A Look at 10/6/1889: On Moving Pictures and “Talkies”

Image from: Wikimedia

Original poster advertising the groundbreaking talkie. Image from: Wikimedia.

October 6th is a celebration for film buffs everywhere. The first motion picture and the heralding out of the silent movie era share an unlikely anniversary, thirty-eight years apart.

Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Wait a minute I tell ya, you ain’t heard nothin’. You want to hear ‘Toot, Toot, Tootsie’?” says actor Al Jolson from behind the movie screen, effectively ushering in a new age of “talkies” or films with sound. The 1927 film opens up with an orchestral sequence, much like the other silent films of the time. But Al Jolson’s words break the pattern, interrupt the music. No, the mainstream cinema “ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” nothing like this anyway.

Except, it sort of already had.

In 1889, Thomas Edison played a motion picture in his laboratory in New Jersey. He had invented the motion picture, experimenting with an idea that if you capture enough pictures and move them in sequence fast enough, the image effectively moves. The first time he tried this out, today so many years ago, he synchronized the moving picture with audio coming from a phonograph. The first moving picture spoke, but it would take another thirty some-odd years for the advent of sound in cinema to catch on.

The role of the film The Jazz Singer was to do just that. Boasting an award-winning cast, the film marks an almost tangible transition from the before-sound and after-sound era. Its opening and subsequent musical themes are a testament to the shift. A major theme in the plot is a shift in cultural values that was very much on the minds of people during the Roaring 20s. Where do old world values end and the values of a new world—a world that produces a whole new sort of music, a whole new sort of sound—begin? And what better way to illustrate that than through technological advancements that allow for expression of that sound? Unsurprisingly, the film was a huge success.

But being grounded in the present day, I find that there are moments when watching the film becomes difficult—not because our musical tastes have changed so drastically in the last century or because the father’s death scene is so heart-wrenching, but rather because of other expressions of themes that are deeply problematic in the present day. The titular jazz performer wears blackface, and Jewish traditions are arguably othered, first by the assimilating protagonist, and then by the gaze of an audience who consumes the spectacle. In watching the film today, we watch us watch ourselves struggle with basic ideas about unity and diversity and integration, ideas that are not irrelevant today and that will never be irrelevant.

Thomas Edison and The Jazz Singer gave us the tremendous power of sound in film. Now it is time for us to truly listen.

Sources:

From the Library of Congress (http://goo.gl/G1Zpx9http://goo.gl/S8N6Py)

From the Charles Edison Fund (http://goo.gl/JvcNpU)

From the American Film Institute (http://goo.gl/qtUnbO)

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