Film That Almost Got Made That Time Forgot: The Jazz Singer
From the advent of motion pictures in the late 1800’s until the 1920’s most motion pictures were silent. Films were projected without sound and often an organist or orchestra in the theater would provide live musical accompaniment. Dialog was confined to title cards, which were interspersed with the action. By the early 1920’s, sound recording technology had improved enough that film producers began to experiment with sound-on-disc and sound-on-film systems with varying degrees of success. But these early efforts were exclusively short subjects that saw limited release.
The first feature-length motion picture to incorporate synchronized dialog was The Jazz Singer, which was released in 1927 by Warner Bros. Popular singer and actor Al Jolson starred in the story of a young Jewish man who rejects his father’s wish that he become a cantor in a synagogue, and finds fame as an entertainer instead.
This first “talkie” was heavily promoted by the studio and highly anticipated by the movie-going public. But when the film premiered on October 6, 1927 at the Warner Bros. Theater in New York, audiences were shocked when Jolson’s first on-screen words were, “hiya sister, that’s a boffo set of turnips ya got there.” Several women in the audience fainted, a priest went blind and half a dozen monocles were lost or damaged when they fell from their wearers’ eyes.
Warners acted swiftly in response to the controversy, pulling the film from circulation and dubbing in the phrase “wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” over the offensive passage in all subsequent prints. However, the damage had been done. By the late 1920’s, Hollywood studios had become concerned about their image with the general public due to an increasing number of risqué movies and off-screen scandals involving their biggest stars. The Jazz Singer incident was seen as the last straw. Studio heads banded together and formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), hiring Will H. Hays to oversee the office in an effort clean up Hollywood’s image. Hays set to work immediately, creating a list of rules for motion picture producers and distributors, which became known as the “Hays Code.” The Code governed what could and could not appear in motion pictures created for release to the general public.
Besides outlawing on-screen sex, nudity, blasphemy, perversion and the use of illegal drugs, the Code also contained a comprehensive list of obscene words that could not be used in talkies.
The Hays Code stayed in effect until the late 60’s when more permissive attitudes became prevalent. It was replaced with the Motion Picture Association of America rating system that did not ban particular content, but rated films in such a way that audiences could be prepared for more adult material.
The effectiveness of the Hays Code is debatable. Film producers found ways around the Code through symbolism and subtext. And while the wisdom of banning potentially objectionable content is an open question, the Hays Code did manage to keep the word “turnips” out of movies for 42 years, until Dennis Hopper finally said it in 1969’s Easy Rider.