1927 was an amazing year for silent movies. From its crude beginnings of just showing basic scenes of everyday life the movies had grown up to not only become an accepted art form but a global powerhouse. No artistic medium before ever came close to the far reaching impact of cinema.
Thanks to advances in technology but most importantly the skill and talent in front of and behind the camera silent movies seemed to keep getting better and better. For instance while title cards remained an important feature of the medium people like Chaplin and Murnau had learned to tell stories with less title cards and a whole lot more imagery.
Music which was often on the set to create a certain mood for the players extended into the various movie houses with orchestras accompanying the images on the big screen. It seemed like the perfect marriage of visual and sound.
In the case of Chaplin this had been going on since his days at Mutual. You see in films like The Immigrant Chaplin’s brilliant use of pantomime. The title cards weren’t there to convey dialogue so much as they were to indicate the direction things were going.
F.W. Murnau who was probably the tallest filmmaker of that time (He stood an amazing six feet eleven inches) had already been doing some incredible work at UFA Studios in Germany before he was lured to America. Nosferatu was a masterpiece of German Expressionism while The Last Laugh which used only one title card introduced the unchained camera as well as the point of view technique.
Murnau continued these innovations in his American films most notably Sunrise with Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien. Far from a commercial success yet the Academy found it such a dazzling experience that they awarded the film an Oscar for Unique and Artistic Production.
However it wasn’t all high art. Call it sex appeal, charisma or what have you but the rage of 1927 was Clara Bow. She had been in movies since the early twenties but took off in the later part of the decade with films such as Mantrap, Wings and of course It. Nobody could quite fully express what It was but whatever it was audiences agreed that Clara Bow had It in spades. Her magnetic presence and energy was a virtual guarantee of box office success.
Then there was Lon Chaney continuing to do what he did which was make people afraid to go to sleep at night. London After Midnight and The Unknown only further added to the reputation of the Man Of A Thousand Faces.
With movies such as King of Kings, My Best Girl, College, The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg, Underworld, The Way Of All Flesh, The Gaucho, Twelve Miles Out and so many others it looked like there was no end in sight for silent films…
By the late 1920’s it was an accepted fact that Al Jolson was the American stage’s greatest entertainer. No shrinking violet by any stretch, Jolson’s confidence and larger than life personality backed with a boisterous passionate singing style catapulted him to the upper echelon and kept him there. At this point in his career the last thing he needed was the movies.
Warner’s Brothers executives knew this full well when they approached him about playing the lead in a film called The Jazz Singer based on Samson Raphaelson’s play. The stage version with its story of generational and cultural differences had been a hit only two years before. So with the dynamic Jolson bringing it to the screen it was almost guaranteed to do well at the box office.
But this was going to be more than the average melodrama that the public was used to. Warner Brothers which had lagged behind movie studios like Paramount and MGM was on the brink of not only seriously upgrading their status but revolutionizing movies and thereby altering the course of film forever.
Things were going along as expected for a silent film. Nice visuals by the director Alan Crosland and the usual amount of title cards. Then about seventeen minutes in something startling happened. Jolson had just finished a song in a cabaret when he says to the audience” Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet”. No title cards or pantomime but actual words coming from the performer. The effect on the movie going audience was immediate and electric. Sound had arrived.
No surprise however that many people dismissed it as a fad. They swore that after the glory of silent movies that sound would set the industry back to it’s primitive beginnings. Look at all the advances that had been made in acting, direction, writing, set design, lighting and camera movement. Silent cinema was an art form loved around the world. Sound would only divide what already united us.
After all you didn’t have to know the language to laugh at the exploits of Harold Lloyd or marvel at the breathtaking stunts of the original swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks Sr. We were all in it together or at least that’s how much of the thinking went. Indeed Mary Pickford probably spoke for many of her contemporaries when she said, “Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo”.
But sound was not some bolt out of the blue. Something that no one ever saw coming or ever thought was possible. In reality sound had been tried from the very beginning of moviemaking but two problems hampered the development. The first was timing the soundtrack to the words spoken on screen (synchronicity) and the other was allowing the audience to hear clearly what was being said (amplification). By the time The Jazz Singer was released those two problems had been solved.
Silent movies would continue for a few more years even producing some stunning masterpieces. An amazing era that to this day remains greatly loved and admired by classic movie fans around the world.
Yet the clock was ticking down on silent cinema. As magnificent as it may have been it’s days were numbered and by 1929 it was over. Audiences had made their decision. Sound won and there was no going back.
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