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Lee de Forest and Phonofilm: Virtual Broadway

film sound forest’s radio

The Audion tube had brought Lee de Forest fame and fortune. His name was synonymous with the pioneering spirit of early radio. But in the early 1920s he became fanatical about talking pictures. Although previous accounts have dismissed him as an eccentric personality and a failed entrepreneur—and he was both—de Forest’s Phonofilm venture was influential as a catalyst for other developers and for establishing a model for early sound film forms.

An impulsive opportunist, de Forest had a scheme to take advantage of the German economic depression by moving there and hiring cheap research assistants. He arrived in Berlin in October 1921 with his current project, the film-gramophone idea. In Europe film sound had been developing rapidly. At the time of de Forest’s visit, a team of three inventors were already showing sound-on-film shorts produced by Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massolle at the Alhambra theater in Berlin. The voice synchronization was perfect, but reports said that the tonal quality needed “improvement.”

The details of de Forest’s contact with the three inventors are unknown, but he referred to their screenings in his press releases. Eventually their research resulted in the Tri-Ergon sound-on-film process, which would become the chief European rival to the American sound systems. When de Forest learned of it, Tri-Ergon had already had a checkered career. The inventors had applied for patents in Germany, England, Austria, and France in 1919. Germany and England had rejected their work as too unoriginal for a patent, and the patents granted in Austria and France were later nullified. In 1921 they applied for a U.S. patent. It is possible that this is how de Forest learned of the process. (In a 1932 lawsuit against ERPI, American Tri-Ergon demonstrated that its patent application preceded de Forest’s by three months.) In April 1922, de Forest announced to the film trade in a dispatch from Germany that he had perfected his new Phonofilm, a system for recording synchronized voice onto film. He expected to market it soon. 1

De Forest returned from Europe in September, characteristically full of energy and optimism. He described his Phonofilm experiments to the New York Times. The device, as he then pictured it, was “a method of recording voices, accurately synchronized on film, that eventually may be broadcast.” In other words, de Forest expected radio transcription to be the primary use for his device, not theatrical sound films, as with the Tri-Ergon process. In this early phase, he apparently did not intend to record images on the film stock. For example, he proposed using sound cameras to record courtroom and congressional proceedings for delayed broadcasts. Soon, though, Phonofilm had the look and feel of the original Tri-Ergon films. De Forest told Radio Broadcast in December that his method was superior to the Germans’ process and illustrated his remarks with a filmstrip showing himself and his voice track. 2 Although at this time de Forest seems to have been concentrating on wireless applications for Phonofilm, he had started thinking of its ramifications for commercial motion pictures. He indicated that the silent feature was unlikely to change. “Ordinarily,” he said, “the film picture of today would not be greatly benefitted by the addition of the voices of the actors.” Instead, he predicted an alternative film form evidently inspired by New York variety shows and the European music hall. Phonofilm would display the talents of star performers: “An entirely new class or type of moving picture play will be evolved for the Phonofilm. Actors and actresses who can speak as well as look pretty and make funny faces will be in demand.” De Forest was not proposing a change in the fundamental structure of Hollywood and its star system; rather, he wanted to supply self-contained filmed acts to add to the standard movie bill. De Forest’s efforts to promote Phonofilm to the major film producers failed dismally. William Fox especially annoyed him when he would not even grant an interview. For this and for personal reasons (de Forest was anti-Semitic), the inventor cultivated a dislike for Fox. 3

Though producers were blasé, the adventurous exhibitor Hugo Riesenfeld, who was interested in theatrical radio, backed de Forest’s experiments. This support enabled the inventor to lease the old Talmadge film studio on East Forty-eighth Street. 4 In April 1923, de Forest said he was ready to begin releasing Phonofilm subjects on a weekly schedule. The inventor was quick to point out that the system would not compete with silent features, and that there would be only very limited “talking”:

The “phono-film” is adapted primarily for the reproduction of musical, vaudeville numbers and solos. It is not De Forest’s idea that the ordinary pantomine [sic] drama is adapted to the “phono-film,” but he expects scenario writers to write stories around the acoustic idea to work in the voice and music to the greatest possible advantage. De Forest points out that his invention opens the way to scenics carrying their own music, played by first class orchestras and comedies, and animated cartoons with bright lines and patter. ( Film Daily, 7 April 1923, pp. 1-2)

An inaugural program opened at Riesenfeld’s Rivoli on 15 April and featured the Broadway headliners Weber and Fields, Sissle and Blake, Eddie Cantor, Eva Puck and Sammy White, Phil Baker, and Conchita Piquir. The journalists present emphasized the novelty but had harsh words for the sound quality. The reviewer for the New York Times reported that the sound of THE GAVOTTE (1923) was scratchy. He was surprised that, “while one could hear the instruments being played for the dancers, one could not hear the slightest sound of a footfall. Hence it seemed as if the dancers were performing in rubber shoes. One also expected to hear the swish of the silken skirts of the woman, but all that issued forth were the strains of musical instruments.” He condescendingly admitted that the sounds of THE SERENADE (1923) were at least as good as an “old time phonograph.” The synchronization, however, was maintained perfectly throughout. 5

Tepid reviews did not dissuade de Forest. To finance production, he boldly sold all his shares in his radio business, the De Forest Company. In June 1923, he announced that nationally distributed releases would be available in September. Each weekly reel was to consist of three to five numbers, including dances, songs, monologues, dialogues, and “here and there an ambitious ensemble.” In a strategy reminiscent of early cinema showmanship (when theater managers exercised complete control of the movie program), de Forest encouraged exhibitors to cut up the numbers and distribute them throughout the evening to create “what amounts to a vaudeville show for the price of film.” Again, showmen were more interested than Hollywood. Florenz Ziegfeld was said to have expressed a desire to have an entire program of the Ziegfeld Follies “Phonofilmed.” 6

De Forest Phonofilms, Inc., was formed in February 1924, with Lee de Forest as president. Theodore Case was a partner, and Earl Sponable an employee. The production plans were augmented to include a variety of genres: “dramas, comedies, condensed versions of famous operas, scenics in which nature’s sounds, such as the singing of birds, roaring of animals, dashing of waves, will be brought out, news pictures, vaudeville acts and comic cartoons with the character’s words actually spoken instead of being printed.” J. Searle Dawley was chosen to direct more productions. 7

De Forest ambitiously produced ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1924), a two-reel film (that is, about twenty-four minutes) adapted from a stage play by John Drinkwater and directed by Dawley. Its Phonofilm highlights were some campfire songs and Frank McGlynn (in the title role) delivering the Gettysburg Address. Again, critics applauded the synchronization and panned the tonal quality: “The sound is so vastly less realistic than the pictures themselves that it can scarcely carry conviction” ( New York Herald); “rather crudely done” ( Times Square Daily ); “in its present stage the ‘Phonofilm’ is not likely to Page 66  be taken up by those who are producing on a large scale” ( New York Times ). The Times reviewer also criticized the directionality of the sound reproduction, hearing the voices come from the corner of the screen, not from the actor. Film Daily commended the picture as “the best of the talking films yet seen,” but its reviewer also had reservations about the acoustics. “One is always aware,” he complained, “that the voice comes from a record of some sort.” 8

De Forest at last garnered some favorable publicity for MEMORIES OF LINCOLN (1924), a four-minute film in which ninety-year-old Chauncey Depew reminisced about his personal experiences with the U.S. president. The content was so captivating that reviews overlooked the noisy sound reproduction. “Amazing,” said the Herald. “It was easy to imagine, after the film had run awhile, it was Mr. Depew himself sitting there in the theater and talking of Lincoln as he knew him in quiet conversational tones.” While the Times reviewer was still bothered by the loudspeaker placement at the sides of the screen, he admitted, “There are moments when one loses sight of this defect by the sheer interest one feels in what the speaker utters.” 9 Both comments reveal the listeners’ willingness to ignore the mechanical obstacles in order to indulge a complete acoustic illusion and a desire to be “tricked” into thinking that the screen presence was real.

The 1924 presidential election was a three-way race, and Phonofilm gave each candidate the opportunity to speak before the camera in MAJOR ISSUES OF THE CAMPAIGN (1924). In what some might now consider to be a foreshadowing of contemporary media coverage of politics, the speakers’ vocal styles captured more attention than the substance of their remarks. The differences in their forensic qualities were noted with detailed curiosity:

All three read from their party platforms, first [John W.] Davis, whose voice, incidentally, does not reproduce as well as either the President’s or Senator La Follettes. Davis speaks in an easy, unhesitating style though he varies his expression but little. Senator [Robert M.] La Follette is more vigorous and while at times he slurs syllables, it is usually easy to understand what he says. The President’s [Calvin C. Coolidge] speech was delivered in his usual slow, decisive fashion with that unmistakable New England twang. He hesitated occasionally. An attentive audience will not find it difficult to understand the speakers. ( Film Daily, 5 October 1924, p. 10)

At least thirty theaters showed the campaign film. Also in 1924, de Forest synchronized a music sound track for THE COVERED WAGON (1923) and SIEGFRIED (1923). He made LOVE’S OLD SWEET SONG (1924, a two-reel dramatic playlet with Una Merkel) and, in 1925, shot a reel using an experimental color process. He combined music and animation in a series of Max Fleischers “bouncing ball” sing-along cartoons. 10

De Forest claimed to have sold the Phonofilm system to an additional fifty theaters. Many of these were not permanent installations but were sold to showmen who moved from theater to theater. The Phonofilm was highlighted as an entertainment form in its own right, recalling the programs of Lyman Howe and other early traveling entrepreneurs." These shows had twin selling points: the technical marvel of sound-on-film (“$10,000 Reward paid to any person who finds a phonograph”) and virtual Broadway (“the most dazzling cast of stars ever assembled”). The income permitted de Forest to hire John Meehan as production head and James Elliot as his business manager.

Together they aggressively tried to market the system to theaters and vaudeville houses. Still, no big chains showed any interest. 12

The company needed more capital for its expansion plans, even though shares of De Forest Phonofilm stock had climbed from $20 to $100. 13 De Forest Phonofilm, Ltd., was formed in Toronto in November 1924. In terms of numbers of theaters, this branch was potentially much more significant than de Forest’s American market because it could give him access to the 250 theaters in the Canadian Famous Players chain. 14 This proved to be the apogee of the Phonofilm company. In December, de Forest floated $22 million of new stock. The company said it would use the funds to finance its plan to film entire musical revues and to launch foreign production. 15 The state of New York intervened and canceled the stock issue because of Phonofilm’s shaky financial base and de Forest’s reputation as a wheeler-dealer. Calvin Coolidge became enraged when he learned that Phonofilm salesmen were showing his campaign film to sell stock, and he ordered the Justice Department to investigate. (Charges were never filed.) In September 1925, the innovator Theodore Case quit De Forest Phonofilm, taking with him de Forest’s license to use his patents. Sponable also left the organization.

Earl Sponable had been secretly shopping the Case system around before the breakup. He had made presentations to Western Electric and General Electric in 1925, but the engineers of both corporations decided that the process did not add anything to their existing patent coverage. Case, in July 1926, agreed to sell his rights controlling sound-on-film recording and playback to de Forest’s old nemesis, William Fox. On 20 September they formed the Fox-Case Corporation, and Sponable was hired as head of research.

Even if de Forest had possessed extraordinary acumen, his pockets simply were not deep enough and he was out of touch with the big changes occurring in the U.S. film industry. Production and exhibition were concentrated in a few controlling companies. The “Big Three” were Paramount, Loew’s (which owned MGM), and First National; the “Little Five” were Fox, Universal, Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC), Film Booking Office (FBO), and Warner Bros. The theater chains of Loew’s, Stanley, Balaban and Katz, and others had grown in the twenties, modeled on the retail chain store concept. Unaffiliated theater alliances, mostly family-run, were consolidating their holdings to become national competitors. Only a few independent metropolitan exhibitors—like Riesenfeld in New York—or regional movie chains, vaudeville houses, and temporary venues were available. Unlike the major studios, which could pledge future income and real estate holdings for collateral and margin loans, de Forest had a record of dubious dealing and bankruptcy.

A look, however, at his Phonofilm productions confirms that he was attracted to fascinating personalities. William E. Waddell, Phonofilm’s general manager, noted the various levels of audience appeal in the programs. Some of the subjects filmed included Governor Al Smith making a speech and singing, George Jessel doing a monologue, and De Wolf Hopper reading “Casey at the Bat.” Eddie Cantor sang songs and recited from his play Kid Boots. Waddell pointed out that this was a big hit at the Rivoli and Rialto Theaters, around the corner from the Selwyn, where Cantor was performing live. Cantor convinced his friend Sophie Tucker to make a recording, but the deal fell through when de Forest could not pay her cash in advance. 16

Also appealing was the range of entertainment made possible: “it runs the gamut from grand-opera to slap-stick.” Waddell reassured exhibitors who might have in mind “failures of the past” (that is, Edison’s and Kellum’s) that “Phonofilm is a veritable talking   film.” The greatest allure, though, was in de Forest’s own celebrity and his association with radio. Although de Forest was no longer connected with the manufacturing company that bore his name, Waddell noted that his label still appeared on many thousands of radio sets:

The name of “DeForest” is known to every radio fan and they are all anxious to see and hear his latest creation, “Radio Talking Pictures.”

Two questions the exhibitor might ask himself are “How many radio fans are there in my audience?” and “Would they care to see and hear the great stars of opera, musical comedy and vaudeville?” ( Film Daily, 15 March 1925, p. 27)

This attempt to associate Phonofilm with radio reveals much about the characteristics of the sound film as an entertainment form and defines virtual Broadway. The subject was to be stage amusement of the light, popular variety—speeches, lectures, and two-reel excerpts (musical or dramatic) from revues. The medium was analogous to radio. Like radio, Phonofilm would beam entertainers from the New York stage into the local auditorium—not into listeners’ homes obviously, but into their community movie theater. De Forest’s directors had a penchant for recording famous personalities speaking directly to the audience or reading their published works, much like the radio interview. The Phonofilm interest in topical subjects was similar in practice to broadcast journalism.

De Forest thought of the function of Phonofilm as an augmentation of, not a replacement for, the Hollywood feature. We can say that his design was program-driven, not feature-driven. That is, he wished to sell exhibitors short items to enhance the value of “an evening’s entertainment,” not compete head-on with the major film producers or restructure what we now call the classical Hollywood cinema.

Chronically underfunded and mismanaged, Phonofilm became insolvent in 1926. There are several reasons for de Forest’s failure. Phonofilm was acoustically limited because the inventor did not have legal access to thermionic circuitry controlled by AT&T and RCA, neither of which was likely to negotiate with him. But the Phonofilm system was functionally identical to Case’s Fox Movietone system of 1927 and the Powers Cinephone of 1928—which were technically and commercially satisfactory—so the explanation is not purely mechanical inferiority. De Forest’s exhibitor-oriented approach was badly timed, for it came when the large chains were putting pressure on the independent theater owners, reducing expenses by consolidating their buying power, and making the programs more uniform. Novelties supplied by freelance producers like de Forest would have increasing difficulty finding exposure as the decade of the twenties advanced.

De Forest made two contributions to the coming of sound. As he struggled to get exhibitors interested in his enterprise, his highly visible work must have been a goad to the sound research teams at Western Electric and General Electric. De Forest’s experiments in radio, then in film, were only possible because in his 1912 negotiations with AT&T he had retained the right to develop new applications for the Audion. Throughout the twenties, the inventor’s loud boasting about his accomplishments was a thorn in the side of the corporate giant’s research department (and kept the legal department busy, too). At General Electric, management’s decision to take Hoxie’s talking film device, the Pallophotophone, out of mothballs was definitely prompted by de Forest’s shows. His highly public campaign for film sound must have been a challenge that could not be ignored by corporations staking their claims on all things acoustic.

Second, the Phonofilm program concept became a model for the talking-picture format that was passed on intact to the other early sound film producers—Vitaphone and Fox—when they entered the market. Indeed, many of Vitaphone’s performers and Movietone’s celebrities had appeared previously before de Forest’s camera. The realization of the special value of the speaking and performing star would later prove to be an essential component of the talkies. This conception of sound cinema as virtual Broadway—New York stage material and radio-like delivery—proved to be far longer lasting than the Phonofilm system itself.

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