Today is the anniversary of several significant events in the development of motion pictures. On this date in 1889 Thomas Edison gave a public display of his first motion picture and in 1893 on this date he received the first copyright for a motion picture filmed with his Kinetograph camera. Edison’s contribution to the motion picture industry has been highly exaggerated and disputed, but the events are milestones of a sort. What cannot be disputed is that the first “talkie” which completely revolutionized motion pictures, The Jazz Singer premiered on this date in 1927 at the Warner Theater in New York. Let’s dispense with Edison first.
Although Edison’s tireless self promotion and business acumen have left a permanent legacy in the U.S., and the world, of him as a genius inventor – the light bulb, the phonograph, etc. etc. – with his name permanently enshrined in place names and business enterprises, modern historians have picked apart the legend, showing that others who preceded him in fields that he claimed credit for have, until recently, languished in obscurity, and that even in his own laboratories other scientists and inventors were ultimately responsible for inventions which Edison patented and took credit for. What he was undeniably a genius at was funding and selling commercially viable products, using his name as a selling point (remind you of anyone currently in the public eye?), and profiting from the work of others. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Edison’s promotion of motion pictures.
In the late 1880s a number of people were working on ideas pioneered by Eadweard Muybridge (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/eadweard-muybridge/ ) to take multiple still photographs in rapid sequence and string them together so that, when projected, they become “motion pictures.” That concept is still, in essence, the basis of celluloid movies. In the mid-19th century, inventions such as Joseph Plateau’s phenakistoscope and the later zoetrope demonstrated that a carefully designed sequence of drawings, showing phases of the changing appearance of objects in motion, would appear to show the objects actually moving if they were displayed one after the other at a sufficiently rapid rate. Each sequence was limited to a small number of drawings, usually twelve, so it could only show endlessly repeating cyclical motions. By the late 1880s, the last major device of this type, the praxinoscope, had been elaborated into a form that employed a long coiled band containing hundreds of images painted on glass and used the elements of a magic lantern to project them on to a screen.
The use of sequences of photographs in such devices was initially limited to a few experiments with subjects photographed in a series of poses, because the available emulsions were not sensitive enough to allow the short exposures needed to photograph subjects that were actually moving. The sensitivity was gradually improved so that in the late 1870s Eadweard Muybridge created the first sequences of images photographed in real-time which could be animated. He used a row of cameras, each in turn capturing one image on a photographic glass plate, so the total number of images in each sequence was limited by the number of cameras, about two dozen at most. Hand-painted images based on the photographs were projected as moving images by means of his zoopraxiscope.
By the end of the 1880s, the introduction of lengths of celluloid photographic film and the invention of motion picture cameras, which could photograph an indefinitely long rapid sequence of images using only one lens, allowed several minutes of action to be captured and stored on a single compact reel of film. Edison was granted a patent for his motion picture camera or Kinetograph. He helped with the electromechanical design, while his employee W. K. L. Dickson, a photographer, worked on the photographic and optical development. The bulk of the credit for the invention belongs to Dickson.
The Kinetograph was used initially with a Kinetoscope for viewing motion pictures made by the Kinetograph. The Kinetoscope was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device. The Kinetoscope was not a movie projector but introduced the basic approach that would become the standard for all cinematic projection before the advent of video, by creating the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter. A process using roll film was first described in a patent application submitted in France and the U.S. by French inventor Louis Le Prince. The concept was copied by Edison in 1889, and subsequently developed by Dickson between 1889 and 1892.
This video gives a little bit of the history, and at the end shows what is claimed to be the first motion picture – a quick, blurry clip of a woman twirling.
It is not undisputably the first motion picture, although it is probably the first that Edison’s company produced. It does give the basic idea from which Edison and others developed short movies. Claims about dates of production and priority are murky at best.
In 1893, what is sometimes claimed as the world’s first film production studio (it isn’t), the Black Maria, or the Kinetographic Theater, was completed on the grounds of Edison’s laboratories at West Orange, New Jersey, for the purpose of making film strips for the Kinetoscope. Construction began in December 1892 and was completed the following year at a cost of $637.67 (around $18,000 in current dollars). In early May 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, Edison conducted his first public demonstration of films shot using the Kinetograph in the Black Maria, with a Kinetoscope viewer. The exhibited film showed three people pretending to be blacksmiths.
The first motion pictures made in the Black Maria were deposited for copyright by Dickson at the Library of Congress in August, 1893. In early January 1894, The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (Fred Ott’s Sneeze) was one of the first series of short films made by Dickson for the Kinetoscope in Edison’s Black Maria studio with fellow assistant Fred Ott. The short film was made for publicity purposes, as a series of still photographs to accompany an article in Harper’s Weekly.
It was the earliest motion picture to be registered for copyright — composed of an optical record of Ott sneezing comically for the camera. While Edison was not a great inventor, he was a shrewd enough businessman to know that copyright was important for his commercial success. Patenting and copyrighting of inventions can most definitely be attributed to him.
The first films shot at the Black Maria, which Edison had little to do with other than financing, included segments of magic shows, plays, vaudeville performances (with dancers and strongmen), acts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, various boxing matches and cockfights, and scantily-clad women. Many of the early Edison moving images released after 1895, however, were non-fictional “actualities” filmed on location: views of ordinary slices of life — street scenes, the activities of police or firemen, or shots of a passing train.
In April 1896, Thomas Armat’s Vitascope, manufactured by the Edison factory and marketed in Edison’s name, was used to project motion pictures in public screenings in New York City. Later he exhibited motion pictures with voice soundtrack on cylinder recordings, mechanically synchronized with the film. Some of the early Kinetoscopes also had synchronized sound which could be heard through earphones. So, “talkies” had been around since the beginning of motion pictures. But until the 1920s they had mechanical problems and were not commercially viable.
The Jazz Singer is the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized sound; its release on this date in 1927 heralded the commercial ascendance of the “talkies” and the decline of the silent film era. It was directed by Alan Crosland and produced by Warner Bros. with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system. The film, featuring six songs performed by Al Jolson, is based on a play of the same name by Samson Raphaelson, adapted from one of his short stories “The Day of Atonement.”
The film depicts the fictional story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young man who defies the traditions of his devout Jewish family. After singing popular tunes in a beer garden he is punished by his father, a cantor, prompting Jakie to run away from home. Some years later, now calling himself Jack Robin, he has become a talented jazz singer. He attempts to build a career as an entertainer but his professional ambitions ultimately come into conflict with the demands of his home and heritage.
The premiere was set for October 6, 1927, at Warner Brothers’ flagship theater in New York City. The date was chosen to coincide with Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday around which much of the movie’s plot revolves. The buildup to the premiere was tense. Beside Warner’s precarious financial position at the time, the physical presentation of the film itself was remarkably complex:
Each of Jolson’s musical numbers was mounted on a separate reel with a separate accompanying sound disc. Even though the film was only eighty-nine minutes long…there were fifteen reels and fifteen discs to manage, and the projectionist had to be able to thread the film and cue up the Vitaphone records very quickly. The least stumble, hesitation, or human error would result in public and financial humiliation for the company.
None of the four Warner brothers was able to attend: Sam Warner— the strongest advocate for Vitaphone—had died the previous day of pneumonia, and the surviving brothers had returned to California for his funeral.
According to Doris Warner, who was in attendance, about halfway through the film she began to feel that something exceptional was taking place. Jolson’s “Wait a minute” line had prompted a loud, positive response from the audience. Applause followed each of his songs. Excitement built, and when Jolson and Eugenie Besserer began their dialogue scene, “the audience became hysterical.” After the show, the audience turned into a “milling, battling, mob”, in one journalist’s description, chanting “Jolson, Jolson, Jolson!” Among those who reviewed the film, the critic who foresaw most clearly what it presaged for the future of cinema was Life magazine’s Robert E. Sherwood. He described the spoken dialogue scene between Jolson and Besserer as “fraught with tremendous significance…. I for one suddenly realized that the end of the silent drama is in sight.”
Critical reaction was generally, though far from universally, positive. The sound quality was fine for the songs, but critics complained that it was not able to capture the nuances of dialog as effectively. For the film to be shown nationwide theaters had to be modified at considerable expense. The Jazz Singer was certainly a commercial success, but its impact was not felt immediately. Silent films continued to be popular for some time for many reasons. One that tends to be forgotten these days is that large, cosmopolitan cities, such as New York, had sizeable immigrant populations who did not speak English, and they preferred silent movies where the main action was visual.
Here’s the famous, or infamous, conclusion to the film.
This leads me to a discussion of racism in the film. Nowadays minstrelsy and blackface are universally condemned as racist holdovers from vaudeville and earlier, and people without any knowledge of the era or Jolson simply dismiss The Jazz Singer as one more chapter in perpetual racism. In fact film historians see the film quite differently. Jazz historians have described Jolson’s blackface and singing style as metaphors for Jewish and black suffering throughout history. Historian Michael Alexander describes The Jazz Singer as an expression of the liturgical music of Jews with the “imagined music of African Americans,” noting that “prayer and jazz become metaphors for Jews and blacks.” Playwright Samson Raphaelson, after seeing Jolson perform his stage show Robinson Crusoe, stated that “he had an epiphany: ‘My God, this isn’t a jazz singer’, he said. ‘This is a cantor!'” The image of the blackfaced cantor remained in Raphaelson’s mind when he conceived of the story/play which eventually led to The Jazz Singer.
Jolson first heard music from the African-American community, such as jazz, blues, and ragtime, played in the back alleys of New Orleans, and he enjoyed singing the new jazz-style of music. He often performed in blackface, especially in the songs he made popular, such as “Swanee”, “My Mammy”, and “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody”. Jolson’s black stage persona, called “Gus” was a wily and wise-cracking servant who was always smarter than his white masters, frequently helping them out of problems they created for themselves. In this way, Jolson used comedy to poke fun at the prevalent idea of white supremacy. In most of his movie roles, however, including a singing hobo in Hallelujah, I’m a Bum or a jailed convict in Say It With Songs, he chose to act without using blackface. In The Jazz Singer, he performed only a few songs, including “My Mammy”, in blackface, but the film is concerned in part with the experience of “donning a mask” that the young Jewish singer embraces in performing popular songs onstage.
As a Jewish immigrant and the most famous and highest-paid entertainer in the U.S. at the time, he may have had the incentive and resources to help break down racial attitudes. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) during its peak in the early 1920s, included about 15% of the nation’s eligible voting population, 4–5 million men. While The Birth of a Nation glorified white supremacy and the KKK, Jolson chose to star in The Jazz Singer, which defied racial bigotry by introducing African-American music to audiences worldwide.
While growing up, Jolson had many African-American friends, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who later became a prominent tap dancer. As early as 1911, at the age of 25, Jolson was already noted for fighting discrimination on the Broadway stage and later in his movies. At a time when African-American people were banned from starring on the Broadway stage, he promoted a play by African-American playwright Garland Anderson, which became the first production with an all-Black cast ever produced on Broadway. In addition he brought an all-Black dance team from San Francisco that he tried to feature in his Broadway show (without success); he demanded equal treatment for Cab Calloway, with whom he performed a number of duets in his movie The Singing Kid; and he was supposedly “the only white man allowed into an all black nightclub in Harlem.”
Al Jolson once read in the newspaper that songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, neither of whom he had ever heard of, were refused service at a Connecticut restaurant because of their race. He immediately tracked them down and took them out to dinner, “insisting he’d punch anyone in the nose who tried to kick us out!” Subsequent to their meeting, according to biographer Al Rose, Jolson and Blake became friends. Rose writes:
This didn’t have anything to do with the theater, because they never worked together. Rather, they both had a love of prize fighting and used to go to boxing matches together, engaging in jocose discussion of the relative merits of Negro with Jewish pugilists. They would occasionally wager a bottle of whisky on these bouts.
Film historian Charles Musser notes that “African Americans’ embrace of Jolson was not a spontaneous reaction to his appearance in talking pictures. In an era when African Americans did not have to go looking for enemies, Jolson was perceived a friend.” There’s plenty of racism to go around these days; I’d advise not pointing fingers because of current sensitivities. Attention to context goes a long way.
Popcorn is the obvious recipe to go along with the movies although it’s hardly gourmet fare and you don’t really need a recipe in these days of popcorn machines and microwave bags. Movie theater popcorn tends to range from mediocre to barely edible, but you can do a better job at home even without special equipment. When I was a boy we made popcorn once in a while using a heavy lidded skillet. It’s a matter of greasing the skillet well, adding a small amount of popcorn, covering, and heating over medium-high heat whilst shaking vigorously until the popping has stopped. This type of popcorn was not popular or common in cinemas in Australia or England when I was growing up. Packaged caramel corn was the norm. You can make this yourself if you wish.
10-12 cups freshly popped popcorn
1 tbsp vegetable oil
¾ cup unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp kosher salt (or to taste)
¼ tsp baking soda
Preheat the oven to 250°F.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
To make the caramel sauce, melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Mix in the sugar until the sugar is completely moistened. Increase the heat to medium high and bring the mixture to a boil. Once boiling, boil for 3-4 minutes while stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan continuously.
The exact cooking temperature is not absolutely critical with this recipe, but ideally you should use a sugar thermometer and let the sugar mixture reach between 250°F and 300°F. The higher the temperature, the crunchier the popcorn, but do not let it go over 300. At this point smoke will appear.
Remove from the heat and add the vanilla, salt, and baking soda and stir until combined. The sugar mixture will bubble up violently. Continue stirring until you have thick, glossy sauce.
Slowly pour the caramel sauce over the popcorn while stirring the popcorn and continue stirring the sauce into the popcorn until all of the kernels are coated.
Divide the popcorn between two baking sheets, spreading the popcorn out into an even layer. Bake for one hour, checking and stirring every 15 minutes and breaking up any clumps.
Let the popcorn cool completely on the baking sheets. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to a week.