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The Jazz Singer

The First Feature-Length Talkie


Movie poster for Jazz Singer, the first talkie.

A movie poster for The Jazz Singer.

In public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
When The Jazz Singer was released as a feature-length movie in 1927, it was the first movie that included dialogue and music on the filmstrip itself.

Adding Sounds to Film

Before The Jazz Singer, there were silent films. Yet despite their name, these films were not silent for they were accompanied by music. Often, these films were accompanied by a live orchestra in the theater and from as early as 1900, films were often synchronized with musical scores that were played on amplified record players.

The technology advanced in the 1920s, when Bell Laboratories developed a way to allow an audio track to be placed on the film itself. This technology, called Vitaphone, was first used as a musical track in a film titled Don Juan in 1926. Although Don Juan had music and sound effects, there were no spoken words in the film.

Actors Talking on Film

When Sam Warner of the Warner Brothers planned The Jazz Singer, he anticipated that the film would use silent periods to tell the story and the Vitaphone technology would be used for the singing of music, just as the new technology had been used in Don Juan. However, during the filming of The Jazz Singer, superstar of the time Al Jolson ad-libbed dialogue in two different scenes and Warner liked the end result.

Thus, when The Jazz Singer was released on October 6, 1927 it became the first feature-length film (89 minutes long) to include dialogue on the filmstrip itself. The Jazz Singer made way for the future of "talkies," which is what movies with audio soundtracks were called.

So What Did Al Jolson Actually Say?

The first words Jolson recites are: “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” Jolson spoke 60 words in the first scene and 294 words in the second scene.

The Storyline of the Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer is a movie about Jakie, the son of a Jewish cantor, who wants to be a jazz singer but is pressured by his father to remain at home. After setting off on his own, Jakie (played by Al Jolson) becomes a success in the field of jazz. However, at the climax of the movie, Jakie must choose between a career on Broadway or returning to his deathly ill father and the synagogue.

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