Jim Rees marks the release 90 years ago this month of ‘The Jazz Singer’, the first ‘talkie’ and the film that would change an industry forever…….
Technology is like a ball rolling down a hill. It might take a while to get started, but when it does, it just gets faster and faster. Look how the world of communications has been transformed in the past twenty years. Go back ninety years and you will find one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of cinema when, in 1927, The Jazz Singer was released.
Moving images had obsessed mankind for millennia. The idea that movement could somehow be captured and reactivated by manipulating static images was first explored by our cave-dwelling ancestors. The ancient Greeks used a series of slightly different images on a roll; peeked at through a spy-hole they gave the illusion of moving pictures.
In the late nineteenth century came film – basically using the same technique as the ancient Greeks. By the 1890s, the public couldn’t get enough of these ‘movies’.
A new industry mushroomed almost overnight. The French were to the fore, but America quickly emerged as the nursery of the new medium. At first, it was centred around New York, but it soon moved west where a tiny inconsequential village in California became the hub of the film industry.
Hollywood was born.
It was like a magnet, attracting directors, producers, actors and writers. Thousands of hopefuls arrived in search of stardom and unprecedented wealth. It was the California Gold Rush all over again.
Like the Gold Fever of 1849, the vast majority of these new style prospectors were disappointed. Most had no creative talent and of those who did, many went unrecognised and unappreciated.
But every industry has two types of employment; there are those who are directly employed in creating the product and there are those who supply raw material, build production spaces, manage catering and distribute the finish goods. For many who didn’t get their shot at stardom, they at least found steady employment.
By 1920, there was an array of big names who had hit the jackpot. Many of those stars are still known to us – Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd – and it looked as if they would go on forever.
Film had certainly come a long way, but there were those who felt it could go a lot further and the next big hurdle to cross was sound.
At the time, cinemas around the world hired musicians to play live music to accompany the images on the silent screen. This helped get the audiences pumped up as they watched a ‘nan-err-nee-nah’ horse chase or move them to tears in more tender moments, but it wasn’t the same as hearing the actors speak.