You ain't heard nothing' yet: How one sentence uttered by Al Jolson changed the movie industry

Hollywood lives by its clichés, and there had been catalytic events there before, all of which had been called revolutionary. But what happened at the Warner Theatre on Broadway, on 6 October 1927, really was a revolution.

One sentence uttered on screen that night 80 years ago changed the movie industry as it had never been changed before – and perhaps would never be altered quite so excitingly again. Colour, widescreen, and television all made huge impacts on the movie industry. But The Jazz Singer was altogether different. Al Jolson calling to the orchestra, "Wait a minute, wait a minute I tell yer, you ain't heard nothin' yet" not only marked the arrival of what from that moment on became known as the talkies, it instantly – and I do mean instantly – killed off the silent cinema.

These were not exactly the first words heard coming from a screen, but they were the ones that made Hollywood realise that films without sound had to be sent to the scrapheap.

Jolson, then the most popular star on Broadway, had already been the first actor whose voice was heard on film –or rather via a film. It happened a year before, when Warner Bros, then a small studio on the verge of bankruptcy, thought it might get out of hock by doing something that had been experimented with for years, but which, until then, no one had been able to perfect.

Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the gramophone, had been trying to find a way of being able to hear as well as see films as long before as the turn of the 20th century, but couldn't get either the amplification or the synchronisation right. Other studios had experimented and given up. But Sam Warner, the technical genius of the mogul brothers, had linked up with the Western Electric company to adopt a system called Vitaphone – in which sound, recorded at 33 1/3 rpm (21 years later, it would be the speed used for long-playing records) on 16in discs, was synchronised with a projector.

The film they chose was Don Juan with John Barrymore. There would be no human voices, but every time a carriage rumbled on the cobblestones, you would hear the rattling of the wheels; when swords were fenced, there was the sound of steel against steel. More than that, the New York Philharmonic played the background music. Warners thought they had a sensation on their hands. They hadn't. The critics hummed and hawed. Others dismissed it as something for the fairgrounds.

What did, however, make people sit up and think was a series of shorts in the same programme. Giovanni Martinelli, star of the Metropolitan Opera, sang "Vesti La Giubba" from Il Pagliacci. Fritz Kreisler played his violin; and Jolson performed in a sequence called "A Plantation Act", in which he sang "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody". It was sufficiently successful for Warners to decide to make a full-length movie – although with songs, not dialogue.

They decided on The Jazz Singer, which was already a highly successful Broadway show starring a young comedian called George Jessel. Jack Warner tried to sign Jessel up for the film role, but the actor turned it down instantly. "You don't expect me to risk my whole career on this crazy new invention," he said. Eddie Cantor, then the darling of the famous Ziegfeld Follies, was approached, but he said no for the same reason. That was when Warner approached Jolson, whom he had previously decided was both too successful and, therefore, too expensive.

Jolson, however, was fascinated. He decided that the plot was almost his own life-story – about the son of a synagogue cantor who chooses the stage, rather than wearing his father's prayer-shawl for a living. He was also intrigued by another factor – he had always wanted to be the first to do things: he had been the first big star to entertain the troops in the First World War (a feat he repeated in the Second World War), he had been the first to take Broadway shows on tour, and the first to have a runway that effectively sliced the auditorium of a theatre in two, so that he could dance from the back of the stalls to the proscenium arch.

There was one other little factor: he was the first performer to be offered a slice of the action of a film, reputed to be 25 per cent of the take.

He loved the idea of the film but was frustrated that he had no speaking role, that audiences who heard him sing would have to "suffer" from having to read titles between each line of dialogue. Yet he agreed: he thought that the combination of another "first" to his roster and the chance to play to millions of cinemagoers throughout the world made it exciting enough.

Warner Bros were delighted. But what they hadn't realised was that Jolson, the man who had to get so close to his audience that he could touch them, couldn't be confined to a camera lens and a microphone. The mike was switched on and, as the orchestra struck up the opening chords of his first number, "Toot Toot Tootsie, Goo' Bye", with the (amazing this) sound of china and cutlery being moved behind him, Jolson broke in with those historic words, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, I tell yer, you ain't heard nothin' yet."

The technicians were stunned. But Sam Warner realised the potential of it. If people could take those few spoken words, maybe they would want more. He immediately ordered a new scene to be added, in which Jolson, playing Jackie Rabinowitz, cantor's son who had become Jack Robin, stage star, tells his mother how he's going to buy her a new house, a new black dress and take her to Coney Island. He sings "Blue Skies" to her until the scene comes to an abrupt end (and the sound sequence, too) when his father enters and orders such degenerate behaviour to cease. The word "stop" was the last heard on the soundtrack, but it was enough.

The scene and the movie couldn't have been a bigger hit if cinemas showing it had given away 10-dollar bills with every ticket. The critics raved. "Talking Pictures Sensation", shouted the showbiz bible, Variety.

The money flowed in and the other studios tried to find ways of bailing out. Overnight, panic set in. Every other studio looked at their schedules and began either cancelling future projects or changing them into talkies – a scene in the classic musical Singin' in the Rain captured the situation beautifully. Microphones were hidden in bushes or in the leading ladies' corsages, and the equipment constantly got out of sync. But the talkies had come to stay. Other studios came up with their own systems before eventually the idea of a separate "gramophone" playing the soundtrack gave way to a standardised optical soundtrack on the film itself.

The one big tragedy was that Sam Warner, whose idea it had all been, died from a mastoid infection on the day of the movie's premiere.

Jolson went on to make a second semi-talkie, The Singing Fool, in which he sang his terrible, but historic, "Sonny Boy" number. MGM followed soon afterwards with The Lights of New York. The musical was well and truly conceived, born and thriving. And so was the gangster movie – people thrilled to the sound of guns being fired. Look, if you get the chance, at the number of times the camera in those early films focused on a telephone. You just knew it was going to ring – as did the box office tills.

As for Jolson himself, he had created something of a monster for himself. The man who had been the toast of Broadway started concentrating on making more movies. Few were any good, and his acting was even worse. But he would have the last laugh.

After that spell entertaining troops in the Second World War, when his civilian career was in the doldrums, his life was told in the massive biopic success The Jolson Story, and its sequel Jolson Sings Again. They made him the most popular radio and recording star in America. He died in October 1950. Jolson may not have been the conventional idea of a jazz singer, but, as his voice echoed out of those cinema speakers, audiences could really believe what they were told: "You ain't heard nothin' yet."

The eighth edition of Michael Freedland's biography, 'Jolson', has just been published by Vallentine Mitchell at £14.95

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable