Film R1b Beyond the Frame
Research Paper 1
27 February 2013
The Jazz Singer: The Death of One Era, Birth of Another
The mid to late 1920’s saw Hollywood’s transition from the traditional silent film to new films with sound. This new technology, starting with Vitaphone shorts in 1926, was extremely popular and would be quickly enveloped into the first feature length movie with sound, The Jazz Singer. The success and generally great reception of The Jazz Singer would convince filmmakers across the nation that sound films were what they needed to increase profits and renew interest in movie going, and consequently would lead to the transition from (and downfall of) silent films to those with sound.
The introduction of the Vitaphone in 1926 and with it the consequent “talking” shorts with “flawless synchronization of speech or song on the soundtrack and “moving lips” on the screen” has been widely regarded as a “decisive economic event” in the American film industry’s conversion to sound as well as a “crucial technological development” (Wolfe). The Vitaphone process was an early method of synchronizing a picture to a record. This system led to Vitaphone shorts, which were short acts or films that were recorded for an audience’s viewing pleasure- due to their popularity, many Vitaphone shorts were based on Vaudeville acts, “with a premium placed on the diversity and novelty of ten-minute acts grouped together in various clusters,” which were known as “Vitaphone Varieties” (Wolfe). The sound on these shorts were mainly the orchestral music that accompanied silent films, except the orchestral music on the shorts were recorded instead of live- consequently, this saved money for the filmmakers and exhibitors by not needing to hire musicians for every movie. The recorded sound also allowed for better musical accompaniment as one good recording could be used in several different places, and exhibitors would not need to fear live orchestras messing up in any way. Though they were popular, most Vitaphone shorts weren’t shown by themselves, as they were much shorter than feature length films and thus would not be attractive to audiences who were looking to spend time and money at the theater but only receive little entertainment for their money. Consequently, Vitaphone shorts would be displayed before, after, and sometimes between (during intermissions) silent films to increase attraction and popularity of both the shorts and mainly the film (Hildreth). Hollywood, in order to both capitalize on recorded sound’s popularity as well as show the country that recorded sound was not simply a passing fad, began to look for ways to further develop the technology and incorporate it into feature length films. One of these early films, premiering in August of 1926, was Don Juan, a movie about a womanizer whose life turns to tragedy after he can’t turn the woman he loves (IMDb). The film was reportedly used to get audiences “accustomed to recorded sound” (Tankel)- it was preceded by a number of new types of shorts (what made them “new” was that these shorts featured popular stars instead of classical performers) and then the “audience was swept into the film by the flow of sound” (Tankel). The success of the movie and the new use of popular actors and actresses in shorts showed the viewing audience that Hollywood was serious about continuing this technology and making it a new standard.
Even with Vitaphone’s success and popularity, like everything else it wasn’t without it’s flaws. According to Charles O’ Brien, internally the Vitaphone system had issues that would lead to its eventual replacement, which were mainly problems with synchronization and editing. The Vitaphone was prone to having synchronization problems- if for any reason the sound was improperly synched (improper cues, sound too slow or fast, etc.) then the editor would have to try and manually synch the film with the sound, which was both time-consuming and...