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The Times (01/Oct/1977) - The day they made words speak louder than action in the cinema

(c) The Times (01/Oct/1977)

The day they made words speak louder than action in the cinema

The crowds queuing outside the Warner Theatre on Broadway 50. years ago on Thursday knew they were in for some excitement. The fact that The Jazz Singer was going to be the first full-length film with sounds coming from the characters up there on the screen had been trumpeted for weeks. But none of those people queuing on October 6, 1927 realized they were probably getting tickets for the preview of a revolution.

By the time Al Jolson had sung his last chorus of My Mammy and the words "The End" had flashed on to the screen, the future of the film industry had changed irrevocably. The fact that it did was due largely to two people — Jolson himself and Sam Warner, eldest of the Warner Brothers.

Warners were a fairly small studio, barely able to eke out an existence in competition with much bigger outfits like Metro and Fox who were contentedly making a fortune from silent pictures that literally went around the world, and they saw no reason at all to change.

There had been talk of making sound pictures for years. In 1911, Edison had experimented with synchronizing discs with vision but failed to get it to work properly. Eight years later, a scientist named Lee de Forest perfected a means of recording voices on the same film that took the movies, but no one showed any interest. He produced something like 2,000 "shorts" to show what could be done and the idea was laughed out of the studio boardrooms. "Something for the kids at the funfair," was how one mogul put it as he lit himself a big cigar and approved another year's (silent) film production.

Warner Brothers, on the other hand, were desperate. In a last-minute attempt to stave off bankruptcy, they joined forces with the Vitagraph organization and took over the Vitaphone process or synchronizing discs with film.

In 1926 they released Don Juan with an orchestral accompaniment. It caused but a ripple of interest and most cinemas made do with the usual piano in the pit.

At the same time, they started releasing a series of "shorts" with singers. One starred Al Jolson, then Broadway's top stage personality, who glorified in the title "The World's Greatest Entertainer". Another — called Talking to Mother — featured a Broadway actor named George Jessel, who was starring in a huge hit called 'The Jazz Singer, the story of a Jewish cantor's son who preferred singing on the stage to chanting in the synagogue.

When Warner Brothers decided to hedge no further bets and put their whole shirt on a full-length film "with sound sequences", they chose The Jazz Singer, which they had bought a few months earlier. Jessel was approached but demanded too much money to be considered. He believed that without that much financial security, it was not worth risking his whole career. Eddie Cantor took a similar view. Al Jolson accepted only on condition he was given a hefty slice of the profits, then virtually unknown in Hollywood,

As I said, it was going to be a silent film with just "sound sequences" and these were all going to be songs — by Jolson himself, by the child actor playing him as a boy, Bobby Gordon, and by Cantor Josef Rosemblatt, whose voice was used for Jolson's father, the cantor. But the studio learnt very quickly that you couldn't give Al Jolson a script and expect that to be the end of the matter.

Instead of just going from one song to another in a nightclub scene, Jolson gave his own particular brand of instructions to the band leader: "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet. Wait a minute, I tell you. You wanna hear Toot, Toot Tootsie. Three choruses, on. Lou listen. You play Toot, Toot Tootsie. Three choruses, you understand, and in the third chorus I whistle. Now give it to 'em hard and heavy. Go right ahead..."

Well, of course, no script writer could have put those words on paper and got away with it. But the mikes were switched on, the film and Jolson were in motion and the sentences were preserved for posterity.

Sam Warner heard it all and decided to leave the scene in the finished film. In fact, he liked it so much that he included another scene of a dialogue. As a result of that accident alone, the talking film was taken out of the fair ground.

The day after The Jazz Singer's premiere, Sam Warner was dead — and so was the silent film. A heart attack had killed the studio head and his bright idea had killed the staple product of his industry.

Within hours, telegrams were sent from New York to Hollywood, ordering silent films to be scrapped and competitive studios to be "wired for sound". It also created problems no one had considered.

Studios that had taken for granted distribution rights in almost every country of the world suddenly realized that their product was marketable only in the places where people understood English. As Mary Pickford was to say ruefully many years later: "It created a tower of babble — and made me a stranger in lands where I had been at home."

For dozens of young Continental stars of the time, their careers were finished — packed off home as soon as contracts could be conveniently broken. The Italian Rudolph Valentino who died just a year before would never have survived into what became known as the "talkie" era. And several American actors and actresses paid the penalty, too — simply because their voices did not match up to the sex images created by their silent features. John Gilbert, one of the biggest names of all of the silent screen, drank himself to death after his producers had failed to reconcile his high voice with his manly physique. Things might not have been so bad for him — for the Metro studios hired voice coaches to try to improve his sound and almost succeeded— had not word of his limitations spread all over America and people paid money just to gape and then laugh. The trouble was they laughed even before he spoke and he did not have a chance. Of course, some actors like Chaplin never did really came to terms with sound, which he always regarded as an intrusion.

Douglas Fairbanks, Junior told me that his father Douglas Fairbanks, Senior fulfilled his contractual obligations to United Artists and quietly retired himself rather than enter a field in which he did not feel happy.

In Britain, things were rather slower in getting off the ground. "I think we just hoped it would go away", was how Sir Michael Balcon put it to me. "But of course it didn't. And we tried to patch up old films in the hope that people would accept them-you know, by adding sound effects. Well, of course they didn't accept them and we were left with the cost of silent films that no one wanted together with the cost of the sound effects that were just no good. In our hearts, we must have realized what was going to happen."

The first man to realize it in Britain was Alfred Hitchcock, who in 1929 produced Blackmail and used a very primitive form of dubbing to get over the problem of one of his main actresses being unable to speak English. While she mouthed the words, another actress spoke them into a microphone at the side of the set.

And that microphone itself was more than just a problem — where, for instance, to put it? Suddenly, telephones took on an inordinate slice of the action because the phone was in fact the mike — if you see what I mean. Attempts at hiding microphones down women's cleavages were dashed when (a) they tripped over the wires; (b) the mikes picked up the sound of their heartbeats and (c) every neck movement resulted in a pearl necklace sounding like a heaving of rocks.

And, of course, the microphones picked up the sound of the whirring camera. In the end, the cameras were placed in vastly over-heated soundproof boxes and the studios just had to hope the cameraman did not die before the film was finished.

But it was not very long before it was realized that something very vital had been missing before the talkies came along. It was more than just a watershed in entertainment history. It was the day the cinema grew up.