Vitaphone Vaudeville, 1926-1930

FILMS

Between the Acts at the Opera (1926) starring Willie and Eugene Howard
Chips Off the Old Block (1928) starring The Foy Family
Harlem Mania (1929) starring The Norman Thomas Quintette
You Don’t Know the Half Of It (1928) starring Butler and Brennan
Dick Rich and His Melodious Monarchs (1928)
The Opry House (1929) starring The Mound City Blue Blowers
Lamb Chops (1929) starring George Burns and Gracie Allen
The Hard Guy (1930) starring Spencer Tracy
Going Places (1930) starring Shaw and Lee

Essay by Richard Hildreth

“You ain’t heard nothing yet.” According to legend, silent films died the instant movie-goers heard Al Jolson say those five words. Yet a full year before the 1927 release of The Jazz Singer, Jolson had already spoken that very same phrase in A Plantation Act, which was shown at the premiere of Warner Brothers’ synchronized sound system, the Vitaphone. There were some 200 Vitaphone films produced prior to The Jazz Singer.
Vitaphone does occupy a place in film history as the first synchronized-sound-and-image system to meet with commercial success. Its predecessors had failed, tarring the concept of “talking pictures.” Thomas Edison’s Kinetophone introduced in 1913, abandoned by 1915 attempted to synchronize phonograph cylinders with movies. There was also the Phonofilm and the Vivaphone, among others. France had the Chrono-Phonograph and the Phonorama. Germans endured the Synchroscope and the Biophon.

A key to Vitaphone’s success was its use of electrical recording and amplification. Originally, the phonograph was a mechanical device, which utilized a cone as both microphone and loudspeaker. Sound waves transmitted via the cone would vibrate a stylus traveling through a rotating surface of soft wax, to produce a groove. When transferred to the firmer surface of a shellac record and played, it could reproduce a tolerable copy of the original sound, loud enough to be heard in a small room. But without amplification, it could not fill even a 100-seat theater. Electrical recording and reproduction technology gave Vitaphone the power to reach the back row of a 3,000-seat movie palace, with unprecedented audio fidelity.

The American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) created most of the technology that would make Vitaphone possible. Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of AT&T, had built a system for electrical sound recording and playback in synchronization with a motion picture as early as 1925. Yet the national telephone monopoly couldn’t figure out how to sell this invention to the movie business. All the major film studios had witnessed the failure of previous “talking picture” gizmos. None of them wanted to upset their profitable apple cart by throwing away money on some new version of a proven folly.

Warner Brothers Pictures was a minor studio with major ambitions. Formed in 1910 by four brothers – Harry, Abe, Sam and Jack – it was known for producing reliable programmers. With the support of financial brokerage firm Goldman, Sachs and Company, Warner Bros. began an aggressive growth campaign in 1923, borrowing heavily to finance the acquisition of showcase theaters in New York and Hollywood and companies like American Vitagraph, one of the oldest movie studios. The Warners were after Vitagraph’s North American and European film distribution exchanges, as part of their campaign to break the control over exhibition venues held by the major studios. By the time it completed the Vitagraph deal, Warner Bros. had taken on more than five million dollars in debt.

Sam Warner would today be considered an “early adopter” of new technology. While other movie moguls viewed the advent of broadcast radio as either an annoyance or a threat, Warner realized that it could be used to sell pictures. Radio station KFWB – owned and operated by Warner Bros., equipped and engineered by Western Electric – started to broadcast on the Los Angeles airwaves in March of 1925 (and still does today).
After Sam Warner saw a demonstration of the Western Electric synchronized sound system, he convinced eldest brother Harry and Goldman-Sachs to purchase the new toy. The September, 1925 deal resulted in the creation of the Vitaphone Company, which was located in the former Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn. Warner Bros. owned the majority interest in Vitaphone, and Western Electric –who saw no other interested parties upon the horizon – granted Vitaphone an exclusive license to the sound system, which included the right to sublicense the technology to other producers.

Legend has it that Harry Warner responded with “Who wants to hear actors talk?” The primary selling point of all previous efforts had been the phrase “talking picture.” Invariably, poor synchronization and sound quality had disappointed. Warner Bros. made a concerted effort to distance the Vitaphone system from these failures. An article in the April 26, 1926 Film Daily demonstrates this approach: “The invention is in no sense a ‘talking picture’ but a method whereby a film can be accompanied by the music cue and other musical and vocal numbers given by means of what is now known as the recording machine...” Not coincidentally, if Vitaphone proved a success, Warner Bros. would profit further by firing all the musicians and entertainers it currently had to pay to perform at their theaters.

The movie-going experience of the 1920s was different from that of the 21st century. There was always live music. Short films accompanied features. And vaudeville acts appeared before and between films. Vitaphone replaced all these elements. Their films ranged from the highbrow (Giovanni Martinelli, an Italian tenor touted as the new Caruso, who made 15 Vitaphone films between 1926 and 1931) to the lowbrow (there are better adjectives to describe a 1927 film titled Buddy Doyle, Popular Black Faced Comedian, but lowbrow will do). Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons started life as Vitaphone shorts.

Western Electric realized in early 1927 that other studios were unlikely to license its technology from one of their own competitors, so it forced the heavily-leveraged studio to relinquish control of the synchronized sound system. Warner Bros. was allowed to keep the Vitaphone Corporation, but it had to forfeit its partnership with AT&T, and become just another licensee of the proprietary technology.

When Western Electric first developed the Vitaphone system, it also discovered a way to encode sound on the same strip of 35mm film that contained the picture. Problems with reproduction – the granularity of film stock in use at the time didn’t provide good audio fidelity, and dust on the sound track made unwanted noise – combined with unfamiliarity – the phonograph record was by now a commonly accepted object, while the idea that light could emit sound was still seen as strange – had convinced Warner Bros. to reject sound-on-film as a viable option. Much like the format wars of our time – Betamax vs. VHS, Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD, etc.– the battle of sound-on-disc vs. sound-on-film was fought in the marketplace. Studios released movies in both formats until it became clear that exhibitors preferred the sound-on-film system, which didn’t depend on an expensive phonograph disc limited to 20 plays. Warner Bros. was the last studio to switch exclusively to sound-on-film, in 1931.

Sam Warner didn’t live to see the triumph of Vitaphone. Refusing to consult a physician despite a chronic, severe headache, Sam died of infection from an abscess tooth on October 5, 1927 – one day before the New York premiere of The Jazz Singer.

The sound-on-disc system has left archivists and film preservationists with the difficult task of locating two separate forms of media for each film. The 1987 discovery, by Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, of some 2,000 Vitaphone discs hidden at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, was a monumental event in the restitution of the Vitaphone catalogue. In response, The Vitaphone Project, a consortium of record collectors, preservationists and expert enthusiasts founded in 1991, has located some 3,000 additional discs, and provided monetary aid in the restoration of 80 shorts and 12 features. Films and their discs are known to exist for as many as 70 shorts that are yet to be restored.

The rediscovery of the Vitaphone films provides us with a window into a time that experienced technological and social change of a type that most of us consider unique to the present era. Yet with 1993’s Jurassic Park, sound-on-disc returned with the debut of the Digital Theater System (DTS), which stores the soundtrack on a compact disc and uses a time code to synchronize itself to the film. Unlike the Vitaphone phonograph record, the DTS compact disc purportedly suffers no wear when played repeatedly. In a further continuation of the format wars, DTS is rivalled by Dolby Systems’ AC-3, a digital sound-on-film technology.

For those interested in learning more, a wealth of information can be found on the website of The Vitaphone Project, or by contacting Vitaphone Project founder Ron Hutchison.