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Virtual Broadway, Virtual Orchestra: De Forest and Vitaphone - Other Talkies

sound film public films

Once a new technology enters public usage, it is susceptible to being co-opted for any number of new purposes—many of which the creators did not foresee. The sound film emerged as an exhibition phenomenon several years preceding 1927, the generally accepted date for the “birth of the talkies.” When the recording and reproducing apparatuses moved out of the laboratories and into theaters, few if any inventors or promoters thought that the sound film would take over Hollywood to transform the silent feature into the all-talking, all-singing phenomenon that would become popular around 1929. Rather, the sound film was perceived as a novelty. The mainstream industry, as Quirk suggested with scatological innuendo, regarded the sound film as an irritation. The problem for the filmmakers was, without any extant models, how were they to merchandise this new kind of film to the public? They relied on what they knew. The resulting films blended the most popular ingredients of the current entertainment mix of vaudeville, live musical accompaniment for silent films, lectures, public address, and radio. Filmmakers capitalized on cinema’s capability to suggest a virtual presence, an imagined being-there, in order to bring performer and auditor together in the space of the filmed performance. Broadway, the “Street of Streets,” was coming soon to the local theater.

Other Talkies

Besides Fox, whose efforts to capitalize on Case’s and de Forests research were contemporaneous with Vitaphone’s premieres, numerous Vitaphone imitators were encouraged by Warners’ Broadway success. Among the most widely marketed competing systems were Orchestraphone, Magnola, Symphonium, Vict-o-phone, Vocafilm, and Bristolphone. 61 Almost all were disc-based technology, designed to play back nonsyn chronously from a library of licensed records. Most were doomed because of lack of access to the synchronization and amplification patents of the Western Electric and radio groups, and because Warner Bros. had already acquired the most important music licenses. Vocafilm failed at its press debut and never recovered from this technical disaster. One promising contender was Bristolphone. In October the Bristol Machine Works in Waterbury, Connecticut, was experimenting with a talking film device. William Bristol, though a dogged businessman, faced many of the same distribution problems that de Forest encountered. The American film industry had the power to shut out anyone it chose from production and to limit distribution and exhibition. 62

Of the majors, at least Paramount and Universal explored the idea of imitating Fox in developing their own in-house sound systems. Paramount’s Jesse Lasky assigned the task to the special effects technician Roy Pomeroy, while Carl Laemmle at Universal was exploring a device invented by Allen Canton. It used high-speed oscillating lights to record and play back sound on film without distortion. The output was powerful enough not to require an intermediate amplifier, and the new speakers avoided “the nasal or metallic sound common to present type of loud speakers.” 63 It was apparent that an industry standard would be preferable to proliferating incompatible systems. On 8 November 1926, Famous Players, MGM, United Artists, and PDC renewed their previously rumored offer to purchase a 50 percent interest in Vitaphone. Again Warners declined. 64 Instead, Warners decided against maintaining its own circuit of sound houses and, in December, offered to lease the Vitaphone system to other theater chains. This was intolerable to the Hollywood majors, who agreed to keep up a united front and secure sound on their own terms.

Although 1926 was the “year of Vitaphone,” the percentage of all moviegoers who actually witnessed the new attraction was small. Warner Bros. sound films had played only in a few large cities at road-show prices (five to ten times the regular admission charge). Wherever they ran, audiences noted the illusion of physical presence that talking gave the screen characters. This experience of virtual presence was replayed a few years later when sound films were introduced to the home market. DeVry’s Ciné-Tone 16-mm system, for example, advertised: “Your favorite actor or musician sounds forth from the loud-speaker as natural as life, and simultaneously on the screen appear the characters, who merge the sound and action into one organic whole—the perfect entertainment.” 65 DON JUAN attracted as much attention as a Barrymore vehicle with risqué love scenes as it did as a sound film; THE BETTEROLE capitalized on the Chaplin name and a popular literary source. Both films were also widespread successes as silent releases. In his New Year’s look into the future, Red Kann predicted that 1927 would be the greatest year in history for the film industry. But he made no mention of the coming of sound. 66

It was the synchronized shorts which attracted the most critical praise. At the very least, they were interesting technical novelties which affirmed the progress of electric communication. The Vitaphone program seemed to combine the socially defined qualities of the telephone, the phonograph, radio, and television. It transported Broadway to the hometown via technology. Vitaphone connected public taste to popular science. The entertainment format (vaudeville, the musical revue, theater) implicitly appealed to a pre-formed audience which should have been a receptive market. This target was not Variety ’s hicks in the sticks, but sophisticated middle-class urbanites accustomed to high-priced live entertainment at nightclubs, roof gardens, and movie palaces. The experiments with “canned” versions of their stage favorites via Phonofilm, combined with the popularity of the pre-film presentation, suggested to entrepreneurs like Sam Warner and William Fox, who had disdained sound for years, that the time had come for a major investment.

In 1926 “sound film” usually meant music, not speech. Although many reports describe the tonal quality of Phonofilm and Vitaphone as screechy, scratchy, and metallic, staking out music and the theatrical revue format made the new technique nonthreatening to the Hollywood establishment. The initial Vitaphone concept was an exhibition process and was specifically advertised as not affecting traditional filmmaking. Warners, itself a studio that provided primarily silent features, understood that Hollywood had no incentive to change its stable system of production. Producers foresaw union headaches (with on- and offscreen personnel), technical uncertainty (which meant investment of capital), and the need to make films in totally new ways. Perhaps most seriously, the whole star system would be disrupted.

Providing canned entertainment shorts to flesh out a program and replacing the orchestra with a recorded sound track made sense economically; making “speaking dramas” as features did not. But the initial reception was not what Vitaphone had expected. The way audiences were responding to the talking appearances of Jolson, Jessel, and other big-name attractions proved that seeing and hearing stars sing and speak was just what people wanted in a sound film. Kann was prescient when he predicted that the public would “seize” performers and “build” them according to its, not film companies’, desires. It did not take long for the public to redefine virtual Broadway on its own terms, forcing a melding of star cultures. The radio celebrity, the vaudeville performer, the opera diva, the wisecracking comic—all would be auditioned as performance models for the new talkies. As a result, Hollywood soon left behind the virtual orchestra and got over its fear of talking.

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