SHUFFLIN' INTO SOUND
THE MOVIES began to talk at the end of the 1920s. For blacks on screen this meant only that their "yasshuhs" could now be heard rather than read. Sound added a new "reality" to the movies; the ears reinforcing what the eyes saw. But the more complete the illusion of real life became, the more difficult it was to change the screen image of the black. Though the period from the advent of sound until the beginning of World War II has been referred to as the "Golden Age of the American Cinema," for blacks in film those years were mostly the same old dross.
From the earliest days of the movies filmmakers had been experimenting with the use of sound. (Indeed Lee De Forest, a pioneer radio inventor, making use of his phonofilm system, had made a number of shorts in the early 1920s including one that featured "those colored vaudevillians" Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake singing "Snappy Songs.") But not until the mid-1920s was there the necessary merger of advanced technology and entrepreneurial enterprise that made possible the rapid success of the "talkie," first in the United States and soon all over the world. About 150 American movie houses had been wired for sound by the end of 1927, and two years later that number had increased to over 8700. During 1929 the American movie industry produced some 700 features, of which more than 500 made some use of sound -- either in dialogue, music, or effects. 1
For blacks there is a bitter irony in the movie that symbolizes the introduction of sound: its hero is a white entertainer who sings in burnt-cork makeup. Warner Brothers' The Jazz Singer