Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

The First Talking Picture

Oct. 6, 1927

"Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet!" cried Al Jolson halfway through The Jazz Singer. Jolson's urgent, boastful bray — an ad-libbed intro to his rendition of Toot Toot Tootsie — cut through the opening-night audience at the Warner Theatre near Times Square like an obstetrician's scissors severing the umbilical cord to silent films, for 30 years the dominant screen language. But the movies had to talk. Thomas Edison thought so. He and his assistant W.K.L. Dickson had devised a talking-movie machine as early as 1889. In the early '20s short sound films appeared featuring vaudeville and opera stars. These were sensible, tentative steps; now the maverick Warner brothers made a great leap of faith. Their Jazz Singer wasn't a true "talkie''; it broke free from silent-screen traditions only for brief dialogue and a few songs. Nor was the story, about a cantor's son who goes into show business, at all modern. But Jolson's hip-swiveling salesmanship (he was in many ways the Elvis of his day) put over the novelty of talking pictures. The film, an immediate sensation, cued a frantic rush to convert all studios and movie theaters to sound, and signaled the end of a pristine, vigorous silent-film art. By 1930 virtually every U.S. film was a talkie, and movies haven't shut up since. Jolson's slangy cry was truly the shout heard 'round the world.