On this day in 1927, New York movie-goers were treated to the premiere of Warner Brothers’ film The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson.
It is widely accepted as the film that swept the silent movie era aside, and, with Jolson’s famous line “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”, it ushered in a fantastic new world of ‘talkies’.
Jolson, born Asa Yoelson in what is now Lithuania, was a massive star at the time – Elvis and The Beatles massive. He was known as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”, and was the biggest star on Broadway by a long way.
The effect of his performance in The Jazz Singer was such that by the end of the premiere, the audience was a teeming mob, shouting Jolson’s name, and crowding for autographs. Police had to be brought in to restore order.
While The Jazz Singer is revered as one of the most influential films of all time, it wasn’t the first talkie. In, fact, it wasn’t the first of much.
As well as not being the first talkie, it wasn’t the first musical. It wasn’t the first to have synchronised music. And, despite what some corners of the internet might want you to believe, it wasn’t the first film to have a soundtrack imprinted onto the actual film, rather than on a separate disc – that had been pioneered by Lee De Forest in the early 1920s.
But The Jazz Singer can claim to be the first feature-length film with synchronised sound, which included talking as part of the action.
The film used Warner Brothers’ ‘Vitaphone’ sound system – essentially, the soundtrack was recorded on a 16-inch phonograph record, which had to be played on a turntable while the film was playing. The projectionist had to manually synchronise the sound with the screen. Given the 89-minute film was made up of 15 reels, this wasn’t a trivial task.
More than anything else, The Jazz Singer was by far the most successful of the new-fangled talking pictures, and was the one that captured the public’s imagination. It made a profit of some $3.5m, and saw Warner Brothers catapulted into the top ranks of Hollywood studios.