Throw Back Thursday 1927: The First Full-Length Motion Picture with Sound Premieres in NYC

This image of the Warner Strand Theatre is viewable in Times Square on the Membit app. The Warner Strand Theatre was a few blocks from the Warners’ Theatre where the Jazz Singer debuted. Membit is a new augmented reality app that gives you a way to share the past with the present and a way to share the present with the future. It’s so new it isn’t even in the App Store yet, it’s in beta. If you would like to try it out before everyone else, click here.

On October 6, 1927, the first feature-length motion picture to incorporate synchronized sound premiered in New York City. Its overwhelming success signaled the end of the silent film era.

Titled The Jazz Singer, the film starred Al Jolson and was a musical motion picture adapted from Samson Raphaelson’s play of the same name. The movie’s plot centered around a fictional character named Jackie Rabinowitz, a young singer from a Lower East Side immigrant Jewish family who defies his conservative father, a temple cantor, by running away from home to become a jazz singer.

The premiere’s October 7th date was deliberately chosen because it corresponded with Yom Kippur, a Jewish high holiday central to the movie’s plot.

The lead up to the premiere was fraught with problems the first being the cost of the film. With a total price tag of $422,000 it was one of the most expensive films in the studio’s history nearly bankrupting the Warners. It was reported that one of the brothers hocked his wife’s jewels to cover production costs. Then tragedy struck the family. Sam L. Warner, the man who was the biggest proponent of making a full-length movie with sound died of pneumonia at the age of 40 the day before the premiere. Because of this none of the four Warner brothers were in attendance on October 7th.

The New York premiere of The Jazz Singer on October 7, 1927. Source: The Red List. 

Although the technology, called Vitaphone, had been incorporated into short films for musical numbers, it was never applied to a full-length film because of its complicated reel system. Each of Jolson’s musical numbers where mounted on separate reels with accompanying sound reels that had to run concurrently with the picture reels. The Jazz Singer, only 88 minutes long, had 15 different reel discs that needed to be changed at different points throughout the movie to ensure that the sound synced up with the images on the screen. One slip would have resulted in a perceived failure in the new technology and a crisis for the studio.

Clips from The Jazz Singer: Source YouTube via Nanden Sharma

Yet even with the crippling difficulties the premiere was surrounded by excitement because of the historic debut of sound in movies. What was then referred to as a “talkie.” One of the Warner family members in attendance said that the audience response was very positive, especially when Jolson was singing. By the end of the movie the audience was leaving the theater shouting “Jolson, Jolson, Jolson.”

The New York Times reported that:

“Mr. Jolson’s persuasive vocal efforts were received with rousing applause. In fact, not since the first presentation of Vitaphone features, more than a year ago at the same playhouse, has anything like the ovation been heard in a motion-picture theatre.”

The Times went on to write in praise of the idea of the film and the technology that conveyed the sound:

“The Vitaphoned songs and some dialogue have been introduced most adroitly. This in itself is an ambitious move, for in the expression of song the Vitaphone vitalizes the production enormously… The Warner Brothers astutely realized that a film conception of ’The Jazz Singer’ was one of the few subjects that would lend itself to the Vitaphone.”

The movie also helped to solidify Jolson as a movie star. Although not uncommon in the 20’s, Jolson spent a large portion of the film in blackface when he took on the persona of Jack Robins for a jazz singing Broadway act. The use of blackface today considered universally racist has been interpreted by scholars as a symbol of the struggle that the main character was undergoing with his own Jewish heritage and his desire to be an entertainer. Film scholar W.T. Lhamon states

“The whole film builds toward the blacking-up scene at the dress rehearsal. Jack Robins needs the blackface mask as the agency of his compounded identity. Blackface will hold all the identities together without freezing them in a singular relationship or replacing their parts.”

the-jazz-singer-movie-posterA movie poster for The Jazz Singer. Source: The Blonde at the Film. 

Other film historians like Lisa Silberman Brenner say that the Raphaelson was trying to equate jazz music with prayer and the African American entertainer as the new cantor in a new “religion” sweeping over the immigrant minorities assimilating to a new American culture.

In the end the film was a financial success for Warner Brothers taking in a US box office gross of $3.9 million and worldwide gross of $2.6 million. The Warner Strand was built in 1914 by Mitchel and Moe Mark both considered pioneers in motion picture exhibition. They went on to hire Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel as manager who would use the theater to develop and perfect his luxurious style of presenting movies which made him legendary at the Roxy and Capit0l Theatres in NYC. In 1951 the theatre was renamed the Warner Theatre, was closed for renovations and eventually reopened as the Warner Cinerama Theatre. In 1968 it was converted into a three-theatre movie house and renamed yet again to the RKO Stanley Warner Theatres. By the 1980’s the theatre, then known as RKP Warner Twin was declining rapidly. On February 8, 1987 it was completely demolished as part of Time Square redevelopment initiative.

Next, read more about the original Vitagraph studio, some of which still stands in Brooklyn. Check out more from our Throwback Thursdsay column.

 Membit, Today in NYC History, Vitagraph Studios, Warner Bros.

2 Responses
  1. The Jazz Singer had its premiere at the Warner (a/k/a Warners’)Theatre, 1664 Broadway and not the Warner’s Strand as mentioned in your article.

    • michelle young Reply

      You’re absolutely correct! Justin is going to work on doing a membit of the actual Warners’ Theatre in the coming weeks to replace this one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *