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BEHIND THE SCENES AT WARNER BROTHERS : Sound and Fury : The Making of the First Talkie, 'The Jazz Singer,' Is a Story of Hollywood's Jewish Heritage

July 31, 1988|NEAL GABLER | Neal Gabler, co-host of PBS' "Sneak Previews" for three years, is currently researching the history of gossip. This article was excerpted from his upcoming book, "Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," Crown Publishers, copyright 1988 by Neal Gabler.

IN 1925,Sam Warner invited his older brother Harry to a meeting that would change the course of movie history. Harry thought it was to be a meeting of Wall Street bankers. It actually turned out to be a demonstration of sound movies. Harry admitted later, "I am positive if (he had) said talking pictures, I would not (have) gone." But, watching a short of a jazz band and realizing that sound shorts could be used as appetizers before the main feature, Harry conceded to experiment with sound, and on June 25, 1925, Warner Brothers contracted with Bell (which owned the Vitaphone sound process) to make a series of sound films.

Sam Warner, the family's greatest enthusiast for sound, was put in charge of the project and immediately began preparing short films at the old Vitagraph studios in Brooklyn, while Jack Warner, out in Hollywood, was preparing a feature with a musical track, "Don Juan," starring John Barrymore. In pursuing sound, the Warners were very much mavericks, but while the Hollywood Establishment may have resisted them, the winds of change were blowing.

The morning after the successful premiere of "Don Juan," Variety issued a special edition in acknowledgement of the impending revolution. Warner Brothers stock soared from $8 to $65 per share. The Warners became very wealthy men overnight.

If the investment markets were convinced of the future of sound movies, the industry itself was less sanguine. Vitaphone equipment, which consisted essentially of a large record player synchronized to a projector, was cumbersome and unreliable. Many theaters refused to install it, sending Warners' stock plummeting, and the company wound up losing close to $1 million in 1926--which was, however, less than they had lost the previous year.

But having bucked the conventional wisdom and staked their future on sound, Warners continued to produce sound shorts featuring some of the biggest names in vaudeville.

As the momentum from "Don Juan" dissipated early in 1927, they realized that what they really needed were more full-length Vitaphone films. The second was an inconsequential comedy starring Charlie Chaplin's brother, Sydney. The third, an adaptation of the swashbuckling "Manon Lescaut," starring Barrymore again, seemed a better prospect. But the fourth, the one that would become a milestone in the history of motion pictures and would make Warners Brothers one of the major forces in Hollywood, was a very unusual choice--one that seemed a highly unlikely prospect for immortality. It was a Jewish drama.

"The Jazz Singer" opened Oct. 6, 1927, a date that would be engraved in motion-picture history as the real beginning of the sound era. Even at the time, everyone seemed to recognize the stakes. Since "Don Juan," the industry had been waiting for a confirmation, a sign that sound was part of the natural evolution of the movies and not just a short-lived novelty.

The evening was brisk and clear, and the theater on Broadway was filled with notables. If they were waiting for an answer to the question of sound, they soon got it. One young Paramount executive raced into the lobby during intermission and called his boss in California: "This is a revolution." When the movie's star, Al Jolson, strode to the stage to be showered by the audience's plaudits, tears rolled down his cheeks. The next morning Adolph Zukor called about 50 Paramount executives to his Savoy-Plaza suite and demanded to know why they hadn't made a sound film. The same scene was being re-enacted throughout the industry.

As a historic milestone, "The Jazz Singer's" significance was incontrovertible. It more than revived the sound movement; by ad-libbing a few lines, Jolson had made it the first feature film with speech ("Don Juan" had only music and effects) and introduced a whole new set of possibilities. As a movie, however, it was decidedly less than monumental. But even if it failed as drama, "The Jazz Singer" did something extremely rare in Hollywood: It provided an extraordinarily revealing window on the dilemmas of the Hollywood Jews generally and the Warner brothers specifically.

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