People who might have just a passing familiarity with movie history may have heard at one time or another that the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, was the first sound feature film. But that’s not really true. The details of that mistaken notion may seem trivial, but facts are facts.
So, to be precise about it: The Jazz Singer is the first feature-length film with both synchronized recorded music and lip-synchronized singing and speech (using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system), but not throughout the entire film, only in a few sequences. Even so, it has been commonly credited as the milestone film marking the dawn of the sound era.
The Lights of New York, released in July 1928, also filmed in the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, it is the first all-talking full-length feature film, released by Warner Brothers, who had also introduced the first feature-length film with synchronized sound (but no spoken dialogue) Don Juan, in August of 1926.
Who then, was the first comedian to appear in a sound film? We can go still further back to 1923 to consider experiments conducted by inventor and radio pioneer Dr. Lee de Forest. He, along with Theodore Case, had been developing the method of including a sound strip onto film, which they called Phonofilm.
On April 15, 1923, after having given demonstrations in the previous weeks to the press and the Engineering Society, de Forest premiered a total of eighteen one-reel films for public viewing at the Rivoli Theatre in New York. Some of those short films featured singers, musicians (such as famed black composer-performers Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle), and spoken recitations (“Casey at the Bat”).
Also shown were A Few Minutes with Eddie Cantor, during which Cantor, who was starring in Kid Boots on Broadway at the time, recited bits of his comedy monologue of the day, while also squeezing two songs into the eight-minute running time.
Also noteworthy among this film roster is a poolroom routine by the legendary vaudeville comedy team Weber & Fields. Luckily, both Cantor’s and Weber & Fields’ films still survive, and provide us with an invaluable record of their stage work at the time.
Comedian/singer Phil Baker also appeared in a Phonofilm that year, so you have a choice for the answer to the question of which comedian was the first to appear in a talkie. Or perhaps we can call it a tie.
In any case, from that point on, comedians could look forward to making audiences laugh with their words as well as their actions. Yes, it would be a few more years before they would do so in feature films distributed on a grand scale (the Marx Brothers’ 1929 feature Cocoanuts was among the first all-talking, full-length features), but this series of experimental films served as a major step in the process.
Imagine what it must have been like for audiences at the Rivoli Theatre 100 years ago to experience seeing and hearing their favorite entertainers talk and sing on the screen.
Until next time…
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Read my previous articles about comedy history at the links below, and at the links below:
“Halloween with Abbott & Costello” https://garryberman.medium.com/halloween-with-abbott-costello-2d39a21bbbba
“Buck Privates: An Appreciation” https://garryberman.medium.com/buck-privates-an-appreciation-da7b7d645fab
“Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?” https://garryberman.medium.com/whatever-happened-to-comedy-teams-7e243b5c9d45
“Pie in Your Eye: A History of the Pie-in-the-face Gag” https://garryberman.medium.com/pie-in-your-eye-a-history-of-the-pie-in-the-face-gag-4dd8c31286a0
“Stars For a Cause: The Navy Relief Show of 1942” https://garryberman.medium.com/stars-for-a-cause-the-navy-relief-show-of-march-1942-af2ff6edf8d9
“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://garryberman.medium.com/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e
“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor? https://garryberman.medium.com/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1
“A Tribute To Our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-ed3f5757fe73
“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525
“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://garryberman.medium.com/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0
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