What was the first talking picture?
You probably said ‘The Jazz Singer’.
The 1927 film, starring Al Jolson, contained some sections with synchronized sound but it wasn’t the first - there had been earlier films which had achieved this milestone - so what is it about The Jazz Singer that sets it apart and earned it a false place in cinematic history and makes it the wrong answer in countless pub quizzes?
Perhaps it was the story, but perhaps and more likely is that Jolson was one of the biggest stars of his time - people loved him. During the premiere of the film, when he uttered those immortal words “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet”.... the audience went wild, they stamped and applauded, perhaps they understood how magical this moment was and what the future held for them, as movie-goers.
In a way this phrase was a war cry, a challenge perhaps to all film makes that followed - they had to top this cinematic moment.
They had to find something special, in stories, in action, in music, in performance - the studios knew they were in a battle for the hearts and minds of all those who flocked to the cinema, flocked to lose themselves in the stories on screen, to escape the drab dismal depression years, to sit in the dark and to laugh and cry with the stars. Yes, it was a battle and a battle in which no prisoners would be taken (apart from The Prisoner of Zenda).
The studio system was in full swing, Fox, MGM, Warner Brothers, RKO and Paramount were the five main players with United Artists, Universal and Columbia taking up smaller percentages of the huge cinema going market. This was the Golden Age of Hollywood.
There were some great stars made in those golden years, Garbo, Gable, Crawford, Cagney, Bogart, I could go on - but it was the lesser known names that drew my attention and who were added to the lists I was keeping, actors and actresses not so famous to modern audiences but very well known in their day.
I was drawn to the likes of Paul Muni,Luise Rainer,George Raft, and the dark brooding beauty of Gale Sondergaard.
|Paul Muni & Luise Rainer|
Muni was a great actor, in a film career spanning thirty plus years he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar on five occasions - winning in 1937 for playing Louis Pasteur in a biopic about the scientist. He also has the distinction of being one of only two actors to receive an Oscar nomination for his first and last film appearance - he shares that honour with James Dean.
I suggest you have a look at these clips and you will see how wide ranging his skill was as an actor - he was the Daniel Day Lewis of his time, he immersed himself in the character so well.
Gale Sondergaard also received an Oscar nomination for her first film - Anthony Adverse (1936) but she actually won the award. I first saw her in a film called The Cat and the Canary which starred Bob Hope, she played a sinister housekeeper named Miss Lu. Her appearance in that film remains etched in my memory and in later years I recall seeing her playing the Spider Woman in a Sherlock Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone and the wonderfully over the top Nigel Bruce.
|Paulette Goddard and Gale Sondergaard|
Sondergaard would leave film making for twenty years although she did maintain a presence in the theatre - in later life, aged 77, she gave a great performance as Elk Woman in the Richard Harris film - The Return of a Man Called Horse.
For me though, it will always be Miss Lu that flashes into my minds eye when I hear the name Gale Sondergaard and I highly recommend The Cat and The Canary, Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard and the menacing George Zucco all add to the fun and fear factors in their own inimitable style.
A relatively short film career spanning just a dozen or so films, she earned two Oscars, back to back wins in 1936/37. She was...sorry, she is by all accounts a very strong minded lady. Even in the far off days of 1930’s Hollywood, she did not bend easily to the will of the powerful men in charge - she demanded better wages, script control and many things that actresses would now take for granted. She quit the movies and has lived a life that suited her, occasional theatre or tv roles but a name made and a name that will be remembered.
In 1932 they made a film called The Music Box - it was a simple premise, the two hapless heroes have to deliver a player-piano to a nice house (1127 Walnut Avenue) - at the top of a flight of steps!
Just find 30 minutes, watch it and have a good laugh.