Talking Motion Pictures

"The advent of American talking movies is beyond comparison the fastest and most amazing revolution the whole history of industrial revolutions." --Fortune Magazine, October, 1930

A Brief History of Talking Pictures

   Until the late 1920's, motion pictures were silent except for the  musical accompaniment provided by theatre owners in the form of live orchestras.  Up to this point, movies had enjoyed a wide degree of popularity, but they still remained a secondary form of entertainment, largely due to their lack of sound.  As evidence of this fact, many silent films were originally used as "chasers" in the more popular vaudeville shows.
    All of this changed in 1926 when Warner Brothers, in conjunction with Western Electric,  introduced a new sound-on-disc system.   In this system, sound effects and music were recorded on a wax record that would later be synchronized with the film projector.  In order to exhibit this new technology, Warner Brothers released "Don Juan", the first motion picture to have a pre-recorded score and synchronized sound effects.  Although "Don Juan" proved to be a box-office hit, many movie studios still refused to adapt to talking picture technology, believeing that "talkies" would never replace silent pictures.  However, the premiere of "The Jazz Singer" in October of 1927 changed these opinions, and in doing so, changed the history of motion pictures forever.
John Barrymore and Mary
Astor in "Don Juan", 1926

"The Jazz Singer"

       "The Jazz Singer" triggered the talking-picture revolution.  Based on Alfred Cohn's story "The Day of Atonement," and Samson Raphaelson's popular Broadway play of the same name, the film starred Al Jolson as a Jewish boy who attempts to become a Broadway star.  Even though "The Jazz Singer" was not the first film to use sound, it proved to be the first one to use spoken dialogue as part of the dramatic action.   The combination of Jolson, America's most popular singer, and the new medium of sound helped to produce a profit of $3.5 million, causing Warner Bros. to begin its rule as one of  Hollywood's top studios.  When Warners Bros follow-up sound films, such as "The Lights of New York" also became box-office hits, the rest of Hollywood switched to sound with startling speed, hoping to adapt to the new technology.  A year after its release, Hollywood recognized the importance of "The Jazz Singer" with regard to motion picture history  by honoring the film with a special Academy Award.

The Implications of Talking Motion Pictures

    While the introduction of sound greatly benefitted the motion picture industry, talking pictures proved to be disastrous for vaudeville . Vaudeville performances could not compete with the technology of the talkies and many of its actors were unable to adapt to the format of sound motion pictures.  Talking films also hurt the careers of the many orchestra musicians who provided the live score to many of the original silent movies.  The speech and voices of certain actors also proved to be a difficult hurdle for many studios to overcome.  This problem particularly plagued foreign actors whose accents were thought to disrupt the American idiom.
    Sound also influenced the behavior of movie patrons.  During the silent film era, it was considered acceptable to talk while the movies played.  Because people were allowed to voice their responses to the film, a common bond was forged among the audience when many patron expressed a shared reply.  With talking pictures, however, audiences concentrated on hearing the movie, rather than those seated around them, leading many patrons to look down upon talking while the movie was playing.  As Robert Sklar said in his book Movie Made America, "talking audiences for silent pictures became a silent audience for talking pictures" (53).

    Throughout the silent movie era, many conservative members of the American middle class campaigned for the censorship of many films.  These campaings suffered an enormous blow due to the introduction of talking pictures for two reasons.  one, it was now much harder to tamper with the film disks due to the new technology of talking pictures.  Secondly, civil libertarians were now ready to debate whether talking pictures were protected by the First Amendment.

    Finally, because sound  came from outside industries, it linked the motion picture industry to other businesses, setting up long term and lucretive partnerships.  For example, for many of its films, Warner Bros. attained their Vitaphone sound system from Western Electric, a financial enterprise that greatly benefitted both companies.

Why We're Looking at Talking Movies

    The movies listed on the advertisement are some of the very first attempts by Fox Studios to incorporate sound into their films.  Like many movie moguls of his time, William Fox was reluctant to embark on the switch from silent pictures to talkies, especially because of the great financial success silents had brought him.  However, the box office success of his talking films convinced Fox that the switch to talkies could be quite lucrative.  Following this revelation, Fox increased the production of sound pictures, and as a result, his studio became one of the most powerful in the film industry. 

 For More Information    


Early Motion Pictures, 1897-1920

American Film Institute

Cinema History

The Smithsonian's Salute to Cinema

The Greatest Films

Bill Douglas Centre


"The Jazz Singer (1927)" 

Why "The Jazz Singer?"

The Making of "The Jazz Singer" 

The Dubious Legacy of "The Jazz Singer"

Al Jolson: An Impossible Act to Follow 

An Analysis of "The Jazz Singer"     


The New Yorker, March 21, 1994 v70 n5 p100(1)  
"Enter the talkies." (talking motion pictures) (From the Archives: 1928) Robert Benchley 

American Film, Sept 1981 v6 p34(3)  
 "The birth of the talkies." Edward Bernds.  

EEE Transactions on Education, Nov 1992 v35 n4 p278(8)  
"What makes the picture talk: AT&T and the development of sound motion picture technology."  
         (American Telephone & Telegraph Co.) Sheldon Hochheiser.  

Current Musicology, Jan 1995 n57 p61(34)  
"Melodrama as a compositional resource in early Hollywood sound cinema." David Neumeyer.  



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