It was in the early days of cinema that four brothers, Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack Warner arrived in Hollywood with big dreams of making it in the motion pictures business. Interestingly, not everyone was happy to see them. The big three studios, First National, Paramount and MGM all hoped that they would fail and mocked them relentlessly. But what the powerful men of Hollywood didn’t realize was that the Warner brothers had a steely determination born from years of poverty. Against all expectations, persistence and foresight yielded success for the Warner Brothers with their first star, a German Shepherd dog named Rin Tin Tin. More importantly their first full-scale film, My Four Years in Germany (1920) also helped them become profitable. By 1923, they officially incorporated their emerging film company, as Warner Bros. in an attempt to continue to match it with the ‘big boys’ on the block. But unfortunately, by the mid 1920s Warners ran into some financial difficulty and almost floundered. It would take something special to help rescue Warner Brothers now, and at the urging of Sam Warner they introduced a new innovation called synchronised sound, which they hoped would win over movie audiences across America.
And, so, when Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer was released in 1927, standing-room-only audiences in theatres across the United States, were left absolutely stunned. In fact, the whole of the motion picture industry was turned on its head following the release of the world’s first ‘talking picture’. Interestingly, it would go on to earn an honorary award for pioneering talking pictures at the 1st Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. It would in effect also bankroll Warner Studios from here on end. Inadvertently, it would sound the death knell for silent pictures, setting in motion the advent of sound and a wonderful new way of enjoying entertainment.
With plenty of great moments of song and dance, The Jazz Singer has endured as a beloved classic despite feeling old-fashioned or outdated. In short, its simple plot carries its star Al Jolson on a coming of age story where his character must decide between his love of the stage and his father’s wishes for him to become a Jewish cantor. Interestingly, Al Jolson declared in an interview in the late 1940’s how The Jazz Singer shared many similarities to his own life:
“The Jazz Singer appealed to me more than any other role because it was a story of my own experiences. I was reliving part of my own life – my early environment and upbringing, my refusal to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a Rabbi, my unbreakable preoccupation with singing and acting.”
Jolson in the same interview for the Saturday Evening Post went on to recall:
“As I started making the picture in 1927, I was thrilled by the fact that it was to be the first picture to have singing in it, but I didn’t dream that it would also introduce dialogue to the screen.”
Importantly, look out for the great scene where Jolson’s character is asked to perform a quick number, in which he informs the crowded cabaret audience (in the film) that ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet’ as he breaks out in yet another ‘talkie’ song.
In the years and decades that followed, The Jazz Singer would come to represent a whole lot of things to many different people – from issues revolving around racial assimilation and Jewish identity, to the controversy surrounding the use of blackface, which by today’s standards is considered widely offensive. Nonetheless it would go on to hold a special place in the hearts of movie lovers, cinema history and the study of American society. In 1996, The Jazz Singer would be included in the American National Film Registry as one of the most important “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” motion pictures ever made.
Photo Credit: The header movie still image of the film The Jazz Singer (1927) is courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. I make use of the image under the rational of fair use. It also enables me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clip embedded here.
I originally wrote a different version of this article for Sean Munger’s website. You can view it here.