A Talkative First Talking Trailer: Vitaphone and The Jazz Singer


[EXCERPTED from Keith Johnston’s: “Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology,” (MacFarland, 2009)  pp 18-20, by permission of the Author.]

“Ladies and gentleman, I am privileged to say a few words to you in this most modern and novel manner…the first living Vitaphone announcement ever made announcing the coming of one of the years outstanding pictures.”

These are the first words spoken by John Miljan in the 1927 Jazz Singer Trailer, and they immediately center the notion of technological change and its impact on trailer structure.   Prior to the Jazz Singer, trailers were generally built up around an edited selection of excerpted scenes, inter-titles and animation that focused attention onto star images and narrative events….

The Jazz Singer trailers offers static long shots of an actor (Miljan) talking directly to the viewer, prerecorded footage and excerpted scene—but the strength of the sales message is a bravura display of the possibilities offered by synchronized sound.  It initially appears that The Jazz Singer trailer has a dual sales message, selling both Vitaphone and Al Jolson:  “you are not only going to have the opportunity of seeing Mr. Jolson but through this marvelous invention Vitaphone you are also going to be able to hear him talk as well as sing.”…Importantly, Miljan’s promise—that audiences will see and hear the star—is not met within the trailer, and Jolson’s star image remains silent.  In contrast, Miljan’s voice dominates all three segments of the trailer, centering the “modern and novel” Vitaphone synchronized sound technology for audiences and creating a nascent technological star….

The trailer is divided into three sections:  John Miljan’s initial address and comments on Vitaphone; his voiceover commentary on edited footage of the film’s New York premiere; and two excerpted scenes from the film.  Each of these presents a separate technological advance: in the first, Miljan’s speech is perfectly synchronized and demonstrates the Vitaphone process.  The premiere sequence features upbeat jazz on the soundtrack, over which Miljan speaks, showing that Warner Bros. have the ability to effectively mix different sound sources as well as combine previously filmed footage and a voiceover.  The scenes from the film are technologically the weakest section, rendering Jolson mute and with an instrumental version of “mother of Mine” playing on the soundtrack (the trailer can be said to be accurately representing the film here, since these scenes were not among The Jazz Singer’s singing or talking scenes.)  This structure highlights the technology’s different strengths and offers little sense of the human star or film narrative—the traditional focus of most 1920s trailer advertising.  The trailer confirms the primacy of technological changes as a sales device: the first attempt to enter and showcase a film technology as an individuated star.

(Dr. Keith Johnston, Lecturer in Film and Television Studies in the School of Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norfolk, UK, privileges the role of technology in his academic work on trailers, understanding trailers as “unique short film[s]” and “revelatory texts” in their own right, that are “key” to “understanding the creation and delineation of distinct sales messages and formats.”  He blogs at www.keithmjohnston.blogspot.com)

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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