of Film

Here’s an excerpt from the book “6 Degrees of Film” talking about the landmark film that started the demand for Talking Pictures in 1926. If you watch “The Jazz Singer” (it was on Turner Classic Movies this month) you’ll realize it’s in fact a silent movie with around six segments of sound that all include musical numbers. There’s no spoken dialogue. It’s all typed as sub-titles exactly as any other silent film before it. The exception was the music, and that’s the point where sound breaks the barrier. The dawn of a new age begins with “Mammy!” Excerpt: Then in 1916 or 1917 along came talking pictures, affectionately known as “talkies.” The first movie to use sound was not The Jazz Singer, but a movie called Don Juan, starring John Barrymore. Talkies didn’t catch on at first. The sound quality was poor, the cameras large and unwieldy, and the audiences couldn’t accept that their favorite heroes had squeaky voices and the heroines were nasal and whiny. But The Jazz Singer was a pivotal turning point in the evolution of film. It was a talkie with an exceptional star—Al Jolson. The nation fell in love with a short Jewish man singing “Mammy” in blackface on his knees on the edge of a stage. “America was always quicker to spot the commercial possibilities of the movies, to decide what the bulk of the audience really wanted to see (not art as a rule) and to invest its money accordingly.” The advent of talking pictures, like many aspects of the film industry, was a phenomenon that came on so suddenly that most studios didn’t know how to handle the huge change. From the beginning, silent pictures had been made in a casual atmosphere, with a lot of laughing and talking going on as the cameras whirled. But the advent of sound changed everything. The first reactions by most of the seasoned Hollywood filmmakers were similar to Harry Warner, who said, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” ….. The facts were that films were already in a slump in 1926. Radio, the first of the mass media giants to hit the average American household, had already started to make a dent in box office attendance. But, Warner Brothers decided to take a chance on sound. They gambled on the new phenomenon and went ahead with The Jazz Singer at considerable cost. The problems from the outset were 1) It cost a lot of money to convert the studio to sound: $25,000 was a lot of money in 1926; 2) The sound equipment had to be installed in theaters-at $25,000 dollars per theater. So by the end of 1927, about 200 cinemas in the United States were equipped for sound. Some interesting facts about The Jazz Singer were that there were only about four actual talking segments in the entire film. There were singing portions, but it wasn’t all that easy to reproduce sound in those days. Warner Brothers had taken a huge gamble in making The Jazz Singer and ended up paying a heavy price. One of the brothers, Sam Warner, died 24 hours before the premiere of the film after suffering a massive cerebral

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