The history of cinema has seen tremendous technological advancements since the artform’s beginnings in the late 19th century. One of the most monumental achievements was the addition of synchronized recorded sound in the late 1920s. But what was the first real “talkie” – a movie with not just sound effects and music, but actual dialog spoken by actors? Let’s take a look at the films that pioneered this revolution in cinema.
The beginning of sound in film
While movies have had musical accompaniment since their earliest public exhibitions in 1896, and primitive sound effects were attempted as early as 1899, it wasn’t until the 1920s that serious work was done to synchronize recorded audio with visual images on film.
In 1922, the first public presentations of films with a synchronized musical score were given in New York City. These included Dream Street, Don Juan and Nanook of the North. However, these films did not feature spoken dialog. The following year saw the first public screenings of short films with synchronized dialog, marking the genesis of “talking pictures”.
The Phonofilm experiments
In 1923, inventor Lee de Forest presented a series of short films as demonstrations of the Phonofilm sound-on-film process he had been developing since 1919. The 17 short films included vaudeville acts, musical performances, and famous personalities reciting lines from speeches and poems. Some of the titles were:
- Comedians Abbott and Costello delivering their “Who’s On First?” routine
- Actor Eddie Cantor singing “Ain’t Nature Grand”
- Vaudeville dancer Ann Pennington performing the “Charleston”
- Politician Al Smith giving a campaign speech
While pioneering as the first publicly exhibited films with synchronized dialog and sound effects, the Phonofilm shorts were essentially prototypes or test reels, not narrative movies as we think of them today.
Don Juan premieres with sound
On August 6, 1926, the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system developed by Warner Bros. premiered alongside the first feature length movie with a synchronized soundtrack: Don Juan.
The adventurous John Barrymore swashbuckler epic included a musical score and sound effects throughout its runtime. While it did not feature spoken dialog, it paved the way for the first talkie by proving the viability of sync sound in a feature film. The New York Times review declared it “the first picture to synchronize voice and action from beginning to end.”
The Jazz Singer changes everything
The film widely regarded as the first real talkie, and the one that changed the film industry forever, is 1927’s The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. It was both the first feature length movie with synchronized dialog, and the first to successfully synchronize singing sequences.
Though only containing a few minutes of dialog and singing total, these scenes shattered the silence of cinema and kicked off the talkie revolution. Within 3 years, silent filmmaking was obsolete.
Some key facts about The Jazz Singer’s revolutionary use of sound:
|Jolson ad-libbing voice lines
|In the opening scene inside the synagogue, Jolson improvised some dialog lines responding to the prayer chanting. This sequence marked the first time audiences heard an actor speak words in a film.
|“Dirty Hands, Dirty Face”
|Jolson sings this song while applying blackface makeup. This was the first time a musical number was synchronized in a film’s story.
|“Toot, Toot, Tootsie”
|Jolson’s character sings and dances to this jazz standard in a cabaret. This song was the first vocal musical number presented to an audience in a movie.
|“Mother, I Still Have You”
|In a climactic scene, Jolson sings this sentimental ballad to his mother while kneeling beside her. This was the first time a film depicted emotion on screen through singing.
The tremendous commercial and critical success of The Jazz Singer left no doubt that sound films were the future. Silent films lingered for a couple more years, but talkies soon dominated theatre marquees worldwide.
The first “all talking” picture
Following quickly on the heels of The Jazz Singer were the first movies that were 100% talkies, with dialog making up their entire soundtracks. The lights of Broadway, released in November 1927, is considered the first feature-length all talking picture. However, it was actually beaten to theaters by a small indie production called The Lights of New York, released in July of that year.
The Lights of New York was made quickly to capitalize on the talkie craze ignited by The Jazz Singer. Shot in just 1 week with a budget under $25,000, it grossed over $1 million in 1928. The melodrama about two country rubes being swindled in the big city demonstrated that audiences now expected to hear dialog in films. The silent era was dead.
The late 1920s saw cinema transformed seemingly overnight, as the flickering shadows of the silent screen suddenly burst into sound. But it took years of invention and trial-and-error before Thomas Edison’s dream of combining “sight and sound” in movies became reality.
While the technology and artistry was primitive compared to today’s standards, those pioneering talkies of nearly a century ago changed film history forever. Audiences could finally hear their favorite stars speak on screen amid the sights and sounds of the movies. This more immersive and lifelike experience kickstarted the Golden Age of Hollywood. We have Lee de Forest, Warner Bros., Al Jolson, and those first brave filmmakers to thank for giving cinema a voice.