Warner Bros.’ and director Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) is an historic milestone film and cinematic landmark. [Most people associate this film with the advent of sound pictures, although Don Juan (1926), a John Barrymore silent film, also had a synchronized musical score performed by the New York Philharmonic and sound effects using Vitaphone’s system.] It should be made clear that this film was not the first sound film, nor the first ‘talkie’ film or the first movie musical.
Although it was not the first Vitaphone (sound-on-disk) feature, it was the first feature-length Hollywood “talkie” film in which spoken dialogue was used as part of the dramatic action. It is, however, only part-talkie (25%) with sound-synchronized, vocal musical numbers and accompaniment. [The first “all-talking” (or all-dialogue) feature-length picture was Warners’ experimental entry – the gangster film Lights of New York (1928).] There are only a few scenes, besides the songs, where dialogue is spoken synchronously. A musical score (composed of a potpourri of melodies including sources such as Tchaikovsky, traditional Hebrew music and popular ballads) and musical sound effects accompany the action and title/subtitle cards throughout the entire film. The characters are given individual musical themes.
Sam Warner, co-founder of the studio, died at the premature age of 40 – one day before the film’s New York City world premiere on October 6, 1927. Jolson was given the lead after Eddie Cantor and George Jessel denied Warners’ offer to play the title role. Audiences were wildly enthusiastic when America’s favorite jazz singer and superstar Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson in 1886, not the first choice for the role, and played onstage by George Jessel) broke into song, ad-libbed extemporaneously with his mother at the piano, and proclaimed the famous line to introduce a musical number:
“Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”