At the dawn of “talkies,” the leading film recording and projection system conveyed images and sound separately: the images on film, the sound on shellac discs. For the last 25 years, the Vitaphone Project has been locating and reuniting the many films and audio discs that became separated. It has restored some 125 features and short films, many thought lost forever, with many more in the pipeline.
by Peter Monaghan
The rapid transition from silent films to “talkies” threw up some curious artifacts. One was the shellac sound disc. Between 1926 and 1931, soundtrack discs were the medium for sound in the Vitaphone film system. Warner Bros. sent them out with its Vitaphone films, to be played synchronously. In the hurly-burly of those years, many of the discs went missing.
In 1991, the Vitaphone Project, a group of American enthusiasts, started a worldwide search for the sound discs, intent on reuniting them with “mute” films held in archives — and, on finding film elements to complement known, surviving sound discs.
“During this transition, film studios were uncertain about the future of talkies and often saved only a silent film print, or nothing at all,” says Ron Hutchinson, a Vitaphone Project co-founder.
Borrowing sound discs from collectors, or arranging for their purchase, allows the Project to initiate restorations of films by Warner Bros., Vitaphone’s parent company, working with restoration labs, primarily the one at the University of California at Los Angeles, which creates a new 35mm preservation print that recombines the original images and sound.
Warner Bros. issues the films — most of them shorts, some features — to the home-video market and distributes them to cinemas, which nowadays is generally done with digital film files, rather than with prints.
In its 25 years in operation, the Vitaphone Project has found some 6,500 soundtrack discs in private hands, and has compiled an online data base of them. The mighty effort began with Hutchinson’s casual observation that he was not alone among 78rpm record collectors at New Jersey flea markets in occasionally coming across a Vitaphone soundtrack disc among radio transcription discs. Like film soundtrack discs, transcriptions — recordings of radio programs on discs, made between about 1930 and 1960 — are 16 inches in diameter.
Finding out how many of the old movie sound discs remained, and where, prompted Hutchinson and four other collectors and film buffs — John Newton, Sherwin Dunner, Vince Giordano, and the now-late David Goldenberg — to form the Vitaphone Project. From that has come a fuller picture of an era that was “truly a revolution,” says Hutchinson. “In mid-1927 everything was silent; by the beginning of 1929, everything was sound.”
The transition from silent films to sound films could occur only because technicians cracked a long-standing challenge: to devise a commercially viable system for synchronized recording of images and sounds. Even at the birth of film, pioneers attempted to make films with sound. A key figure was W.K.L. Dickson. In 1893, or soon after, he produced a short test strip showing two men dancing while another played a violin next to a large cone — the “microphone” for recording the sound, off-camera, to a wax cylinder, a precursor to the 78rpm record.
Dickson had been working since 1883 at Thomas Edison’s lab in New Jersey. In 1890, he had created the Kinetograph camera and the viewing device called the Kinetoscope. He also worked with George Eastman to develop improved long-strip photographic film; they built equipment to develop and copy negative film to positive film stock in the 35mm format, which is still used.
In 1895, Edison linked the Kinetoscope to a phonograph to create the Kinetophone, the first commercially successful system for presenting movies. It was a box with a viewer window on top that allowed one person to watch a film strip of images running across a high-speed shutter.
Dickson and other inventors were soon producing films for public display. The problem with them all was sound synchronization, a challenge that hundreds of pioneers tried to crack. They generally relied on systems of jury-rigged ropes and pulleys from a projection booth to screen-side phonographs playing low-quality sound recordings through insufficiently loud acoustic horns. No means existed for dependably amplifying sound electronically.
Those pioneers made as many as 3,000 films with sound before 1920, but those posed no threat to the reign of the silent film.
Until 1923. By then, technological advances began to weigh in favor of commercial-scale production of sound films. Microphones were improving rapidly, so recording quality could, too. And loudspeakers began to be able to fill theaters with sound.
Vitaphone proved more successful than other systems. How it did that is a complex story. The role of two innovators, in particular, paved the way.
Around 1900 Eugene Lauste began to build machinery in France and then London that led to a 1907 patent for “a new and improved method of and means for simultaneously recording and reproducing movements and sounds.” Between 1910 and 1912, he made a 24-frame strip of film — nondescript images of plants — that had along its edge a series of black squiggles that encoded sound. Only one second of it, but Lauste had demonstrated that it was possible to translate sound waves to a form that could be read electronically. He made a series of such test strips in the London lab of his longtime friend, W.K.L. Dickson. The very same.
In Lauste’s process, light waves directed by mirrors engineered a beam of light narrow enough to register vibrations in a wire between the poles of two magnets. He worked with Ernst Ruhmer, the German inventor of the photographophone, who had been experimenting with methods of recording sound optically since at least 1901.
With the intrusion of World War I, and other factors, Lauste got little credit, and nor does he now. Film historian Paul Spehr, the author of The Man Who Made Movies: W. K. L. Dickson (John Libby Publishing, 2008), told this publication in 2010: “Lauste was never able to commercially develop what he was doing with sound recording so it lingered in the background.”
Lauste’s film sound was inadequate for small rooms, let alone auditoriums. American inventor Lee de Forest was addressing that issue. In 1906, De Forest invented the Audion vacuum tube, which would prove to be the key component of electronic amplification until transistors emerged in the 1940s. It figured in such technologies as the telephone, radio, and later television and computers. And it was pivotal in the Phonofilm optical-recording system for film that he patented in 1919. He tinkered with his system in league with technicians in Germany, where sound-on-film had made great strides — indeed, a similar German patent application predated de Forest’s by three months.
In De Forest’s system, which harked back to Lauste’s, sound waves modulated a beam of light which was photographically recorded alongside images on the film stock. During projection, a beam of light passed through the variable-density optical sound track and agitated a photocell (light sensor) to produce a weak but audible photo-electric signal that he could amplify.
To try to sell his system to the large film studios, de Forest first made some test strips in 1921, and then from 1923 made numerous short films, concentrating on vaudeville acts, popular entertainers, opera singers and ballet dancers, and politicians. He figured that the future of sound film might be to run shorts before silent films. Major studios didn’t bite, so de Forest took his films on the road, to independent theaters.
De Forest’s fortunes faltered, for various reasons. While he struggled to make it work adequately, the major studios that had rejected his system adopted other, very similar systems as soon as the advent and ascendancy of talkies became undeniable. At first the major film studios resisted sound, which they thought wouldn’t last. But as the appeal of sound began to loom, the studios entered into tortuous wrangling to ensure they’d fare well, when it did. In an association as much competitive as cooperative, Loew’s (MGM), First National, Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount), Universal, and Producers Distributing Company pledged in their so-called Five-Cornered Agreement to spend 1927 figuring out which film-sound system would suit them all best. They effectively agreed that none would switch to sound films unless they all agreed to.
Well before they did sort out their best options, in 1928, karma had bitten de Forest on the behind. He had been developing his system with another innovator, Theodore Case, but credited him poorly; he was also working with Western Electric, which in 1913 had bought his Audion patent for use in several technologies. And in the realm of film, Western Electric had been hedging its bets by working through its subsidiary Bell Telephone Laboratories on both de Forest’s sound-on-film approach and an alternative: a sound-on-disc approach that would culminate in the Vitaphone system.
The Vitaphone system led the pack, initially. Its owner, Warner Bros., was small, and thus able to adopt sound more readily than large studios, which were busy making a mint from silents. Filming with sound required building sound stages, investing in new equipment, and devising a new film-distribution system that would work for thousands of theaters that would also need to fit themselves out with expensive, still-rough-and-ready public-address systems. “It was huge,” says Hutchinson. “It was not just making the films; it was everything to support it.”
Warner Bros. embraced the emerging sound-on-disc approach, rather than the sound-on-film method of de Forest and his collaborators and successors for one simple reason: in the early-1920s it provided better sound reproduction. Vitaphone was, per its Latin root words, “living sound.”
Western Electric presented the system to studio executives in 1923, and instantly won over Sam Warner, of then-small Warner Bros. His brothers took some persuading. As late as 1926, Harry Warner scoffed, at a Vitaphone demonstration, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
When the Warners did adopt the system, they saw it not as a way to make talking pictures, but as a means of producing recorded music and sound effects that they could sell to theaters along with features. “The theaters could then fire their musicians,” says Hutchinson. “That was the mentality.”
The Vitaphone system offered an ingenious method of recording images and sounds simultaneously: the camera that captured images and the microphone that captured sound were coupled and driven by a single engine. In the same way that 78rpm records were made, the source sound caused a stylus to vibrate as it cut vibration-modulated grooves into a wax- or lacquer-covered surface of a disc. A master impression was made of the modulated groove, and then that impression was stamped on the commercial phonograph records.
The soundtrack discs differed from 78rpm records in the direction the needle traveled – from the inside, out — and their recording and playback speed – 33⅓rpm, then a novelty. At first, discs of 16 inches in diameter were used; later, with recording advances, 12- and even 10-inch discs came into use.
When a film was screened, the film projector and a record player were coupled. As long as the projectionist/sound operator began at the right spots on the film and corresponding sound disc, synchronization was achieved. Conversely, starting in the wrong spots would wreak havoc that was difficult to remedy, on the fly, as would skips in soundtrack discs or film breakages.
Variations on that basic set-up occurred. For example, sound effects and music could be recorded after film was shot. That was handy in the case of silent films that were already in production during the tumultuous transition to sound movies. In such cases, a conductor took cues from projected film, and the projector rather than a camera was mechanically coupled to the sound recorder.
Other variations arose to accommodate theater managers who didn’t quickly wire their halls for sound, once the sound revolution got under way. Warner Bros. could send out sheet music to theaters that weren’t yet wired for sound, and still employed orchestras. Also catering to that market was the Victor Talking Machine Company. It was already pressing most Vitaphone soundtrack discs when, between late 1928 and mid 1929, it issued its Victor Pict-Ur-Music line of discs: more than 300 platters that provided mood music and sound effects that unwired theaters could sync to screen action.
In addition, many other films companies, during the year or two that it took them to transition fully to the competing sound-on-film approach, made supplementary soundtrack discs, derived from their original optical sound tracks, to send out to theaters that had installed a disc-based system.
For a few years, the US cinema world was a little like a young nation with railroad tracks of different gauges; but if theaters missed the sound train – if they resisted laying in new, sound-film equipment of any kind — they missed the speeding train altogether, and quickly went out of business.
Warner Bros. urged theaters to rewire with loudspeakers and projectors under license to Western Electric, at considerable cost. Many halls undertook less-expensive and –adequate wiring. Other film companies joined in the feeding frenzy, with a lot of pushing, shoving, and finagling. By 1930 few unwired theaters remained because most that had refused to get on board had closed.
The pace of change was that quick, and Warner Bros. made hay while it could. Between 1926 and 1930, it and its sister studio First National issued about 1,500 Vitaphone shorts, filming in New York, from 1926 on, and then also around Los Angeles, from 1927. In addition, they used the system on about 100 feature films. The first, in 1927, was the very first feature with synchronized sound, The Jazz Singer, which starred Al Jolson and was a sensation.
The Jazz Singer was the first feature but not the first film with synchronized sound — and nor was Vitaphone the first sound-on-disc system. For example, D.W. Griffith’s Dream Street, which appeared in 1921, had one short section of singing and crowd noises. Those had been recorded and broadcast with the soon-superceded Photokinema system, which was also used for some short films of musical performances and spoken-word recordings in 1921.
Vitaphone was, however, the first system to master sufficiently the key elements of recording and presentation: synchronized recording and presentation, and passably faithful recording quality and then amplification in theaters. The Jazz Singer was a revolutionary moment in cinema, but for Warner Bros. it was a developmental step. The Warners’ earlier, 1926 features, Don Juan starring John Barrymore and Mary Astor and The Better ‘Ole and three in early 1927 — When a Man Loves, Old San Francisco, and The First Auto — were sound films, too, but their sound elements were limited to instrumental score and sound effects on discs.
The Jazz Singer upped the ante by also having several synchronized singing sequences and two minutes of synchronized speech, 17 minutes and 25 seconds into the film. What Jolson said resembled what he had said — it was his stage patter — in the 1926 Vitaphone short, Al Jolson in “A Plantation Act.” Indeed, Hutchinson and many others contend that it was Vitaphone shorts, not The Jazz Singer, that truly ignited the revolution. When Warner screened Don Juan in August, 1926, it started shows with a set of short subjects. Most featured classical music. In one, film-industry big wig Will Hays congratulated Warner for beginning “a new era in motion pictures.” But perhaps the most momentous of the shorts was eight minutes of the so-called “Wizard of the Strings”: the flashy guitarist, banjoist, and ukulele player Roy Smeck, playing “His Pastimes.”
Smeck proved so popular that when the Warners compiled a second collection of shorts to show in October 1926 before the Syd Chaplin feature, The Better ‘Ole, popular acts predominated: the likes of Al Jolson and Georgie Jessel. “That just set off everything,” says Hutchinson. “The Warners said, ‘we’ve got to get into this really big.”
Within eight months, they had made The Jazz Singer, and Jolson’s schtick rocketed the talkies format into mass popularity. Within two years Warner Bros., initially intent on cutting orchestra costs, had stumbled onto a hugely successful formula, and went into overdrive.
Like de Forest with his Phonofilm system, Warner Bros. and First National made many shorts of classical performers and opera singers, but also of vaudevillians whose acts would otherwise be known only if they were among the relatively few who made sound recordings. “In a manner of speaking, Vitaphone was the place vaudeville went to ‘die,’” Roy Liebman wrote in the introduction to his 2003 Vitaphone Films: A Catalogue of the Features and Shorts. Many Vitaphone briefs’ featured “performers who kept body and soul together with whistling acts, eccentric dancing and singing, playing unusual instruments, eating seemingly inedible objects, and the same comedy routine year after long year,” Liebman wrote.
Vitaphone’s prominence in the history of early sound film would be relatively brief. Sound-on-film systems improved and quickly overtook the sound-on-disc approach, which was fussy, particularly when it came to editing feature films. By 1931, Vitaphone’s soundtrack-disc era was largely over. Warner Bros. would retain “Vitaphone” as a brand name after that, but only on sound-on-film motion pictures, including its Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons.
When Hutchinson and his colleagues began the Vitaphone Project, they knew that many films and soundtrack discs had been separated during the hustle and bustle of the silents-to-talkies transition. The studios, uncertain that talkies would last, often had kept only a film prints, if that. Hutchinson and co. also knew that many films held in archives lacked their sound discs — were “mute films.” They suspected that many soundtrack discs were in private hands.
Early film distribution had been a haphazard affair. Often busy studios balked at the high costs of having their films shipped back, particularly from overseas, and that was presumably particularly true of sound discs, which were readily reproducible from metal stampers that the Victor Talking Machine Company used to press the shellac platters. (These “stampers” — 18-inch metal-plate negatives used to mold heated shellac “biscuits” — are now rare because in 1941 most were melted down in the war effort. In 2014, a Warner Bros. sound engineer found 26 stampers, most 1926-29 Vitaphones, that had survived on a Warner Bros. lot that First National had used. It turned out that mute film elements existed that matched several of the stampers. The earliest, from June 1926, featured Thomas M. Watson, an assistant to Alexander Graham Bell, describing the invention of the telephone.)
While Hutchinson and his colleagues figured they would find some soundtrack discs, the number they quickly did find startled them, he says: “We really started with the idea that maybe we’d find a few hundred of these, and we could compare them with the list of mute films, and do some things. Never in a million years did we ever think we’d find even a thousand discs, much less more than 6,000. It’s incredible. And it continues. This year alone I’ve heard from people who’ve found another 80 to 100 discs.”
At the beginning of their now 25 years of searching, they publicized their efforts via word of mouth, through a newsletter, and with publicity in the 78rpm-record-collecting and moving-image-preservation communities. In the mid-1990s, the Internet came along and it has greatly assisted. Much remains to be done. Soundtracks have not yet been located that could complete 320 films held in archives — almost all at the U.S. Library of Congress. Conversely, film elements are lost that would complement about 100 surviving soundtrack discs. Hutchinson says: “90 years after the making of those films, the likelihood of film turning up is drastically less than the chances of a disc turning up.” In the case of some 125 Vitaphone films, neither film nor sound are known to have survived.
On the Project’s data base are some 125 films — 12 features, the rest shorts — that Hutchinson and his colleagues have helped preserve, working with Turner/Warner Bros. and film archives, primarily the U.S. Library of Congress, UCLA’s Film & Television Archive, and the British Film Institute.
Restoration of one Vitaphone reel — 8 to 10 minutes of film — costs about $12,000. To date, the Vitaphone Project has directed $400,000 in donations that it identified from enthusiasts — among them, Hugh Hefner — to the UCLA archive, which like Warner Bros. is a major player in early-film restoration. The pace of restoration has quickened in recent years because the preservation facility at Warner Bros., under the direction of Ned Price, has had a restoration budget to restore features, and often works with UCLA on sound and the Library of Congress on film elements.
Particularly in its early years, the Vitaphone Project had to contend with collectors’ hesitation to lend soundtrack discs or films. They were anxious about admitting to possessing such material. During the 1970s, the FBI and the Justice Department identified and pursued hundreds of collectors and dealers who had, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, breached copyright laws or received stolen goods by acquiring copies of Hollywood films.
To overcome ongoing anxieties, the Vitaphone Project persuaded Warner Bros. to agree to an enticement: collectors who lend soundtrack or film elements, and donors who underwrite a restoration, receive a credit on the restoration, and a DVD copy of it, as long as they agree not to, for example, screen the film commercially. Until then, says Hutchinson, “no studio would do that. The lawyers just wouldn’t let them. Warner Bros. was the first to say that’s the fair thing to do.”
Few early film shorts were available, when the Vitaphone Project began. Hutchinson and his colleagues have helped to spark a boom in public availability of them. The Turner cable network screens evenings of selections, as do repertory cinemas and film archives. To date, Warner Bros. has made more than 250 Vitaphone shorts available on DVD, with several DVD sets such as Vitaphone Varieties, Vitaphone Musical and Comedy Shorts, and The Jazz Singer. (As Ted Turner owns not only Warner Bros. but MGM, too, his companies have also restored and reissued more than 75 MGM sound-on-disc shorts.) Fortuitously for aficionados like Hutchinson, Warner Archive, the made-on-demand arm of Warner Video, was devised and is run by an executive, George Feltenstein, who is also a noted film historian. Vitaphone releases are among the most popular of Warner Home Video’s 3,000 titles.
That’s testament to the efforts of the Vitaphone Project, and its vision. The quest has been unpredictable. Soundtrack discs, and some films, have turned up as far away as Australia. In 2011, a man settling his family’s estate in Connecticut came across a hoard of 90 Vitaphone discs that his grandfather had brought home from three theaters he ran in the 1920s and 1930s. “Of those 90 discs, which I was able to acquire, about 20 matched mute film that the Library of Congress had,” says Hutchinson.
As for his favorites among the Project’s finds, he begins with one from 1994: The Library of Congress found a film can labeled “Jazz Singer trailer,” but discovered it was in fact Al Jolson: A Plantation Act, the singer’s first sound film. Made in September 1926, it predated The Jazz Singer by a full year. During its almost 10 minutes, Jolson sang three songs, in black face, then not as broadly offensive as it is now. A letter in the Warner archives at the University of Southern California indicated that the film had been considered lost since 1933. The 1994 find took care of the film, but one hitch remained: no sound disc was known, either. “The Library of Congress contacted us and asked if we knew of any disc, or could you find one, which was like finding a needle in a haystack,” says Hutchinson. “But within one year, a disc was found in a barn in Maryland, near Washington DC.” It was at the home of descendants of a Bell Labs employee who had died in 1980.
The discovered disc had, however, cracked into five pieces. And then been glued back together with epoxy. With its grooves misaligned.
The Vitaphone Project worked with a California record collector with a reputation for innovative repairs, Jim Cooprider, who painstakingly removed the epoxy, using such techniques as setting the disc in the sun between sheets of glass. He was able to reassemble the pieces so skilfully that the the grooves essentially lined up again — at least, sufficiently so that a recording could be made from it, and that recording could be digitally fixed to remove clicking over the disc’s repaired joints.
The outcome was a recording of Jolson in a characteristic performance at the height of his renown. He had been so popular, at the time, that he was able to command a fee of $25,000 – about $335,000 in 2016 value — for the 1926 filming at the Manhattan Opera House. “It’s a wonderful film that really captures Al Jolson more than any of his feature films, in terms of his electric personality,” says Hutchinson.
Another memorable moment for the Vitaphone Project came in 2014, when a music-and-sound-effects disc from Hutchinson’s own collection permitted Warner Bros. to complete a restoration of the last non-talking film of Colleen Moore, Why Be Good? The film, released in 1929, stars Moore as Pert Kelly, “an effervescent American girl,” and was described as “a total Jazz Age romp” with its soundtrack by Jimmy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, and others. The restoration enabled a first screening in 85 years: in July 2014 at the annual festival of the Cineteca Bologna in Italy. The film element of the movie had existed only in an original, nitrate print held by an Italian archive.
Hutchinson has an obvious affection for another 1994 find, a 1929 short titled Baby Rose Marie, The Child Wonder (right). Thought lost for 60 years, it featured the then-five-year-old star, later apopular fixture of many television shows including as Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show. In her childhood star turn, she sang three songs with skill and poise far beyond her years, wearing her polka-dot coat and hat and a pink ruffled dress. In her autobiography, she recalled the premiere of the short, before the first screening of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. “He was very angry about having to follow my short,” she wrote. After the show, “I ran over to him and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Jolson, you were so great, you made me cry.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You were great too, ya little runt.’”
The restoration of the short film was the Vitaphone Project’s first. At a screening at UCLA in 2003, Hutchinson recalls, “I was able to sit right next to her, watching as people’s eyes would go back and forth from her 5-year-old self to a 90-year-old lady.”
As with any good collector, however, it sounds like Hutchinson’s favorite find and restoration will be his next. “Thanks largely to the Internet,” he says, “things keep turning up.”