October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
on October 6 the Warner Brothers movie The Jazz Singer opened in New York City. In most respects it was a conventional melodrama. The creaky plot revolved around Al Jolson, playing a singer whose father wanted him to continue the family tradition and become a cantor in a synagogue. Most of the dialogue appeared on title cards, as usual in silent movies, to the accompaniment of a prerecorded score. The film’s main attraction was found in the few sequences where Jolson sang and talked—something that was virtually unprecedented in a full-length feature film.
Despite all the commotion, sound movies were more than three decades old by the time The Jazz Singer was released. In 1895 Thomas Edison had begun marketing his Kinetophone, a coin-operated peep show with a recorded musical accompaniment that lasted less than a minute. That system was a failure, along with scores of others that appeared through the years, bearing names to rival those of modern pharmaceuticals: Cameraphone, Synchroscope, Vocafilm.
All these systems had foundered on two difficulties: synchronization and, more vexing, poor sound quality. But by the mid-1920s these problems had been overcome with the aid of vacuum tubes, which made the recording and reproduction of sound much cleaner and more sensitive. Tubes also made possible sound-on-film technology, in which the soundtrack is printed on the film itself, thus ensuring synchronization. A number of short films with music, sound effects, singing, and talking were shot and exhibited using these methods.
Yet when Warner Brothers developed its Vitaphone system (which recorded sound on a separate disk rather than on the film), there was still no thought of using it for dialogue. The company saw Vitaphone chiefly as a way to save exhibitors the expense of hiring orchestras or pianists to accompany their films. As Harry Warner supposedly said, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
The enthusiastic response to Jolson’s few minutes of dialogue—most or all of it reportedly improvised—answered Warner’s question. In March 1929 Fox became the first major studio to switch exclusively to sound, and by the end of 1930 silent movies were deader than laissez-faire economics. And while Vitaphone had been responsible for the breakthrough, sound-on-film quickly became dominant. Sound-on-disk has made a comeback, though, in the latest digital technology, as well as the recent enthusiasm for watching The Wizard of Oz to the accompaniment of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon .