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.

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.

Weekend Writing Warriors Inaugural Post—Movie Surprise

Though Six Sentence Sunday has come to a close, a new, similar Sunday bloghop has been created, Weekend Writing Warriors. This weekly hop requires eight sentences, and has already accrued some of the Six Sentence Sunday regulars for its first-ever week.

For the inaugural post, I’m sharing something from my current WIP, my third Russian historical novel. In Chapter 8, “San Francisco,” main character Lyuba’s stepcousin Nadezhda Lebedeva arrives in America with Vsevolod Smirnov, a man with a connection to her family. Nadezhda has been in Siberian prison camps for the last 12 years, and Vsevolod is from a small Siberian town, so American life in 1933 is full of constant surprises for them.

Nadezhda hasn’t seen a movie since 1917, and hasn’t lived in civilization since 1921. Several people have told her that she’s in for a surprise when she goes to the movies, but she doesn’t understand what that means until tonight. She and Vsevolod have gone to the new Mary Pickford movie Secrets at a grand movie palace, and Nadezhda is wondering where the orchestra pit is. Then the movie starts and she gets a big surprise.


Nadézhda sets her ice-cream soda on the drink slot in the arm rest as the credits come onto the screen.  Then something amazing happens.  After an opening sequence of a man riding a nineteenth century bicycle, the woman next to Mary Pickford opens her mouth and sounds come out.  Real sound, real words.  Then Mary Pickford also opens her mouth and speaks real words.  Nadézhda shrieks, her heart pounding.  The fact that Mary Pickford no longer has her famous long golden curls is less of a shock to her system than hearing people really talking in a movie.  She begins laughing in amazement and delight after she gets over her initial shock.