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Experimentation with Sound

Sound technology breaks the silence of the movies and revolutionizes filmmaking.

The Jazz Singer

Alan Crosland
(American, 1894–1936)

1927. 35mm film (black and white, sound), 89 min.

The Jazz Singer stars popular actor, comedian, and singer Al Jolson as the son of a cantor who is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, but who instead yearns to sing jazz. Though his father forbids him from singing such music, he persists anyway and is soon caught performing in a club. This brings the simmering conflict between father and son—or between the old world Jewish traditions of his immigrant parents and the modern American world in which he is coming of age—to a boil. The son runs away to escape the burden of tradition and his father’s wrath and pursue his dream of becoming a jazz singer, which he ultimately achieves with great success.

Though both the form and narrative of The Jazz Singer followed standard Hollywood tropes, the sound technology that brought Jolson’s voice to the screen was innovative. Called Vitaphone, it was Warner Bros. own sound-on-disc system, which was the leading brand at the time. The technology was still so new at the film’s debut that to use it to record the entire dialogue would have required an unwieldy number of waxed records coupled with the impossible task of syncing each individual record to the moving images of the filmstrip. Working within these limitations, while also experimenting with the possibilities of Vitaphone technology, the director Alan Crosland created a kind of hybrid between a silent film and a talkie. Almost all of the dialogue is silent, with intertitles filling in the aural void, and much of the soundtrack was pre-recorded. However, the scenes of Jolson singing were recorded on set. This may seem like a negligible distinction to 21st-century moviegoers, but the challenges of recording sound cleanly on set—including limited-range microphones and cameras whose noisy gears required them to be encased in immovable soundproof boxes—demanded creative and costly logistical orchestration.

The film’s most striking moments come when Jolson’s speech can actually be heard. There are two such moments, both relatively brief and both following his conclusion of a song. Within the context of a film otherwise absent of recorded dialogue, to experience the star’s voice feels radical, jarring, and, for the filmmakers and audiences of 1927, full of potential.

A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression; a significant or recurrent theme; a motif.

A sound technology, first developed in the early 20th century, that became commercially viable in the late 1920s. In this system, music and dialogue were recorded on waxed records that were played in sync with the film via a turntable connected to a film projector through an interlocking mechanism.

Dialogue or narration conveyed in text that is shown between scenes of a silent film.

A person who directs or produces movies.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.

The shape or structure of an object.

Relating to or characterized by a concern with beauty or good taste (adjective); a particular taste or approach to the visual qualities of an object (noun).

The Double-Edged Sword of Sound Technology
Like every substantial technological shift, the advent of sound simultaneously destroyed and created careers. The new emphasis on speech led to the hiring of a whole new group of professionals, as novelists, journalists, and playwrights were commissioned to write dialogue for the scripts. But few silent film stars successfully transitioned to talkies. Some had voices that filmmakers and studios considered unlovely or accents that did not fit within the Hollywood aesthetic for American English. Many were seen as emblems of a now old-fashioned era of film; regardless of the fluidity with which they adapted their acting to the talkies, they were not cast. Musicians, too, were affected, since pre- or live-recorded soundtracks now accompanied films.

Sound at the Expense of Art?
Not everyone embraced talkies initially. In fact, the year after The Jazz Singer catalyzed the shift to sound, 1928, was considered to be one of the golden years of silent cinema. A number of prominent film historians and filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock, disparaged talkies as knockoffs of live theater. Some went so far as to question whether talkies should even be considered an art form.