01 June 2013
Talking motion pictures
The first practical system for linking sound with
The people behind the invention:
Harry Warner (1881-1958), the brother who used sound to
fashion a major filmmaking company
Albert Warner (1884-1967), the brother who persuaded theater
owners to show Warner films
Samuel Warner (1887-1927), the brother who adapted soundrecording
technology to filmmaking
Jack Warner (1892-1978), the brother who supervised the
making of Warner films
Taking the Lead
The silent films of the early twentieth century had live sound accompaniment
featuring music and sound effects. Neighborhood
theaters made do with a piano and violin; larger “picture palaces”
in major cities maintained resident orchestras of more than seventy
members. During the late 1920’s, Warner Bros. led the American
film industry in producing motion pictures with their own soundtracks,
which were first recorded on synchronized records and later
added on to the film beside the images.
The ideas that led to the addition of sound to film came from corporate-
sponsored research by American Telephone and Telegraph
Company (AT&T) and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
Both companies worked to improve sound recording and playback,
AT&T to help in the design of long-distance telephone equipment
and RCAas part of the creation of better radio sets. Yet neither company
could, or would, enter filmmaking. AT&T was willing to contract
its equipment out to Paramount or one of the other major Hollywood
studios of the day; such studios, however, did not want to
risk their sizable profit positions by junking silent films. The giants
of the film industry were doing fine with what they had and did not
want to switch to something that had not been proved.
In 1924,Warner Bros. was a prosperous, though small, corporation
that produced films with the help of outside financial backing. That
year, HarryWarner approached the importantWall Street investment
banking house of Goldman, Sachs and secured the help he needed.
As part of this initial wave of expansion,Warner Bros. acquired a
Los Angeles radio station in order to publicize its films. Through
this deal, the four Warner brothers learned of the new technology
that the radio and telephone industries had developed to record
sound, and they succeeded in securing the necessary equipment
from AT&T. During the spring of 1925, the brothers devised a plan
by which they could record the most popular musical artists on film
and then offer these “shorts” as added attractions to theaters that
booked its features. As a bonus, Warner Bros. could add recorded
orchestral music to its feature films and offer this music to theaters
that relied on small musical ensembles.
On August 6, 1926,Warner Bros. premiered its new “Vitaphone”
technology. The first package consisted of a traditional silent film
(Don Juan) with a recorded musical accompaniment, plus six recordings
of musical talent highlighted by a performance from Giovanni
Martineli, the most famous opera tenor of the day.
The first Vitaphone feature was The Jazz Singer, which premiered
in October, 1927. The film was silent during much of the movie, but
as soon as Al Jolson, the star, broke into song, the new technology
would be implemented. The film was an immediate hit. The Jazz
Singer package, which included accompanying shorts with sound,
forced theaters in cities that rarely held films over for more than a
single week to ask to have the package stay for two, three, and
sometimes four straight weeks.
The Jazz Singer did well at the box office, but skeptics questioned
the staying power of talkies. If sound was so important, they wondered,
why hadn’t The Jazz Singer moved to the top of the all-time
box-office list? Such success, though, would come a year later with
The Singing Fool, also starring Jolson. From its opening day (September
20, 1928), it was the financial success of its time; produced for an
estimated $200,000, it took in $5 million. In New York City, The
Singing Fool registered the heaviest business in Broadway history,
with an advance sale that exceeded more than $100,000 (equivalent
to more than half a million dollars in 1990’s currency).
The coming of sound transformed filmmaking, ushering in what
became known as the golden age of Hollywood. By 1930, there were
more reporters stationed in the filmmaking capital of the world
than in any capital of Europe or Asia.
As a result of its foresight,Warner Bros. was the sole small competitor
of the early 1920’s to succeed in the Hollywood elite, producing
successful films for consumption throughout the world.
After Warner Bros.’ innovation, the soundtrack became one of
the features that filmmakers controlled when making a film. Indeed,
sound became a vital part of the filmmaker’s art; music, in
particular, could make or break a film.
Finally, the coming of sound helped make films a dominant medium
of mass culture, both in the United States and throughout the
world. Innumerable fashions, expressions, and designs were soon created
or popularized by filmmakers. Many observers had not viewed
the silent cinema as especially significant; with the coming of the talkies,
however, there was no longer any question about the social and
cultural importance of films. As one clear consequence of the new
power of the movie industry, within a few years of the coming of
sound, the notorious Hays Code mandating prior restraint of film content
went into effect. The pairing of images and sound caused talking
films to be deemed simply too powerful for uncensored presentation
to audiences; although the Hays Code was gradually weakened and
eventually abandoned, less onerous “rating systems” would continue
to be imposed on filmmakers by various regulatory bodies.
The Warner Brothers
Businessmen rather than inventors, the four Warner brothers
were hustlers who knew a good thing when they saw it.
They started out running theaters in 1903, evolved into film distributors,
and began making their own films in 1909, in defiance
of the Patents Company, a trust established by Thomas A. Edison
to eliminate competition from independent filmmakers.
HarryWarner was the president of the company, Sam and Jack
were vice presidents in charge of production, and Abe (or Albert)
was the treasurer.
Theirs was a small concern. Their silent films and serials attracted
few audiences, and during World War I they made
training films for the government. In fact, their film about syphilis,
Open Your Eyes, was their first real success. In 1918, however,
they released My Four Years in Germany, a dramatized
documentary, and it was their first blockbuster. Although considered
gauche upstarts, they were suddenly taken seriously by
the movie industry.
When Sam first heard an actor talk on screen in an experimental
film at the Bell lab in New York in 1925, he recognized a
revolutionary opportunity. He soon convinced Jack that talking
movies would be a gold mine. However, Harry and Abe were
against the idea because of its costs—and because earlier attempts
at “talkies” had been dismal failures. Sam and Jack
tricked Harry into a seeing a experimental film of an orchestra,
however, and he grew enthusiastic despite his misgivings.Within
a year, the brothers released the all-music Don Juan. The rave
notices from critics astounded Harry and Abe.
Still, they thought sound in movies was simply a novelty.
When Sam pointed out that they could make movies in which
the actors talked, as on stage, Harry, who detested actors, snorted,
“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” Sam and Jack pressed
for dramatic talkies, nonetheless, and prevailed upon Harry to
finance them. The silver screen has seldom been silent since.
See also :
Autochrome plate; Dolby noise reduction; Electronicsynthesizer;
Further Reading :