It was clear to Variety in 1927 that something momentous had happened when Al Jolson intoned “Kol Nidre” in that long-ago mother-son melodrama otherwise known as “The Jazz Singer.”
The schmaltzy picture with its heavy ethnic accent was not technically the first to include Vitaphone synchronization (as sound was then technically known) — that honor goes to “Don Juan” the year before with John Barrymore in the title role — but it was the first to make an impact.
A Variety reviewer Oct. 12 of that year summed up the effect of the movie thusly: “Undoubtedly the best thing Vitaphone has ever put on the screen. The first night Broadway mob that saw the finale of Jolson singing “Mammy” was a whale and resulted in a tumultuous ovation.”
As for Jolson himself, performing in his first picture, the review was less enthusiastic: “Jolson, when singing, is Jolson. When he’s without that instrumental spur the star is camera conscious.”
In those early days of the technology, Warner Bros. supplied theaters with both a synchronized soundtrack and a silent track. But, per Variety‘s reviewer, “exclude Vitaphone and there crops up the problem that ‘The Jazz Singer’ amounts to a Jewish mother-son religious story with Jolson not yet enough the screen actor to carry it. As presented with Vitaphone, it’s a credit to everybody concerned.”
In the aftermath of the film’s success, Jolson was reckoned to be able to pull down a record sum of $1 million a year from his appearances onstage in the same role. He was booked into legit theaters only in cities that weren’t already projecting the movie of “The Jazz Singer,” eliminating for 1927 New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Just six weeks later, a Variety headline proclaimed “Actual Talking Pictures Loom up as Screen Possibility Shortly.”
“Paramount is preparing a sound and talking device for its pictures. Warner Bros. is reported dialoging a highly dramatic courtroom trial in a coming release and General Electric is about ready to cut loose a sound machine to be used in conjunction with pictures.”
Folks in movie theaters got a further taste of talkies that year via Fox Movietone newsreels, which were beginning to use sound as well.
Said a Variety reviewer about one of them that November: “The Niagara Falls shots catch the roar and the music of the falling cataract in so realistic a fashion it left the theater damp.”
The paper was quick to see the challenge that lay ahead for the acting community: “Inability to secure players who can both talk and screen well is always a possible deterrent or check on the picture industry going completely over to talk pictures.”
In fact, many a career derailed as a result of the switch, while many unlikely screen presences prospered as sound took over.
And if you thought technological change only came fast and furious with DVDs and cell phones, think again: It took just five years for sound to sweep silent movies aside.
“End of Silent Films” was the banner headline on Oct. 20, 1931 as Variety reported that only 1,500 of 22,000 theaters in the country were at that point without sound equipment.
“Producers themselves are now ringing the final knell for muteness. Not one large or small is making a silent version of a picture for ’31-’32.”
The anonymous reporter waxed poetic as he essentially signed the death certificate for the silent film biz: “As prints wear out and sprocket holes give way, the silent picture’s scratched off the list. One-nighters of the old time era are then one picture less toward the end of their noiseless careers.”