The Jazz Singer at 90, Part XII (Final thoughts)

Happy heavenly 99th birthday to my favorite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn! May his memory be for a beautiful, eternal blessing.

So much was lost, due to the film industry’s rush to follow the new at the expense of the old. While I’m glad sound-on-film technology exists, a middle ground would’ve been better.

Moviemaking took a huge step backwards when talkies became the law of the land. Cameras could no longer move as far; microphones picked up every little thing; actors couldn’t move far from the microphone; and most films became like stage plays, limited to a very small set, with nonstop (often bad) dialogue.

Sound was a huge boon for actors with great voices. Some, like Ronald Colman and William Powell, had been successful in silent pictures, but took their careers to a whole new level with their voices.

Other actors, like W.C. Fields, had started in silents, but needed sound to rise to success, with a trademark voice giving their characters a whole new boost.

Sound also was a huge boon for my belovèd Laurel and Hardy. Their voices matched their characters perfectly. I mentally hear their voices when I watch their silents. No other voices would’ve felt right on them.

Other actors never could’ve succeeded in silents, regardless of their talent. Can you picture the Marx Brothers as silent comedians? Even Harpo’s character only works when everyone around him speaks. Watching the lost Humorisk (1925) would be a very surreal experience!

Many actors who rose to stardom in the sound revolution came from Broadway and vaudeville. Actors like Cagney and Bogart needed to use their voices to fully bring their characters to life, and couldn’t have been as successful with just pantomime. Their voices made them who they were.

Sound enabled genres like gangster movies and musicals. While both ended up kind of overdone, to the exclusion of other worthy genres, those kinds of stories couldn’t have worked in silence. These genres were also just what Americans in the Great Depression needed for escapist entertainment. They certainly could no longer relate to things like flapper stories.

Sound also made necessarily dialogue-heavy stories more practical. Sometimes a story can’t be properly, fully understood without reliance on dialogue to convey important information and establish characters. I dislike silents with too many intertitles, esp. when they’re huge chunks of text.

However, a longer transitional period could’ve alleviated some issues. If more time had been spent working out the technological kinks, while still making hybrids and silents, the switch-over would’ve gone so much more smoothly.

In general, people who waited a few years, instead of jumping right in to play with the shiny new toy, had better début talkies. There’s less of a “Look, we can talk!” vibe. Most early talkies are so dated and creaky next to the aesthetically superior silents of the late Twenties.

Early talkies are hit and miss for the same reason so many 1910s feature-length films are. It’s a new medium still finding its voice, without years of history to fall back on for help. Even talented actors can’t save some of these films.

Many great late silents bombed, or were critically panned, because talkies were more in demand, no matter how poor the quality. Yet many late silents have aged far better than most early talkies.

Intertitle writers and accompanying musicians lost their jobs; directors could no longer speak during filming; and playing mood-setting music during filming had to stop.

So many filmmakers have forgotten how to tell a good story without constant talk. Just picture one of your favorite cinematic battle scenes. Can’t you easily understand what’s going on without the soldiers stopping to chat? Isn’t there greater emotional intensity because it’s all conveyed without words?

Many good horror movies also create a creepy, foreboding mood without saying a word. It’s all about visuals and atmosphere, not people gabbing about a monster on the loose, or how scared they are.

If TJS hadn’t been the catalyst, another film would’ve done it eventually, perhaps with the same results. It’s impossible to say if a later revolution would’ve allowed room at the table for both types of films, or if sound would’ve been dismissed as just another trend after a few years.

Hollywood still doesn’t have the greatest track record of accurately depicting religious Judaism, but TJS represented an important, positive step forward (in spite of falsely calling Judaism a “race”).

TJS represents a poignant, simultaneous ending and beginning, a mixing of excitement and uncertainty. “That’s all there is to life, just a little laugh, a little tear.”

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The Jazz Singer at 90, Part XI (So who did survive the transition successfully?)

In loving memory of John Lennon, who was taken from this life 37 years ago today.

As discussed in Part X, very few actors’ careers were ended due to the coming of sound. There were many complex, complicated factors at play.

But just who made a longterm, successful transition from silents to talkies, for longer than a few years of coasting on earlier laurels?

1. People already trained in stage acting. This includes actors like John and Lionel Barrymore, whose background included vocal acting, not just pantomime. They knew how to use their voices,  and were familiar with memorizing lines.

Left to right: John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, 1904

2. People who were just starting to become big names. In this group are actors like Anita Page, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, and Barbara Kent. They’d become popular, but not for long enough to have become associated with the “old-fashioned” types of characters or way of making films.

3. Huge superstars who had a great deal of freedom to continue making pictures on their own terms. The foremost example of this kind of actor is Charlie Chaplin, who was his own boss and had the luxury of making silents till 1936. Harold Lloyd also continued regularly making films, though neither of them were as popular as they’d been in the silent era.

4. People who hadn’t yet graduated from extra and minor roles. These were actors like Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Boris Karloff, and Clark Gable.

5. People who’d been around for awhile, but either hadn’t made much of a real impression yet, or hadn’t had their true potential revealed with the right kind of roles. This group includes actors like Myrna Loy, W.C. Fields, William Powell, Marlene Dietrich, and Fay Wray.

6. People whose talent and appeal was such it enabled them to have successful careers in both eras. These lucky people include Laurel and Hardy, Norma Shearer, Ronald Colman, Rod La Rocque, Bebe Daniels, and Greta Garbo.

7. Foreign imports who couldn’t hack it in English-language films, but did just fine with speaking roles in their native languages after going home. This group would include Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt (who later successfully broke into British and U.S. films after mastering English), and Lars Hanson.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part X (Common myths debunked)

Over the past 90 years, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about TJS, the end of the silent era, and the dawn of sound. While many have a sliver of basis in truth, the truth is a lot different and more complex than popular opinion suggests.

Myth #1: TJS was the first talking picture.

As discussed in Part VI, sound-on-film technology had a long history, full of fits and starts, going back to 1894 or 1895. TJS was merely the most popular and successful, due largely to Al Jolson’s star power and charisma. This is similar to the oft-repeated myth about BOAN being the first feature-length film.

TJS also wasn’t even the first all-talking feature. That was 1928’s Lights of New York. TJS is at least 75% silent.

Myth #2: The silent era immediately ended after TJS came out

As discussed in Part IX, the transition from silent to sound film was very long and slow. Even if the entire film industry worldwide had decided, right then and there, to make sound the law of the land, they couldn’t wire all theatres for sound overnight. They also needed to buy a lot of expensive new equipment and film.

China, Japan, and Korea were largely silent well into the Thirties. They didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken. Japan also had the tradition of the benshi, a narrator who accompanied film screenings and was a star in his own right.

Myth #3: Most silent actors had horrible voices, and thus had to retire

Many actors had wonderful or at least competent voices, though they weren’t always best-served by early sound recording technology. People were so enamoured of talkies, they flocked to see anything and anyone. They didn’t mind voices which weren’t professionally trained, such as Clara Bow’s Brooklyn accent. All they cared about was hearing someone talk during a movie.

Some actors genuinely had very thick accents or serious speech impediments which prematurely ended their careers, but this wasn’t the norm. Rare exceptions included:

1. Karl Dane (né Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb), a funny-looking character actor who became a comedian in his own right. His thick Danish accent soon relegated him to lesser and lesser roles, until MGM yanked his contract. He tried several other careers, but nothing panned out. Deep in depression, he finally took his own life.

2. Many foreign exports, like Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. They had heavy accents combined with poor English. However, their acting careers continued when they returned to their home countries. Other foreign actors, like Nils Asther, took voice lessons and were cast in roles where accents were expected.

The same thing happened with the large community of Russian actors in France. In that case, going home wasn’t an option if they valued their lives and freedom.

3. Raymond Griffith, a comedian whose voice was barely above a whisper due to childhood vocal chord damage (screaming every night in a stage play). His final acting role was a dying French soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which had extra poignancy with his natural voice.

True blame goes to factors including:

1. ALL stars have a shelf life! Even actors who’ve been successful for several decades eventually slow down or lose popularity to the new generation. These actors just happened to reach their expiration date in the early sound era.

2. Some actors were looking towards retirement anyway. Vilma Bánky, for example, had a thick Hungarian accent, but wanted to leave acting for the full-time role of Rod La Rocque’s wife. She retired in 1930, just as she’d announced she would.

3. Studio politics and personality clashes. Enough said!

4. Even big-name silent stars, and the types of characters they played, were increasingly seen as outdated and unfashionable, reminders of a bygone era.

5. Marriage (or lack thereof). Many women either chose to retire upon or shortly after marriage, or had husbands who insisted they stop working to be full-time wives and mothers. William Haines refused to enter a lavender marriage and dump his boyfriend (whom he was with for 47 years, until his death).

Myth #4: John Gilbert had a terrible, squeaky voice

Jack’s career was sabotaged by the vile, vindictive Louis B. Mayer. He had a lovely voice and well-received talkie début, but Mayer kept giving him sub-par roles. The wonderful Irving Thalberg gave Jack some great films, and ex-lover Greta Garbo chose him as her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), but the damage had already been done.

His depression with inferior films and long periods of unemployment led to increasing alcoholism, and Jack died of a heart attack at age 36.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part IX (About those creaky early talkies)

While TJS played a huge role in the talkie revolution and the end of the silent era, it wasn’t an overnight development, contrary to popular misconception. Many U.S. theatres still weren’t wired for sound as late as 1930. Thus, many Hollywood films were released in both sound and silent versions.

Even with growing access to both Vitaphone and Movietone sound-on-film systems, most studios remained slow on producing sound films. Silents continued to be made as usual, along with hybrids selectively using sound.

Warner Bros. released the first complete talkie, Lights of New York, 6 July 1928. It had a paltry budget of $23,000, with an extraordinary gross of $1.252 million. People wanted to hear talking pictures, regardless of quality.

In September, they released Jolson’s all-talking The Singing Fool, which more than doubled the profit made by TJS. Within nine months, its song “Sonny Boy” had sold two million records and 1.25 million sheet music copies.

As Warner Bros. continued going from strength to strength with their talkies, other studios followed suit by quickening their own production pace.

By 1929, all-talking pictures had become the industry standard, though many theatres still weren’t wired for sound. While sound theatres jumped from 100–800 between 1928–29, silent theatres increased too, going from 22,204–22,544.

Many studios still weren’t completely convinced talkies were the wave of the cinematic future. They were seen as popular novelties which would soon wear off. Charlie Chaplin famously held out until 1936. His last silent (albeit a hybrid), Modern Times, is a farewell not only to the silent era, but also the dear Little Tramp.

TJS premièred in Europe 27 September 1928, by London’s famed Piccadilly Theatre. The European film industry almost immediately embraced sound as the wave of the future, and their first hybrid, Ich Küsse Ihre Hand, Madame (I Kiss Your Hand, Madame), released 16 January 1929.

Most of Europe’s major studios began converting during 1929. The continent’s first successful talkie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, released 21 June 1929. It was filmed as a silent, then reshot with dialogue, sound effects, and a soundtrack.

Due to the rapid changeover, and technological limitations, many people had to go abroad; e.g., many French talkies were shot in Germany.

1930 saw the talkie débuts of Poland, Italy, the former Czechoslovakia, the USSR, Romania, Belgium, Greece, and Denmark.

Some countries converted quicker than others. By the end of 1930, about 60% of British and U.S. theatres were equipped for sound, while over half of French theatres were silent through 1932. As of May 1933, less than one in 100 Soviet theatres had sound capabilities.

Asia and the Pacific were silent much longer. While Japan began experimenting with sound films in 1926, over a third of their films were still silent by 1938. It was traditional to have a benshi (narrator) performing as accompaniment to film screenings, with voices, sound effects, plot summary, and evocative descriptions. Many were stars in their own right.

China’s first talkie came in 1930, but they remained largely silent through 1934.

India’s first talkie premièred 14 March 1931, and was so popular, cops had to control the crowds. Sound proved to be a huge boon for Indian cinema, and helped to bring the industry into its own.

Australia released its first talkie in 1930.

Korea was the final country with a major cinematic industry to make its first talkie, in 1935.

Show Girl in Hollywood (1930) is a documentary about sound filmmaking. It illustrates many of the problems plaguing early talkies, such as microphones dangling from rafters and multiple cameras simultaneously filming in soundproof booths.

Early sound cameras were very noisy, thus the soundproof booths, but this meant cameras couldn’t move very far. To compensate, multiple cameras were used. Actors also had to stay very close to microphones, or their speech wouldn’t be picked up.

Sing-Song Red Girl Peony, China’s first talkie

Many cameras were overcranked or undercranked, for dramatic effect or improving exposure. Many projectionists also ran too quickly to squeeze in more shows and shorten running time. However, this created improper synching and made sound unlistenable. An industry standard of 24 FPS was instituted.

Loud arc lights used in studios had to be abandoned, since microphones picked up every little thing. The quieter incandescent lights, while technologically superior, necessitated more expensive film.

Many early talkies are just that, talky. They’re little more than a nonstop stream of talk, so eager were people to play with the shiny new toy. Gone were the sweeping, panoramic shots, since cameras could no longer move that far. So many early talkies are like filmed stage plays, in the same small setting, held hostage to technological limitations.

While there were notable exceptions, like director King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), it took awhile for most filmmakers to start getting back to the same level they’d been at in the twilight of the silent era. In general, people who waited a few years to make their first talkies, instead of jumping right in to play with the shiny new toy, ended up with far superior sound débuts, both technologically and artistically.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VIII (A miraculously successful première and reception)

In loving memory of George Harrison, who left the material world 16 years ago today.

Sadly, none of the four Warner Bros. were able to attend the triumphant première of TJS on 6 October 1927. They’d been running themselves ragged with this film, since so much was riding upon its success. All this nonstop work took its toll on Sam’s health, and at the end of September, he was hospitalized.

Sam was diagnosed with a sinus infection, abscessed teeth, and a mastoid brain infection. After four surgeries, Sam fell into a coma. On 5 October, he fell victim to pneumonia caused by sinusitis, osteomyelitis, and subdural and epidural abscesses.

The other three brothers had to go home to California for the funeral, missing their flagship New York theatre’s première.

Samuel Louis Warner (né Schmuel Wonsal or Wonskolaser), 10 August 1887–5 October 1927

The première date was no accident. It was chosen deliberately because it was Yom Kippur, and TJS revolves so closely around that holiday.

Warner Bros. had been in deep financial straits for years. Taking on Vitaphone sound-on-film technology had only added another huge, risky financial burden. If this film flopped, it would be curtains.

Though TJS is, contrary to popular misconception, at least 75% silent, audiences still weren’t accustomed to hearing real sound during a film. This wasn’t just a synchronized soundtrack or sound effects, but actual human speech.

The audience applauded after every song, and went particularly wild after the conversation between Jack and his mother. By the end of the film, they’d gone wild, chanting Jolson’s name as they gave a standing ovation.

It was a miracle there wasn’t a single misstep during the synchronization of the film and discs. Had the projectionist not cued up any of those fifteen discs with the fifteen reels exactly in synch, Warner Bros. would’ve been both publicly and financially humiliated.

TJS met with predominantly rave reviews, in the mainstream press as well as the Jewish and African–American communities. While some reviewers noted it was more of a showcase for Jolson and/or a new technology, they nevertheless praised that aspect.

Had George Jessel or Eddie Cantor played the lead, things would’ve been so different. As talented and popular as they were, only Jolson could’ve carried it the way it needed to be. His superstardom, charisma, background, and larger than life personality elevated it beyond a B-movie into something really special.

This was truly one of those cases where someone was born to play a certain role, write a certain book, paint a certain painting, or record a certain album. While someone else could’ve done a competent job with the same material, it just wouldn’t be the same.

TJS was Warner Bros.’ biggest hit to date, only surpassed a year later by the all-talking The Singing Fool (also starring Jolson). Though many theatres weren’t wired for any kind of sound, and thus had to play an entirely silent version, it still proved itself as a big earner.

Film scholars and historians estimate TJS made $3.9 million ($126 million as of 2005) in the U.S., and $2.6 million worldwide, for an overall profit of $1,196,750. Warner Bros. had been saved.

In spite of its success, TJS was ruled ineligible for nomination by the first Academy Awards. As a partly-talking picture, it would’ve been unfair competition against the all-silent pictures.

TJS has been referenced and parodied countless times in popular media over the years, and was remade in 1952 (with Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee), 1959 (as a TV movie with Jerry Lewis), and 1980 (with Neil Diamond, Laurence Olivier, and Lucie Arnaz).

Jolson reprised the role in a radio adaptation on 10 August 1936 and 2 June 1947 on Lux Radio Theater.

In 1996, the National Film Registry chose TJS for preservation, based upon it being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” In 1998, the American Film Institute voted it the 90th best American film of all time.

But of course, the film’s greatest impact was in hastening the talkie revolution and sounding the death knell of the silent era.