The 1927 film The Jazz Singer is widely regarded as the first film to use sound, but pedestrian versions of sound film had existed before. Film inventors have been working on it since the medium’s earliest days.
In France between 1896 and 1900, there were various patented processes for synchronizing moving pictures with sounds recorded on a disc. Between 1900 and 1910, Léon Gaumont demonstrated various synchronized-sound pictures in his own theaters in Paris and even at world expos.
In Germany in 1910, the film pioneer Oskar Mester produced a film with synchronized sound called The Green Forest.
In America in 1912, The Edison Company produced a 15-minute vaguely synchronized musical version of Mother Goose Tales (which was shot in just one take) and Thomas Edison would also release the 6-minute Nursery Favorites in 1913.
Even the nickelodeons sometimes had live musical and narrative accompaniment. The practice of narrating movies live flourished in the silent era, especially in Japan where the narrators were called the benshi.
The Germans were the ones who discovered optical sound (recording the soundtrack directly on the film) which became the ruling sound-film patent (known as the Tri-Ergon process) in Europe and created perfect synchronization.
In 1906, American inventor Lee de Forest patented the Audion tube, which magnified the sounds it received and drove them into a speaker and created amplification.
The Bell Telephone Company’s research laboratory Western Electric developed and marketed the less dependable sound-on-disc process the Vitaphone in 1925. Western Electric offered this sound technology to every Hollywood producer and they all turned it down until they met the Warner Brothers in 1926.
This family of producers had recently embarked on expanding their empire. They had bought the remains of the Vitagraph company in 1925 and had made it their distribution chain with the goal of taking on the major film producers which at the time were Paramount, MGM and First National.
The Warner Brothers had bought Vitaphone from Western Electric and within three years they had swallowed First National and digested their theatre chain.
In 1926, the Warners presented a series of short sound films, the first one an address by Will Hays praising the possibilities of the sound film, followed by performances by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and leading opera, concert and music hall artists.
William Fox of 20th Century Fox also wanted to take on the big producers and he used sound the same way the Warners did. In 1927, Fox began presenting mechanically scored films, the greatest of which was probably F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, and Fox also inaugurated the first newsreel film with synchronized narration, the Fox Movietone News. The Fox sound system Movietone, unlike Vitaphone, was a sound-on-film process, which as I previously stated was the better process.
The first film to use synchronized sound as a means of telling a story was the Warner film The Jazz Singer (1927). Probably the reason why The Jazz Singer gets so much credit as the first sound film is because it was the first sound film to be an undeniable hit. By 1927 the film business was starting to sag and this movie had put life back into it. While the film was mostly silent, Al Jolson’s voice was heard when he performed and it caused a stir.
Warner’s next Jolson vehicle The Singing Fool (1928) was the top-grossing sound film until Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1938.
The studio executives predicted that silent and sound films would coexist but in the era of radio, Americans did not want to leave their houses to watch films without sound, and by 1929, the silent film was virtually dead. Only Charlie Chaplin resisted sound for aesthetic reasons, and he released the silent film City Lights in 1931 to tremendous business.
Everyone else leaped quickly into sound production following its success in the late twenties and at times Hollywood stumbled to use it well. Typical of the aesthetic blunders of early sound was the very first “all-talking” film Lights of New York, which came out in 1928 and was not great.
But like the cavemen who talked for the first time, the more Hollywood used sound, the more sophisticated they were at it. Silent films and talkies were both completely different forms of storytelling, so when sound films became the dominant form, it caused a huge shake-up in the industry and many silent film stars would not survive the transition. Filmmakers would have to implement new skills and once the sound picture became the norm in the thirties, it wouldn’t be long before they were perfected. By the time the decade ended, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind would all be introduced to the public. After a trifecta like that, even Charlie Chaplin would struggle to maintain his appeal.