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Movietone's Synchronized Shorts and Features

fox sound film music

Its January 1927 cross-licensing agreement with Vitaphone benefited Fox. Its acquisition of exhibition licenses and Western Electric equipment for all its theaters provided an incentive for Fox to increase sound production. The new line of Movietone films was demonstrated to the trade in New York on 24 February 1927 (and placed on the market the next day). Production began at the rate of four short subjects a week. Fox also planned to make “regular dramatic features” at a West Coast studio which would be built in the near future. Already one feature (which turned out to be a reissue of WHAT PRICE GLORY? 1926) was being synchronized. The features would contain no dialogue. The reporters attending Fox’s press showing saw some of Case’s tests as “Studies in Movietone” (not intended for release), the monologues by Chic Sale, and the numbers by Raquel Meller that had been recorded in 1926. They also toured the specially constructed Fox-Case studios at 460 West Fifty-fourth Street and saw the radio entertainer Billy Day at work on a new series of comedy shorts." 28 There were two stages, each entirely enclosed within a foot-thick double wall of “patented material of cellular texture.” The press observed a production in progress. There were two directors: one on the stage, and a “vocal director” who sat in an adjacent room and monitored the recordings by “telephonic apparatus.” Movietone’s initial version was single-system, that is, the sound was recorded in the camera on the same strip of film being photographed, not in a separate sound-recording camera (double-system). 29

Fox needed a showcase theater in which to promote its new venture. The lavish new Roxy (on the northeast corner of Fiftieth Street and Seventh Avenue) was a public corporation financed by more than nine thousand small stockholders and presided over by Samuel “Roxy” Rothapfel. William Fox was negotiating to buy the theater even before its construction was completed; he paid $12 million for it. It seated 6,200 patrons and was decorated with gilt plaster statues and “renaissance” murals. When it opened on 11 March 1927, it was equipped with projectors for showing Vitaphone discs and Movietone optical tracks. According to the publicity brochures, the sound installation was tagged for presentations, “with selections by individual artists featured on the program it is understood.” In other words, the shorts would take their place on the program along with the live acrobats and vaudeville crooners. 30

In June 1927, the Fox Varieties unit was consolidated with the newsreel, under the supervision of Truman Talley. The Phonofilm and Vitaphone shorts were clearly the model for Movietone’s recorded acts. Gertrude Lawrence, star of Oh Kay , sang some numbers, which premiered with SEVENTH HEAVEN at the Harris on 21 January. 31 Fox feature specials were being issued with Movietone scores and sound effects. WHAT PRICE GLORY? , the big 1926 silent hit, was re-released with a sound track. SEVENTH HEAVEN , which had played in Los Angeles and on Broadway in May as a silent, reopened at the Roxy in September with a Movietone score arranged by Erno Rapee. It was also performed with a live chorus. The first original Fox feature to premiere with Movietone was SUNRISE (1927), F. W. Murnau’s somber “song of two humans.” 32 The score is an appropriate pastiche of popular classics, but it is also laced with moody tones reflecting the composer’s apprenticeship with Gustav Mahler. In one famous scene in which the husband comes to his senses and cries out for his wife in a storm, his voice is simulated by two long held notes on the French horn.

In a New York Times interview, William Fox predicted that in five years no producer would think of making silent pictures. To underscore his point, he announced that Fox-Case was meeting with Western Electric in an effort to lower the cost of Movietone installation from $16,000 to $2,000. By the end of September, all Fox-owned theaters had Movietone operating. 33

Things looked promising. The premiere of SUNRISE at Fox’s newest theater, the Times Square at 653 Eighth Avenue, was glittering. The Movietone recording of Mussolini and the parade of his Fascist regiments was an excuse for inviting Italian consulate officials; in honor of director Murnau, German officials were invited; Catholic representatives were on hand to hear the Movietoned Vatican boy choir. Kann said that Murnau’s direction was “one of the finest accomplishments in production—not only for this year but for all years.” He felt that the sound was better than Vitaphone: “In tonal range and quality, Movietone has demonstrated its superiority in the field of synchronized sound and action films.” The New York critical establishment by and large agreed, adding praise for George O’Brien and twenty-year-old Janet Gaynor. The Artists Guild awarded SUNRISE its blue ribbon for best picture of the year. Although the box office during its New York run was disappointing, the film was a big hit in Los Angeles, where, allegedly, “producing organizations have issued instructions to their director and technical staffs to view the picture with a view of absorbing some of the angles that are catching the popular fancy.” Again, Fox voiced optimism. Movietone, he told the press, will “enhance silent films with meritorious music. Features, comedies, newsreels—all are slated for the same treatment.” 34 The conventions of the virtual orchestra were being codified, as delineated by John Ford regarding MOTHER MACHREE (1928):

There is a wealth of [musical] material from which to draw. There is the song, itself—"Mother Machree." The earlier sequences are laid in Ireland, along the sea-coast. This, alone, presents a veritable mine of Irish folk-songs, heart-stirring with their tuneful melodies and their fascinating romance.

And, as the action shifts to America, with the swiftly-moving activities into which the whole case is plunged, there is ample opportunity to further enhance the character values in the new environment through what I like to think of as the “folk-songs” of our own country—as well as the unforgettable war-time ballads and marching songs. (John Ford, “Thematic Presentations, A Wish for the Future,” Film Daily , 12 June 1927, p. 47)

A recurring theme song and variations on it would create something like the operatic leitmotif to identify character, establish moods, and even telegraph narrative information (for example, mnemonically recalling an earlier scene). The score would be more of a compilation than an original composition, except for a theme song which would be especially written for the film and would have at least one complete vocal performance. Sheet music with colorful illustrations based on the film would be available in the lobby. There were also songs which the audience would recognize. These would either be popular tunes owned or licensed from Fox’s publishing affiliates, primarily De Sylva, Brown and Henderson, or Red Star Music, or tunes from the public domain. These melodies could move to the foreground to establish character or comment on the action. Otherwise, they were strung together by background music, similar to operatic underscoring. There were few passages without music, except during a caesura—stopping the sound suddenly for emphasis. The synchronized tracks of the Fox films attempted to create the virtual orchestra, just like the early Vitaphone features. A director like Ford could thus control music-image juxtaposition and establish the proper mood. Without a sound track, these elements could not be monitored once a silent film went into wide release.

John Ford’s FOUR SONS , released in February 1928 (nationally in September), fits this mold precisely. The theme song, “Little Mother,” was written by Erno Rapee and sung by Harold van Duzee. The original score was by Carli Elinor. S. L. Rothapfel arranged the musical selections. For local color, there was a “folk” selection consisting of Tyrolean yodeling rendered by the “Roxy Male Quartette.” Since FOUR SONS performed extremely well, there was little incentive to change the formula. 35

FAZIL , released in New York in June 1928 (nationally in September), was directed by Howard Hawks, still regarded as a minor director. The film did not play well. But critics found something new to say about sound: it could actually help a mediocre film. The New York Daily News liked the music better than the story, saying, “The Movietone accompaniment is a great help to this picture, which certainly needs something to enliven the action.” 36

Fox did not seriously explore alternatives to plain musical synchronization until November 1927. The studio allotted several million dollars for “a series of experiments to determine the commercial value of talking pictures.” This highly tentative decision to go talkie, made in the wake of THE JAZZ SINGER , shows the influence of Jolson’s parttalking hit. But even without Warners’ stimulus, it is likely that Fox’s own dialogue shorts produced throughout 1927 had planted the notion—as Vitaphone’s shorts had done at that studio—that dramatic talking sequences were feasible. The next features of its ace directors, Murnau, Frank Borzage, Raoul Walsh, and Ford, would have talking sequences. However, Fox proceeded with extraordinary caution. The resulting films

will be released only when and if the Movietone sequences are successful. If not, the Movietone sequences will be scrapped, and further experiments undertaken, before the Movietone picture is presented as a practical commercial proposition. The Movietone will be made to stress dramatic situations, where the use of synchronized action and sound is especially important. ( Film Daily , 23 November 1927, p. 1)

The first Fox film released specifically designed to be Movietoned with dialogue was announced as BLOSSOM TIME , in December, to be directed by Walsh. 37

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