In style and content, The Jazz Singer really did not differ too much from the other 47 feature length films that Warner Bros. released in 1927. The film's substance was quite standard: the common theme of the New World vs. the Old World and the inclusion of a few popular songs, all resting on the shoulders of the marquee Broadway star. The synchronous score was obviously a relative novelty, but even Jolson's musical numbers would not have been enough to propel the film beyond the rank of ordinary. Oh, but the dialogue-those 280 some odd words that Jolson utters throughout the whole of the film was all that was necessary to make the picture a major success and an unforgettable benchmark. The studio's $500,000 gamble grossed over $2.6 million worldwide, despite the fact that, since most theaters were not yet equipped with Vitaphone and therefore screened the film as a silent. Still, many people had been captivated by the magic. Jolson talked, audiences talked, box office figures spoke louder than words, and the studios realized they better listen.
When studios thought about sound in the 1920's, they thought about radio and music. As far as the movie industry was concerned in 1927, sound was not really a necessity for most genres of film. As Harry Warner declared, when his brother Sam suggested that Vitaphone might make synchronous dialogue possible, "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" Given the connection to radio and Hollywood's experience, minimal though it was, with synchronous song work, the musical became a very common and very popular choice of the studios finding their bearing in sound. The studio executives saw that the money was there, and the race began to out do one another. But what conventions would translate into cash? Obviously, Hollywood would rely on Broadway for both talent and material, but no one knew for sure what it meant to make a "musical film." So, the making of the musical became a dynamic process as studios borrowed from the competition, while trying to out do them. Every studio found success, every studio found failure, and every studio monitored the others very carefully. All bets were off, and Hollywood experienced its most creatively adventurous decade ever. The goal was to be original, to find new and inventive ways to incorporate the use of sound in one's films, but the pursuit of the purse ironically made musical the most formulaic of all cinematic genres.
| The Making of the Musical |