6 October 1927: the first "talkie" movie of history
October 6, 1927: a date that probably doesn’t tell anything to you but 90 years ago today an audience at New York's Warners' Theatre watched, and most important heard, The Jazz Singer, a motion picture that holds a significant place in film history for being the first "talkie” ever shot before.
Being a rarity among silent movies of the time, The Jazz Singer operated a revolution in the movie industry. Starring Al Jolson, It tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz (played by Al Jolson), the son of a Jewish cantor, who declines to follow in his father's footsteps. Instead, he dissembles his Jewish identity while trying to make it in the world of popular music. Just as Jakie is about to hit the big time, his father falls ill, forcing Jakie to choose between his family and his show-biz dreams. Mostly silent, the movie comprises 281 uttered words among which one of the most famous American movie lines: “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet!"
Experiments in sound film had been occurring almost since the birth of silent pictures, but Warner Bros. - until then considered a second-string studio - took the initiative in creating sound feature films after setting up its own radio station in 1927. Using its newly developed Vitaphone process, the studio added a score and sound effects to Don Juan (1926), a John Barrymore silent already in production. The success of this film, plus a series of musical shorts, inspired the creation of the first real "talkie" feature, The Jazz Singer.
The film was nominated for best adapted screenplay and best special effects at Academy Awards in 1929. It was generally considered as a good movie by the Academy jury, thought their reviews were understandably focused more on the movie's technical innovations than on its story or production.
The premiere was set for October 6, 1927, at Warner Bros.' flagship theater in New York City and it was a great success.
According to Doris Warner, who attended the premiere representing Warner Bros., Jolson's "Wait a minute" line had prompted a loud, positive response from the audience. Applause followed each of his songs. Excitement built when the first dialogue scene took place, "the audience became hysterical." said Doris Warner. After the show, the audience turned into a "milling, battling, mob", in one journalist's description, chanting "Jolson, Jolson, Jolson!"
Among those who reviewed the film, the critic who foresaw most clearly what it presaged for the future of cinema was Life magazine's Robert E. Sherwood. He described the spoken dialogue scene between Jolson and Besserer as "fraught with tremendous significance.... I for one suddenly realized that the end of the silent drama is in sight".
The film developed into a major hit, demonstrating the profit potential of feature-length "talkies", though one of the keys to the film's success was an innovative marketing scheme conceived by Sam Morris, Warner Bros.' sales manager: Theaters had to book The Jazz Singer for full rather than split weeks. Instead of the traditional flat rental fee, Warners took a percentage of the gate. A sliding scale meant that the exhibitor's take increased the longer the film was held over. The signing of this contract by the greater New York Fox Theatres circuit was regarded as a headline-making precedent.
The Jazz Singer is consider the first “talkie” movie. However, it only had a few minutes of dialogue. The first ever made feature-length film that was all talking was Lights of New York, released in 1928 by Warner Brothers and considered as the first motion picture in history to rely entirely on audible dialogue to tell its story. It was the demise of the silent films era.
In 1996, The Jazz Singer was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" motion pictures. In 1998, the film was chosen in voting conducted by the American Film Institute as one of the best American films of all time, ranking at number ninety.