The “Jazz Singer” and the Birth of the Hollywood Musical.
by Ian Whitcomb
IN 1927 WARNER BROS., a studio on the brink of bankruptcy, took a risky dive by making the first full-length sound feature, “THE JAZZ SINGER”, a rather serious ethnic story that had but a smattering of dialog but plenty of songs both peppy and sentimental performed by Al Jolson, the acclaimed “World’s Greatest Entertainer”. The songs sold the picture. America and the world went crazy for sound. It was the death knell of the silent picture. Warner followed through with a series of Jolson vehicles loaded with songs. The other studios were caught napping: pictures with song and dance became the order of the day. Every star, whether they could perform or not, was corralled — why, even the imperiously Germanic Erich Von Stroheim was starred in a musical as a mad ventriloquist. (“The Great Gabbo”) The songs and dances were stunning, though.
Hollywood bought the Tin Pan Alley publishers and their writers, so as to have a corner on the song market source. Fussy sound engineers told cameramen they couldn’t move the camera out of the massive sweatboxes for fear of spoiling the all-hallowed sound. The result was a flood of static pictures, bursting with orchestras and pretty hoofers but looking like a Broadway show shot from a seat in the stalls.
One or two brave directors defied the ban on movement and let the camera roam: Rouben Mamoulian’s brilliant “Applause” is a good example. But it was MGM’s Wonder Boy Irving Thalberg who had the bright idea to use prerecorded music tracks so that the sound could be freely cut to different shots (hitherto music had to be played live on the set), However, the advantage of live music is that we can experience the vanished art of how a 1920s Broadway show sounded. Since the introduction of dubbing all musical performances are generally faked.
That is why this early period of musicals is so fascinating: The flood of “all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing” pictures was overkill for audiences; by 1932 the genre was dead. Indeed the mighty Irving Berlin had the shocking experience of having almost all his songs cut from his first musical outing, “Reaching For The Moon”. Happily Warners who had started the revolution brought in a new whizz-bang life to the jaded genre with the fresh and easy “42nd Street”.
How those movie moguls loved good old sturdy popular song!
But let us examine the birth of the movie musical more closely. There’s no doubt that the phenomenal success of “The Jazz Singer” dealt a fatal blow to the silent picture, even though the feature was 75 per cent silent, with dramatic over the top title cards like, “God made her a woman and love made her a mother!” This was no escapist backstage frippery but a serious sociological study of the struggle between Jewish assimilation and Old World rabbinical orthodoxy. Based on the play “The Day of Atonement” we follow Jakie Rabinowitz, the cantor’s son who, as Jack Robin, all-American boy, defies tradition to become a “mammy singer” breaking his father’s heart.
Serious stuff and stolidly shot like a silent. Not hit material. Until…a good way through the story Al Jolson, at that time an enormous stage star, finally appears as Jack, the singer of jazzy songs. The setting is a nightclub and the band is live (it was shot like a TV show with three cameras filming at once; the sound was recorded on disc and later synchronized).
Jolson, full of exuberance, treats the set like a live show and orders the band to play “Toot Toot Tootsie”. But it was his ad lib throwaway lines and in particular his trademark slogan “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” that had audiences shouting and clapping, glad to be free of the grim ethnic story.
Among those applauding was Mrs. Sam Warner, widow of the recently deceased Warner brother Sam. Sam had been the power behind the studio’s involvement with talkies — his wife had even pawned her jewelry to help raise funding. However, Sam had seen talking pictures as a way to bring concert music — good music — to the masses. But clearly it was Jolson and his load of mother songs that made the picture a hit everywhere. Mostly they were oldish standards but now the studio moguls saw the light and realized that they must wire for sound and raid Broadway for its stars, songs and songwriters in order to flood the screen with song and dance. So it was popular music that really gave birth to the talking picture.
It took the other studios a long time to get fully ready for sound.1928 saw them scuffling about building sound stages and hiring haughty sound specialists who dictated exactly where the mighty mike should be placed--inside this vase, up in that chandelier—ordering dialog to be spoken at a snail’s pace with each syllable drawn out. The once mobile camera was isolated in a static “sweat box”. The art of film ground to a halt.
Other studios hoped that, as with Jolson, if they but stuck Broadway stars in features sprinkled with a few songs and a flimsy plot they would hit instant pay dirt.
Not so, for, as was shown in the case of huge star Fanny Brice and others. Her stage charisma failed to make it from footlights to silver screen. Warners and their ace Al Jolson raced to the rescue at the end of the year with another part- talkie “The Singing Fool.” Again Jolson electrified audiences with peppy, hip-swiveling renditions of current hits like “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” He showed he could recite and wring pathos from the ballad “It All Depends on You” written by the then red-hot Broadway show writers, De Sylva, Brown & Henderson. They also provided him with the film’s smash hit, the maudlin “Sonny Boy”, about the son who dies. The songwriters had written it tongue-in-cheek but Al was moved, knowing his public’s taste, and wouldn’t lose one tear-sodden note. This was to be Jolson’s last movie triumph: his wooden acting and ragtimey songs would prove passé in a world that was eager for a little more than a fiery personality. The novelty was wearing thin.
1929 was crammed with musical films. It was however MGM, the biggest most star-studded studio that devised the model for the well-made musical. MGM had the best technicians and in producer Irving Thalberg a man who carefully plotted his product so that the picture would pay attention to detail, hiring the right songwriters for what was to be the first true musical film: “The Broadway Melody”. It put to rest the Jolson vehicles and the glut of hastily-patched together revues: it had a proper plot, a backstage one to be sure, concerning the success of a sister act (Bessie Love and Anita Page) and their rivalry for a songwriter (Charles King). None were stars but Thalberg cannily realized that the public thirsted for something more than the novelty of sound, an absorbing story with integrated songs topped off with a grand finale production number such as only Hollywood could magically produce. There was nothing that spectacular on the real Broadway stage.
Nacio Herb Brown, composer, and Arthur Freed, lyricist, had been writing hits for the stage — triplet-filled novelties like “The Doll Dance” — very simple catchy melodies with equally straightforward words. Nothing sophisticated. Thalberg had had his eye on this team for some time. Conveniently they were local boys, and thus didn’t have to be railroaded in from New York, like the army of Tin Pan Alleymen arriving daily, bankrolled by studios desperate for hit songs.
Brown and Freed’s first contribution, slotting nicely into the story is the title song, a hymn of praise to Broadway, performed by Charles King in publisher’s office with a jazzy ad-hoc band (including Nacio Herb Brown on piano). Next in a poignant scene King romances Bessie with a solid ballad, “You Were Meant for Me”. Finally there’s the topper when the chorus boys and girls sing and dance in perfect precision to the sprightly, jolly “Wedding of the Painted Doll”. There’s even a little ballet and it’s all in Technicolor. This was the very first production number on screen.
The sound was, as was normal, recorded live with an orchestra on the set. When the sequence had to be reshot Thalberg’s sound expert suggested using the original music recording, thus saving time and money This liberation, dubbing to playback, allowed the editor to cut away to his heart’s delight-but it meant the end of live performance a la Jolson. This was just one of the many technical innovations in this epoch-making film. Like many MGM productions it had a superior gloss and sheen plus topicality-it was peppered with the latest Broadway slang and folkways.
It was an enormous hit, billed as the first “all-talking all- singing all-dancing” production and went on to win Best Picture at the 1929 Academy Awards. Now Hollywood once more jumped to get on the musical bandwagon. More New York songwriters and publishers were brought in by the trainload. The sorry result was a heap of hastily assembled revues; every other film had a song planted in it. Stars who could neither sing nor dance were ordered to.
By 1932 with Hollywood snarled in the Great Depression the public was in no mood for any more operettas or warmed-over filmed Broadway shows. The musical seemed dead—until Darryl Zanuck, a young and canny Warners producer, gambled on “42nd Street” to bring back a dead genre. His ace-in-the- hole was innovative dance director Busby Berkeley and the new songwriting team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, plus the girlie freshness of Ruby Keeler. It was another glorious backstage story that has become immortalized in the desperate order by the stage director to chorus kid Keeler: “You’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!”
She does just that, helping re-launch the movie musical back into circulation. What’s more, she married Al Jolson, who had kick-started the musical craze back in 1927. Full circle!
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and
music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com