Contrary to popular belief, The Jazz Singer was not the first "talkie" -- not even by a long shot. Attempts to synchronize motion pictures and phonographic devices had begun with Thomas Edison, and the equally industrious if somewhat less successful Lee De Forrest had come pretty darn close to changing the picture business back in the early '20s. Why, then, did this schmaltzy piece of Broadway melodrama prove so potent at the box office that Hollywood was forced to sit up and take notice? Al Jolson, arguably the most popular stage entertainer in the world at the time, attracted his fair share of interest, of course. But Jolson had performed some of his famous songs the previous year in a tremendously received (and still extant) Vitaphone short, A Plantation Act. Certainly, Jolson's famous piano patter with a visibly startled Eugénie Besserer in Jazz Singer -- "Mama, darlin', if I'm a success in this show, well, we're gonna move from here..." -- was greeted with much applause by premiere audiences in 1927, but the entertainer had already previewed his most famous line, "You ain't heard nothin' yet, folks," in A Plantation Act. The moment that truly spelled the death-knell for silent pictures came instead at the end of Jolson's excited soliloquy when Warner Oland, as his cantor father, enters the frame to issue a stern "Stop!" At this juncture, and it is as jolting an experience today as it must have been in 1927, The Jazz Singer returns to silent film and canned music. Not that the voiceless drama was in any way inferior; in fact, the very same season produced truly memorable motion pictures such as F.W. Murnau's stirring and innovative Sunrise (1927) and King Vidor's brilliant The Crowd (1928), works of cinematic art far superior to the rather stolid and pedestrian The Jazz Singer. But when Cantor Oland so successfully silenced his excitable son and the action returned to pantomime, audiences, who had been turned from mere spectators into voyeurs by Jolson's small-talk, lost an immediacy not found in the far less prosaic world of dreams and heightened expression of silent cinema. That The Jazz Singer ushered in the so-called "talkie era" becomes in retrospect almost inevitable. How, for example, would Hollywood have been able to depict the Great Depression without a fast-talking James Cagney or wisecracking dames like Jean Harlow?
by Hans J. Wollstein review