When novelty matters more than quality

Released 6 July 1928, Lights of New York is the first true all-talking feature film. While there were some prior features with synchronized soundtracks, sound effects, and short dialogue sequences, never before had a feature been able to take advantage of the new sound-on-film technology for an entire film filled with all of the above. However, as with many other early talkies, explanatory intertitles are sprinkled throughout.

Bootleggers Jake Jackson (Walter Percival) and Dan Dickson (Jere Delaney) are very anxious to return to New York and get out of the little town they’ve been hiding out in. They’re running out of money, and want the opportunities which come with the big city.

They’re thrilled to discover their barber friend Gene (Eugene Palette) is going to New York tomorrow. Gene’s young friend Eddie Morgan (Cullen Landis), son of the hotelier (Mary Carr), is also eager to go to the big city. Though his mother is very reticent to loan him money and let him leave, she finally sends him off with her blessing. She makes him promise he won’t fail or lose the money.

After the four friends arrive in New York with $5,000 from Mrs. Morgan’s savings, Gene and Eddie start their barbershop, only to discover Jake and Dan are using it as a front for a speakeasy. Gene and Eddie are disgusted by this business, and decide to return home as soon as they break even and can repay Mrs. Morgan.

Kitty Morgan (Helene Costello), Eddie’s girlfriend, arrived in New York ahead of him to work in a nightclub, The Night Hawk. She’s very uncomfortable with her boss, Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman), and wants to quit. Eddie reassures her there’s nothing to worry about with Hawk, since he’s got his own girlfriend. He also gives her a gun to protect herself.

Hawk, who controls Jake and Dan’s speakeasy, is very worried about his business being shut down after a bootlegging raid ends in a cop’s death, and orders Jake and Dan to find someone to take the fall for the crime. Predictably, they suggest Eddie.

After Jake and Dan refuse to do it themselves, Hawk says he’ll take care of setting up Eddie. He also warns them to get out of town.

Hawk calls Eddie to his office and says he just got a tip that he might be raided by feds. Until the situation blows over, Hawk asks Eddie to hide his supply of Old Century liquor. Eddie immediately, cordially agrees.

Between acts, Hawk strongly suggests Kitty dump that sap Eddie, and reminds her she owes her career to him. After Kitty leaves, Hawk’s girlfriend Molly Thompson (Gladys Brockwell) tells him to lay the hell off Kitty, and takes him to task for all his other odious actions.

Two detectives come to speak with Hawk about the cop’s murder, convinced he knows something. Hawk denies all knowledge, and the cops say until they solve the case, they’re closing every speakeasy. The search of his office turns up nothing, but the detectives press on for information.

Hawk tells them to come to the barbershop at 10:00, and he might show them something interesting. Kitty of course overhears this, and phones Eddie to warn him. Meanwhile, Hawk summons Jake and Dan to his office to discuss what they’re going to do.

And then everything starts hitting the fan.

Lights of New York had a budget of $23,000, and earned $1,252,000 ($18,248,988, or £14,407,576, in 2017). Originally, it was planned as a two-reeler, with a $12,000 budget. Warner Brothers hadn’t yet committed to an all-talking feature, but with bosses Jack and Harry Warner abroad, the crew gradually expanded the plot more and more.

Louis Halper, who’d been left in charge, wired Jack for the extra money. Jack wasn’t very pleased to learn four additional reels had been shot, and told director Bryan Foy to turn the film back into a two-reeler. Foy believed this initial refusal stemmed from the Warners’ plans to make their first all-talking feature more prestigious.

Foy screened the film for an exhibitor friend, who was so impressed he immediately offered to buy it for $25,000. In response, Jack and Harry asked their brother Albert to watch it.

Albert loved the film, which convinced Jack and Harry to release it.

Critics weren’t wild about the film. Disregarding the technological marvel of an all-sound feature, the acting, plot, direction, and production are pretty bad. As with many very early talkies, people flocked to see it not because it was quality cinema, but because it was an exciting novelty.

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.