Production during the roaring 1920s was a comfortable ebb and flow. Backlots baked in the Los Angeles heat and glistened with global stars. Directors and writers turned out films by the month. The Golden Age of cinema was on the horizon. But studio giants, some still standing and others vanished except in passing credits, would first endure a revolution which began with a song.
The Jazz Singer electrified audiences as Al Johnson sang and swung in sync and changed the tempo of Hollywood. The Academy Award winning film is a tragic tale of a Cantor’s son struggling between his father’s expectations and his dreams of singing stardom. The plot is an eerily apt metaphor for the ensuing tumultuous metamorphosis of sound, the old fighting the new, the traditional roots dominating the modern and the ultimate relenting of the archaic.
The film itself is a poignant portrait of a family torn apart at the hands of an extraneous power shaped long before their existence, but sour notes dampen an otherwise enchanting melody. Notably, Johnson and co-star Mae McAvoy exude a flat ‘Will they, won’t they’ which is outright ignored by the conclusion, and Johnson applies that awkward extinct tradition of blackface.
Unfortunately, the greatest aspect of The Jazz Singer builds to its greatest downfall. Johnson walks a precarious tightrope act. Behind is the safety of the past and family, ahead is Jazz and the future. Johnson’s scenes with his pleading, heartbroken mother are genuinely touching and the deathbed forgiveness with his estranged father is devastating. Yet, after investing in this heartbreaking struggle, we find a comfortable net installed beneath. Johnson’s choice has no effect on the outcome of his life and achieves both fame and forgiveness.
However, The Jazz Singer belongs to the illustrious company of D.W. Griffith’s grammar inventing epic The Birth of a Nation, Oscar Micheaux’s racial confrontational piece Within Our Gates, and technical innovator Murnau’s unchained camera in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. They are important in how they did, rather than what they did it. A select collection of films are highly regarded for unlocking a new vocabulary through technical advancement or grammatical invention for filmmaking masses, regardless of the merits of the individual picture. (Though Sunrise is a true classic). The Jazz Singer belongs to this catalogue. As a narrative it is lacking, as a landmark it is essential.
Only portions of the film are in sync because of high costs, despite the cheaper Vitaphone process, a lack of operators for advanced equipment, and because the film was essentially an audience test with cinema as Thomas Edison envisioned from the beginning. The colossal success sparked a slow transition to convert projectors, establish new departments and develop equipment.
Singin’ In The Rain captured the turbulent transition with a knowing smile. ‘Passing fad’ was the motto of unsettled actors and short sighted production companies. The myth mocked of silent stars’ peculiar voices holds a semblance of truth. Foreign actors lost work due to improper accents, and allegedly John Gilbert’s pitch destroyed his heartthrob facade.
Billy Wilder’s devastating noir Sunset Boulevard struck closer to reality. Some afflicted stars trained vigorously with voice coaches and others simply eclipsed. Buster Keaton’s innocent hero did not fit the sexy baritone voice filling the vacancy of laughter. Chaplin continued making silent films well into the sound era before finally succumbing, demonstrating both Chaplin’s resistance and eminence.
Though, the innovation was not universally harsh. Mary Pickford resented sound and continued to well after winning an Oscar for her first talkie. The adjustment to wearing clunky gadgets restricted the grand athleticism of Flynn and Fairbanks, but forced consideration for subtler acting, jettisoning wild gesticulations are glaring expressions. Directors no longer barked orders like Stroheim, but explored new manners of direction.
Sound opened possibilities of fresh drama, action, comedy and filmmakers within it. Would the Marx Brothers exist without sound? Where would the great Leone duels be without surgically precise synchronisation of Morricone’s score? Would lines like Casablanca’s ‘We’ll always have Paris’ or Dirty Harry’s ‘Do you feel lucky punk’ speech still exist? Perhaps, in small print on title cards. But without the timing of Humphrey Bogart or the gravelly whisper of Clint Eastwood, who knows if they would be quoted today. Tarantino may have remained in his video store, surrounded by silent film.
Sound was inevitable, as was film grammar before and colour after. The Jazz Singer was just brave enough to do it first. There is a scene most apt for this conclusion. Al Johnson succumbs to his father’s wish and sings the ancient prayers in the synagogue one last time. The old man peacefully dies with his traditions and the young jazz singer takes the stage to sing his new tune.
Years after running away from home, the Cantor’s son still searches for his big break. Currently, he sits in a jazz club where his friend has already put in a word in with the owner for Johnson to sing. Which he does. Except, he really sings it. Synchronised sound brings the act to life and amidst the glorious applause, Johnson ad-libbed a prophetic line – ‘You ain’t heard nothing yet’