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
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies