Buying Broadway: The Jazz Singer's Reception
Buying Broadway: The Jazz Singer'sReception
The moving pictures are such a mixture of secret manoeuvres and false publicity that right before your eyes an event slips into a legend out of which is it hard to disengage a germ of truth.
Gilbert Seldes, Movies for the Millions, 1937
The film that emblematizes the birth of the talkies is The Jazz Singer. Jolson's blackened face, tear-jerking performance, and unabashed vocal gusto are understood to signal the end of Hollywood's silence. The 1927 film enjoys this stature not only in popular opinion but in academic discourse. An insightful article about The Jazz Singer, for example, has described the musical "as a summation of those various elements which came to distinguish the musical genre." The film was an event (in Foucault's use of the term), "since it firmly established a new and promising direction in which movie narrative might turn." This scholar follows most sources in assuming that The Jazz Singer was an enormous Broadway hit and that movie producers, having been burned by promoters of sound systems too often, were skeptical of its success and slow to convert to sound "despite the testimony of its box office returns."1 But how do we know how overwhelming its profits were or what its effect on Hollywood was? Why did audiences respond with such fervor?
The research detailed in this book should make us question claims about a single film or "event" being responsible for any major change in Hollywood. But the case of The Jazz Singer bears closer scrutiny because its reputation as a catalyst for the coming of sound has rested unchallenged to such a remarkable extent.
In order to check the validity of these claims concerning The Jazz Singer should we not simply read the contemporary descriptions of its Broadway premiere? Trying to reconstruct the original exhibition context has become an important method for theorizing about the reception of films. Researchers might assume that authors in the popular press speak on behalf of real audiences. Retrieving these primary documents is a welcome departure from accounts that ignore viewer-listeners altogether or, paraphrasing Janet Staiger, preconstitute their identity. The implication is that fanzine writers, trade commentators, reviewers, and mass-circulation journalists are the voice of their readers and that their writing stands in for viewers without voices. The interpretations of a few commentators become the index of the film's general reception. But to what degree can we be confident that journalists (including trade writers) represent other viewers? Or that they report the facts accurately?
The problem is, of course, that we know very little about the composition of audiences—even current ones—despite the expenditure of enormous sums by studios, investors, and networks on demographic research. As we go further back in time, evidence of original reception becomes more precious. So media analysis as a tool for understanding audiences becomes more pervasive and perhaps, as the case of The Jazz Singer shows, more risky.
Our modern attitude about Jolson's film has been commonly held almost since the time of the film's release. Early published accounts of The Jazz Singer's New York premiere tell of its sparkling critical triumph and its smashing unexpected success at the Broadway box office. The questions for us are, When and how was the film's status reported in the press? How accurate are the stories of the film's initial success measured against contemporary silent and sound films? And can we corroborate the stories by checking available box-office data?
When we look for reports of The Jazz Singer's first-night success, we immediately encounter a problem. The trade journals and major New York papers ignored the opening (although they all reported the death of Sam Warner). It was only months later that reports began to appear describing the film as a breakthrough, turn-around motion picture for Warner Bros. Curiously, the authors tended to repeat themselves in trying to express the film's importance. For example, the influential monthly American Mercury published in May 1928 an account of the film's accomplishment:
Al Jolson made his appearance in The Jazz Singer, singing both "Mammy" and the Kol Nidre, beside conversing with his Ghetto Mamma. The celebrated Irving Berlin wept at this première and other hard-hearted gentlemen of Broadway admitted that Mr. Jolson was never better. The film coined money. At the time it was released, there were but 400 theatres wired with the talking film apparatus. It went into everyone of them and broke record after record. In New York, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Kansas City, and Los Angeles, it entertained the public for week after week. (Robert F. Sisk, "The Movies Try to Talk," American Mercury, August 1928, pp. 492-93)
This article's narrative of the premiere and its statistics were echoed in December:
After a few of these [synchronized sound effects] feelers they [Warners] produced their great coup, The Jazz Singer, which starred Al Jolson, and which is credited with having been the biggest box office success released in 1927, even though less than four hundred theatres were then wired for sound. It was at that point that the other producers began to scratch their heads and wonder. (Helena Huntington Smith, "The Movies Speak Out," Outlook and Independent, 5 December 1928, p. 1270)
Another persistent story was that Jolson had aided Warner Bros. by deferring his salary:
At the Motion Picture Club, on Broadway, which is the clearing house for news and gossip about the business, it is generally agreed that Al Jolson's picture, The Jazz Singer, was the turning point for sound pictures….
[The Warners] admitted that they didn't have enough money to pay [Jolson] what they thought he would demand, but the story was his story and he said, "I'll go out to Hollywood and see what comes of it."
There are tales to the effect that during the making of the picture the Warners were so low in funds that Jolson did not draw all of his salary until weeks later. Some say that he even loaned them money to pay the other actors. So interested was he in the production that he was determined that it should be finished if he had to pay for it himself….
The Jazz Singer opened in New York, and at eleven o'clock that night the leaders of the motion picture industry, who stood cheering in the theater, knew that their business had been turned upside down. All the leaders were there. (Jerome Beatty, "The Sound Investment," Saturday Evening Post, 9 March 1929, p. 129)
A few months later the anecdote was retold: "As the story goes, Mr. Jolson, in his sentimental interest in the tale, even made unprecedented concessions in his price."2 Robert L. Carringer has documented other versions of the legend of Jolson's concessions. Yet the contract with Warner Bros. is unambiguous. Jolson's pay was $75,000, to be disbursed in installments. (We assume that these terms were adhered to.) By ascribing their information to preexisting narrative forms (citing it as a "tale" and a "story"), these articles implicitly acknowledge that they are circulating fictions. Perhaps this language was believed to provide a mantle of libel protection, but it also functioned to aggrandize Jolson's stardom and the Warner brothers' business acumen.
In April 1929, Robert MacAlarney wrote:
That October … [Jolson] had hoisted the infant talkie upon his blackamoor shoulder and waded across a stream every pioneer must ford. In Julius Caesar's day they called it Rubicon.
Theater records were broken by The Jazz Singer. Towns where a release was doing excellent business if it ran for three days held a print for weeks. (Robert E. MacAlarney, "The Noise Movie Revolution," World's Work, April 1929, p. 50)
Crossing the Rubicon must have been an appealing figure of speech. Whether a coincidence or inspired by a common, as yet unidentified source, another author wrote of Jolson's first talking part:
It wasn't much. A mere "bit"—and the picture was rolling on in its silent, sentimental way. But, to forty million movie fans, that act of Al Jolson's—his crossing the room to get at his piano—was a more important historical event than Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon. It meant that the screen had shaken off the shackles of silence. (Frederick L. Collins, "Now They Talk for Themselves," Delineator, April 1929, p. 21)
These articles retroactively transformed the release of The Jazz Singer into a cultural, industry, and personal monument. They were not timely reports but fabrications of what happened after the fact. We can point to these elements in the journalistic construction of the film's reputation: spoken dialogue was a novelty; film executives in the audience were immediately convinced of the profitability of sound production; The Jazz Singer played in all the theaters then wired; it was the big hit of 1927 and made huge sums for Warners; and Al Jolson had risked his personal funds in the film's financing.
For one thing, the repetitious tendency in the accounts suggests that the authors were either borrowing from each other—by no means an uncommon practice—or had been inspired by the same sources. Those sources might have been the journalists' rumor mills or an institutionalized source of information, such as press releases from Warner Bros.3
Even if we had an accurate figure for the number of people who attended the film, we still would not know who they were. Many assumptions about audiences are based on the geographical location of theaters. But in a country that takes pride in its mobility, we should not assume a demographic correlation between a theater and its locale. In fact, common sense suggests a rule of thumb: the larger the metropolitan region, the greater the diversity of the total audience. Nothing illustrates this better than Broadway. In the 1920s, the Broadway-Times Square theater district attracted a spectrum of customers ranging from upper- and middle-class patrons of the legitimate stage to itinerant moviegoers. Besides the locals, films drew tourists and businessmen from all over the country as well as military personnel.
Because of their diversity, it is risky to infer why audiences attended certain films, what they thought, or whether their reaction in the theater was uniform. Even if there were some corroboration between audience reaction and geography, the results would probably be valid for only one theater at a time. Analysts would expect significant variations in responses by time of day, day of the week, and length into the run. A film that plays well in New York might do poorly in another city, and vice versa.
Audienceship is an indeterminate activity. The film being projected was not necessarily a film attendees main motivation for going to the movies; financial, social, and other pressures, as well as constantly changing tastes in entertainment, were also at work. Other attractions were the presentation acts, the architecture, the opportunity for romantic encounters, and the desire to enjoy leisure time by just hanging out. Cinema-going was also an adjunct to shopping, which was facilitated by the architecture of movie palaces: arcade shops were usually incorporated into the same building—distant ancestors of today's malls.
So we should be skeptical of reports about the nature of audiences of the 1920s. Still, some empirical data about movie attendance tests the claims about what happened during the initial Broadway run of The Jazz Singer.
The audience votes with its feet. This aphorism of stage and screen managers translates into a formula that seemingly should equate attendance with audience appreciation of a film. But the number of people going to a film tells us nothing about how they perceived its meaning or whether they even liked it. Attendance is notoriously fickle. It is affected by such factors as the appeal and penetration of the promotional campaign, the popularity of stars, and the popularity of the literary source of the story. If a film is exceptionally good or bad entertainment, then word-of-mouth advertising may be an influence. External factors also affect attendance: the opening of a strong film in a competing theater may take customers away. Other variables include transportation disruptions, the weather, and the season (moviegoing peaks during the week before Christmas).
To further complicate our analysis of The Jazz Singer attendance figures were not published at the time, only the weekly gross receipts. These might have combined two features. Houses were "scaled," that is, admissions varied according to the time of day, the place in the theater, and the age of the patron, making it difficult to estimate attendance based on the weekly gross. Certainly we can tell the hits from the flops, but using the box office as a subtle barometer of popularity has only limited usefulness. Accepting these inherent limitations, the box-office gross receipts nevertheless may be the best way to judge how many viewers attended films in the 1920s.
Even if detailed box-office records were preserved in archives, the numbers would not be totally reliable. "Hollywood accounting" practices applied to the exhibition as well as to the production end of the business. Fox, in particular, was frequently accused of padding its grosses. Harrison's Reports, a film rating service for independent exhibitors, warned clients that they were "at the mercy of the producer-distributors' representatives, who will no doubt present you with fictitious figures, such figures being what their Home Office will have furnished them."4 Distributors also doubted exhibitors and resorted to audits, numbered tickets, and field observers ("checkers") to monitor their managers' honesty. The actual figures were guarded as business secrets and were probably known accurately to only a few financial insiders. Though the theaters' announced revenue must be taken with a grain of salt, it is the best available way of directly measuring a real, not hypothetical, audience.
The data in my study are Variety's copyrighted weekly box-office reports published for each preceding week. They were purported to be unbiased but were also clearly identified as unaudited, rounded estimates. Since the weekly receipts were transmitted by managers, the reports may have been adjusted to suit the house's own needs. Occasionally the Variety editor would note that the figure supplied was "generous," suggesting that his visual observations were out of line with the income reported by the management.
Because the box-office gross was an estimation, several factors may have influenced its accuracy. For example, as a run extended, the producers regularly handed out free passes in order to augment the audience. These viewers are just as important as the paying audience, of course, but their presence distorts the estimate of gross, since the producer was in effect paying for these customers in order to enhance the illusion of a competitive film. In addition, theatrical agencies sold tickets to the most popular films. There was also a thriving scalpers' market. These "ticket specs," as they were then called, resold tickets at a premium to sold-out performances. So it is difficult to know how, if at all, these nonbox-office receipts were figured into the gross numbers. Finally, the published figures do not show whether the distributor made or lost money, since they do not take into account the "nut," the allowance for theater overhead and advertising expenses.
Caveats aside, by any estimation The Jazz Singer was a hit. But was it the monumental success of its journalistic legend? Not quite. A comparison to the New York market shows that the film was by no means the most flourishing movie in terms of either gross or length of run.
Graph 20.1 slices four representative weeks from the 1927 run of The Jazz Singer. It shows gross weekly receipts from near its opening (the two weeks ending 15 October) and from its tenth and eleventh weeks (ending 17 December). The averaged receipts of the Warners' Theatre were in the middle ranking of Broadway's fourteen important movie houses. But notice how the theater district was dominated by the three huge pictures palaces: the new Roxy (6,250 seats), the Capitol (5,450), and the Paramount (4,000). What were the popular movies competing with Warners' new sound film? In fact, they were low-budget, forgettable "programmers." The big houses drew customers seeking not only a movie but a complete entertainment experience, including the ambience of the theater, the social atmosphere, and the live stage presentations.
The summer and fall of 1927 was an especially significant period because the popularity of jazz music was just beginning to be reflected at the theaters. The Roxy had switched to a "jazz policy" shortly before The Jazz Singer. opened. Other theaters that had newly adopted such a policy were reporting markedly increased attendance, presumably by jazz fanatics who came for the live performances. Al Jolson was by far the most popular jazz vocalist. His chief rival as a theatrical stage act was Paul Whiteman's jazz band.
At the Warners', of course, there was no "presentation." The Vitaphone substituted virtual Broadway for these performances. Variety's box-office review for the week which included The Jazz Singer's premiere is revealing. It was not Thursday's new talkie that the publication hailed, but rather the Capitol Theater's switch to a jazz orchestra: "Most of the excitement centered over the week-end and around the Capitol, where a new policy was inaugurated."5 In early October the theater had been showing The Big Parade (1925) in second run and taking in about $60,000 per week. After adopting its "new headline presentation act policy"—jazz acts and low-budget films—its weekly gross jumped to more than $95,000. Warners went head to head against the live jazz competition in other theaters with musical shorts like Red Spikes and His Follies Entertainers, The Diplomats: High Hat Syncopators of Jazz, Noble
Sissle and Eubie Blake in Their Original Presentation of Syncopated Ditties, and Joe Wong, the Chinese Jazz Boy (1927).
The gross receipts data also distort the popularity of the programs because of discrepancies in theater size. The capacity of the Roxy, for example, was more than ten times that of the Embassy. Perhaps a more meaningful comparison is based on the "seatadjusted" gross, a ratio obtained by dividing the receipts by the capacity.
Graph 20.2 shows that by calculating the amount of money a theater was able to get for each of its seats strikingly alters our picture of the publics preferences. The Criterion, showing Wings, flies to the head of the class, consistently taking in about $20 per week for each of its 812 seats. The Strand drops from fifth to next-to-last place (showing When a Man Loves  in third run). Despite its 2,900 seats, it was earning less than $10 for them weekly. These differences reflect the number of shows presented each week, the admission price, and the ability of the house to fill its seats to capacity. The seat-adjusted gross seems to be a better indicator of popularity than either the straight gross or simple attendance figures because it represents marketability—relative amounts people were willing to pay for a certain show expressed in terms of the demand for seats. Smaller-capacity houses tend to be favored in this calculation; indeed, like other measures, the seat-adjusted gross may be useful only for general comparisons.
Now the performance of The Jazz Singer looks more impressive. It still trails the Publix stage presentation at the Paramount, but it noses out Rothapfel's extravaganza at the Roxy and the jazz band at the Capitol. No picture, however, comes close to Wings, already running for more than ten weeks at $2 a ticket. In December the little Embassy's
fortunes were elevated by the release of Love. Starring Garbo and Gilbert, the sensational adaptation of Anna Karenina immediately garnered a higher seat-adjusted gross than The Jazz Singer and, for a couple of weeks, even surpassed Wings.
A traditional measure of popularity has been how long a film plays on Broadway. Graph 20.3 compares the seat-adjusted gross of The Jazz Singer's most important competitors during the length of its first-run booking at the Warners' Theatre. Again, the strength of Wings is evident: it steadily outperformed other films and would remain at the Criterion until October 1928. The trajectories of The King Of Kings and Student Prince In Old Heidelberg were typical of the course of a normal run—strong films that began to fade after about six weeks. But the precipitous drop in gross receipts for Sunrise is noteworthy and will be discussed below.
Attendance for The Jazz Singer did not begin to slip until the nineteenth week, when the gross dropped below $18,000 for the first time. A month later Warner Bros. moved the film into the Roxy for a two-week run; there it took in $ 117,000 the first week and $109,500 the second. Much of this increased income reflects what might be called the Roxy premium. Many out-of-towners visited the mammoth picture palace just to experience the theater (it was less than a year old), and its capacity made high grosses the norm. The average weekly take was $104,000. By comparison, What Price Glory?, when it was bumped into the Roxy, made $144,200 and $126,000 during its two-week run. It was followed by Seventh Heaven which grossed $123,000 and $109,000. So The Jazz Singer's performance at New York's showcase movie house was a bit above average, but the film did not consistently fill the big theater to capacity. It did about the same as the silent film Loves of Carmen.
While the Warners' film was among New York's top entertainment attractions, its popularity did not match Paramount's aerial saga or Garbo and Gilbert's clinches. The Jazz Singer's Broadway run of twenty-three weeks was good, but not exceptional.
How did it measure up to other "sound" films? From the New York audience's perspective, seeing a film with synchronized music, sound effects, or even dialogue, as in The Jazz Singer's famous singing and "talking" scenes, was no novelty. For months moviegoers had been hearing music played through phonographic systems to accompany films nonsynchronously and, not coincidentally, to eliminate the band in the orchestra pit. De Forests Phonofilm productions had been around for years, and Fox had begun screening talking shorts with What Price Glory? in January 1927. In that spring, Lindbergh's takeoff and his return ceremonies had been exploited by de Forest and Fox. Although the Fox Movietone newsreel did not officially begin until December 1927, the company's talking shorts had been screened sporadically at the Roxy since 30 April and had begun playing regularly with Seventh Heaven back in June, at the Harris Theater.
The previous programs of Vitaphone features and shorts were the most important influences on the reception context of The Jazz Singer. Film buffs had been entertained by Vitaphone for more than a year. Since Don Juan, which had opened at the Warners' Theatre in August 1926, there had been three subsequent synchronized features, many one-reel musical shorts, and the two-reel playlets. Several shorts, notably Willie And Eugene Howard in Between the Acts at the Opera and Al Jolson In A Plantation Act, were "talking" as well as "singing" pictures. A review of the seatadjusted gross receipts for these first Vitaphone programs reveals that the first two features outperformed The Jazz Singer.
|Title (Theater)||Week 1||Week 3||Week 10||Week 11|
|a. Estimate. b. No longer in first run.|
|Don Juan (Warners')||$21.48||$21.48||$18.79||$18.79|
|Sunrise (Times Square)||18.01||15.65||3.24a||3.24a|
|The Better 'Ole (Colony)||17.19||16.79||11.52||11.17|
|The Jazz Singer (Warners')||16.67||16.09||14.86||14.42|
|Old San Francisco (Warners')||11.00||15.10||18.70||13.60|
|The First Auto (Colony)||6.41||5.81||NAb||NA|
Analyzed at comparable moments in their first runs, we see table 20.1 that Don Juan ran consistently ahead of the Jolson film and that The Better 'Ole began its run a little better than The Jazz Singer. Less successfully, Old San Francisco grossed only about half as much per seat Don Juan; The First Auto took in about one-third much and was pulled after a month. Surprisingly, the gross receipts for The Jazz Singer were unexceptional by Vitaphone standards.
The legend is that sound itself was such a novelty that it pulled in customers regardless of the quality picture. But look what happened to The Jazz Singer's synchronized rival from Fox.
F. W. Murnau's Sunrise opened with a Movietone sound track on 16 September 1927, two weeks before the Warners' film. Like the early Vitaphone features, it had no recorded dialogue. The film immediately won critical raves and several honors, including Film Daily Year Book's ten-best list. Everyone agreed that it was one of the most "artistic" films ever made. But on Broadway it sank like a stone. Apparently the meaning of the film was obscure. In a front-page Film Daily review, Kann wrote, "It is an amazing film. It gets over to the audience an indefinite something; just what, it is difficult to describe." He singled out two positive attributes: the quality of the recorded score, and the Movietone shorts on the same program. Kann continued: "In tonal range and quality, Movietone has demonstrated its superiority in the field of synchronized sound and action films."6
The Variety reviewer also commented, "Nor should be neglected credit as a detail contributing vastly to a satisfying whole, the accompaniment of the Movietone. … The musical accompaniment was reproduced with flawless delicacy and under absolute control, merging into the entertainment and apparently disappearing as a separate element."7 (That is, the sound's "inaudibility" was one of its attributes.) The two new Movietone subjects were the Vatican choir and a statement by Mussolini delivering in English what the producer Winfield R. Sheehan called "a message of friendship." Variety attributed much of the Sunrise program's popularity to shorts: "Thus far regarded as a draw. Getting all the barbers in five boroughs to hear Ben Mussolini speak his piece."8
But the popularity soon wore off. Though the opening seat-adjusted gross for Sunrise was higher than that of The Jazz Singer or any of the Vitaphone features (except Don Juan), by the third week its returns had entered a strong downward trend. By the ninth week the seat-adjusted gross was around $5 per week; after that the theater no longer reported figures, although Variety revealed that there were days when the Times Square Theater took in less than $400.
Despite what must have been a huge loss to Fox, the film continued to play first-run for twenty-three weeks until 4 April 1928. Harrison used his insider sources to piece together what happened:
It started sliding from [the fourth] day on, until the last few weeks it was pitiful. The closing week was about $3,000. The house seats 1,033. At the $2 scale, it can gross $18,000 a week. At the average of between $4,500 and $5,000, the picture must have lost a fortune. The weekly expense for advertising was not less than $3,500 and in the opening weeks more. With normal advertising in the newspapers this house cannot be run for less than $10,000 a week. The rent alone is $4,500 a week. (P. S. Harrison, "Two-Dollar 'Hits' and 'Flops,'" Harrison's Reports, 9 June 1928, p. 91)
An explanation for the long run might have been a policy that could be called "buying Broadway." (Harrison called it a "forced run.") Jerome Beatty described the practice:
Sons of Destiny [a hypothetical movie] would run at a Broadway theater for twenty-six weeks. It would be lavishly advertised as a tremendous success. The best seats would sell for two dollars at evening performances and at Saturday, Sunday and holiday matinées. Perhaps the price would be boosted to $2.50 for Saturday and Sunday nights. Toward the end of the run free tickets would be passed around liberally, so as to keep the theater well filled…. "A riot on Broadway," the advertising to the trade would read, and the general impression would be that Sons of Destiny was making a lot of money at the [hypothetical] Columbine Theater. Yet, when the final accounting was made, the [hypothetical studio] Amalgamated would "go in the red" for $26,000. (Jerome Beatty, "The Red [sic] to Profits," Saturday Evening Post, 16 February 1929, p. 15)
Only a few pictures, according to Beatty, actually made money during their Broadway runs—THE Jazz Singer and Wings were among them. Most lost thousands of dollars, but the studios wrote off the cost in their "exploitation" budgets, viewing the run as necessary to secure national audiences. "Even a flop," he reported, "will earn more money with a Broadway run back of it." Beatty also described the strategy of an unnamed producer:
He was determined that the show should have half a year on Broadway…. Special salesmen were sent from house to house to sell tickets at half price. Organizations of all kinds were solicited and offered special group rates. School children were given slips which entitled the bearer to two tickets for the price of one. Passes by the hundreds were distributed in offices and department stores. In spite of this, some matinées played to as few as twenty-five persons, and the gross receipts one week were $2450.
The people demonstrated with a pathetic thoroughness that they just didn't want to see this man's show. The Broadway run cost the producer nearly $100,000. When he took the picture outside of New York City, however, it played to enormous business. (Beatty, "The Red [sic] to Profits," p. 154)
Whether this incident involved William Fox, Cecil B. DeMille, or some other showman is unknown, but it explains the rationale for playing Sunrise to near-empty houses for almost six months.
The movie executives learned this trick from the legitimate theater. Knowing that film producers would pay much more for a theatrical property with a long run, play producers would try to maximize a show's stay. "The custom of keeping an unsuccessful production on view long after its receipts had fallen dangerously low was often used to establish a long-run reputation," according to Robert McLaughlin. "At times everyone working with a production would work at lower salaries in a cooperative effort to keep a play open. Small and unpopular theatres were often rented for the purpose of stretching out a run and Hollywood was often duped into thinking a play was a huge popular success if the run was long enough."9 The practice of buying Broadway, then, highlights the dangers of relying on any one measure, such as length of run, to determine a film's popularity.
Meanwhile, Sunrise, advertised as a "Broadway Hit," opened in December 1927 at a gala $5 premiere at the Carthay Circle in Los Angeles. Its initial seat-adjusted gross was $8.84 per week, and it performed respectably for 10 weeks. Whether its West Coast success benefited from "buying Broadway" cannot be verified.
When The Jazz Singer opened, it joined a cast of films which have since become legendary:The Big Parade, Wings, King of Kings, Student Prince, and Sunrise. Yet when judged on the basis of its actual box-office record, it was far behind the most popular films. The Big Parade (1925) stayed on Broadway for two years and grossed a then-record $1.75 million, just in New York. By comparison, The Jazz Singer'stotal domestic gross income was $1.97 million. (This figure includes income from the silent version and from 1931 re-release.) Wings had opened nine weeks before The Jazz Singer and continued to sell out almost every performance through the spring of 1928. The box office reported steady income of $15,000-16,000 for the small Criterion Theater. In show-business jargon, WINGS had "legs."
Warner Bros. did not show The Jazz Singer immediately in the "four hundred" wired theaters of the legend. Instead, it withheld the film from wider release until mid-November 1927, when it opened in Philadelphia at the Locust, a Fox theater with 1,800 seats. By delaying, Warner Bros. was practicing a form of buying Broadway: building up anticipation for the film outside of New York. The preview trailer that the studio prepared for The Jazz Singer's national release was part of this suspense-generating strategy. It showed throngs outside the Warners' Theatre on opening night. (But the crowds were at the trade screening to see Jolson and the other invited celebrities, not to watch The Jazz Singer!) The film did well in Philadelphia, opening with a $14,000 gross. But earlier in the year What Price Glory? had opened there with $20,000, and Seventh Heaven with $14,500, so The Jazz Singer was not a blockbuster. It had an eight-week run, but the other nondialogue films had enjoyed runs of thirteen and eight weeks, respectively. The film opened New Year's Day 1928 in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., with good, but not record, receipts.
|Title||Run Ending||Unadjusted Gross (week of run)|
|Orpheum Theater, Chicago|
|The Jazz Singer||3 March 1928||$12,200 (1)||$9,500 (2)||$7,300 (6)|
|Tenderloin||14 April 1928||13,400 (1)||11,000 (2)||8,200 (6)|
|Criterion Theater, Los Angeles|
|The Jazz Singer||7 January 1928||$19,600 (1)||$14,400 (2)||$8,600 (5)|
|Wings||9 September 1928||21,200 (1)||16,800 (2)||12,000 (5)|
|Embassy Theater, San Fransisco|
|The Jazz Singer||18 February 1928||$20,200 (1)||$21,000 (2)||$18,000 (4)|
|The Lights of New York||4 August 1928||24,000 (1)||22,000 (2)||20,000 (4)|
Table 20.2 characterizes the early pattern of the film's national release. At the Orpheum in Chicago, The Jazz Singer was outgrossed throughout its run by the Vitaphone talking feature TENDERLOIN. In Los Angeles, WINGS in second run at the Criterion outperformed did better than The Jazz Singer in its first run. The Jazz Singer at the Embassy in San Francisco. In summary, in its national first-run release, 10 Lights of New York The Jazz Singer did well, judged by box-office receipts and the length of its runs, but it was in a distinct second or third tier of attractions compared to the most popular films of the day and even other Vitaphone talkies.10
If Variety's data are accurate, then the "unprecedented success" of Warner Bros.' first part-talking feature was more of a retrospective creation of the media (aided by Warner publicity) than a "supreme triumph." Critics and other studios would hardly have been impressed by the film's box-office success because it was just above average. In fact, they might have been surprised that the movie did as well as it did, given Warners' reputation for low-budget program fare, such as its Rin Tin Tin films. The Jazz Singer's unexceptional opening and the Broadway failure of Sunrise in the fall of 1927 would not have convinced producers to change over to sound, especially because a good measure of the Jolson film's drawing power could be attributed to the appeal of its jazz theme and its star. It took many other stimuli, such as the subsequent Warner hits of 1928, to show executives and exhibitors that there was a growing public demand for the talkies.
Our finding that the Broadway statistics do not corroborate the story of the film's initial success does not necessarily disqualify the use of popular journalism as a source of historical documentation about audiences. It would be overly simple to say that the popular version of the story is wrong and the revisionist historian is right. Legends are also historical documents. The misleading nature of the journalistic version should make us look more closely at why The Jazz Singer legend developed the way it did.
One explanation is that historiography has its own narrative practices based on rationalizing principles such as simplicity, causality, and closure. Certainly the popular version written by the journalists tends to apply a conceptual grid to explain scattered events whose relationships might otherwise be difficult to discern. As the case of The Jazz Singer illustrates, it is more "efficient" for a historical discourse to have an "event," a "turning point," a "revolution," a Rubicon to cross, than a slow, convoluted, somewhat irrational development, as was the case with the coming of sound. Rewriting events as a drama with the loose ends tied up is helpful in retelling a complicated process as a conventionalized, thus comprehensible, narrative. It is also a strategy to monumentalize phenomena: thus, the coming of sound can be collapsed onto The Jazz Singer, creating a mnemonic that provides a date, a studio, a genre, and a star to epitomize a whole history. When media analysis is checked against available direct evidence, it appears that the print media were more interested in writing a "story" than reciting facts. The popular press bowdlerized certain facts (less-than-record grosses for and the box-office failure of The Jazz Singer Sunrise), while embroidering others (the formers commercial success and the latter's artistic triumph).
Classical narratives often rely on personal deeds and motives, and our media analysis ofThe Jazz Singer's reputation shows that history too may be influenced by celebrity. Accounts of the film are intertwined with Jolson's persona. The stories personalize him by emphasizing the risks he took. The payoff was that by lending his stardom and his funding to the production, he personally guaranteed the talkies' success. For example:
Al Jolson started the trouble. Yes, trouble is the word, unless you think it is no trouble to rebuild twenty or thirty studios, reorganize the fourth—or is it the second?—largest industry in America and equip every theatre in the country with sound-producing gadgets. A few short-reel novelties—and then The Jazz Singer by Warner-Vitaphone.
Thousands of people had heard Jolson's songs on the phonograph, and though they enjoyed them enormously, there were many who could not understand the singer's great personal popularity in the big cities where he was known. Now, however, they heard his songs in direct contact with his own magnetic personality, and they instantly joined in the metropolitan applause. (Rob Wagner, "Silence Isn't Golden Any More," Collier's, 25 August 1928, p. 12)
This and similar extracts from early commentators emphasize the popularity of recorded music and the novelty of hearing it in a theater. Curiosity about new technology must have been a factor. Another one was the original audience's psychic investment in the star system and Jolson's "pull" as a performer. Increasingly throughout the 1920s, the screen personae of Chaplin, Fairbanks, Valentino, Bow, Gilbert, and Garbo were idolized by millions of adoring fans. Kindled by studio publicity, fan magazines, and numerous promotional activities, the growth of star worship appears to have been a genuine populist phenomenon of massive proportions. Parallel to cinema, the worlds of music (opera as well as jazz), sports, and current events developed indigenous fan cultures of perhaps unprecedented secular scope. Even such unlikely public figures as Lindbergh, Mussolini, and George Bernard Shaw became Movietone "stars." (One editor quipped, "Shaw 'registers' so well that one regrets a lost film actor.")11 Radio was a catalyst for stardom. Fans had heard their voices—Jolson had been broadcast nationally several times since 1922—but the talkies imparted to the stars' images the sense of realistic presence that many felt to be the cinema's essence.12* * *
There are many problems with media analysis as a historical method. One is veracity: the standards of journalists generations ago were not the same as modern academic standards of accuracy and source citation. Plenty of fabrication could be introduced into the public record. Opinion and fact were not always separated.
To whom does the author answer? It would be a mistake to assume that a journalist's or a trade reviewer's audience was the movies audience. Their constituency was made up of readers, not moviegoers. It is always possible that critical opinions have been influenced by outside editorial pressures that had little to do with film audiences. Publishers, advertisers, film producers, distributors, exhibitors, publicity departments, and press agents were instrumental in trying to shape the critical evaluations of films.
In a slightly different context, Janet Staiger has acknowledged that studying journalists' reports reveals little about social formations in general: "Such an unspoken mass [of moviegoers] deserves as much attention as does the popular press—if not more. How to do this for historical readers in a responsible scholarly way, however, is a very real problem."13 She is referring to the representation of non-Anglo-Saxon-American viewers, but isn't the problem even more universal? Should we scrutinize our faith in the popular press to speak for all (or any) audiences? The art historian Timothy J. Clark faced some-what the same problem in trying to analyze the reception of Manet's painting Olympia. His approach was to look not only at what had been written but at what critics had not said: "A close and comprehensive reading of the sixty texts of 1865," he ventured, "ought to enable us to distinguish between a rhetoric of incomprehension, produced smoothly as part of the ordinary discourse of criticism, and another rhetoric—a breaking or spoiling of the critical text's consistency—which is produced by something else, a real recalcitrance in the object of study."14
A fully engaged history of film reception would examine not only the institutional milieus of cinema and the interpretations of commentators but also the "recalcitrance" represented by actual audiences. Our research shows that factual information must also be provisional. "Box office," after all, is only a crude tracking system for determining the number of people moving through theaters at a given time. Retrieving numbers tells us nothing about individual or group interpretations. But we've also suggested that contemporary reviewers and later critics have had little connection with popular discourses about films.
This seems to leave us in a quandary. If we think of "historical reception" as a recoverable fact, then we will always be disappointed because we cannot know everything. Likewise, we accept the limitations of journalistic discourse, with its oblique nature. Yet if we try to anchor our findings in knowledge of actual audiences, then we are inevitably frustrated by the unattainableness of reliable direct evidence.
The case of The Jazz Singer's premiere suggests that, in trying to recover historical facts about a film's place in popular reception, we must be careful to distinguish between its social context and the writing of those with vested interests in laying claim to the film for their purposes.