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Warner Bros. and First National

sound film dir story

The Warners and First National studios (under the control of Warners since the 1928 Stanley chain acquisition) continued to set the pace for sound production, turning out pictures around the clock. Alexander Korda, a contract director then, recalled that “there was only one sound channel, and this was used during the day-time in Warner Brothers studio, and at night-time by First National.” 1 Day-to-day production at the studio was becoming increasingly influenced by Darryl F. Zanuck, an outspoken partisan for the talkies. Zanuck had been “supervising” most of the studio’s output as well as writing it. He would remain a powerful production chief at the studio until his departure to form Twentieth Century Pictures in 1933.

Zanuck and Jack Warner recognized that much of their success in sound was attributable to Al Jolson’s stardom. On 7 August 1928, Warners signed a contract with the entertainer to make three more pictures. In addition to star perquisites, such as approval of the story, director, and cast, Jolson was also to be paid $225,000 for each film, plus 10 percent of the gross receipts over $1 million for the second and third feature—a highly unusual instance of profit participation for that time. 3 The studio launched the 1928-1929 season with a bang: Jolson in THE SINGING FOOL (dir. Lloyd Bacon). The company spared neither expense nor publicity about the expense. It set an advertising budget at $1 million, hired Irving Berlin to write a special song, leased the Winter Garden theater (still a Broadway fixture), and equipped it with a sound projection system. Jolson plugged the film in personal appearances. A “tremendous advance campaign” for the film’s theme song, “Sonny Boy,” was organized by De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson, the composers and sheet music publishers. (In three months De Sylva sold 500,000 copies of the sheet music and Brunswick sold 375,000 records.) 4 On 17 September, Jolson was a guest on Vitaphone Jubilee , a Warner Bros. weekly radio program on CBS. Variety , in cooperation with Warners, published a special twenty-four-page section on the film and the studio.

The plot is as schmaltzy as the singers first film. Jolson plays Al Stone, a singing star who is victimized by Grace, his gold-digging wife (Betty Bronson). She breaks his heart when she takes their son (played by four-year-old Davey Lee) and runs away with a gangster. After wasting a few years as a derelict, Al meets an old friend, Grace (Betty Bronson). She helps him recuperate and inspires his Broadway comeback. Meanwhile, the boy becomes terminally ill. Jolson’s bathetic rendition of “Sonny Boy” after his son dies is the topper following six other song hits. Richard Barrios has calculated that Jolson is on-screen for 105 minutes.

The opening of THE SINGING FOOL at the Winter Garden was brilliant, emotionally powerful, and “cluttered with notables.” Maurice Kann observed that “mascara ran freely from carefully and artfully made-up eyes, but the women didn’t seem to mind it particularly. Executives and hard-boiled theater operators whose tears are usually of the crocodile variety shed real ones last night.” Kann, unlike most reviewers, was impressed by Jolson’s acting ability and praised the sections of semi-improvised dialogue: “His two long sequences where the baby [Lee] talks to him and where he replies in conversation and in song are of permanent achievement. So natural, so charming, so simple and withal so touching, these particular stretches of footage are among the most magnificent ever recorded on celluloid.” Kann declared that the sound revolution was now on. “The word-of-mouth advertising is spreading fast. Maybe you don’t think the public catches on in a hurry. If you were in the neighborhood of the Winter Garden yesterday afternoon, all doubt would have been removed.”

Most New York critics rated the film excellent. Of special interest, though, is the intensity with which Jolson’s charismatic personality impressed them. Mordaunt Hall of the Times pinpointed the appeal of the film, “not in its transparent narrative, but in Mr. Jolson’s inimitable singing. One waits after hearing a selection, hoping for another.” Another commentator called the story “familiar hokum” but gushed over Jolson’s “sincerity and genuine feeling.” Initial reviews set the tone for the general opinion concerning the movie’s significance: “The talking picture is practicable, inevitable and, in this case, at least, powerful. THE SINGING FOOL justifies the Vitaphone and all the experiments that have hitherto passed as talking pictures.” Although THE JAZZ SINGER (dir. Alan Crosland, 1927) has entered the history books as the film that started the sound revolution, it was the one-two punch of THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (dir. Bryan Foy) in July and THE SINGING FOOL in September 1928 that proved beyond doubt to producers and exhibitors that a feature sound film with a big star had the potential to make millions. Simultaneously, the popular press, which had showed little interest in talking features after THE JAZZ SINGER , now passionately embraced the concept.

Issues of quality and appropriate material entered critical discussions about sound. Aside from the Jolson vehicles, which were in a class by themselves because of his drawing power, adaptations of previously successful stage plays were controversial. For example, Vitaphone’s THE HOME TOWNERS (dir. Bryan Foy, 1928), adapted from a George M. Cohan play, was lauded by some critics. Others pointed out that the dialogue was good only because it had been transposed from the stage production, and that traditional movie qualities were lacking. “Everything,” according to the Graphic , echoing what was becoming a familiar refrain, “has been sacrificed to sound.” 9 Hall, however, introduced what would grow to be an important motif in his influential criticism of sound, the issue of who was in control:

Having been produced with a sense of restraint and an intelligent conception of the coupling of the cinematic values with the lines, it provided an agreeable entertainment. It has, it is true, mechanical defects, for sometimes the voices were a trifle explosive and on other occasions they were not a little too weak. But it was plain that with experience the players will learn to control their voices, or, perhaps the directors will eventually learn more about the control of sound. (Mordaunt Hall, New York Times , 24 October 1928)

Hall seems to have been disturbed by problems in scale-matching, that is, fitting the spatial presence of the voice to the space in the image of the speaker. This is an early example of what would soon become a call for a modulated sound track that kept all the parts in balance.

With seemingly bottomless resources, Zanuck converted his most elaborate spectacle to date into a part-dialogue film. NOAH’SA RK (dir. Michael Curtiz), after an arduous summer production schedule marred by setbacks, including the alleged drowning of two extras during filming of the flood scene, premiered in Los Angeles at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on 1 November 1928. 10 It was Warners’ first production to cost more than $1 million to complete. In the primary story set in Paris at the beginning of World War I, Mary (Dolores Costello) falls in love with Travis (George O’Brien). They lose each other during the fighting. Falsely accused of being a German spy, she is on the verge of being shot by a firing squad. Then the long story of Noah begins, with the same principals playing the lead characters. Miriam (Costello) is about to be sacrificed when the Deluge rushes   into the temple. Japheth (O’Brien) saves her, and they board the ark. Returning to the modern story, one of the members of the firing squad recognizes her—it’s Travis! Mary and Travis learn of the armistice, and they are saved. The dialogue scenes prompted the only exceptions to the otherwise glowing reviews of the spectacle. The Express called them “a trivial adjunct to the silent majesty and magnitude of the major part.” The talking sequences, written by Zanuck and directed by Roy Del Ruth, presented Costello speaking in a pleasant enough voice, but in an emotionless, stilted delivery." 11

One of the few stars who rivaled Jolson was Fanny Brice, whom Warners arranged to borrow from Florenz Ziegfeld, Broadway’s impresario of the Follies revue. MY MAN (written by Zanuck under the pseudonym Mark Canfield, and directed by Archie Mayo) opened as Warners’ big Christmas attraction. As Fannie Brand, Brice plays a working girl in a Broadway costume shop who auditions for a Broadway show produced by Landau (André de Segurola), a promoter modeled on Ziegfeld. The film received only a lukewarm critical response. The main draw—apparently the only draw of this parttalker—was hearing Fanny Brice sing seven of her most popular songs. When the film failed to catch on nationally, critics speculated that too few non-New Yorkers knew who Brice was or why she was supposed to be the “female Jolson.” Herbert Goldman also points out that Brice may have been victimized by prevailing sexist attitudes toward female performers. “Fanny was now thirty-seven in a day in which many women were considered too old for leads at thirty.” 12 Although MY MAN was not considered a great success, it nonetheless reaped profits.

In fact, most Warners’ sound specials performed extraordinarily well at the box office (see appendix 1). THE SINGING FOOL did good business, but nothing came close to LIGHTS OF NEW YORK , an astounding return on investment in any epoch. Yet the studio seemed slow to pick up the ball on the talking gangster film.

For some of the studio’s subsequent efforts at serious melodrama, talking may have done more harm than good. The reviews of ON TRIAL (dir. Archie Mayo, 1928) were bland, and Pauline Frederick’s voice was deplored. She plays the wife of a businessman who is accused of murdering his partner and must take the stand and expose the real killer. The Elmer Rice play had been notable for its inclusion of long, narrated flashback sequences, which were duly incorporated into the movie version. Hall blasted the sound quality:

There is quite a good deal of lisping as the players utter their lines and frequently what they say is not spoken with adequate emphasis or thought. There are periods when the speech is slightly muffled, which seems to have been done to avoid explosive phases of the Vitaphone. In quite a number of cases the diction is peculiarly poor. In fact, one concludes toward the end of this offering that it would have been a far more exciting picture had it been presented in silent form. (Hall, New York Times , 15 November 1928)

The unfortunate CAUGHT IN THE FOG (dir. Howard Bretherton, 1928) was regarded as a “sickly specimen of sound film.” May McAvoy again failed to impress the listeners: her “half dozen talking bits just fair.” The voices in STATE STREET SADIE (dir. Archie Mayo, 1928) were felt by Hall to be laid on too thick: “So you have crooks that call each other names, laugh and say quite a number of ‘Wa-als,’ which must be a favorite way for a gangster to begin his interrogation of his underlings.” These poorly received part-talking crime films might have steered Warners away from following up quickly on the success of its all-talking drama. This was during the regimen of the “Warner Proportion” (only 75 percent talking in each film), so the studio was still playing its hunch that audiences wanted part-talkies.

When Warner Bros. took over control of First National, by far the most important talent acquisition, or so it seemed in 1928, was Colleen Moore. Probably the highest-paid star in Hollywood, she was acclaimed for her lead in the World War I drama LILAC TIME (1928). 14 It seemed certain that her charisma would grow with the talkies. But Moore came as a package deal, and the other part of the package was John McCormick, her husband and the First National producer in charge of her projects. Aside from personal problems which would lead to divorce (theirs was supposedly the marriage fictionalized in Cukor’s WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? 1932), McCormick misjudged the importance of sound. He scoffed in public at the fad, then blundered in selecting SMILING IRISH EYES (dir. William A. Seiter, 1929) for Moore’s vocal debut. Irish girl Moore pines for her actor boyfriend Rory (James Hall) until she saves enough money to join him in New York. But she flies into a jealous rage when she sees him performing at the theater with a female costar and returns to the homeland. Rory joins her and brings the whole clan back to the United States. The story is insipid and the ethnic characterizations so stereotypically insulting that the picture was later banned in Ireland. Worse, at its premiere Moore’s talkie received many laughs, “only they weren’t intended.” The audience faulted “a story that wallowed unpardonably in saccharine through a long array of senile situations that passed out with horse cars.”

First National tried to recover by casting Moore in a “mature” role in the musical melodrama FOOTLIGHTS AND FOOLS (dir. Seiter, 1929). She plays a cabaret performer leading two lives as Betty Murphy, ordinary girl, and as Fifi D’Auray, star of “The Sins of 1930” revue. The notices were less devastating. The Evening Journal said, “Colleen does better work in this one than she has ever done before.” But most found her Fifi character’s accent unconvincing. An “embarrassing attempt to appear and sound Gallic,” reported the Morning Telegraph. Film Daily advised exhibitors, “Though her French accent isn’t so hot, she gets over the story to make it click as a good program offering…. It can be sold as something entirely different for Colleen, but don’t promise too much.”

Warner Bros. expanded the virtual Broadway concept to feature length in THE DESERT SONG , not released nationally until May 1929. Directed by Del Ruth, it was adapted from a Sigmund Romberg-Oscar Hammerstein II operetta about the romantic exploits of a sheikh hero, the Red Shadow (John Boles) and a naive heroine (Carlotta King). Myrna Loy was typecast as a generic Arab vamp. Though the film was essentially complete at the beginning of the year, Barrios argues that Warners’ inflexible release schedule delayed the film until audiences were no longer excited about musicals. “The company adhered to its program so rigidly that it often botched the timing on its early talkies by keeping them on the shelf until their allotted time arrived…. It had been pre determined in the fall of 1928 that The Desert Song had a particular slot in the Warner schedule, and there it remained, waiting for its audience while the parade passed by.” Film Daily did not know what to make of the lack of precedent for this first “filmed operetta.” It advised baffled exhibitors, “You’ll have to decide for yourself on this one.” Los Angeles gave the experiment mixed reviews. The Vitaphone music was called “tonally perfect” and a “tremendous achievement of recording immense choruses.” The New York reviews, on the contrary, were tepid. Although Boles and King were admired, on the whole DESERT SONG was “a ponderous and generally dull production that has the cash customer fidgeting in his pew for the greater part of the footage” ( Telegram ).   While the critics held back, the cash customers, however fidgety, were abundant. The healthy gross receipts helped sustain the operetta craze at Warners.

ON WITH THE SHOW (dir. Crosland) premiered in Los Angeles in May 1929 and was a big hit. Another backstage story, it is memorable for its two dynamic numbers sung by Ethel Waters. Her signature “Am I Blue?” was also the theme song. The story begins with the “Phantom Sweetheart” touring show about to close for lack of revenue before reaching Broadway. The star, Nita (Betty Compson), refuses to finish the performance until she receives her back-pay. Kitty (Sally O’Neil), a hatcheck girl, takes her place and wows the crowd, paving the way for her big break in show business and her romance with the head usher Jimmy (William Bakewell). The musical numbers are mostly encapsulated, like inserted Vitaphone shorts. Crosland did attempt to open up the frontal stage view by inserting shots from the wings, glimpses of stagehands operating the curtain, and so on. Sound is foregrounded in the characters’ unusual voices: Snitz Edwards’s raspy Brooklynese, the Dorsey Twins’ squeaks delivered in unison (“Go sit on a tack”), a dresser jabbering in French. Sound is used for humorous counterpoint when a character onstage recites, “How calm and peaceful the old plantation is at dusk,” followed by a raucous shot of the "belles " yelling and fighting backstage. The movie is something of a hybrid genre, combining elements of the musical revue, the romantic comedy, and the whodunit. (In a subplot, the box office is robbed.) Couching of the music inside a narrative, however slightly done in ON WITH THE SHOW , was presciently seen by Kann as the next trend. “It is effective, beautiful and a clear demonstration of what the sound picture of tomorrow will be,” he wrote. There were some interesting dissents though: “This film gives you a very excellent idea of a musical comedy—but a rather routine and commonplace one” (Post) . ON WITH THE SHOW was photographed in Technicolor, and the papers frequently compared Warners’ color innovation to its sound experiment in THE JAZZ SINGER. HALL , however, was impressed neither by the sound nor by Technicolor: “The dialogue, so jarring on one’s nerves, sometimes comes from cherrylips on faces in which the lily and the rose seem to be struggling for supremacy.”

Warners timed SAY IT WITH SONGS (dir. Lloyd Bacon) to premiere on 6 August 1929, Vitaphone’s third anniversary. Jolson’s appeal in this, his first all-talkie, was still universal. Critics liked young Davey Lee as much as in his previous pairing with Al. Everyone recognized that the story was very similar to THE SINGING FOOL. Joe Lane (Jolson) has to serve time in prison for accidentally killing a man in a jealous rage. Released, he runs away with his son, Little Pal (Lee). The boy is struck by a truck and loses his voice (dramatically ironic for a talkie) and his ability to walk. A doctor will cure him, but only if Little Pal returns to live with Jolson’s ex-wife, now married to the doctor. Critics faulted Jolson and Warners for laziness. The story “has many loopholes and unexplained situations which will detract from its appeal,” the New York Post commented. “As always plot and common sense are sacrificed when the possibility of producing a few more tears comes into sight.”

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