The Complicated Story of Al Jolson and the First Talking Picture

We take movies for granted. These days, audiences have been spoilt by multi-million film budgets and cutting edge CGI as studios constantly figure out ways to impress us. Before all that, though, movies were silent. Although sound effects and musical scores had existed in film for some time, a true talking picture had yet to be seen.

The Challenge of Talking Pictures

Sound on film was definitely possible. In fact, the concept dates back to the late 1880s, when W.K.L. Dickson created the kinetophone – a device which (primitively) synchronised sound and film via a complex system of pulleys. Although functional in theory, the device was a nightmare to align, and the slightest jitter or mistake would render it useless. During this time, however, inventors across the globe were busy working towards smoother means of synchronous sound.

The breakthrough eventually came on April 15, 1923, when inventor Lee De Forest unveiled his state-of-the-art invention, sound-on-film. Using an a vacuum tube to amplify natural sound, the creation was both hassle-free and cheap to use. Realising he may have something to offer Hollywood, De Forest began testing his invention by recording vaudeville performances, musical scores, and general crowd noise.

New York’s Rivoli Theatre held the premier of the first 18 phonofilms produced by De Forest. Though these films were brief and lacked narrative structure, they at least showcased some form of sound in film. As the technology grew, theatres around the country began wiring their halls for sound. Talking pictures, it seemed, were inevitable.

But Hollywood weren’t convinced. Believing ‘talkies’ would only be a passing fad, studio execs maintained a ”don’t fuck with the formula” approach and continued churning out silent movies. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – right?

Well, kinda. As the 1926 film Don Juan proved, there was a big market for sound (or, in this case, partially sound) films. Produced by up-and-coming studio Warner Brothers, the film featured a full musical soundtrack and sound effects via the brand new Vitaphone technology. Before screening began, audiences were treated to a video message by Will H. Hays, the President of the Motion Pictures and Distributors of America:

Don Juan was a massive hit. After the film’s success, Warner Brothers began their next project – to produce the first ever talking picture.

Al Jolson

Before Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley there was Al Jolson. Dubbed the World’s Greatest Entertainer and, perhaps regrettably, the king of blackface – Jolson’s charisma and singing ability were adored by contemporary audiences. Knowing he was a bankable star, Warner Brothers approached him to be the face of what was at the time the biggest film ever made.

Growing up in poverty, Jolson moved to the U.S. as a youth and decided to pursue a career in show business, despite objections from his stern and deeply religious father. After years of hustling on the cold streets of New York City, his big break came in the form of the 1911 musical comedy La Belle Paree. Wowed by his energy and singing talent, the play launched Jolson in superstardom and made him a true bankable star.

This was why Jolson was chosen to star in the upcoming Jazz Singer – a story loosely based on his life anyway. After signing a huge (for the time) $75,000 contract, work began on the film that was to change the motion picture industry forever. After close friend and fellow star George Jessel pulled out of the picture, Al Jolson was braced to make history – he was going to be the first man to talk on film.

Although The Jazz Singer was featured musical performances early on (Jolson performed Dirty Hands, Dirty Face fifteen minutes into the film) and featured crowd noise from Jolson’s adoring spectators, it was Jolson’s quickfire banter that got the audience starstruck:

His ”wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” line was, according to contemporary reports, met with universal applause and cheers from spectators. The public had never heard dialogue before, and so impressed were they that they initially missed the double entendre.

Though The Jazz Singer showcased less than two minutes of actual speaking, it left a permanent mark on cinema, and cemented Al Jolson as an international superstar.

Jolson’ signature song, Mammy, performed in blackface

Jolson’s use of blackface has tarnished his legacy. Though completely unacceptable nowadays, it’d be unfair to call Al Jolson a racist. In fact, he was held in high regard by the contemporary African-American community. After singer Noble Sissle was denied service at a restuarant, Jolson was quick to reprimand the owners and promised to punch anyone who tried to remove Sissle in the future.

Of course, one act of kindness doesn’t necessarily mean Jolson was a saint. Though he had his faults, racial prejudice doesn’t seem to be a theme in his career. Though we look at blackface as a grotesque reminder of the Jim Crow days, Jolson’s rationale for donning the makeup was certainly not rooted in racial hatred. Rather, the facade helped him overcome his nerves and felt as if he was ‘hidden’ behind it.

Though Al Jolson’s pasty looks, unglamourous age (41 in 1927) and receding hairline aren’t exactly traits one would associate with a Hollywood star, his mere stage presence and command over his audience are evident on film. His wild gesticulations and happy-go-lucky voice is apparent almost 100 years later, though his acting ability is somewhat mediocre. Jolson’s schtick was definitely more suited to theatre.

Jolson’s star faded in the following decades. World War Two and its aftermath changed popular culture – and Jolson wasn’t able to keep up. A rigorous schedule and a strong, New York work ethic kept him busy, however, and he remained a hit with the armed forces. In 1950, Jolson died of a massive heart attack whilst playing cards in a San Francisco hotel suite. He was 64.

Jolson’s legacy is complicated so say the least. Though he was a great entertainer for his day, his music has hardly stood the test of time and his use of blackface serves as a reminder of a past world. He is, however, the man who took cinema into the Talking Age – something that can never be taken away from him.

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