Virtual Broadway, Virtual Orchestra: De Forest and Vitaphone
3Lee de Forest and Phonofilm: Virtual Broadway
Virtual Broadway, Virtual Orchestra: De Forest and Vitaphone
Warner Bros. and Vitaphone: The Virtual Orchestra
James Quirk,Photoplay, March 1924
Once a new technology enters public usage, it is susceptible to being co-opted for any number of new purposes—many of which the creators did not foresee. The sound film emerged as an exhibition phenomenon several years preceding 1927, the generally accepted date for the "birth of the talkies." When the recording and reproducing apparatuses moved out of the laboratories and into theaters, few if any inventors or promoters thought that the sound film would take over Hollywood to transform the silent feature into the all-talking, all-singing phenomenon that would become popular around 1929. Rather, the sound film was perceived as a novelty. The mainstream industry, as Quirk suggested with scatological innuendo, regarded the sound film as an irritation. The problem for the filmmakers was, without any extant models, how were they to merchandise this new kind of film to the public? They relied on what they knew. The resulting films blended the most popular ingredients of the current entertainment mix of vaudeville, live musical accompaniment for silent films, lectures, public address, and radio. Filmmakers capitalized on cinema's capability to suggest a virtual presence, an imagined being-there, in order to bring performer and auditor together in the space of the filmed performance. Broadway, the "Street of Streets," was coming soon to the local theater.
The Audion tube had brought Lee de Forest fame and fortune. His name was synonymous with the pioneering spirit of early radio. But in the early 1920s he became fanatical about talking pictures. Although previous accounts have dismissed him as an eccentric personality and a failed entrepreneur—and he was both—de Forest's Phonofilm venture was influential as a catalyst for other developers and for establishing a model for early sound film forms.
An impulsive opportunist, de Forest had a scheme to take advantage of the German economic depression by moving there and hiring cheap research assistants. He arrived in Berlin in October 1921 with his current project, the film-gramophone idea. In Europe film sound had been developing rapidly. At the time of de Forest's visit, a team of three inventors were already showing sound-on-film shorts produced by Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massolle at the Alhambra theater in Berlin. The voice synchronization was perfect, but reports said that the tonal quality needed "improvement."
The details of de Forest's contact with the three inventors are unknown, but he referred to their screenings in his press releases. Eventually their research resulted in the Tri-Ergon sound-on-film process, which would become the chief European rival to the American sound systems. When de Forest learned of it, Tri-Ergon had already had a checkered career. The inventors had applied for patents in Germany, England, Austria, and France in 1919. Germany and England had rejected their work as too unoriginal for a patent, and the patents granted in Austria and France were later nullified. In 1921 they applied for a U.S. patent. It is possible that this is how de Forest learned of the process. (In a 1932 lawsuit against ERPI, American Tri-Ergon demonstrated that its patent application preceded de Forest's by three months.) In April 1922, de Forest announced to the film trade in a dispatch from Germany that he had perfected his new Phonofilm, a system for recording synchronized voice onto film. He expected to market it soon.1
De Forest returned from Europe in September, characteristically full of energy and optimism. He described his Phonofilm experiments to the New York Times. The device, as he then pictured it, was "a method of recording voices, accurately synchronized on film, that eventually may be broadcast." In other words, de Forest expected radio transcription to be the primary use for his device, not theatrical sound films, as with the Tri-Ergon process. In this early phase, he apparently did not intend to record images on the film stock. For example, he proposed using sound cameras to record courtroom and congressional proceedings for delayed broadcasts. Soon, though, Phonofilm had the look and feel of the original Tri-Ergon films. De Forest told Radio Broadcast in December that his method was superior to the Germans' process and illustrated his remarks with a filmstrip showing himself and his voice track.2 Although at this time de Forest seems to have been concentrating on wireless applications for Phonofilm, he had started thinking of its ramifications for commercial motion pictures. He indicated that the silent feature was unlikely to change. "Ordinarily," he said, "the film picture of today would not be greatly benefitted by the addition of the voices of the actors." Instead, he predicted an alternative film form evidently inspired by New York variety shows and the European music hall. Phonofilm would display the talents of star performers: "An entirely new class or type of moving picture play will be evolved for the Phonofilm. Actors and actresses who can speak as well as look pretty and make funny faces will be in demand." De Forest was not proposing a change in the fundamental structure of Hollywood and its star system; rather, he wanted to supply self-contained filmed acts to add to the standard movie bill. De Forest's efforts to promote Phonofilm to the major film producers failed dismally. William Fox especially annoyed him when he would not even grant an interview. For this and for personal reasons (de Forest was anti-Semitic), the inventor cultivated a dislike for Fox.3
Though producers were blasé, the adventurous exhibitor Hugo Riesenfeld, who was interested in theatrical radio, backed de Forest's experiments. This support enabled the inventor to lease the old Talmadge film studio on East Forty-eighth Street.4 In April 1923, de Forest said he was ready to begin releasing Phonofilm subjects on a weekly schedule. The inventor was quick to point out that the system would not compete with silent features, and that there would be only very limited "talking":
The "phono-film" is adapted primarily for the reproduction of musical, vaudeville numbers and solos. It is not De Forest's idea that the ordinary pantomine [sic] drama is adapted to the "phono-film," but he expects scenario writers to write stories around the acoustic idea to work in the voice and music to the greatest possible advantage. De Forest points out that his invention opens the way to scenics carrying their own music, played by first class orchestras and comedies, and animated cartoons with bright lines and patter. (Film Daily, 7 April 1923, pp. 1-2)
An inaugural program opened at Riesenfeld's Rivoli on 15 April and featured the Broadway headliners Weber and Fields, Sissle and Blake, Eddie Cantor, Eva Puck and Sammy White, Phil Baker, and Conchita Piquir. The journalists present emphasized the novelty but had harsh words for the sound quality. The reviewer for the New York Times reported that the sound of The Gavotte (1923) was scratchy. He was surprised that, "while one could hear the instruments being played for the dancers, one could not hear the slightest sound of a footfall. Hence it seemed as if the dancers were performing in rubber shoes. One also expected to hear the swish of the silken skirts of the woman, but all that issued forth were the strains of musical instruments." He condescendingly admitted that the sounds of The Serenade (1923) were at least as good as an "old time phonograph." The synchronization, however, was maintained perfectly throughout.5
Tepid reviews did not dissuade de Forest. To finance production, he boldly sold all his shares in his radio business, the De Forest Company. In June 1923, he announced that nationally distributed releases would be available in September. Each weekly reel was to consist of three to five numbers, including dances, songs, monologues, dialogues, and "here and there an ambitious ensemble." In a strategy reminiscent of early cinema showmanship (when theater managers exercised complete control of the movie program), de Forest encouraged exhibitors to cut up the numbers and distribute them throughout the evening to create "what amounts to a vaudeville show for the price of film." Again, showmen were more interested than Hollywood. Florenz Ziegfeld was said to have expressed a desire to have an entire program of the Ziegfeld Follies "Phonofilmed."6
De Forest Phonofilms, Inc., was formed in February 1924, with Lee de Forest as president. Theodore Case was a partner, and Earl Sponable an employee. The production plans were augmented to include a variety of genres: "dramas, comedies, condensed versions of famous operas, scenics in which nature's sounds, such as the singing of birds, roaring of animals, dashing of waves, will be brought out, news pictures, vaudeville acts and comic cartoons with the character's words actually spoken instead of being printed." J. Searle Dawley was chosen to direct more productions.7
De Forest ambitiously produced Abraham Lincoln (1924), a two-reel film (that is, about twenty-four minutes) adapted from a stage play by John Drinkwater and directed by Dawley. Its Phonofilm highlights were some campfire songs and Frank McGlynn (in the title role) delivering the Gettysburg Address. Again, critics applauded the synchronization and panned the tonal quality: "The sound is so vastly less realistic than the pictures themselves that it can scarcely carry conviction" (New York Herald); "rather crudely done" (Times Square Daily); "in its present stage the 'Phonofilm' is not likely to be taken up by those who are producing on a large scale" (New York Times). The Times reviewer also criticized the directionality of the sound reproduction, hearing the voices come from the corner of the screen, not from the actor. Film Daily commended the picture as "the best of the talking films yet seen," but its reviewer also had reservations about the acoustics. "One is always aware," he complained, "that the voice comes from a record of some sort."8
De Forest at last garnered some favorable publicity for Memories of Lincoln (1924), a four-minute film in which ninety-year-old Chauncey Depew reminisced about his personal experiences with the U.S. president. The content was so captivating that reviews overlooked the noisy sound reproduction. "Amazing," said the Herald. "It was easy to imagine, after the film had run awhile, it was Mr. Depew himself sitting there in the theater and talking of Lincoln as he knew him in quiet conversational tones." While the Times reviewer was still bothered by the loudspeaker placement at the sides of the screen, he admitted, "There are moments when one loses sight of this defect by the sheer interest one feels in what the speaker utters."9 Both comments reveal the listeners' willingness to ignore the mechanical obstacles in order to indulge a complete acoustic illusion and a desire to be "tricked" into thinking that the screen presence was real.
The 1924 presidential election was a three-way race, and Phonofilm gave each candidate the opportunity to speak before the camera in Major Issues of the Campaign(1924). In what some might now consider to be a foreshadowing of contemporary media coverage of politics, the speakers' vocal styles captured more attention than the substance of their remarks. The differences in their forensic qualities were noted with detailed curiosity:
All three read from their party platforms, first [John W.] Davis, whose voice, incidentally, does not reproduce as well as either the President's or Senator La Follettes. Davis speaks in an easy, unhesitating style though he varies his expression but little. Senator [Robert M.] La Follette is more vigorous and while at times he slurs syllables, it is usually easy to understand what he says. The President's [Calvin C. Coolidge] speech was delivered in his usual slow, decisive fashion with that unmistakable New England twang. He hesitated occasionally. An attentive audience will not find it difficult to understand the speakers. (Film Daily, 5 October 1924, p. 10)
At least thirty theaters showed the campaign film. Also in 1924, de Forest synchronized a music sound track for The Covered Wagon (1923) and Siegfried (1923). He made Love's Old Sweet Song (1924, a two-reel dramatic playlet with Una Merkel) and, in 1925, shot a reel using an experimental color process. He combined music and animation in a series of Max Fleischers "bouncing ball" sing-along cartoons.10
De Forest claimed to have sold the Phonofilm system to an additional fifty theaters. Many of these were not permanent installations but were sold to showmen who moved from theater to theater. The Phonofilm was highlighted as an entertainment form in its own right, recalling the programs of Lyman Howe and other early traveling entrepreneurs." These shows had twin selling points: the technical marvel of sound-on-film ("$10,000 Reward paid to any person who finds a phonograph") and virtual Broadway ("the most dazzling cast of stars ever assembled"). The income permitted de Forest to hire John Meehan as production head and James Elliot as his business manager.
Together they aggressively tried to market the system to theaters and vaudeville houses. Still, no big chains showed any interest.12
The company needed more capital for its expansion plans, even though shares of De Forest Phonofilm stock had climbed from $20 to $100.13 De Forest Phonofilm, Ltd., was formed in Toronto in November 1924. In terms of numbers of theaters, this branch was potentially much more significant than de Forest's American market because it could give him access to the 250 theaters in the Canadian Famous Players chain.14 This proved to be the apogee of the Phonofilm company. In December, de Forest floated $22 million of new stock. The company said it would use the funds to finance its plan to film entire musical revues and to launch foreign production.15 The state of New York intervened and canceled the stock issue because of Phonofilm's shaky financial base and de Forest's reputation as a wheeler-dealer. Calvin Coolidge became enraged when he learned that Phonofilm salesmen were showing his campaign film to sell stock, and he ordered the Justice Department to investigate. (Charges were never filed.) In September 1925, the innovator Theodore Case quit De Forest Phonofilm, taking with him de Forest's license to use his patents. Sponable also left the organization.
Earl Sponable had been secretly shopping the Case system around before the breakup. He had made presentations to Western Electric and General Electric in 1925, but the engineers of both corporations decided that the process did not add anything to their existing patent coverage. Case, in July 1926, agreed to sell his rights controlling sound-on-film recording and playback to de Forest's old nemesis, William Fox. On 20 September they formed the Fox-Case Corporation, and Sponable was hired as head of research.
Even if de Forest had possessed extraordinary acumen, his pockets simply were not deep enough and he was out of touch with the big changes occurring in the U.S. film industry. Production and exhibition were concentrated in a few controlling companies. The "Big Three" were Paramount, Loew's (which owned MGM), and First National; the "Little Five" were Fox, Universal, Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC), Film Booking Office (FBO), and Warner Bros. The theater chains of Loew's, Stanley, Balaban and Katz, and others had grown in the twenties, modeled on the retail chain store concept. Unaffiliated theater alliances, mostly family-run, were consolidating their holdings to become national competitors. Only a few independent metropolitan exhibitors—like Riesenfeld in New York—or regional movie chains, vaudeville houses, and temporary venues were available. Unlike the major studios, which could pledge future income and real estate holdings for collateral and margin loans, de Forest had a record of dubious dealing and bankruptcy.
A look, however, at his Phonofilm productions confirms that he was attracted to fascinating personalities. William E. Waddell, Phonofilm's general manager, noted the various levels of audience appeal in the programs. Some of the subjects filmed included Governor Al Smith making a speech and singing, George Jessel doing a monologue, and De Wolf Hopper reading "Casey at the Bat." Eddie Cantor sang songs and recited from his play Kid Boots. Waddell pointed out that this was a big hit at the Rivoli and Rialto Theaters, around the corner from the Selwyn, where Cantor was performing live. Cantor convinced his friend Sophie Tucker to make a recording, but the deal fell through when de Forest could not pay her cash in advance.16
Also appealing was the range of entertainment made possible: "it runs the gamut from grand-opera to slap-stick." Waddell reassured exhibitors who might have in mind "failures of the past" (that is, Edison's and Kellum's) that "Phonofilm is a veritable talking film." The greatest allure, though, was in de Forest's own celebrity and his association with radio. Although de Forest was no longer connected with the manufacturing company that bore his name, Waddell noted that his label still appeared on many thousands of radio sets:
The name of "DeForest" is known to every radio fan and they are all anxious to see and hear his latest creation, "Radio Talking Pictures."
Two questions the exhibitor might ask himself are "How many radio fans are there in my audience?" and "Would they care to see and hear the great stars of opera, musical comedy and vaudeville?" (Film Daily, 15 March 1925, p. 27)
This attempt to associate Phonofilm with radio reveals much about the characteristics of the sound film as an entertainment form and defines virtual Broadway. The subject was to be stage amusement of the light, popular variety—speeches, lectures, and two-reel excerpts (musical or dramatic) from revues. The medium was analogous to radio. Like radio, Phonofilm would beam entertainers from the New York stage into the local auditorium—not into listeners' homes obviously, but into their community movie theater. De Forest's directors had a penchant for recording famous personalities speaking directly to the audience or reading their published works, much like the radio interview. The Phonofilm interest in topical subjects was similar in practice to broadcast journalism.
De Forest thought of the function of Phonofilm as an augmentation of, not a replacement for, the Hollywood feature. We can say that his design was program-driven, not feature-driven. That is, he wished to sell exhibitors short items to enhance the value of "an evening's entertainment," not compete head-on with the major film producers or restructure what we now call the classical Hollywood cinema.
Chronically underfunded and mismanaged, Phonofilm became insolvent in 1926. There are several reasons for de Forest's failure. Phonofilm was acoustically limited because the inventor did not have legal access to thermionic circuitry controlled by AT&T and RCA, neither of which was likely to negotiate with him. But the Phonofilm system was functionally identical to Case's Fox Movietone system of 1927 and the Powers Cinephone of 1928—which were technically and commercially satisfactory—so the explanation is not purely mechanical inferiority. De Forest's exhibitor-oriented approach was badly timed, for it came when the large chains were putting pressure on the independent theater owners, reducing expenses by consolidating their buying power, and making the programs more uniform. Novelties supplied by freelance producers like de Forest would have increasing difficulty finding exposure as the decade of the twenties advanced.
De Forest made two contributions to the coming of sound. As he struggled to get exhibitors interested in his enterprise, his highly visible work must have been a goad to the sound research teams at Western Electric and General Electric. De Forest's experiments in radio, then in film, were only possible because in his 1912 negotiations with AT&T he had retained the right to develop new applications for the Audion. Throughout the twenties, the inventor's loud boasting about his accomplishments was a thorn in the side of the corporate giant's research department (and kept the legal department busy, too). At General Electric, management's decision to take Hoxie's talking film device, the Pallophotophone, out of mothballs was definitely prompted by de Forest's shows. His highly public campaign for film sound must have been a challenge that could not be ignored by corporations staking their claims on all things acoustic.
Second, the Phonofilm program concept became a model for the talking-picture format that was passed on intact to the other early sound film producers—Vitaphone and Fox—when they entered the market. Indeed, many of Vitaphone's performers and Movietone's celebrities had appeared previously before de Forest's camera. The realization of the special value of the speaking and performing star would later prove to be an essential component of the talkies. This conception of sound cinema as virtual Broadway—New York stage material and radio-like delivery—proved to be far longer lasting than the Phonofilm system itself.
Western Electrics sound-on-disc and sound-on-film recording and playback systems were both working in late 1924, but AT&T chose to commercialize the disc method. The engineer Joseph P. Maxfield provided an explanation. He recalled in 1946 that
the reason sound-on-disc recording was chosen for early production experiments was because the wax disc industry had many years of experience in making each record perfect for reproduction of sound. On the other hand, there was the danger, if not the certainty, that sound-on-film recording, processed by the rule-of-thumb methods then in vogue in the commercial film laboratories, would yield uncertain results. (Film Daily, 6 August 1946, p. 16)
Aside from tonal quality, the issue was also one of control. Western Electric opted to keep film sound out of the hands of the film labs, where they had little expertise, and in the hands of its acoustic engineers, an industry they dominated because of extensive prior research and existing business arrangements with record companies.
Western Electrics salesmen fared no better than de Forest's in getting the attention of Hollywood. In 1924 Famous Players-Lasky, Loews, and First National all said "no thanks." On 27 May 1925, an outside promoter, Walter J. Rich, signed a memorandum with Western Electric acquiring the rights to market the system for nine months.17 At about the same time, Nathan Levinson of Western Electric, the engineer who had supervised the installation of equipment in the Warner radio stations, told Sam Warner of the exhibition of talking pictures he had seen at the Bell Laboratories in New York. Sam, with difficulty, won over the other Warner brothers and, just as importantly, their financial manager, the investment banker Waddill Catchings of Goldman, Sachs and Company. On 25 June 1925, Rich and Warner Bros. created a joint venture to explore sound film production. Far from being nearly bankrupt—a persistent myth—Catchings and Warners were engaged in a strategic plan of aggressive expansion to increase theater holdings, consolidate distribution, and diversify into broadcasting. The sound experiment was an acceptable risk as part of a highly leveraged design to catch up with the Big Three studios. It was also a cost-cutting play, since it would eliminate orchestras and presentation acts in the newly acquired movie houses. This plan was consistent with the speculative economic climate in other growth industries of the mid-1920s. The policy also meant investing in a big-name actor, John Barrymore, and a director, Ernst Lubitsch. The Vitaphone deal was one of several tactics designed to elevate the small outfit to the status of a film major.
In September 1925, Warners began refitting its newly acquired (but very old) Vitagraph studio at 1400 Locust Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn, to produce sound films. Meanwhile, there was a change of command at Western Electric, and John E. Otterson became the general manager. He was keenly interested in Rich's film venture and took over negotiations. On 20 April 1926, a fifty-seven-page contract was signed between Western Electric and the new Vitaphone company, which had been incorporated with Rich as president and Warner Bros. as the majority shareholder and provider of capital. Western Electric granted to Vitaphone the exclusive right to use the recording apparatus for its own films, to sublicense other producers, and to sublicense the reproduction equipment in theaters.
To secure talent for its sound movies, Vitaphone signed license agreements with Victor Talking Machine, the Metropolitan Opera, and (later) the Brunswick-Balke-Collender' record company for the rights to record their contract artists. Brunswick-Balke-Collender's exclusive roster included a wide range of entertainment, from the popular Al Jolson to the high-class New York Philharmonic.18
Naturally Warners wished to show off its star John Barrymore of the "royal family of Broadway." The early twenties was the zenith of Barrymore's stage career, and he was basking in the success of Hamlet in New York and London. He had also dabbled in the movies since 1913. Jack Warner signed him for Beau Brummell (1924) and subsequently for a three-picture contract which paid him $76,000 each, plus perquisites. This was far better than he was receiving for stage work.19 In September 1925, Warners hired the director Alan Crosland on a long-term contract and announced that his first feature would be Don Juan, starring Barrymore. The film was shot in the traditional silent method and was receiving the finishing touches in January 1926, with its release set for February.20 With the success of the preliminary experiments and test screenings, at the last minute it was decided to give the feature Vitaphone accompaniment.
Upon the signing of the Vitaphone contract in April, Warner Bros. declared that the company and Western Electric had a "New Musical Device." This first announcement, which does not mention Vitaphone by name, reflects a distinct effort to mold the reception of sound in the mind of exhibitors and the public. First, it couches the new development in technology: "Scientific developments which may revolutionize the presentation of films in the largest as well as the smallest theaters have just been perfected by the Western Electric Co., and Warner Bros." There was great emphasis on the electrical nature of the recording, amplification, and sound reproducer mechanisms. Second, an identification with big-time corporate experimentation was established: "[Sound films] are the result of years of research in the Bell Telephone, American Telephone and Telegraph Co., and Western Electric laboratories." This claim differentiated the Western Electric system from rival music synchronization systems, such as de Forest's. Third, the system's main advantage was called its "naturalness," without further elaboration. Fourth, Vitaphone's founders insisted, as de Forest had done, that it would be used only for music:
The invention is in no sense a "talking picture" but a method whereby a film can be accompanied by the music cue and other musical and vocal numbers given by means of what is now known as the recording machine, for want of a better name. The invention is expected to bring to audiences in every corner of the world music of the symphony orchestra and the vocal entertainment of the operatic, vaudeville and theatrical fields. (Film Daily, 26 April 1926, pp. 1, 6)
As with Phonofilm, Vitaphone was intended to supplement the regular film program. It would replace the orchestra, but not the traditional silent feature. Sam Warner arranged the Broadway premiere for the new Warners' Theatre (formerly the Piccadilly)." In addition to the musically accompanied feature, Don Juan, he announced a prologue, two sketches, and a musical comedy routine. The music would be provided by a ninety-piece orchestra. Originally the opening was set for 1 July 1926, but there were numerous delays, in part because Wente and other AT&T technicians were redesigning their speaker horns for the Warners' theater.22
By May the Warners strategy was taking shape. In addition to the twenty-six regular features it had already announced for the 1926-1927 season, it was adding nine specials. All would have recorded sound tracks available. Don Juan and Manon Lescaut were to be John Barrymore vehicles; Syd Chaplin (Charlies half-brother) would have three films, including The Better 'Ole; the films Black Ivory Noah's Ark did not yet have directors or players assigned. Warners' star director Lubitsch would make two pictures. Again the company stressed that "they are not to be misconstrued as talking pictures as the new recording machine … perfectly synchronizes music with the film."23
Perhaps the most ambitious component of the program was Warners' intention to produce sound prologues, that is, musical short subjects, for each of the twenty-six regular features in the 1926-1927 season. Both Sam and Albert Warner repeated the refrain that the "smallest hamlets" would be able to have first-class presentations and music. Albert believed that within five years this would be the industry standard: "The public will demand not only bigger and better productions but will also demand proper musical accompaniment, suitable for their particular production. The public is being educated to the finer things in music, through the radio and other mediums."24
The marketing plan now called for Don Juan to have a Broadway premiere on 22 July, followed by road-show engagements in Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles. This accelerated schedule coincided with Warners' announcement in its annual report that the company was taking a $1.3 million charge for the cost of expanding its national distribution through the purchase of the Vitagraph Company in April 1925. Don Juan and The Better 'Ole cost $1.5 million to complete. In addition, the cost of Vitaphone experimentation had been written off the books. The biggest expense, though, had nothing to do with the Vitaphone project: the charge for the selling expenses of unplayed silent film contracts.25
The summer months were busy ones. The defunct Manhattan Opera House was leased and converted to a makeshift soundstage. More artists were signed up to be Vitaphoned; the Metropolitan Opera stars Giovanni Martinelli, Anna Case, and Marion Talley were among the most impressive.26 And there were sneak previews of Vitaphone, for example, before the Wisconsin Telephone Association at the Strand Theater in Madison. The three short subjects shown there were "loud, clear, and perfectly distinct." The anonymous trade reporter ventured that, "where in the past directors have been content to portray emotion through gesture and action, they must now add the spoken word which may mean a revolution in production, and a new type of star." So even before the premiere of Don Juan (which was not previewed in Madison because the score was still being recorded at the Manhattan Opera House under Sam Warner's supervision), critical reaction to Vitaphone had zeroed in on the speaking star as the most intriguing aspect of the new system. The canned music that the company tried to focus attention on was of little interest.27
Warners tried to prepare exhibitors and audiences for the new system on the eve of its introduction. Its press release, "What the Vitaphone Promises," reveals more of its strategy for selling sound. The constant refrain, which was echoed by Will Hays and popular journalists during 1926-1928, was that sound would greatly multiply the geographic and cultural contacts with the performing arts. In addition to the "New Era" millennial rhetoric surrounding these scientific devices, the creators and promoters of Vitaphone also made an appeal to "democracy" in their description of the new system. It was film's destiny to disseminate oral and aural culture to the masses. A redundant phrase that recurs—and belies the hand of an originating Warners publicist—is "small hamlet." The press readily picked up on the democracy angle. The New York Times observed in a glowing editorial: "The most obvious fact is that this invention in its various forms will enable the smaller communities to participate to a greater degree than even the radio permits in the cultural advantages that have been possible in the past only in places of large population."28 In its 1926 brochure, the company promised to make available orchestras and opera and theater stars to "every corner of the world…. It is now possible for every per formance in a motion picture theatre to have a full orchestral accompaniment to the picture, regardless of the size of the house…. There can be no question of the boon that Vitaphone will be to the music-lovers who live in the out of the way hamlets."29
At first, these statements seem like a populist discourse, since they invoke a plan for decentralizing culture and making it accessible to geographically dispersed consumers. The strategy was clearly imitating telephone company advertising, which proclaimed that phone service was uniting the country. But the culture proposed to be spread by Vitaphone was not film. Sound cinema was to be a medium, not an art in its own right. The models for the new sound cinema were opera, classical music, light drama, and Broadway vaudeville entertainment, with its characteristic melting-pot flavor of New York ethnicity. Though calling for democracy, the producers were advocating the spread of what they regarded as elite culture to an underclass and to non—New Yorkers. Whether this "democratic" motif in the promotion of sound was a bald publicity department creation on the part of Warners or Hays's MPPDA is difficult to say. Many of the actual Vitaphone shorts were jazzy instrumental numbers or plebeian hokum. It is likely that the published appeals to high culture reflected competition for a narrow but powerful segment of the entertainment market—upper-middle-class New Yorkers who seldom attended movies or listened to popular entertainment on radio, but who patronized the Metropolitan Opera and Broadway revues. Not only was it desirable to attract the disposable income of this leisure class, it was important to benefit from their goodwill and potential power as bankers, shareholders, influences on local censorship, and arbiters of taste. The aesthetic and democratic rhetoric also distracted from the lowbrow interests plainly visible in many Vitaphone productions. In Don Juan, for instance, shifting attention to the New York Philharmonic diverted moralists from the licentious plot and the semi-clad chorus girls who graced the sets.
The Warners formulation closely resembles the de Forest virtual-Broadway model for short film production. But Vitaphone was also designed to be applied to features—as a virtual orchestra. That is, it would replace the actual orchestra in the pit. Again, this was pitched by the producers as an advantage for small towns. Not only would nationally recognized orchestras supplant the local piano player and snare drummer, but the music would always be appropriate to the mood on the screen, timed to match the action, and reliably executed. Not mentioned in these promotions was the all-too-apparent downside: musicians would lose their jobs, the music sounded "canned," and the intangible pleasure derived from a live performance would be gone.
The virtual orchestra would also keep the voice in its place—behind the music. Although Warners had emphatically banished talking features only months before, "What the Vitaphone Promises" tentatively opened the door. "If its scope extends to the vocal reproduction of entire pictures," the publicist wrote, "casts will be selected not only for their 'silent drama' ability, but by their voice ability as well." Many of the firstgeneration Vitaphone features would have vocal parts, but either in a musical context or as a dramatic "special effect." The shout of "Bob" by the father in The First Auto, the screaming earthquake victims of Old San Francisco (1927), and the dialogue in The Jazz Singer are examples of how the voice is subordinated to the musical part of the sound track. The shorts seemed to abide by separate rules and tolerated a few lines of spontaneous speech now and then.
Like the ideal orchestra and conductor who could accompany any film that came from the distributor, Vitaphone was also advertised as being adaptable. According to its original formulation, theater managers could spice up the program by renting from a library of shorts. They could also revive old films by presenting them with a new musical sound track.
This is accomplished by projecting the picture in the usual way and recording the music, as previously cued, in synchronism with the projection instead of in synchronism with the photographing. Any picture which has ever been produced can be orchestrated and synchronized. The Vitaphone corporation has in mind the assembling of a library which will embrace the best in various fields of endeavor such as music, vaudeville and musical comedy. Exhibitors will rent the process as now they do the films. (Film Daily, 27 June 1926, p. 29)
Another merchandising point of the original Vitaphone concept was that the virtual orchestra would substitute for the "presentations" which had become popular in big-city movie theaters. The target market for Vitaphone was the midsize theater with a 500-1,000 capacity—that is, too small to afford big-time live entertainment, but big enough to afford the cost of installing sound. The use of presentations, an important trend in exhibition practice, was growing steadily in large cities in 1926 and 1927. For years films had been preceded by live prologues such as tap dance numbers, choral ensemble, singers, comedians, or an organ recital. But to compete with other movie palaces and with live shows, exhibitors began to stage increasingly elaborate entertainments that, by 1927, imitated revues at Broadway vaudeville houses. Headliners such as Ben Bernie and his orchestra, Burns and Allen, George Jessel, and Eddie Cantor would show up for a ten-minute performance before the movie. Orchestras swelled from eight to eighty pieces. The length of the presentation approached two hours, during a period when the typical Hollywood feature was about sixty-five minutes long. Usually, but not always, there was an attempt to tie in the presentation acts with the theme or mood of the feature. With their economies of scale, the chain theaters, especially Publix, were able to mount extravagant traveling shows to tour with the films.30
While these expensive presentations were popular with audiences, among producers and some exhibitors a strong reaction set in against them (see chapter 11). Smaller exhibitors could not compete with large houses in nearby big cities. Producers and even film directors spoke out against the performances as distractions. John Ford, as president of the Motion Picture Directors' Association, objected on the grounds that live actors detracted from the filmed ones:
Usually the players are $35 to $50-a-week players who would not be doing that sort of thing if they were capable of greater enterprise…. They come before an audience and attempt a characterization not knowing what it is all about. It detracts from the screen players' delineations in that it gives the wrong impression before the audience has an opportunity to see the picture.
This is an angle of presentations that is disheartening to the motion picture director, who has spent weeks, sometimes months, carefully selecting his cast—after he has literally combed the list of available talent in his efforts to choose actors he feels capable of interpreting the parts intrusted to them to the best of their ability, by advice and encouragement.
It is one thing to make a feature picture and another thing to have it crippled by a presentation. (Film Daily, 12 June 1927, p. 47)
Ford noted that D. W. Griffith never allowed presentations with his films. Mood could be established sufficiently by a musical overture and a theme song.31
Warner Bros. saw the presentation fad as a double opportunity. The exhibitor who wanted one could have it, but filmed, not live. "The small exhibitor," Warners pointed out, "cannot afford to hire 'name' acts or put on elaborate prologue numbers." And the showman who wanted to get rid of the expense of the presentation could substitute much cheaper Vitaphone "virtual" versions.32 From the producers' point of view, filmed presentations could help drive away the live competitors.
The presentation act craze partly explains the interest in theatrical radio in the mid-1920s. If music could be piped in electronically, the live part of the program eventually could be replaced. Vitaphone's virtual orchestra should be seen as parallel to the efforts by Paramount and MGM to use radio for disseminating sound nationally from a central source. Vitaphone was supposed to augment moving pictures the same way but used mass-produced standard discs instead of the airwaves. De Forest's concept of developing a library of interchangeable entertainment units from which the exhibitor could pick and choose also influenced Warners' idea of establishing a rental library of musical shorts. If implemented, the result would mimic a radio broadcast, but radio itself was also borrowing from vaudeville and from the movie presentation. It was not a question of who was influencing whom (a chicken-and-egg proposition, to be sure) but of the malleability of the borders of popular entertainment during this period. No medium could corner the market on singers, ventriloquists, monologists, tap dancers, and a horde of quipping comedians.33
Warners' advertisement for Vitaphone visualized the virtual orchestra in a drawing that showed the word Vitaphone literally spanning the Hudson River to connect Broadway's theaters to the mainland. "Vitaphone obliterates the miles that used to separate you from the Street of Streets, and brings Broadway to you. From the world's great stages, Vitaphone is transplanting the most celebrated singing, dancing, and dramatic stars and 'acts' to the screens of thousands of theatres."34
The Vitaphone Premiere
Don Juan finally opened on 6 August 1926. Tickets were $10 (standard for a Broadway premiere, and mostly distributed gratis); afterwards the admission was scaled down to between $1 and $5. The Warner publicity machine worked overtime to turn out purple prose predictions: "Like the rumblings of a coming storm, word-of-mouth comment comes low and slowly, but gathering power as it sweeps onward, it carries like lightning to the far corners of the world. Such will be the praise for 'Vitaphone!'"35
At least on opening night, it looked like the prophecy would be fulfilled. Film Daily said, "Repeated and prolonged applause indicated that both the Vitaphone and the picture thrilled the audience which filled the house. That the Vitaphone marks a new era in entertainment was the opinion generally expressed in the lobby."36
The program had the look and feel of the typical movie presentation, as well as a radio revue. There was a speech, operatic numbers, a monologue, a novelty skit, an orchestral number, then the feature. "Red" Kann, the Film Daily editor, described the opening night audience's response. They were attentive to Will Hays, president of the MPPDA. They applauded Mischa Elman and Josef Bonime's rendition of Dvořák's "Humoresque," Efrem Zimbalist and Harold Bauer's "Kreutzer Sonata" by Beethoven, and Anna Case in "La Fiesta." However, neither soprano Marion Talley nor the Russian Peasants in "An Evening on the Don" was well received; the former "did not make the impression it should have, possibly owing to Miss Talley's inexperience," and the latter was not liked because the "group singing did not register effectively." The most enthusiastic applause was given to Roy Smeck, playing banjo, ukulele, and guitar in "His Pastimes," and—the big hit—Giovanni Martinelli singing a selection from I Pagliacci. "None of the famous tenor's personality and tone was lost by the Vitaphone interpretation," Kann reported. "Storms of applause and cheers greeted the rendition."37
The general press agreed that Talley's singing was a disappointment. There were synch problems; the Evening World said that her voice was a few seconds in arrears of her facial expression. Richard Barrios observes that Talley, the eighteen-year-old "Kansas City Canary," suffered from more than technical problems: "Striking while the iron was hot, Warners filmed her in the role of her Met debut, Gilda in Rigoletto. Unfortunately, an artistic immaturity that was obvious enough onstage at the Met was magnified on film, and more than any other part of the program, the Talley segment drew heavy critical fire." She was also victimized by blatantly sexist comments that described her as physically unattractive. Photoplay wrote: "As for her face, the producers made the mistake of allowing the camera to come too close…. Long-shots—and good, long ones—were just invented for that girl."38
Giovanni Martinelli's I Pagliacci created a sensation. For the Times correspondent, the tenor's filmed image was an effigy of the real person: "Those who first heard and saw the pierrot of 'Pagliacci' in the person of the moving likeness of the living Martinelli fill a great hall with the vibrant sound which moved the audience as the presence of the singer could not have done more effectually, perhaps not as affectingly, were present as at the performance of a seeming miracle in which the tongue of the dumb image was made to sing." Barrios argues that "this single three-and-a-half-minute performance … was crucial to the successful entry of sound film. In a very real way Martinelli was the first musical film star, demonstrating more than a year before the The Jazz Singer power resulting from the meeting of amplified voice and projected image."39
For many, like the Times reporter, it was not simply the content or the star quality of these recordings, it was the presence of the subject that was much of the allure. Speaking of Will Hays's address, Fitzhugh Green wrote:
The phenomenon was like watching a man flying without wings. It was uncanny…. His was a short speech; when it was done and he stood there, people found themselves clapping, unconsciously. As if he heard them, he bowed. He seemed to be present, and yet he did not seem to be present. No wonder a scientist the next day called it: "the nearest thing to a resurrection." (Fitzhugh Green, The Film Finds Its Tongue [New York: Putnam's, 1929], pp. 11-12)
After the intermission, Don Juan was presented, with its score arranged by Major Edward Bowes, David Mendoza, and William Axt. Henry Hadley conducted the New York Philharmonic. The Film Daily reviewer also experienced this uncanny sensation of presence/absence: "By closing one's eyes a person could easily imagine that the musicians were 'down front.'" The only ominous moments came near the end of the feature when the film and music stopped briefly several times. Blame was laid on "the nervousness of the operator when switching reels and not attributable to any mechanical defects."40 Kann reported a strong response to Barrymore, who, he opined, was simply the greatest living actor. Much of the critical reaction to the Vitaphone system itself, perhaps reflecting the influence of the studio's advance publicity and Will Hays's recorded statement, stressed the musical nature of the system and the permanence of the recordings:
The motion picture [Hays stated] is a most potent factor in the development of a national appreciation of good music. That service will now be extended as the Vitaphone shall carry symphony orchestras to the town halls of the hamlets. It has been said that the art of the vocalist and instrumentalist is ephemeral, that he creates but for the moment. Now neither the artist nor his art will ever wholly die. (Film Daily, 8 August 1926, p. 1)
Speaking editorially, Kann predicted that more attention to musical accompaniment would have to be paid while films were still in production. He also felt that for music the potentialities were tremendous: "Mediocre music supplanted by the best in the rank and file of the nation's theaters truly makes a rosy picture. Dance and song numbers, vocal selections, violin solos, jazz bands in synchronized form sold on a weekly basis to offset the competition created for the little fellow by presentations at big theaters—that too, is a potential Utopia for the average exhibitor." Mouthing Warners' line, he foresaw Vitaphone headed for the small and midsize theaters:
It seems beyond human conception that the smallest theater in the smallest hamlet of this country can exhibit Don Juan with an orchestral accompaniment of 107 men in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It will be not to the de luxe theater that the Vitaphone will prove a boon. The relatively few houses of this type will look upon the process as a novelty. It is not to be expected that the Vitaphone will replace orchestras at theaters like the Capitol, New York, or the Uptown, Chicago…. The tremendous influence of good music is now brought to the very lobby of every theater in America. (Film Daily, 8 August 1926, p. 3)
Every one of New York's twelve major newspapers reviewed the opening, most enthusiastically. "The greatest sensation of the decade next to radio," expressed the New York Evening Journal. The sound quality, however, was characterized by several reviewers as "mechanical" or "metallic." The Sun reporter suggested that this effect disappeared after the listener became accustomed: "[Vitaphone] boasts of a minimum of 'mechanical' finish. After the first half hour of hearing it you may shut your eyes and easily imagine that Will Hays is talking to you from the stage, or that Martinelli is singing to you. When you first hear Vitaphone, though, you realize that it is a reproducing mechanism that is operating. The personal, or human, touch is absent." The Telegram described the sound as "strong and with a mighty metallic ring," while the New Yorker found lacking "the snap, or edge, of real acoustics." The synchronization was hailed by all ("uncanny" said the Times). Several papers felt that Vitaphone was not yet perfect, but that it would soon be a "wonder of the world."41 Lilian W. Brennan noted that Vitaphone could provide managers with an alternative to presentations:
The Vitaphone is a step in a new direction and it should do much for the exhibition end of the business. Presensations [sic] through the use of the Vitaphone, should become simplified. It will create a desire for the better things in entertainment and subsequently bring about an ambition for the better grade of picture. If the invention fulfills the hopes of its sponsors, it cannot but achieve startling results. It is claimed that it will be within the reach of exhibitors generally; and for those who find it impracticable at present to offer the type of presentation found in the larger theaters, Vitaphone is certain to fill a want. (Film Daily, 16 August 1926, p. 7)
Although the Warner Bros. press release reiterated that Vitaphone would be used only for music, it also confirmed that "its use in producing 'talking pictures' is considered the next logical development," an idea rephrased by Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times a week later.42
In contrast to the generally favorable reviews of the shorts, Don Juan received decidedly mixed notices. Barrymore's athletic performance was compared to Douglas Fairbanks, and some found him to be stiff. There were many jokes about the hero's never-ending kissing. The story was described as failing to make sense, idiotic, a frantic absurd melodrama, childish, devoid of intelligence, and on and on.43 Margot Peters has commented that the film was "more joyfully panned by New York critics than any movie in recent memory." In an effort to improve it, after the premiere Warners cut the film from twelve to ten reels and reedited the ending.44 The novelty of synchronized sword clashes and rousing music remained the principal attraction. In any event, the Warner brothers were crying all the way to the bank—Don Juan's net profit at the Warners' theater was nearly $20,000 per week.45
Warner Bros. stock leaped on the Monday after the premiere. Vitaphone's president, Walter Rich, prognosticated that 1927 earnings could be $3.5 million (versus the previous year's loss), and that projection caused a big run-up on the New York exchange. During a bullish summer, Warner Bros. was the most sought after film stock on the market. Three weeks after the premiere, its value had already doubled.46 Vitaphone's success triggered rumors that Warner Bros. was a takeover target. In October, Adolph Zukor made overtures for a friendly merger, offering outlets in the Publix theater chain in exchange for control of Vitaphone. Harry Warner denied that the deal existed, explaining that talks were under way about Vitaphone installations in Publix theaters and that Warner Bros. was not for sale. Other sources said that Zukor refused to pay Warners' high price tag.47 Besides the previously announced specials Noah's Ark and Black Ivory, all twenty-six regular features on the 1926-1927 schedule would also have Vitaphone sound available (in addition to the regular silent versions). In other words, less than three weeks after the premiere of Don Juan, Warner Bros. had committed itself to an all-Vitaphone policy.48
The successful screening initiated a change of marketing strategy. Instead of road-show tours, as announced, Warners would show the film only in pre-release extended runs in a few major markets—first Atlantic City, then Chicago and St. Louis. This change may have been due to a wish to stall the national release pending installation of Vitaphone equipment. In Los Angeles, for example, no theaters were ready to run the sound program, so Don Juan opened at Grauman's Egyptian theater as a conventional silent.
The sound version of Don Juan and the Vitaphone program opened in Los Angeles and Boston on 1 November. As in New York, critics approved, though technical infelicities remained. The Los Angeles Express said that "the Vitaphone is not perfect. Illusion is not complete." The Boston Globe wrote, "It would be too much to claim that the Vitaphone recording is always absolutely perfect musically. There are still occasional defects of tone quality and of clarity in the reproduction, as is the case with all mechanical devices." "Muddy and diffuse at times," observed the Boston Herald. The Transcript compared the Vitaphone score to a live performance: "The music (during the showing of Don Juan) is for the most part suavely and resonantly projected; there are no awkward breaks, no snatching for cues, no arbitrary alterations in tempo as a conductor tries to catch up with, or slow down for, a change in celluloid tempo never quite gauged in advance." Unlike those in New York, Boston audiences "were not deeply stirred."49 In Los Angeles, though, excitement ran high. Harvey E. Gausman, Film Daily's correspondent, wrote:
It is not exaggeration to say that Vitaphone has amazed the Coast, for the reception which greeted the premiere of the device, is being echoed in the conversations around the studios. Directors and players are wondering just what the advent of Vitaphone will mean to the production branch of the industry, which crowded the theater at the $5.50 show to see the new development. (Film Daily, 29 October 1926, p. 9)
The next step was to find and wire movie houses in which to show the Barrymore blockbuster. Harry Warner embarked on a cross-country trip to lease theaters; a circuit of fifty to showcase Vitaphone was his goal. A debut in London was also contemplated. On Broadway, in addition to its own theater, Warners leased the Colony in September and the Selwyn, a legitimate theater which was converted to sound. It was also reported that the West Coast Pantages circuit, always in competition with the Keith-Albee chain, was ready to enlist Vitaphone in its offensive.50 When interviewed by the Wall Street News, Warner Bros. executives anticipated that 1926-1927 earnings would exceed $5 million, and they expected to be running Vitaphone shorts and the two completed features in "every big city in the country" by January 1927.51
On 7 October 1926, the second Vitaphone feature, The Better 'Ole, opened at the Colony in New York. Syd Chaplin played Old Bill in Captain Bruce Bairnsfather's World War I comedy. Recently restored prints reveal Chaplin's portrayal of the character to be fresh and funny. The silent feature with a synchronized orchestra was not promoted as intensely as Barrymore's Vitaphone epic, but in some ways this premiere was even more significant than the first one. For one thing, Vitaphone definitely had the attention of film people. Kann wrote, "The second debut of this device at the Colony theater embodied elements of box-office appeal that exhibitors cannot disregard.… The potentialities of the Vitaphone might well stagger the imagination. The Warners have in their hands an instrument which can be made to mean much for this industry." The audience was packed with invited executives, exhibitors, and personalities, including Will Hays, Adolph Zukor, Walter Wanger, and de Forest.52
Syd Chaplin was almost universally liked, and his slapstick talents carried the feature.53 The Evening World thought that The Better 'Ole would be good for a long run even without the Vitaphone. Critical opinion about the sound quality was still mixed. The New York American praised the synchronization for never missing "the fraction of an inch," but the Daily Mirror reported that, "unlike the Vitaphone apparatus at Warners theater, that of the Colony last evening was quite scratchy and incoherent at times."54
Again there was a long program of entertainment shorts. The audience expressed its satisfaction with applause, as if watching live performances. And such performances. The shorts featured the cream of vaudeville. Willie and Eugene Howard were veterans of the Palace and the Winter Garden and were currently (1926-1929) featured in George White's Scandals. The Howards were noted for their "Hebrew humor," their rapid-fire patter, and their comic impersonations of rival performers, including ironically, George Jessel and Al Jolson. They recorded one of their classic routines, Between the Acts at the Opera (1926).55 There was great cheering for George Jessel performing a trademark monologue, "Hello, Mama," wherein he talked to his mother on the telephone. He was "natural and pleasing." In his later years, Jessel's TV fame came primarily from being put down by the likes of Sid Caesar and Jack Paar. However, in the mid-1920s he was one of New York's most prominent stars of vaudeville and music revues. Since September 1925, he was identified primarily with the lead in Samson Raphaelson's play The Jazz Singer. Jessel performed the part of Jackie Robin on stage more than one thousand times. It was Al Jolson, though, who provided the showstopper in The Better 'Ole program.
Contemporary commentators marveled at Jolson's ability to enthrall audiences. Could this charisma be captured on film? Star of musical comedies and blackface minstrel songs, "the King of Cork" was by far the most popular entertainer of the twenties. He was rehearsing for his musical play Big Boy when the Warners approached him. For his one-reel performance, which was recorded on 7 September 1926, he received $25,000. He appeared in his customary blackface makeup and sang his big hits "Red, Red Robin," "April Showers," and "Rock-a-bye Baby with a Dixie Melody." Film Daily reported, "His renditions were remarkable for their clarity and appeal. The personality which brought Jolson fame on the stage evidenced itself from the screen in no uncertain manner." Jolson also ad-libbed a few lines in a relaxed, casual voice. Kann was struck by how the Vitaphone conveyed instantly Jessel's sensitive voice and Jolson's charm:
Just as motion pictures have developed personalities peculiar to the art, just as the radio has created its stellar attractions, so will the Vitaphone. It is not stretching the imagination to predict that when Vitaphone reaches a maximum and regular distribution, the public will seize upon favorite performers and, by popular demand, build them just as the drawing cards in pictures have been developed.
This was amply demonstrated last night by Al Jolson and George Jessel. By the cleverness of their performance and the appeal of their personalities, they made an instantaneous impression on the audience. To what extent their vogue might extend if seen and heard regularly over the Vitaphone, no one can conjecture. (Film Daily, 8 October 1926, pp. 1, 2)
Kann thought that The Better 'Ole was good, too ("one of the funniest ever made"), but he also sensed that the appeal of Jessel and, especially, Jolson was something new and surpassed even radio's potential.56
As part of its strategy to penetrate the market as quickly as possible, the Vitaphone Corporation announced in October that it would license the system to any and all producers and exhibitors "of standing." Vitaphone's original arrangement with Western Electric put the burden on the film company to sell the system to other studios. The response to Vitaphone's new ecumenical licensing policy was not overwhelming. Nevertheless, Famous Players commissioned a Vitaphone score for Old Ironsides (1926) when it opened at the Rivoli on Broadway. This may have been a test made when Zukor and Warner Bros. were negotiating their merger. There were no Vitaphone short subjects on the bill, and Old Ironsides would prove to be the only title by another studio with a Vitaphone sound track.57 Meanwhile, a Dow Jones news wire report (denied by all studios) reported that Warners was ready to sell up to 50 percent of Vitaphone to a combine consisting of Famous Players, First National, MGM, United Artists, and PDC. To prepare for the expected onslaught of orders, the company started to build a new studio in New York and opened distribution centers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.58
By mid-November, Harry Warner claimed to have fifty Vitaphone projector units ready to install by January and one hundred subjects ready to show. These would be distributed in the same manner as silent films, but the installation fee and the rental would be determined by the individual theater's circumstances. Things moved slower than predicted; by the end of December, Warners said that twenty Vitaphone installations had been made in eight cities. Even this claim was misleading, however, because Warners rented out the equipment as well as the films. It was also installing "on approval." Although Vitaphone may have been installed twenty times, it actually was playing in only four cities on 30 December: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit.59
As 1926 drew to a close, Don Juan and The Better 'Ole were approaching the magic gross receipts figure of $1 million each. But these figures included income from silent versions of the films. Warners needed profits from its existing contracts in unwired houses—that is, almost all houses. Because of block booking and blind bidding, exhibitors had an obligation to show these films whether or not they purchased Vitaphone. A disturbing trend (from Warners' perspective) emerged. In many houses, the silent prints made more money than the audio versions. While the sonorized Don Juan and The Better 'Ole were doing great business on Broadway, the films lost money and were pulled from screens in Boston and St. Louis. No trend emerged during this early period: "Vitaphone failed and succeeded; it had long runs and closed within a week. Most exhibitors waited, hoping to learn more before deciding."60 These circumstances show that audience factors were having an influence. Local variables such as advertising content, competing shows, and the degree of interest in stars like Barrymore, Jessel, and Jolson must have contributed to the inconsistent results. Also, if the theater's presentation acts and live orchestras were particularly good, the "virtual" ones might have suffered by comparison.
Besides Fox, whose efforts to capitalize on Case's and de Forests research were contemporaneous with Vitaphone's premieres, numerous Vitaphone imitators were encouraged by Warners' Broadway success. Among the most widely marketed competing systems were Orchestraphone, Magnola, Symphonium, Vict-o-phone, Vocafilm, and Bristolphone.61 Almost all were disc-based technology, designed to play back nonsyn chronously from a library of licensed records. Most were doomed because of lack of access to the synchronization and amplification patents of the Western Electric and radio groups, and because Warner Bros. had already acquired the most important music licenses. Vocafilm failed at its press debut and never recovered from this technical disaster. One promising contender was Bristolphone. In October the Bristol Machine Works in Waterbury, Connecticut, was experimenting with a talking film device. William Bristol, though a dogged businessman, faced many of the same distribution problems that de Forest encountered. The American film industry had the power to shut out anyone it chose from production and to limit distribution and exhibition.62
Of the majors, at least Paramount and Universal explored the idea of imitating Fox in developing their own in-house sound systems. Paramount's Jesse Lasky assigned the task to the special effects technician Roy Pomeroy, while Carl Laemmle at Universal was exploring a device invented by Allen Canton. It used high-speed oscillating lights to record and play back sound on film without distortion. The output was powerful enough not to require an intermediate amplifier, and the new speakers avoided "the nasal or metallic sound common to present type of loud speakers."63 It was apparent that an industry standard would be preferable to proliferating incompatible systems. On 8 November 1926, Famous Players, MGM, United Artists, and PDC renewed their previously rumored offer to purchase a 50 percent interest in Vitaphone. Again Warners declined.64 Instead, Warners decided against maintaining its own circuit of sound houses and, in December, offered to lease the Vitaphone system to other theater chains. This was intolerable to the Hollywood majors, who agreed to keep up a united front and secure sound on their own terms.
Although 1926 was the "year of Vitaphone," the percentage of all moviegoers who actually witnessed the new attraction was small. Warner Bros. sound films had played only in a few large cities at road-show prices (five to ten times the regular admission charge). Wherever they ran, audiences noted the illusion of physical presence that talking gave the screen characters. This experience of virtual presence was replayed a few years later when sound films were introduced to the home market. DeVry's Ciné-Tone 16-mm system, for example, advertised: "Your favorite actor or musician sounds forth from the loud-speaker as natural as life, and simultaneously on the screen appear the characters, who merge the sound and action into one organic whole—the perfect entertainment."65 Don Juan attracted as much attention as a Barrymore vehicle with risqué love scenes as it did as a sound film; The Better 'Ole capitalized on the Chaplin name and a popular literary source. Both films were also widespread successes as silent releases. In his New Year's look into the future, Red Kann predicted that 1927 would be the greatest year in history for the film industry. But he made no mention of the coming of sound.66
It was the synchronized shorts which attracted the most critical praise. At the very least, they were interesting technical novelties which affirmed the progress of electric communication. The Vitaphone program seemed to combine the socially defined qualities of the telephone, the phonograph, radio, and television. It transported Broadway to the hometown via technology. Vitaphone connected public taste to popular science. The entertainment format (vaudeville, the musical revue, theater) implicitly appealed to a pre-formed audience which should have been a receptive market. This target was not Variety's hicks in the sticks, but sophisticated middle-class urbanites accustomed to high-priced live entertainment at nightclubs, roof gardens, and movie palaces. The experiments with "canned" versions of their stage favorites via Phonofilm, combined with the popularity of the pre-film presentation, suggested to entrepreneurs like Sam Warner and William Fox, who had disdained sound for years, that the time had come for a major investment.
In 1926 "sound film" usually meant music, not speech. Although many reports describe the tonal quality of Phonofilm and Vitaphone as screechy, scratchy, and metallic, staking out music and the theatrical revue format made the new technique nonthreatening to the Hollywood establishment. The initial Vitaphone concept was an exhibition process and was specifically advertised as not affecting traditional filmmaking. Warners, itself a studio that provided primarily silent features, understood that Hollywood had no incentive to change its stable system of production. Producers foresaw union headaches (with on- and offscreen personnel), technical uncertainty (which meant investment of capital), and the need to make films in totally new ways. Perhaps most seriously, the whole star system would be disrupted.
Providing canned entertainment shorts to flesh out a program and replacing the orchestra with a recorded sound track made sense economically; making "speaking dramas" as features did not. But the initial reception was not what Vitaphone had expected. The way audiences were responding to the talking appearances of Jolson, Jessel, and other big-name attractions proved that seeing and hearing stars sing and speak was just what people wanted in a sound film. Kann was prescient when he predicted that the public would "seize" performers and "build" them according to its, not film companies', desires. It did not take long for the public to redefine virtual Broadway on its own terms, forcing a melding of star cultures. The radio celebrity, the vaudeville performer, the opera diva, the wisecracking comic—all would be auditioned as performance models for the new talkies. As a result, Hollywood soon left behind the virtual orchestra and got over its fear of talking.