Not the first time that synchronized speech was in a feature film ...
7 August 2010
...but it was the first time that it was integrated into the storyline of a feature film in such a way that it was remotely entertaining to audiences.

The story was adapted from a Samson Raphaelson play, and I've heard from many viewers who have reviewed this film with the criticism that the title cards and even the storyline itself for the all but twenty minutes that are silent film are like those from a melodrama from the 1910's rather than the more sophisticated material from films such as Sunrise from that same year. However, clever silent dialogue is not the point of watching this. The point is how Jolson jumps off the screen anytime he is center stage and performing a number and how the dynamism that was Jolson could only be adequately communicated in the presence of sound. Sam Warner, the Warner Brother that dragged the other Warners into the sound era kicking and screaming and died right before the film opened, picked well when he selected Al Jolson to be the centerpiece of the new sound on disc system's ability to capture synchronized dialogue.

What I always notice whenever I watch this film is just how apparently scared the Warners were of letting someone actually speak in what is supposed to be a talking picture. Jolson's famous impromptu dialog with his mother while at the piano performing "Blue Skies" is the only real conversation - although it is completely one-sided - in the entire film. The first all talking picture would have to wait until the following year to be created when a Vitaphone short inadvertently turned into a 59 minute feature film while Jack Warner was out of town. That picture was, of course, "Lights of New York". After that film opened to a grind house run and made over a million dollars the sound revolution was truly on. "The Jazz Singer" was considered only a novelty at the time.

Of course, part of the reason that so much of this film is silent is that is was still very difficult at this time to synchronize speech with film for extended periods of time. Even Jolson's whistling during Toot Toot Tootsie was sound dubbed over silent film versus the Vitaphone process.

Watch this one with an eye and ear mainly for Jolson's singing numbers. Also keep an eye out for some of Jolson's costars that have big careers later on. Of course there is Warner Oland who plays Al's father here and is Charlie Chan over at Fox during the 1930's, but there is also Myrna Loy as a chorus girl peeking through some curtains backstage during a rehearsal with a few catty - but unfortunately silent - remarks. Finally look out for William Demarest sharing a table with Al at Coffee Dan's as they both dig into a plate of ham and eggs. Ironically, Demarest played Jolson's mentor in the excellent 1946 biopic "The Jolson Story".
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