In his biography of filmmaker Samuel Goldwyn, A. Scott Berg describes the scene when Hollywood insiders finished watching the L.A. premiere of The Jazz Singer on December 28, 1927.
“The audience sat stunned,” he wrote.
Frances Goldwyn herself observed that there was “terror in all their faces. The game they had been playing for years was finally over.”
Some actors had perfectly acceptable voices, but their on-screen persona was weakened by the reality of speech. Listen to John Gilbert in the early talkie Queen Christina, playing alongside his lady love, Greta Garbo. His voice is all right.
But that’s the problem. It’s just “all right.” Not dashing or heroic or suitable for a “great lover.” And when studios could ditch his high salary for an up-and-coming speaking actor who’d work for less. . . well, the rest, as they say, is history.
I previously told a story on this blog about Charles Rosher, Mary Pickford’s cameraman. She fired him because he couldn’t quickly enough master the new lighting that sound required when shooting her sound screen test.
Rosher’s career didn’t “go to ashes” the way others’ livelihoods did during the shift from silent to sound, even if being fired by Pickford was a low blow for a man who had been one of the most sought-after cameramen during silent films’ heyday. He actually went on to work on films such as Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Yearling, Kiss Me Kate and Showboat, among others.
But Rosher’s artistry would have been a waste in the first days of sound. Cameras had to be stationary, housed in boxes to mute their noise, on the very first talkies. There was little for cameramen to do in those early days but stand and shoot.
Ironically, look to some of the great silent films for examples of when cameras really “spoke.”
One of the great achievements of artistic cinematography was F.W. Murnau’s silent Sunrise. Released by Fox in 1927–the same year Warner Bros. released the first feature-length talkie, The Jazz Singer—Sunrise is so visually rich and dense with great storytelling that one forgets there is no dialogue. Title cards are few as well in this story of country versus city life, domesticity versus urban excitement. Silent film directors like Murnau knew how to tell a story with images alone.
The film is available through Netflix. During research for my novel, Sloane Hall, my husband and I watched it, mesmerized from beginning to end. Someone has also posted it on YouTube in nine parts. Click here for the first one. (Photos in this post are from Sunrise.)
Today, even casual observers of film know of the movie The Jazz Singer, while only film aficionados are aware of Sunrise.
If you’re wondering who Murnau’s cinematographer was for his masterpiece — it was none other than Charles Rosher.
Sloane Hall by Libby Sternberg, a story set in old Hollywood and inspired by Jane Eyre, tells the tale of troubled chauffeur John Doyle, who falls in love with his starlet employer Pauline Sloane, only to be repulsed by secrets she hides from the camera and the world. It is available for preorder on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, among others.