Appreciating all that makes America special

The Jazz Singer, the First “Talkie”

The Premiere of The Jazz Singer, www.greatamericanthings.net

When Al Jolson said his first words in The Jazz Singer, the audience burst into wild applause. Uploaded by georgegroves.org.uk.

Let’s clear up one common misunderstanding up front. When Al Jolson said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” he was not speaking the first words in film history. He was speaking the first words in a feature-length film. Regardless of this distinction the important fact about The Jazz Singer is that it signaled the end of the silent movie era and the beginning of what might be called “modern” cinema.

Poster for The Jazz Singer, www.greatamericanthings.net

Uploaded by historylink.org.

The sound on the film came from a then-new process called Vitaphone, which recorded sound on discs. It only lasted four years before a better system came along, and was extremely complicated for projectionists to complete. During The Jazz Singer, for example, he had 15 discs and 15 reels to manage in 89 minutes. Yikes.

Though Jolson was a huge star at the time of this movie (1927), he wasn’t Warner Brothers first choice for the part. They preferred George Jessel, who’d performed the lead role in the play from which The Jazz Singer was adapted. The history of movies was changed when Jessel asked for more money for the talking part, money a near-broke Warner Brothers couldn’t afford. Unfortunately, none of the Warners made it to the film’s premiere in New York City. Sam Warner – ironically the biggest advocate of the Vitaphone process – had died the previous day, and the family returned to California for the funeral.

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