Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from A-E

Enticing the Audience: Warner Bros. and Vitaphone - THE JAZZ SINGER, Vitaphone Trailers

film sound warners picture

The decision to add Movietone and Vitaphone to the product lines of Fox and Warners in 1927 was viewed as a curio (like color and stereoscopy) which might boost a program. Synchronized sound could also save money for theaters by replacing presentation acts and orchestras with “electrical” facsimiles. Winfield Sheehan and Harry Warner expected these short films to succeed in small towns but not necessarily in big cities, where the simulacra would compete with the real thing. An audience’s first exposure to a sound film might have been in one of four forms in 1927: a synchronized musical score added to a feature; a talking short, with music and patter recorded by opera, vaudeville, and radio personalities; the synch sound newsreel; or sound prevue trailers. The idea of a normal feature film with spoken dialogue was considered a possibility but not taken seriously. Thomas Edison, though out of touch with the industry, spoke a common prejudice:

No, I don’t think the talking moving picture will ever be successful in the United States. Americans prefer silent drama. They are accustomed to the moving picture as it is and they will never get enthusiastic over any voices being mingled in. Yes, there will be a novelty to it for a little while, but the glitter will soon wear off and the movie fans will cry for silence or a little orchestra music.

I believe the experiments will prove highly successful. I am certain that voices can be reproduced to fit in just the right place with the play on the screen, but the American people do not want it and will not welcome it. We are wasting our time in going on with the project. ( Film Daily , 4 March 1927, pp. 1, 2)

This vote of no confidence by the patriarch of electrical science came as a blow. (Terry Ramsaye’s recently published A Million and One Nights had been dedicated to and included a frontispiece portrait of “the Wizard.”) Harry Warner reacted, pointing out that Vitaphones were already operating in fifty theaters and being installed at the rate of five per week. Fox also objected to this most famous of all scientists dismissing his venture. He dispatched a crew to Edison’s West Orange lab to project some Movietone tests   and to shoot footage of the inventor. Edison listened to the selections and, his serious hearing impairment notwithstanding, revised his opinion and called the talkies a “distinct advance.” 1

Harry Warner wrote to stockholders in January 1927, alerting them to the cost of their company’s major commitment to Vitaphone. Since August 1926, he reported, the firm had invested $1.57 million in the process, and the fall quarter would show a $100,000 loss. Despite the initial public interest in Vitaphone, Warners found the enthusiasm difficult to sustain. At year-end 1926, Warners had planned to install 350 machines during the coming year. But because installations by Western Electric were running four months behind, that estimate was soon lowered to 300. In March 1927, Walter J. Rich, president of Vitaphone, reported that there were still only 51 machines in use. 2 Aside from equipment back orders, the spring of 1927 saw a definite loss of momentum for Vitaphone as a feature producer. The music-synched films had done well on Broadway and set records at their 100-performance marks (one barometer used to measure box-office success). DON JUAN grossed $790,000 during its 36-week run at the Warners’. But in the spring and summer of 1927, some theater owners were removing the system. For example, in Jacksonville, DON JUAN performed well, but THE BETTER ’OLE was a flop. The Kentucky Theater in Lexington stopped showing Vitaphone features and played the shorts only on the Monday-through-Thursday off-days. Throughout the summer, the system was pulled from larger cities as well. The Metropolitan in Washington, D.C., canceled Vitaphone in June. The shows were discontinued at the important Mark Strand in Brooklyn. It lasted three months in Atlanta, where it “failed to measure up to expectations.   It did not catch popular fancy” and was permitted to “die quietly”—a choice, probably unintended, pun. 3 Warner Bros. clearly needed two things: smash programs which would bring enthusiastic audiences back to sound films, and more wired theaters.

The Big Five studios watched this activity intently and worked behind the scenes to position themselves to deal with sound in case their competitors’ experiments showed signs of making money. Their voluntary detachment from competition in sound gave Warners a potential advantage if the studio could act quickly enough. The studio responded by upgrading Warner production facilities and rethinking the content of the Vitaphone programs. In February 1927, at a cost of $1.6 million, Warners rebuilt the old Hollywood Vitagraph studio, 4151 Prospect Avenue at Talmadge (now the site of ABC-TV Center), to create the most up-to-date sound facility. Darryl Francis Zanuck, head of the writing department, was promoted to Jack Warner’s assistant. He continued to write scenarios in addition to supervising most productions.

Warner Bros. signed a new ERPI agreement on 4 August 1927. Walter Rich was bought out, and Vitaphone became a wholly owned Warner subsidiary. The brand name Vitaphone, which formerly designated the recording and reproducing mechanism, henceforth would be the trademark for a line of sound films. The equipment would now be called by a new name, Western Electric Sound Projector System. Warners’ aspiration to be a monopoly licensor was destroyed in one fell swoop. The studio’s new agreement with ERPI was nonexclusive. Fox and Warner Bros. studios and their affiliated theaters used the same recording, amplification, and reproducing equipment (though Fox had no interest in cutting sound tracks on disc). This arrangement had a major impact on exhibition: Vitaphone- and Movietone-licensed houses now shared reciprocal rights to run all Warners and Fox sound films, greatly increasing the amount of available material. For Warners, it put Vitaphone films into the chain of forty-five theaters which Fox owned or had an interest in, including his West Coast (Wesco) group, the Roxy, and other flagship Broadway theaters. Western Electric would supply on a first-priority basis a projection system which could play both discs and Movietone optical tracks. 4

Warners’ revenue came from a “seat tax,” from an installation royalty, and from increased rental rates. Theaters paid Vitaphone 10¢ per seat per week whenever the equipment was used. Averaging around $200 for each show, Warner Bros. expected to supplement its regular film rental by $45,000 per week. Theaters agreed to play Vitaphone films forty weeks per year. Because there was no reliable way to check attendance, the seat royalty was constant regardless of the size of the audience. Thus, if patronage was poor, the theater, not Vitaphone, took the loss. This was an onerous arrangement for smaller houses because the Vitaphone films were drawing spotty crowds.

It may have been the fault of the films. John Barrymore’s vehicle MANON LASCAUT was now retitled WHEN A MAN LOVES (1927). When the music-synchronized movie opened at the Selwyn on 3 February, it was received without enthusiasm, except for Barrymore, who was called “a splendid romantic figure. Oh, how the women will fall for him in his resplendent costumes.” Dolores Costello was “a lovely creature and a capable actress.” But Alan Crosland’s direction was found to be heavy-handed. The New York Daily News said that, “without the Vitaphone program [of shorts] that goes with it, it assuredly would not be a so-called special.” Variety , on the contrary, found the shorts to be “a pretty severe experience,” owing not only to the sound quality but to the loss of the aura of a live performance: “[T]he mere knowledge that the entertainment is a reproduction has the effect of erecting an altogether imaginary feeling of mechanical flatness, such as one gets from a player piano.” 5

THE FIRST AUTO , which opened at the Colony on 27 June 1927, was said to have been “muffed.” Film Daily thought that the parts intended to be serious were actually the funniest and complained that the real-life racer Barney Oldfield, billed as a featured player, was barely visible in a cameo. Other reviews noted the morbid irony of the death of the star Charles Emmett Mack while driving to the Warner lot. OLD SAN FRANCISCO was disparaged as an “elaborate meller [melodrama] with hoke laid on thick. Padded but has big moments. Hardly a Special…. The earthquake comes as the climax, with the Vitaphone accompaniment utilized to provide shrieks, wails and moans as the city tumbles in ruins.” Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote that the Vitaphone shorts were “infinitely more sane and far more interesting than the principal film subject.” 6

Perhaps as a way to elevate its cultural status and reach new audiences, Warners added more highbrow material to its programs. Syd Chaplin’s next feature, THE MISSING LINK (1927), was to be accompanied by a thirty-minute version of the opera Carmen , with Giovanni Martinelli and Jeanne Gordon. Martinelli, the Met star who had been so popular in the first Vitaphone program, signed a three-year contract to make a series of operatic adaptations. Harry Warner was also making arrangements with the Shubert organization for The Student Prince, Iolanthe , and The Pirates of Penzance. The New York Times saw this development as a benefit for the art:

Hardly an opera in the world is self-supporting. The sound film may unlock sources of revenue that may relieve American millionaires and European Page 106  governments of the necessity of paying deficits out of their pockets and treasuries. Possibly moving picture organizations will maintain their own operatic companies for the sole purpose of presenting Wagner and Puccini simultaneously in a hundred theaters at a low price and with a magnificence never approached by the State-supported operas of Europe. (Quoted in Film Daily , 13 February 1927, p. 4)

The Times’ speculation was consistent with the emerging consensus that the sound film would grow as a branch off the main trunk of the Hollywood film. CARMEN (1927) appeared as one of the opening-night attractions at the Roxy, where it was presented as a mixed-media event accompanied live by the Metropolitan Opera House chorus and ballet. 7

Opera’s presence in the Vitaphone programs soon declined. The shift toward popular music probably reflects both increased awareness of the public’s musical tastes and the availability of popular compositions made available by Warners’ negotiations with publishers. Charles Wolfe also points out that this change was temporary and related to the move of Vitaphone filming to the new Hollywood studio, to which the Met singers were reluctant to travel. The decision to resume filming in Brooklyn in 1928 was influenced by Warners’ desire to retain grand opera in its repertoire of shorts. The distribution of the Vitaphone shorts, which exhibitors booked individually from the whole catalog rather than in preconstituted programs, made it possible to tailor programs to local tastes. Wolfe observes that “the divide between opera and ‘popular’ music appears less a function of class stratification than of urban-regional boundaries.” 8

The commitment to opera was “balanced” by a broad spectrum of performers. As de Forest had done, Warners looked to the stars of the New York stage to bring back audiences. Contracts were signed with Joe E. Brown, Bernardo De Pace, mandolin player, and Sissle and Blake, identified as “colored entertainers.” 9 Reviewing the Vitaphone shorts at the Colony Theatre, Charles Hynes remarked, “All in all, it looks as if Vita has at last struck its stride in turning out a program of variety to strike the popular appeal.” 10 Vaudeville managers understandably saw these and other contracts as raids. The Keith-Albee office counterattacked by banning Vitaphone headliners from vaudeville engagements. Like radio, the talkies were perceived as an encroachment on live entertainment. Sam Warner pressed his advantage:

[U]nless a sensible attitude is taken by vaudeville, it will be the sufferer, not Vitaphone, as we can give well known artists a yearly contract for as much salary as any vaudeville circuit can afford to pay, and they can work all seasons without leaving New York or Los Angeles. In that way, instead of the vaudeville circuits “blacklisting” Vitaphone, Vitaphone will be in position to engage artists exclusively for its own purposes. ( Film Daily , 23 March 1927, pp. 1, 6)

His belligerence was no doubt underscored by his knowledge that Albee’s J. J. Murdock was part of an effort to take over Vitaphone and was also negotiating with de Forest and RCA for Albee’s own sound deal. In April 1927, the vaudeville chain merged with Pathé, PDC, and Orpheum, so its interdiction against film performances was quickly forgotten.

THE JAZZ SINGER

When patrons read the program they received at the screening of THE BETTEROLE , they had the pleasant surprise of learning that George Jessel had been signed to reprise his starring role in the Broadway hit The Jazz Singer. From its inception, the film was planned to be something special. Warners had purchased the motion picture rights to Samson Raphaelson’s play for Ernst Lubitsch to direct as a silent in 1926, but he had left for MGM. So the project fell to Crosland. Throughout the spring, looking for ways to generate popular interest, Harry Warner repeated his promise that the company would be experimenting with talking features for the 1927-1928 season. Accordingly, Warners announced that this would “be the first picture into which Vitaphone will be introduced for dramatic effect.” Jessel would be recording Mammy (minstrel) songs and a synagogue service. 11

In the spring of 1927 the press reported that the Jessel picture was in trouble. The entertainer said that “his Vitaphone contract for this stage play The Jazz Singer does not have anything about singing, and therefore added compensation for his vocal talents should be provided.” Variety printed an unsubstantiated story that Jessel also objected to making the film with the non-Jewish Alan Crosland, Eugenie Besserer (who played Jack Robin’s mother), and Warner Oland (his father).

Warners did not search far for a replacement. The trades reported in May that Al Jolson would be the new “jazz singer.” Though it has been suggested that the substitution was premeditated, this seems unlikely because advance publicity materials featuring Jessel already had been circulated. For Jolson, it was a once-in-a-lifetime casting opportunity. The entertainer, who sang jazzed-up minstrel numbers in blackface, was at the height of his phenomenal popularity. Anticipating the later stardom of crooners and rock stars, Jolson electrified audiences with the vitality and sex appeal of his songs and gestures, which owed much to African-American sources. In September he had grossed $57,286 for a one-week personal appearance at the Metropolitan Theater in Los Angeles. The crowds were so wild that Jolson gave three extra performances without pay. His songs in the 1926 Vitaphone short, A PLANTATION ACT , had amply demonstrated the singer’s celluloid appeal. And having auditioned the competitors Jessel and Jolson together on the same Vitaphone program and compared audience reactions certainly must have made the Warners imagine how nice it would be to sign Al.

Jolson filmed the silent scenes in June and the eight sound sequences in August 1927 at the Hollywood Vitaphone studio. Though the myth is that Jolson spontaneously blurted out his famous speaking part, all summer Crosland had been telling the press that THE JAZZ SINGER would have some talking. “They are planning to use dialogue in certain scenes of this production—dialogue with musical accompaniment.” 13 The film opened on 6 October 1927. Warners set the Broadway premiere on the day before Yom Kippur as a show business flourish, since the film’s plot centers on that holiday.

The story of this legendary film is one of generational conflict and atonement. A prologue shows young Jakie Rabinowitz (Bobby Gordon) singing ragtime renditions of “My Gal Sal” and “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” in a Lower East Side saloon. His father (Oland), a cantor at the synagogue, catches him, they argue over his profane singing, and Jakie leaves home. The story jumps ten years and “Jack Robin” is now eking out a living as a jazz singer. He finds success, partly through the influence of a talented vaudeville performer, Mary Dale (May McAvoy). He and Mary are scheduled to appear together in a big Broadway show. Jack goes to visit his mother, Sara Rabinowitz (Besserer), and performs “Blue Skies” for her. Cantor Rabinowitz enters unexpectedly, yells “Stop!” and makes Jack leave. Opening night of the show falls on Yom Kippur, but the cantor has not recovered from his shock and cannot sing. Jack answers his mother’s appeal to come visit and is so moved by his father’s suffering and the call of his own reawakened religion that he sings the Kol Nidre in his father’s place. The cantor dies, but his lifelong dream of hearing his son sing the ancient hymn has been fulfilled. In an epilogue, Jack appears onstage at the Winter Garden theater and sings “Mammy” to his mother in the audience.

In the screenplay, there was considerable room for improvisation owing to the lack of precedents for writing a part-talking film. There was a note for one scene that read: “The rendition of the song will have to be governed entirely by the Vitaphone routine decided upon. The scenes herewith are only those necessary to carrying on the story.” 14 Crosland allowed the ebullient Jolson to ad-lib lines. In an early scene, Jack performs “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” in Coffee Dan’s club. When it is over, Jolson exclaims, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” These lines, among the most famous in film history, are also among the most misrepresented. First, Jolson does not say them to Besserer aloud in the later scene, as is widely believed; rather, that line is repeated in a conventional silent intertitle: “Mama—You ain’t heard nothing yet.” Second, though the lines do not appear to have been scripted, they were planned for deliberately and calculated to spark recognition and applause from his fans in the audience, since “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” was the signature tag line Jolson always repeated during his stage act. The vaudeville tradition of the tag line is comparable to George Jessel’s “So help me,” Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up, Doc,” and Rodney Dangerfield’s “I get no respect.” Walker, noting that no reviewer commented on this allegedly historic utterance, offers: “They might have commented if it hadn’t been in the film!” 15

Who knows who inspired these ad-libbed sequences? Sam Warner was said to have been impressed by Jolson’s unscripted lines in the Coffee Dan sequence and suggested that the writer, Alfred A. Cohn, think up some dialogue on the spot. Jolson told a fan magazine that the whole thing was his idea: “Everybody on the set was crying when I got through.” 16 Darryl Zanuck recalled:

I was on the set when they were rehearsing the parts where Jolson sings to his mother. We were all standing around waiting for the music to be played. Suddenly it dawned on me, why don’t they have a conversation? The mike was on! I said, “Why doesn’t Jolson turn to his mother and say, ‘Mama, I wanna sing a song for you.’” Then the guy turned the sound machine on early. (Mel Gussow, Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking: A Biography of Darryl F. Zanuck [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971], p. 41)

While so many wished to take credit for this inspiration, it is important to keep it in perspective; there had been precedents for such scenes in Vitaphone shorts, including Jolson’s own.

Unlike the premiere of DON JUAN , there was little advance publicity for THE JAZZ SINGER , and little response (enthusiastic or otherwise) in the daily reviews. In the trade papers, the premiere was overshadowed by the sudden death of Sam Warner, at age forty, the previous day. He had died in Los Angeles of pneumonia while recovering from surgery for a sinus infection. The surviving Warner brothers had rushed to California, thus missing opening night. 17

Reviewers acclaimed Jolson’s singing but panned his acting style. Robert Sherwood, usually a stickler for quality acting, wrote in Life that he would trade all of Hollywood’s super-spectacles “for one instant of any ham song that Al cares to put on.” Hall commented in the Times on the thunderous applause for Jolson, and the “effectiveness” of Vitaphone, but demurred, “The dialogue is not so effective.” As he had done with the shorts, he also criticized the sound quality, or rather, its lack of “presence”: “There are also times when one would expect the Vitaphoned portions to be either more subdued or stopped as the camera swings to other scenes. The voice is usually just the same whether the image of the singer is close to the camera or quite far away.” “THE JAZZ SINGER ,” according to Exhibitors Herald , “is scarcely a motion picture. It should be more properly labeled an enlarged Vitaphone record of Al Jolson in half a dozen songs.” Film Daily observed that the movie rode on Jolson’s coattails, but that sound would boost the film’s box-office potential: “With Vitaphone accompaniment an immense entertainment. Without it an attraction anyway because of Jolson’s drawing power…. Jolson’s reputation is sufficient to stamp THE JAZZ SINGER as a money-maker. It steps into the class of top-notchers, however with the Vitaphone accompaniment.” 18 Within months the film would make a great sum for Warners, but at the time it was not the biggest hit of the season. Barrios notes, “Some tickets [to the premiere], in fact, were still available on the morning of October 6, even with the announcement that Jolson would attend.” Nor was there any heralding in the trade press of how Hollywood was “revolutionized.” 19 The film was represented as a triumph for Jolson, and for Warners in hiring him, but not for talking cinema. Nevertheless, the message was clear to small exhibitors outside of New York. Though the price of wiring for Vitaphone was exorbitant, the prospect of having Al Jolson “play” in the local theater made it a surefire investment.

Warners, of course, had a head start on the big studios. Its executives were still deliberating in early 1928 while Vitaphone was making profits. Accounts of THE JAZZ SINGER’S huge success usually date the film’s Broadway premiere as the starting point of the rush to sound. It is more likely that it was the national opening of the sound version in January 1928 that helped convince producers to settle the sound issue and sign with ERPI quickly. Frances Goldwyn (wife of Samuel) recounted the story of Hollywood executives sitting in silence after the Los Angeles trade preview. Instead of applause, there was “terror in all their faces.” 20 They were said to have been disconcerted by reports from theater managers that audiences were flocking to the Warners talkie instead of their silent films. According to existing studio records, THE JAZZ SINGER, throughout 1931, earned around $2 million for Warners. This figure includes substantial revenue from the silent version and the 1931 re-release, so the amount attributable to the sound release would have been considerably less. These were not staggering grosses by then-current Hollywood standards, so one questions the immediate impact the film might have had on movie moguls. However, because the negative-cost (that is, the cost of completing the film) was only $422,000, Warners was rewarded with a strong return on investment. 21

The success of the film throughout 1928 reflected popular demand to see and hear Jolson, certainly. It was also the result of a shrewd marketing plan devised by Warners’ sales manager, Sam Morris. When a house became wired, Jolson’s film was usually the first screening. Audiences came for the novelty and proven drawing power of this by-then famous film. And to make certain that as many people as possible had the opportunity to see the film, a special clause in Warners’ Vitaphone exhibition contract virtually guaranteed long runs. Theaters had to book THE JAZZ SINGER for full rather than split weeks. Instead of the traditional flat rental fee, Warners took a percentage of the gate. A sliding scale meant that the exhibitor’s take increased the longer the film was held over. The signing of this contract by the greater New York Fox circuit was regarded as a headline-making precedent. 22 The silent film practice of renting for a flat fee eventually was replaced by this new escalating percentage-of-the-gross arrangement. On 24 March 1928, THE JAZZ SINGER was playing in 235 theaters, a “day and date” record for any film, Warners claimed. 23 (However, the announcement glossed over the fact that most of these screenings were of the silent version.) It was a combination of THE JAZZ SINGER’S popularity and the augmented revenue from Warners’ expanding theater chain that propelled the company’s earnings 500 percent ahead of 1927. In three years, Warner Bros. stock rose from $21 to $132 per share. 24 Small wonder that the majors were sitting up and taking notice.

Warner Bros.’ annual winter production hiatus ended 15 March 1928, and a new policy took effect. On the East Coast, the Brooklyn Vitagraph studio reopened with new emphasis on one-reel musical comedies and two-reel “playlets,” directed by Bryan Foy. 25 The latter were adaptations of stage properties. Feature work was concentrated on the West Coast, with Darryl Zanuck in charge. He resumed filming N OAII#x0027;S A RK, with Michael Curtiz directing and starring Dolores Costello and George O’Brien, who had been borrowed from Fox. Conceived of as a true blockbuster, Curtiz labored through the summer with thirty assistant directors and five thousand extras. 26

The studio’s policy of attracting audiences by signing the biggest stars continued, with Fanny Brice set to make a Vitaphone feature. Brice was as big a vaudeville draw as Jolson, famous for her Yiddish and working-class humor. Her tag line was, “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Rich is better!” Warners boasted, “No longer do Belasco, Ziegfeld and Albee hold a monopoly on her services.” MY MAN (1928), titled after her signature song, was directed by Archie Mayo. Jolson was signed up for his next feature,which would be THE SINGING FOOL (1928). Myrna Loy and Conrad Nagel were “elevated to stardom” from the ranks of contract players. John Barrymore, who had defected to United Artists in 1927, was now bargaining to return to Warners to make his first talking film. THE DESERT SONG (1929), the first Broadway musical to be Vitaphoned in its entirety, was planned as a road-show special. “It is expected to be the most pretentious musical film the Warners have ever attempted.” (Pretentious , meaning “distinguished,” was a positive adjective in the 1920s.) The producer of the operetta, Lillian Albertson, sued Warners over the rights. The studio said it was not worried, but the production was put on hold. 27

The Vitaphone shorts in general were garnering good reviews, but the ones riding the crest of the jazz craze were the most popular.STORIES IN SONG (1928) showed off Adele Rowland’s voice to advantage. A Broadway fixture in the early twenties, she was in the midst of an attempted comeback at the Palace Vaudeville Theater. She performed some of her specialty ‘“story songs,’ often with a Pollyanna-type theme." 28 Another “jazz” selection was XAVIER CUGAT AND HIS GIGOLOS (1928), a “satisfactory ‘Talkie.’” Though the sound reproduction was good, “when shown at the Warner theater in New York fit] was somewhat hard on the eardrums because of the volume. Would have been more effective if toned down.” Film Daily called ABE LYMAN AND HIS ORCHESTRA (1928) a “corking fine number” that testified to “the appeal that a first class jazz band has for the average audience.” 29 Sophie Tucker signed with Vitaphone in September. She claimed to have invented stage jazz, performing in blackface at all the big-time New York houses and nightclubs. At the time of the Warner short, she was starring in a revue which included, among other songs, a parody of the Jolson hit “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,” which she sang as “Bye, Bye, Greenberg.” 30 These performers were the established troupers of Broadway. The surviving shorts chronicle the dissemination of African-American and Caribbean music forms given their distinctive New York-Jewish inflection.

On 14 March 1928, TENDERLOIN replaced THE JAZZ SINGER at the Warners’ Theatre. The feature was directed by Curtiz and featured Conrad Nagel and Dolores Costello. Unlike the Jolson film, whose brief talking sequences were embedded in the story, TENDERLOIN was shot as a silent with four dialogue sequences lasting a bit less than fifteen minutes added after the fact. TENDERLOIN enjoyed a long profitable run in New York, further convincing those who had not yet signed with ERPI that they might miss the talkie boat with further delays. Written by Zanuck under the pseudonym Melville Crossman, the melodrama is a prototype for the later Warners gangster films, with rainslicked streets and the iconography of urban seediness. Costello is a nightclub dancer caught between the law and the underworld until rescued by Nagel. The film was also a learning experience for Warners. The surviving discs for the film reproduce the actors’ voices satisfactorily, including Costello’s. Reportedly, however, audiences laughed at Costello because the Vitaphone system recorded her speech as a lisp. Her line—allegedly rendered “Merthy, merthy, have you no thithter of your own?”—has become almost as legendary as Jolson’s catchphrase. Even without the sibilance, however, her performance, as Barrios points out, is awkward and she seems unable to combine speech and gesture for the camera. 31

Harry and Jack Warner announced that all thirty-four films in the 1928-1929 season would be Vitaphoned. This decision supposedly was based on a survey showing strong audience preferences for sound over silent versions. (The latter would still be produced). A $200,000 studio expansion plan was inaugurated to accommodate the increased workload. In October work started on a fifth sound stage on the Los Angeles lot. 32

The fate of the old Vitagraph studio in Brooklyn shows Warners’ difficulty in trying to second-guess the audience. In June, after operating for only a few months, it was abandoned as an active stage and converted into a distribution center for Vitaphone equipment. Warners stated that “the making of this type of picture is being concentrated on the [West] Coast.” In August 1928, however, demand had increased to such a level that the company allocated $500,000 for refurbishing the Brooklyn stages. 33

GLORIOUS BETSY opened simultaneously in the New York and Los Angeles Warners’ theaters on 26 April 1928. This part-talking film directed by Crosland tells the story of the romance between Jerome Bonaparte and Betsy Patterson (Nagel and Costello). William C. DeMille, who attended, recalled the audience’s thrill when Nagel spoke his first line of dialogue, but also his own disappointment in the sound quality:

Poor Dolores Costello’s excellent voice came out at times as a deep rich baritone, while Conrad Nagel thundered in a sub-human bass, like immortal love declaiming through the Holland Tunnel. When they whispered together confidentially, the resulting sounds took me back to the old woodshed of my boyhood where the hired man wielded a mean saw. (Quoted in Alexander Walker, The Shattered Silents: How the Talkies Came to Stay [New York: William Morrow, 1979], p. 57)

Its writing, direction, and acting, however, received rave trade reviews:

This latest Warner effort marks a rather important something in the advancement of pictures. It offered proof that the use of sound to augment dramatic and entertainment values is no mistake when used properly. And in this instance, the spoken dialogue was sensible, effective and often stirring.…The synchronization and spoken sequences are handled with a nicety which indicates that the Warners are getting a firmer hold on and a better understanding of how far to go with the injection of sound into the no longer silent drama.

It appeared that no attempt was entered upon to force spoken lines where they did not logically have a right. Therefore, when the characters did talk, the conversation fits in satisfactorily with the action and actually advances the development of the story. ( Film Daily , 27 April 1928, p. 1)

These comments by Kann defending the use of dialogue when appropriate reveal an aesthetic underlying the partial use of dialogue in Warners’ 1928 productions. These features were perceived as properly using speech as a special effect, not as an integral part of the mise-en-scène.

THE LION AND THE MOUSE premiered at the new Warner Bros. Theatre (6433 Holly-wood Boulevard) on 21 May and contained more than 50 percent dialogue. Again, reviewers praised the voice of the male lead, Lionel Barrymore, and complained about that of the female star, May McAvoy. The Los Angeles Examiner stated, “Without the Vitaphone, [it] would be mediocre entertainment. With the Vitaphone it becomes something of an innovation.” The New York papers responded similarly. The Daily News felt that the novelty of the spoken dialogue was more interesting than the picture. The Evening World said the film was “both a startling demonstration of the possibilities of talking movies and a horrible example of the things which might happen if this new toy is not kept within complete control. And, as it happens, the horrible example sort of outweighs the other.” In New York there were problems with reproduction: “Once or twice the mechanics of the Vitaphone failed [Barrymore], sometimes making his voice a little too resonant and on other occasions giving him more than a suggestion of a lisp.” The independent critic Welford Beaton totally disagreed. He thought that silent pictures henceforth “will be as dead as the dodo.” 34 Film Daily’s reviewer criticized the studios silent version for neglectfully cutting out too much of the plot and losing the talking version’s dramatic effectiveness:

If Warners had built this as a straightaway picture with punch and drama, the addition of sound would have made The Lion and the Mouse stand out as an extraordinary attraction. But they didn’t.… The punch scene where Barrymore realizes money isn’t everything and where he practically regenerates himself is not shown at all. This robs the picture of its principal motivation and makes the result weak. (Film Daily , 24 June 1928, p. 5)

In other words, if the studio is going to release dual versions, the one going to silent houses should be able to stand on its own.

Despite these decidedly mixed reviews, Warner executives were delighted with the response to the dialogue sequences, as measured by the box office. In June their enthusiasm was reflected, first, when Warners stood by its promise that all pictures in the 1928-1929 season would have not just musical scores but talking sequences, too. Harry Warner said he now believed that the public’s attitude toward dialogue justified the use of this “more elaborate effect.” Second, THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK was completed, “marking the first time that dialogue has been used throughout the picture.” At fifty-seven minutes, this all-talker was just barely a feature, having grown out of a two-reel playlet called “The Roaring Twenties.” The opening was at New York’s Mark Strand on 6 July. 35

Despite Variety’s pan—"This 100 percent talkie is 100 percent crude"—THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK was a box-office smash. The film cost $23,000 to make and took in $1 million. 36 Its silly story about a pair of barbers who become ensnared in big-city crime, its awkward acting and vocal rendition of hackneyed lines, and its obvious placement of the mike inside props, have earned it a reputation as the quintessential bad early talkie. 37 But overlooked are the genuinely interesting voices of some of the characters. While Wheeler Oakman’s unintentionally hilarious “Take him for a ride” has become a classic golden turkey line, Eugene Pallette’s gravelly baritone is diverting and, indeed, launched him on a long and productive career in the sound cinema. The Warners press kit emphasized the sound technique’s novelty and intimated that it could bring the milieu of New York to moviegoers who might be unfamiliar with the big city: “There is the country girl working in a fashionable night club and this gives a great chance for showing, through Vitaphone, the entertainment given in these places. This is one of the best things for which the Vitaphone is responsible.” 38 Hall again criticized the “s” distortion, observing that it was more pronounced in speech than in music and singing. The self-consciousness of the actors bothered him. They “do not seem able to forget even momentarily that not only their faces but their voices as well are being taken for posterity.” 39

Kann again offered to the producers some candid suggestions from the perspective of the consumer. Noticing laughter in the audience during the sentimental ending, he said that THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK “proves all over again that the most rigid care must be exercised in the selection of words given the characters to speak.” He praised the filmmakers’ use of “masked microphones.” This is the technique (made infamous by its send-up decades later in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN ) of camouflaging the mikes as telephone receivers, hiding them in vases, and painting them to match the wall coverings. He noted approvingly that characters could now be heard when they turned away from the camera. Some players’ voices worked well; however, some did not. The lack of action and the dependence on rehearsed stage lines bothered him: “We question most seriously the advisability of this [theater] method.” He also criticized the sound editing of LIGHTS OF NEW YORK: “A something in sound pictures which is best likened to the fade-out in silent pictures is needed.…There the jumps between spoken sequences are abrupt and land harshly on the ear. The flexibility of the fadeout applied to sound in some manner will do the trick.” 40 (About six months later, D. W. Griffith claimed to have invented the “first sound fade-out” in LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS 1929.) 41 Like Kann, the New York critics thought that THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK was a bad film redeemed as an acoustic experiment. According to the Sun , it might even prove to be “a turning point in motion picture history.” Reviews and the heat and rain in New York notwithstanding, business for THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK was “phenomenal.” It grossed $50,000 during its first week. 42

In Los Angeles critics were more positive than in New York, but flaws were found with the slow story and hammy acting. Many of the reviews referred to the sound reproduction and acoustics. In particular, the distortion of “s” sounds was annoying. The Los Angeles Express commented on the volume level at the Warners’ theater screening: “Consonants still bother the recording technicians, and the hair-line between volume and naturalness seems to have them stumped.” Motion Picture magazine also remarked on the distortion and linked it to the actors’ manner of speaking: “The dialogue is marred by the apparent inability to record ‘s’ sounds, and by the monotonous sameness of the masculine voices.” Unlike Kann, this reviewer did not perceive the masked microphone as any improvement in the recording technique. “It is difficult to say which of several characters is speaking—it is thus far impossible to have the actors speak with their backs to the camera and the recording device.” 43

THE TERROR was advertised as the first “titleless” all-talking film, and truly it was a 100 percent talker; even the opening credits were spoken. The director, Roy Del Ruth, attempted some creative uses of sound—for example, signaling the villain’s approach by offscreen footsteps, heard increasing in volume (an effect inspired perhaps by radio plays). It also had a specially arranged score by Louis Silvers that, unfortunately, sometimes drowned out May McAvoy’s light voice and contributed the false impression that she, too, had a lisp. (Did people think that Warners hired only lisping actors?) When its run began in August, Kann went out on a limb: “The Terror easily becomes the best talking picture so far made.” He generously said that May McAvoy’s voice via the Vitaphone was improving. What of the problem of showing the film in unwired houses? An all-talkie could not simply have intertitles inserted to make the silent version. Warners instead shot two films simultaneously, one with dialogue, one without. 44 This immediately so-called dual-version policy became the standard practice at Warners and elsewhere.

Critics liked the “100 percent all-talking” experiment, and some even liked the story, which was a clever thriller adapted from a 1927 hit London play by Edgar Wallace. Edward Everett Horton registered well, but “his gesticulations are a bit too Broadwayish,” commented the Daily News. There were many complaints that the dialogue retarded the action, that the acting was bad, and that there was too much talk. McAvoy’s voice, in particular, according to these less sympathetic reviewers, either lisped or “overloaded the machinery.” 45

Warner Bros. reported a profit of over $2 million for the fiscal year ending in August 1928. The astonishing turnaround was “attributable entirely to sound.” Financial analysts reported that “[t]he last quarter of the 1928 year rolled up a profit of $920,894, a phenomenal figure and a most striking indication of the exhibitor demand for sound pictures such as The Jazz Singer, Glorious Betsy, Lion and the Mouse, The Terror.” 46

Vitaphone Trailers

The sound film at Warners during this early period was a chameleon-like thing, changing and transforming to give a huge audience what it wanted. Warners took advantage of an opportunity that had evolved within the film program to address viewers directly: the prevue trailer. The many trailers the studio produced to entice viewers into its Vitaphone presentations are a neglected aspect of the studio’s output.

The silent film trailer was a staid affair, often giving just the actors’ names and a few descriptive phrases. Sometimes production stills or star portraits would be included. If the film was produced by Columbia, Film Booking Office, First National, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Pathé, United Artists, Universal, Warner Bros., or one of several independent producers, then the National Screen Service (NSS) held the exclusive right to make trailers using scenes from the studio’s negatives. Founded in 1919, NSS was licensed by producers   to distribute lobby cards, stills, and posters as well as to make trailers. Not surprisingly, because NSS had no sound production facilities, Warner Bros. also made the first talking trailers. Well before the premiere program in October 1926, Warners was already profiting from having stars pitch films in their own voices. Press releases claimed that the studios two biggest stars were appearing in sound trailers: Rin Tin Tin, the beloved German shepherd dog, and John Barrymore in a trailer for DON JUAN . For many actors and fans alike, these cameos were their first exposure to sound. Sam Morris, in charge of sales, announced that because trailers were so successful they would be adopted as a standard product and supplied for all Warner pictures “at actual cost basis.” In 1930 Warners set up its own permanent trailer production unit, with Lou Lusty in charge. The trailers were marketed along with the features through the studios exchanges. 47

The sound film made possible this new style of advertising, which attempted to “sell” films to the public by emphasizing talking stars and sound itself as desirable commodities. These mini-films dispensed teasing dabs of the real product as a free sample.

The prevue that Warners prepared for THE JAZZ SINGER shows that the studio already had adopted a definite strategy for its advertising. The trailer was shot on 11 November 1927, at the Vitaphone Brooklyn studio. The director was Herman Heller, assisted by F. M. Long. It consists of a speech by the character actor John Miljan, clips from THE JAZZ SINGER, and documentary footage shot at the film’s premiere. Though Miljan’s talk lasts only a few minutes, the shoot required four hours (3:00—8:00 P.M. , assuming a one-hour dinner break). There must have been a lot of setting up and adjusting going on. The trailer was made to advertise the second-run opening of Jolson’s film at the Criterion theater on Broadway, and it was distributed nationally to advertise the general release of the film in key cities on New Year’s Day 1928. The Vitaphone production records for this trailer describe the action: “Miljan enters from behind curtains” and appears before a “draped curtain set.” He is framed from a low angle, the slightly tilted-up perspective simulating the audience’s view from a little below the screen. The draped background blends into the curtained-off proscenium surrounding the screen in the movie house, creating the illusion that Miljan is standing on the theaters stage.

Miljan, whose demeanor is rather nervous, looks directly into the camera and begins addressing the audience. His voice seems rather high-pitched, and his eyes dart back and forth across cue cards as he reads them, seemingly without benefit of rehearsal. Two cameras record the scene simultaneously, one for the long shot, and one for inserted medium shots—standard procedure at Vitaphone. “He says he is making the first living Vitaphone announcement,” the synopsis continues. “He then tells of the picture ‘The Jazz Singer.’” Actually, he mainly lauds Al Jolson as a great star, quipping, “Mama, how that blackbird can warble!”

“He tells of the opening of ‘The Jazz Singer’ in New York City.” Here the trailer shows throngs of fans milling outside the Warners’ Theatre at the October 1927 premiere. Miljan, in voice-over, spots various celebrities as though he is watching the footage with the audience for the first time.

The one thing viewers were not given during THE JAZZ SINGER trailer was the opportunity to hear Al Jolson sing or speak. There are some teasing glimpses of him applying his cork makeup, but no talking. For that one would have to pay. Synch dialogue is provided “free” in the form of Miljan’s address, but the real magnet, Al Jolson’s voice, is withheld.

As the first Vitaphone shorts entered wide distribution, the problem of applause became acute. Because Warners was trying to re-create a virtual live performance, the directors instructed performers to imagine that the film audience was responding. When the tenor Beniamino Gigli, for instance, sang three numbers in CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA (1927), he perplexed some viewers by returning to take deep bows as though acknowledging applause. 48 If there was only a smattering of clapping customers, presumably the rest of the audience would squirm in uncomfortable silence. Warners, anxious to strengthen the perception that talking film was a kind of transmitted vaudeville, encouraged audience participation as though at a live show. To this aim, in June 1927, the studio commissioned a custom trailer from the National Screen Service: “The trailer contains special announcements at the end of a talking film, inviting patrons to applaud.” 49

In addition to trying to shape the response to its films, the studio quickly realized that trailers might be used for two-way communication with an audience. In this early stage of the transition, Warner Bros. was uncertain which genres would be most appropriate for sound treatment. On 13 January 1928, it filmed a general Vitaphone trailer for the purpose of eliciting audience preferences. 50 Conrad Nagel, then Warners’ leading vocal celebrity, looked into the camera and made the plea:

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I have been asked by Warner Bros. and by the management of this theatre here to say just a word about the Vitaphone and to ask your assistance in creating programs for your own enjoyment. Most of you, no doubt, have already heard the Vitaphone and all of you have certainly heard about it. Vitaphone is the realization of the dream that has been before the motion picture industry since the making of the first camera, the day the silent drama would find its voice.

Vitaphone has made spoken film drama possible.

You will see pictures here accompanied by the Vitaphone symphony Orchestra of seventy-five pieces. In the prologue numbers you will see and hear such artists as Al Jolson, Marion Talley, Willie and Eugene Howard, Martinelli, Shuman-Heink, Irene Rich, Clyde Cook, Hobart Bosworth, Mitchell Lewis, Bessie Love, and in fact, the leading stage and screen talent of the country.

So you see, whatever kind of entertainment you prefer, Vitaphone is prepared to give to you. The management of this theatre is particularly anxious to know just what your wishes are. As you witness the Vitaphone programs in the future, why not form the habit of showing your preference for certain numbers by applause after each number is finished. In this way, by the volume of applause, your theatre manager will have a very good idea as to whether you prefer a certain type of operatic number, a musical act, a comedy sketch or perhaps a dramatic playlet.

Your opinions in turn will be passed on to the Warner Brothers Studios in Hollywood where Vitaphone numbers are made, to serve as a guide to planning your future entertainment. Vitaphone is opening a new era in theatre history. Given your cooperation and assistance, it will open other undreamed-of sources of happiness and entertainment. (Vitaphone trailer no. 2430, continuity, Warner Bros. Archives [WBA])

Audience feedback was hard to come by, so this request for direct response was valuable research for the studio. For its participation, the consumer was promised future entertainment   better tailored to his or her tastes.

Vitaphone trailers clearly aimed to shape reception and to create anticipation for the coming feature. They quickly fell into a pattern, in effect creating a new film genre. A master of ceremonies—usually a costar or supporting member of the cast, always male—would appear in a proscenium and introduce another character or two. The discursive mode was a visual and narrative tease, spoken in second-person with eye-camera contact. The audience was presented with a few clips from the film and shots of the players, who might or might not be making a speaking appearance. Usually the star’s “presence” was withheld as part of the come-on. Here is the dialogue continuity for THE LION AND THE MOUSE trailer spoken by William Collier, Jr., on 27 January 1928:

Hello Everybody—

My purpose here is to tell you about a picture coming to this theatre—a picture which will become one of the milestones of movie history—the first spoken film drama.

That picture is the Warner Brothers picturization of one of the most powerful American stage plays, “The Lion and the Mouse.”

You’ve all marveled at the Vitaphone prologues, short sketches, the famous opera and stage stars and the symphony orchestra accompaniments. But in “The Lion and the Mouse” you will see for the first time a big dramatic film with spoken dialogue just as its [ sic ] done in a stage play.

It’s the biggest thing that ever hit the movies. Don’t you think you’d like to hear the living voices of May McAvoy, Lionel Barrymore and Alec Francis? Of course, I speak too—but now you’re hearing me.

Just try to imagine a great drama like “The Lion and the Mouse,” with the players in the big dramatic scenes speaking their lines as well as acting them.

Here is a story of the clash of powerful wills. And no doubt you recall the unforgettable characters of this stirring play. Here we are—

(1st cuts)

Lionel Barrymore gives his most forceful characterization as the lion of industry and finance—Ready Money Ryder. Incidentally, he’s a great fellow. And May McAvoy, the timid mouse who twists the lion’s tail is simply immense. This was May’s first experience in speaking lines and when she discovered how her voice sounded on the Vitaphone she got a wallop out of it as you’ll get. And you ought to see how impressive she is in the big dramatic scenes—take a peep:

(2nd cuts)

Of course everybody loves Alec Francis. After seeing him as May’s father, the kindly old Judge crushed by this Ready-Money man for giving an honest decision, I hope you’ll have a little affection left for me. I play Ryder’s son—in love with Miss McAvoy. Would you like to see the lovers together?—

(3rd cuts)

“The Lion and the Mouse” is the greatest dramatic work of America’s great dramatist, Charles Klein. It was directed for the screen by Lloyd Bacon.

And now, ladies and gentlemen. I hope you’ll see and hear this play when it comes to the screen with the wonderful effects that Vitaphone can give it. I thank you. (Trailer for THE LION AND THE MOUSE , no. 2350, continuity, WBA)

This trailer, typically, invites the moviegoer to experience the feature film as though it were a live dramatic event transposed to the screen via Vitaphone’s neutral translation. The film experience, Collier promises, will be just as good as attending the Broadway production. This trailer also illustrates how important stars’ voices were in selling the movie. Giving glimpses of them but reserving their speech lured the patron back to the theater. The trailer is also a prospectus, outlining the genre, plot, and some key dramatic themes and conflicts. And, of course, it was mainly selling sound—with sound.

The trailer for TENDERLOIN , narrated by Nagel, was filmed in February 1928:

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am going to impose on your good nature long enough to tell you a few things about a new picture that is coming soon—"Tenderloin."

Perhaps you’ve heard about it and are looking forward to it already. It is one of the first great features put out by Warner Brothers to be presented with lines spoken on the Vitaphone.

I don’t have to tell you what Vitaphone is—the whole world’s been talking about it since “Don Juan,” “Old San Francisco,” “The Jazz Singer,” and “The Lion and the Mouse.” But you will notice that each successing [ sic ] picture brings an advancement in the adaptation of Vitaphone to film drama. “Tenderloin” is a further step in this development.

The star of “Tenderloin” is—well, you’ll recognize her on sight—(a wistful close-up of Miss Costello)

Dolores Costello—one of the most beautiful and gifted actresses on the screen as well as one of the most popular. And in “Tenderloin” for the first time you will not only see Miss Costello but you will hear her speak in several dramatic situations in the picture.

“Tenderloin” is a gripping, tense crook melodrama, full of dramatic situations and colorful with the sinister light of the New York underworld background. It is the poignant love tale of a girl and boy tangled in the scheming meshes of a band of crooks and struggling frenziedly to escape. Miss Costello has the role of a dancing girl in a Bowery dive and the boy friend is played by the modest individual you see before you.—(Insert 2)

Now don’t get the impression that “Tenderloin” is all romance—although there is a lot of it in the picture. There’s action in it—plenty of action. Take a look at this—

(Insert scenes—fight—flood—etc)

That should prove that “Tenderloin” is a picture you don’t want to miss. It is one of Dolores Costello’s best vehicles, and she is seen to rare advantage.

I hope all of you will see, hear and [illegible] “Tenderloin.”

I thank you. (Trailer for TENDERLOIN no. 2420, continuity, WBA)

When Warners publicized Al Jolson in THE SINGING FOOL , the company took the unusual step of commissioning the National Screen Service to prepare a special nine-minute prevue. Film Daily reviewed the advance trailer as though it were a regular short:

Al Jolson plugging his own picture is sufficient of a novelty to make this trailer better entertainment than the average short talker. Al walks on smoking Page 124  a cigar, and launches into a friendly chat about himself, his public and the coming attraction. He proves himself a good salesman, and by the time he walks off it’s a cinch that the theater owner has his publicity work half finished for him. ( Film Daily , 2 September 1928, p. 9)

The scant evidence we have of the reception of these trailers confirms that they were regarded as novel attractions in their own right. The reviewer for the Detroit News commented, “One of the most striking features of the Madison [theater] program is a ‘trailer’ advertising the coming Vitaphone film, THE LION AND THE MOUSE . Buster Collier comes right out and gives volume to some laudatory remarks concerning the production and easily adds his name to the list of those whose vocal chords [sic] are certain to be reckoned with when the talking pictures become the rage.” 51 THE TERROR trailer invited the audience to participate in a game of whodunit. Alec Francis “makes a short speech. Then he introduces each actor or actress in turn. They all assert they are not ’The Terror.”’ 52 " Herbert Cruikshank, in his Motion Picture column, praised the trailer for THE TERROR as “one of the most interesting developments in the use of Vitaphone.”

These “Coming Next Week” reels are called trailers. Warner has introduced the talking trailer. For instance, in telling of their film, The Terror , which has both sound and dialogue, Alec Francis, who plays one of the characters, appears on the screen and talks about the show. Later he introduces the entire cast, each member of which says something about the film. (Herbert Cruikshank, “Soundings,” Motion Picture , November 1928, pp. 66-67)

All of these trailers employ direct address, establishing an imaginary link to the audience. Nagel attempts to create the impression of physical contact in real time and pretends to acknowledge the response of a theatrical audience. The short films also exploit the fan-oriented appeal of seeing stars in their “natural” state, that is, outside of their performing roles. Importantly, this included speaking in their natural voice, as opposed to the stage voice prevalent in 1928—1929, a dialect adapted from the “sophisticated” New York stage. Nick Lucks’s remarks, though scripted, reveal the attempt to project an offhand, self-effacing picture personality:

I suppose you wonder what I do [in GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY , 1929]? Well, I’ll let you hear one of the songs I sing. [Sings “Tip Toe Through the Tulips”]

These are only a few of the many songs I sing in the picture. I haven’t time now to sing them all. These songs were especially written for this production, and I must admit they are all good. 53 However, if you don’t like me in this picture, I hope you will like the songs. Thank you! (GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY trailer, continuity, WBA)

The trailer for SHE COULDN’T SAY NO (1930) staged a fight between two characters. Chester Morris runs in and calms the audience:

Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Now don’t be alarmed folks. They’ll have this argument settled by the time the picture plays this theatre and don’t forget the title—SHE COULDN’T SAY NO . … And when it does play this theatre, you   will not only see a wonderful picture, but you will hear wild Winnie Lightner, the original gold digger of Broadway at her best. (SHE COULDN’T SAY NO trailer, continuity, box 1077, WBA)

Like the fan magazines, some of these trailers attribute sophisticated knowledge about show business to the moviegoers. Milton Sills, introducing Ben Bard in LOVE AND THE DEVIL (1929), assumed that the audience had seen his live performances as well as his filmed ones: “Ben Bard, whom you have seen in many screen impersonations and whose work you doubtless know in musical comedy and vaudeville, plays the part of the Italian tenor.” 54 Similarly, it was acknowledged that a primary enticement was hearing a star’s voice for the first time. Thus, in advertising LILIES OF THE FIELD (1929), the announcer began: “Particular attention is always attached to a screen star’s all-talking production, so it is with great pleasure that I bring you the news of Miss Corinne Griffith’s one hundred percent dialogue picture for First National Vitaphone, LILIES OF THE FIELD .” 55

The talking trailer, at least for the period 1926-1930, became an entertainment in its own right, not simply a pendant to the feature. The freshness of hearing stars speaking made audiences sit up and take notice. On the assumption that they had paid their admission to see the feature program, the trailer seemed to be gratis, an extra value. Having characters look you in the eye and speak directly from the screen was a startling departure from the “invisible fourth wall” theatrical aesthetic of the classical Hollywood cinema.

The radio emcee was a contemporary model for the direct address and interlocutory function of the Vitaphone trailers. The on-screen character who is both a narrative agent and a salesman resembles the announcer. In a typical late-twenties variety show or dramatic program, he (rarely she) would introduce the characters, intervene with information to move the plot forward, and suggest that the listener try a brand of soap flakes or toothpaste. Similarly, the masters of ceremonies in these trailers occupy a position between Hollywood and the consumer. Alexander Gray sounded very much like a radio pitchman in his trailer for NO , NO , NANETTE (1929): “I am sure that you will all want to return to this theatre and see the picture in its entirety. It is a comedy, so don’t come expecting to cry. Most of the music is new, but you will hear ‘Tea for Two’ and ‘I Want to be Happy.’” 56 The announcers’ status fluctuates between the image of “the star,” a creation of celluloid illusion, and “the management,” the spokesperson for the creators of Vitaphone.

The prevue is analogous to a free peek behind the curtain at a sideshow. Of course, prevues of coming attractions were advertising. But Hollywood had cleverly hit upon the technique of disguising product promotion as entertainment. Audiences cheerfully enjoyed films that sold films.

Like the carnival barker, the radio announcer, or the star speaking as a personal testimonial, the goal of these first talking trailers was to enhance sound as a thrilling novelty in its own right, to tease the fan with the promised future appearance of the speaking star, and to entice the customer to return for the “coming attraction.”

Entombment [next] [back] Enrico, Roger - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Roger Enrico

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or