IN 1927 Warner Brothers, a studio on the brink of bankruptcy, took a risky dive by making the first full-length sound feature. The Jazz Singer
, a rather serious ethnic story which had only a smattering of dialog but plenty of songs both peppy and sentimental performed by Al Jolson, the acclaimed “World’s Greatest Entertainer”. The songs sold the picture. America and the world went crazy for sound. It was the death knell of the silent picture. Warner followed through with a series of Jolson vehicles loaded with songs. The other studios were caught napping: pictures with song and dance became the order of the day. Every star, whether they could perform or not, was corralled--why, even the imperiously Germanic Erich Von Stroheim was starred in a musical as a mad ventriloquist. (The Great Gabbo
) The songs and dances were stunning, though.
Hollywood bought the Tin Pan Alley publishers and their writers, so as to have a corner on the song market source. Fussy sound engineers told cameramen they couldn’t move the camera out of the massive sweatboxes for fear of spoiling the all-hallowed sound. The result was a flood of static pictures, bursting with orchestras and pretty hoofers but looking like a Broadway show shot from a seat in the stalls.
One or two brave directors defied the ban on movement and let the camera roam: Rouben Mamoulian’s brilliant Applause
is a good example. But it was MGM’s Wonder Boy Irving Thalberg who had the bright idea to use prerecorded music tracks so that the sound could be freely cut to different shots (hitherto music had to be played live on the set), However, the advantage of live music is that we can experience the vanished art of how a 1920s Broadway show sounded. Since the introduction of dubbing all musical performances are generally faked.
That is why this early period of musicals is so fascinating: The flood of “all-talking, all singing, all-dancing” pictures was overkill for audiences; by 1932 the genre was dead. Indeed the mighty Irving Berlin had the shocking experience of having almost all his songs cut from his first musical outing, Reaching For The Moon. Happily Warner, who had started the revolution, brought in a new whizz-bang life to the jaded genre with the fresh and easy 42nd STREET. How those movie moguls loved good old sturdy popular song!