The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VI (The history of sound on film)

The Dickson Experimental Sound Film, 1894 or 1895

One of the myths about the early sound era is that The Jazz Singer was the very first talking picture. While it was certainly the most successful up to that date, and has become the best-known early talkie, it was far from the first experiment.

The thing that elevated TJS above all over sound-on-film experiments was Al Jolson’s incredible star power, charisma, personality, talent, personal affinity with the story. Had George Jessel’s demand for a higher salary been granted, silent cinema may have continued much longer.

This is a Kinetophone (or Phonokinetoscope), the technology used to create The Dickson Experimental Sound Film. It was Thomas Edison and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson’s attempt at creating a sound-on-film system, a Kinetoscope accompanied by a phonograph. A Kinetoscope is a single-user film-viewing device with a peephole.

The Kinetophone didn’t attempt to synchronize sound and image. Instead, people listened to the phonograph through a tube. Only 45 were ever made, and only three Kinetophone films are known to survive. The others are Nursery Favorites (1913) and a 1912 demo.

Other early sound-on-film systems included Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, Théâtroscope, and Phonorama (or Cinemacrophonograph), all used by the 1900 Paris Exposition. While interesting experiments and novelties, they weren’t practical or popular.

Lack of efficient synchronization was the main problem. Audio and visual images were both recorded and projected with different devices, and thus rarely worked in exact harmony. Proper playback volume was also difficult to achieve, particularly in large theatres.

Sound recording systems of this era were of generally low quality, unless the performer were planted right in front of the clunky acoustic horn. In the early sound era, this dilemma manifested itself again.

In 1902, Léon Gaumont, a pioneer of the French film industry, demonstrated his sound-on-disc Chronophone system to the French Photographic Society, using an electric connection he’d patented. In 1906, he débuted the Elgéphone, which used compressed air for amplification. The Elgéphone was based upon the British Auxetophone.

U.S. inventor E.E. Norton’s Cameraphone was Gaumont’s systems’ main competition, though neither adequately addressed the three main issues with sound-on-film technology. They were also too expensive.

In 1907, Eugene Lauste, a former Edison employee, got the first sound-on-film technology patent. His system transformed sound into lightwaves which were then photographically recorded directly onto celluloid. However, he never made effective use of this.

In 1913, Edison débuted a new cylinder-based sound-synching system, also called the Kinetophone. Unlike the earlier Kinetophone, this one projected films onto a screen instead of necessitating individual viewing through a peephole.

An intricate pulley system connecting the projector and phonograph enabled synchronization, though conditions weren’t often ideal. After barely more than a year, this system too was retired. Popular interest in sound-on-film had also abated.

The Photo-Drama of Creation (1914), a four-part, eight-hour Jehovah’s Witnesses’ film, synchronized live action and slides with music and lectures on phonograph discs. This was the first major film of that type.

Over nine million people in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand saw it. The budget was $300,000 ($7,173,000 today).

Slides used in The Photo-Drama of Creation

In 1914, Eric Tigerstedt (one of early 20th century Finland’s most important inventors) got a German patent for his sound-on-film innovations, and demonstrated this to scientists in Berlin.

In 1918, Hungarian inventor and engineer Dénes Mihály submitted his Projectofon system to the Royal Hungarian Patent Court. He received his patent in 1922.

In 1919, U.S. inventor Lee De Forest got several patents which led to the first optical sound-on-film system with commercial potential. Soundtracks were photographically recorded onto a filmstrip’s side to create a composite print. If audio and visual were properly synchronized while recording, it would be accurate in playback.

Another system came from research engineer Joseph Tykociński-Tykociner. In 1922, he demonstrated it to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, but it was never used commercially.

15 April 1923 by New York’s Rivoli Theater, De Forest Phonofilms gave the very first commercial screening of sound films. A series of shorts accompanied a silent feature.

Though the company created some original films, most of them were celebrity documentaries, and comedy and musical performances. De Forest’s sound-on-film system was used through 1927 in the U.S., and till the end of 1930 in the U.K., but Hollywood remained skeptical.

In 1919, German inventors Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massolle patented the Tri-Ergon system, and gave a public screening 17 September 1922, by Berlin’s Alhambra Kino. This became Europe’s dominant sound-on-film system.

In 1921, Orlando Kellum created Photokinema, which was used for a few shorts. It was most famously used for sound effects, singing, and an introduction in D.W. Griffith’s bomb Dream Street.

In 1923, Danish engineers Axel Petersen and Arnold Poulsen created the Cinéphone system.

Things began changing with the advent of Vitaphone. In 1925, Sam Warner of Warner Bros. saw the potential of Western Electric’s sound-on-disc system, and convinced his brothers to experiment with it by New York’s Vitagraph Studios, which they’d recently bought.

They renamed the system Vitaphone, and publicly débuted it 6 August 1926, with a full-length synchronized soundtrack and sound effects for Don Juan. The film was accompanied by eight musical shorts and a four-minute introduction by the infamous Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

While sound-on-film technology ultimately triumphed, sound-on-disc was initially superior due to lower costs and greater audio quality. More and more films were released with synchronized soundtracks and sound effects, along with more Vitaphone shorts, until the historic night of 6 October 1927.

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The Jazz Singer at 90, Part IV (Jewish subjects on film before 1927)

Cohen’s Advertising Scheme (1904)

The Jazz Singer marked the first time many American Gentiles were exposed to Judaism. Sure, it promotes assimilation over religiosity, and the characters are a bit stereotypical, but by 1927 standards, this was a huge step forward.

Many prior Jewish characters typified all the worst, ugliest, most anti-Semitic stereotypes. Legendary director Edwin S. Porter’s Cohen series was a prime example of the “scheming merchant” stereotype.

Cohen’s Fire Sale (1907)

In Cohen’s Advertising Scheme, a grotesquely stereotyped shopkeeper tricks a passerby into buying a coat on which he’s hung a large sign advertising the store.

In Cohen’s Fire Sale (1907), Cohen is once again grotesquely made up like an ugly anti-Semitic stereotype. When a shipment of hats is accidentally picked up by rubbish collectors, Cohen chases their wagon through the streets of New York in hot pursuit.

After the hats fail to sell, Cohen reviews his insurance policy, sets a fire, and holds a fire sale. The film ends as Cohen reads the insurance policy and gives his wife a ring.

In Cohen Saves the Flag (1913), directed by the legendary Mack Sennett, popular comedian Ford Sterling plays Union Sgt. Cohen. He and Lt. Goldberg are bitter rivals for Rebecca (Mabel Normand). Yet again, Cohen is made up as a grotesque, ugly, anti-Semitic stereotype.

However, Cohen turns the tide of battle when he throws back an enemy grenade and raises a fallen flag. The film also contains impressive battle scenes, and a positive portrayal of a Jewish woman.

Goldberg tries to get Cohen shot by firing squad, but Rebecca rides to the rescue and conveys the truth about his battlefield heroics. Cohen is now hailed as as hero, and gets revenge on Goldberg.

Another early depiction of Jewish life was D.W. Griffith’s A Child of the Ghetto (1910), set on the Lower East Side’s Rivington Street. After Ruth’s mother dies, she supports herself as a seamstress. Then the son of the factory owner steals some money, and she’s accused of the crime.

Ruth flees the city and hides in the countryside, where a young farmer takes her in, and they fall in love. At the time, few other films dealing with Jewish subjects suggested moving from the city to the country might improve people’s lives and offer a better future.

Griffith’s Romance of a Jewess (1908) is also set on the Lower East Side. Professional actors commingle with real street vendors and locals. Again, the protagonist is named Ruth, and played by Florence Lawrence, “The Biograph Girl.” She was also known as the first American moviestar, and was very popular before people even knew her name.

The story involves not only romance, but the conflicts between different generations, representing the Old and New World.

Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker (1908) was one of Griffith’s very first films. Though it does contain more stereotypically-made up characters, it features a pawnbroker as a humanitarian hero. A little girl goes to the Amalgamated Association of Charities to get help for her sick mother, but all the red tape makes it impossible.

She then goes to a pawnbroker to beg for help. First she offers shoes, which his assistant rejects. When she returns with her doll, the manager’s heart melts, and he stops the goons trying to evict the family. He also pays their rent, gives them food and medicine, and buys the girl a new doll.

Hungry Hearts (1922) is based on Anzia Yezierska’s stories about Lower East Side Jewish women’s lives. She was the first writer who brought such stories to a mainstream audience.

This film tells the story of the immigrant Levins. Janitor Sara falls in love with landlord Rosenblatt’s nephew David, who teaches her to write and read. David dreams of opening his own law office and getting out of his uncle’s clutches, but his uncle breaks them up and raises the Levins’ rent.

Mrs. Levin goes crazy from the stress, and damages the walls. When Rosenblatt takes them to court, David defends them. He and Sara reunite, and the Levins move to suburbia.

From Germany came a Golem trilogy, of which only the last installment, The Golem, is known to survive in full. These films are devoid of stereotypes like hook noses, money-grubbing, and nefarious scheming.

The Jazz Singer is no Left Luggage or Ushpizin, but it was a positive step forwards. Progress never comes overnight, all at once. It has to start somewhere.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part III (The life of Al Jolson)

It was hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) that George Jessel demanded too much salary from Warner Bros. for the lead role of The Jazz Singer. As talented and popular as Jessel was, Al Jolson was the only one with the charisma, star power, voice, and raw personal authenticity to carry the film and make it the first successful sound on film experiment.

Asa Yoelson was born 26 May 1886 in Sredniki, Russia (now Seredžius, Lithuania). Its Yiddish name was Srednik. Thankfully, he was spared the fate of the rest of Srednik’s Jewish community. On 4 September 1941, the Nazis murdered 193 people near Skrebėnai.

Asa was the baby of five children born to Moses Rubin Yoelson (1858–23 December 1945) and Nechama (Naomi) Cantor (1858–6 February 1895). His older siblings were Rose, Etta, a sister who died in infancy, and Hirsch (Harry).

Like many people in that era, he didn’t know when he was born, and chose 26 May 1886. His sister-in-law Margaret Weatherwax, however, claimed he was the same age as her father, born in 1881, and that he was 46 when he married her 18-year-old sister Ruby Keeler in 1928.

In 1891, Asa’s father immigrated to the U.S., and by 1894, he’d saved up enough money to bring his wife and children over. When they arrived, he was working as a cantor at Talmud Torah Congregation (now Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue) in Washington, D.C.

Sadly, Asa’s mother died in 1895, aged only 37. This sent him into a deep depression and withdrawal, and deeply affected him for the rest of his life. Later, his father remarried a woman named Ida, shown in the previous picture.

Asa was taken in by St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys (now Cardinal Gibbons School), a progressive orphanage in Baltimore. Another famous alum was Babe Ruth, who enrolled in 1902.

Asa and Hirsch were introduced to show business by entertainer Al Reeves in 1897, and began singing for money on street corners as Al and Harry. They often used the money for National Theatre shows.

In 1900, he moved to New York, where his first show was Children of the Ghetto. Then, in 1902, he began working for Walter L. Main’s Circus as an usher. Main was so impressed by his voice, he hired Asa as a singer in the Indian Medicine Side Show.

The circus folded that same year, leaving Asa unemployed. In 1903, he was hired for one show of Dainty Duchess Burlesquers. His rendition of “Be My Baby Bumble Bee” was so strong, he was kept for future shows.

This show too folded within the year, and Asa joined Hirsch, now a vaudeville performer called Harry. Though they gained nationwide bookings, live performances were no longer so popular, thanks to the rise of movies.

In 1904, the renamed Al began performing in blackface, which was a huge boost to his career. Harry left Al and their partner Joe Palmer following an argument, and the duo wasn’t as successful as the trio.

In 1906, Al was left solo. He soon became a nationally successful vaudeville singer. For awhile, he lived in San Francisco (wanting to cheer up earthquake survivors), then moved to New York in 1908 with his new wife Henrietta.

His singing career began growing by leaps and bounds after this move. By 1914, he was a huge star, and by 1920, he was Broadway’s biggest star.

Al went from strength to strength, becoming more popular and beloved with each new show and song. At 35, he became the youngest person to have a theatre named for him, Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre (later renamed the New Century Theatre, and razed in 1962).

In spite of how many modern people don’t understand the historical context and intent of blackface, this method of performing gave him a freedom to step into an alternate persona, disguise his true origins, express the Jewish liturgical tradition and cry of suffering, introduce jazz, blues, and ragtime to white audiences.

His blackface stage persona, Gus, was also smarter than his white masters, often helping them out of problems they’d made themselves. There was no bigotry or racism intended.

Al had many African–American friends, and promoted their careers at a time when Broadway barred them. He also demanded equal treatment for African–American co-stars, and was the only white person allowed into an all-Black Harlem nightclub.

When he learnt Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie, musicians he’d never met, had been denied service by a Connecticut restaurant, he tracked them down and took them to dinner himself. He and Blake became great friends.

The African–American community saw Al as a great friend and ally.

Over the course of his life, Al starred in many live shows and films, entertained the troops, recorded many songs, and starred on the radio many times.

He was married four times, to Henrietta Keller, Alma Osborne (professionally known as Ethel Delmar), Ruby Keeler, and Erie Galbraith. He adopted a child with Ruby in 1935, Al, Jr. He and Erie adopted Asa, Jr., in 1948, and Alicia in 1949.

With Ruby in 1934

With Erie and Asa, Jr., in 1948

While entertaining troops in the Pacific during WWII, Al got malaria and had to get his left lung removed. In Korea in 1950, the dust and dirt of the front clogged his remaining lung and sapped his health.

On 23 October 1950, he collapsed of a massive heart attack. His funeral was one of the largest in show business history.

Fritz Lang’s screenwriting début

The great Fritz Lang’s very first screenplay was for director and producer Joe May’s Hilde Warren und der Tod (Hilde Warren and Death), released 31 August 1917. They collaborated again on 1920’s Das Wandernde Bild (The Wandering Image) and 1921’s The Indian Tomb. All of these films featured the same leading lady, May’s wife Mia (née Hermine Pfleger), from whose stage name he took his own.

The Austrian-born Joe May, né Joseph Otto Mandel, was one of the pioneers of German cinema. He got started at Continental-Kunstfilm in Berlin, and later formed his own production company, Stuart Webbs-Film. His film career was briefly interrupted by WWI service.

By the time he collaborated with Lang, he’d founded another production company, May-Film. Sadly, his daughter Eva committed suicide in 1924, aged only 22.

In 1933, he and his wife escaped to the U.S., and he established himself as a B-movie director.

Unfortunately, at the present time, the only widely-available version of this film is cut down to 39 minutes (out of 80 minutes total), so I won’t be able to provide a complete review based entirely on my own impressions. I’ll do my best to fill in the blanks with the full synopses I’ve read, and drawing on the knowledge that Lang revisited the premise in 1921’s Der Müde Tod.

Not only is the publicly-available version so truncated, but it also has no intertitles. It’s very hard to figure out who’s who and what’s going on.

The film received glowing reviews, particularly in regards to Mia May and Georg John (Death)’s acting. Lang’s screenplay was also highly praised.

Sadly, Georg John was deported to the Łódź Ghetto in autumn 1941, and died there on 18 November, aged 62.

During rehearsals for The Master of Palmyra, Hilde Warren, a famous stage actor, gets involved in a conversation about Death. She tells her director Wengraf she doesn’t understand how anyone could lead her to Death before her time.

Wengraf is in love with Hilde, but she rejects all his attempts at wooing her. She’s not going to give up a successful career to get married and have kids.

Death appears and tries to tempt her, but Hilde refuses.

Hilde eventually marries Hector Roger, an elegant but wanted criminal. She has no idea what kind of double life he’s leading. When the cops try to arrest him, he shoots at them, and is killed in the resulting skirmish.

Shortly afterwards, Hilde discovers she’s pregnant. Death appears for a second time, but once again, she withstands temptation.

As her son Egon grows up, he’s pulled to the dark side like his father. Meanwhile, Wengraf is still in love with Hilde, but he gives her an impossible condition for marriage—abandon her child.

Death appears a third time, but Hilde once again refuses.

Egon gets more and more out of control, in spite of Hilde trying to reform him. She blames herself for his criminal lifestyle.

The next time Egon begs for money, after almost ruining her financially, Hilde stands her ground, orders him to get out, and threatens him with a revolver. She fights back when Egon attacks her, with shocking results.

When Death appears again, will she finally accept his offer?

Wings at 90, Part I (General overview)

Released 12 August 1927 and starring Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Richard Arlen, Wings was long thought to be a lost film. In 1992, a copy was found in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris, and the process of restoration began.

In 1917, Jack Powell (Rogers) and David Armstrong (Arlen) are rivals for the attention of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston, Harold Lloyd’s longtime leading lady), a visitor from the city. This would-be love triangle is complicated by the fact that Mary Preston (Clara), the girl next door, is in love with Jack.

As it so often goes in these kinds of stories, Jack is most woefully unaware of this. After Mary helps him build a car, which they name The Shooting Star, she tells him someone who sees a shooting star can kiss the girl he loves. Jack thinks that’s a splendid idea, and drives off to visit Sylvia.

When the U.S. joins the war, Jack and David enlist in the Air Service. Jack, due to a misunderstanding, takes the signed picture in a locket Sylvia intended to give David. Sylvia later reassures David he has her heart, whereas Jack only has her picture.

Mary too gives Jack a picture in parting. She doesn’t get a goodbye kiss or declaration of love, but Jack does promise she can use The Shooting Star while he’s gone.

While David (who’s from the richest family in town) is saying goodbye to his parents, his mother gives him his old, tiny teddybear as a good luck charm.

Though Jack has always dreamt of flying, all the pre-combat training takes place on the ground. During basic training, he grows to hate David more and more, but they eventually become best friends.

Meanwhile, Mary responds to a call for Women’s Motor Corps volunteers.

Jack’s romantic dream of flying soon turns into ugly, stark reality when he gets into combat. Both he and David have their limits put to the test against Count von Kellermann’s enemy squadron.

The battle scenes, which go from the air to the trenches on the ground, are very well-done. In 1927, WWI was only nine years in the past, and still vivid and raw in everyone’s memories.

During all this intense fighting, Mary arrives on the front lines with her ambulance.

The influenza pandemic strikes while Jack and David are stationed in Mervale, and Mary’s ambulance becomes a regular presence, tending to both the wounded and ill.

War continues in spite of the flu pandemic, and Mary has to take cover under her ambulance during a bombing raid. After Jack and David help to rescue Mervale, someone points out Jack’s plane to Mary. Like his car, it’s also named The Shooting Star.

In recognition of their bravery, Jack and David (now lieutenants) are honoured by France as aces.

Following the Intermission, we see Jack and David on leave in Paris, having a merry time carousing. Mary is also in Paris, and thrilled to learn Jack is there. However, she quickly learns all furloughs have been cancelled to get ready for “The Big Push,” and goes to find Jack.

Jack, who’s gotten rip-roaring drunk, doesn’t recognise her. He just continues pouring more alcohol down his throat, leaving Mary feeling very defeated.

A Frenchwoman in a powder room comes to Mary’s rescue, helping to give her a makeover meant to catch Jack’s eye.

Mary’s sexy new look finally gains Jack’s attention, but he’s still drunk off his gourd. When they’re alone, he keeps hallucinating bubbles and finally passes out. Even worse, she discovers the locket with Sylvia’s picture.

Worst of all, two military cops walk in as Mary’s changing back into her uniform and order her sent home.

Jack defends Mary’s reputation when one of their fellow flyers insinuates she has loose morals, like all hometown girls who go to the big city. David asks if he’s in love with her, but Jack says he loves Sylvia. Jack didn’t confess earlier because he didn’t want to wreck their friendship.

Jack proves it by showing David the locket with her picture, but when the picture falls out upside-down, David rips it up so Jack won’t see the inscription. Of course, Jack goes ballistic.

The fight is broken up by an order to get back into combat. I won’t spoil what happens after this.

I highly recommend this film. It’s definitely 5 stars.