Rather than 1927’s The Jazz Singer, and its mediocre box-office performance compared to other film competition that year from movies such as Wings, What Price Glory? and Seventh Heaven, it was Warner Brothers 1928 hits, The Singing Fool, Noah’s Ark and other Vitaphone “talkies,” advertised in this mult-page spread from The Film Daily in April of 1928, that began to show film producers and exhibitors that there was growing market for sound films. In addition to the enormous personal popularity of Al Jolson, the broadcast of music and actors’ voices in big city movie houses increased the public appetite for amplified sound as an increasingly important part of the movie-going experience.
IT is widely perceived and taught that silent film was the victim of the pernicious greed of the capitalists who embodied the American entertainment-industrial complex colloquially called, “Hollywood.” These men, caricatured as tight-fisted former glove manufacturers, pants-pressers, junkyard dealers and carnival hucksters, would knock their grandmothers down if it meant they could get a leg up on the competition with “talking pictures.” Why, the wily Warner brothers simply started a chain-reaction that before we knew it meant the end of an entire, and relatively young, art form.
Alternatively, it is argued that technology: the advancement of recorded sound killed the silent star. Two competing forms of that technology — sound on disc and sound on film, the latter of which became the eventual “winner” — tolled the end of the silent film art.
But all these arguments overlook the true, driving force behind making motion pictures audible: the vacuum tube (photo below via Wikipedia.org).
Radio and amplification of sound were not viable without that glowing filament inside a gas or vacuum glass tube which controlled the flow of electrons into a single direction (hence the British name for the vacuum tube, the “valve”).
Above, at left, a British manufactured radio rectifier vacuum tube; at right, a German-made tube for a theater amplification system. Both are mid-1920s examples of the basic triode (three electrode elements vacuum tube), the basis of sound amplification technology of the period (and for many years to come). For a better understanding than I can give, see this excellent Wikipedia article on the vacuum tube. (And if you find yourself really interested in the history of the vacuum tube, check out the source of some of these images at the Vacuum Tube Museum!)
* * *
They were called “MOVIES” for a reason. They were pictures, or more poetically shadows, that when projected upon white or silver sheet moved: they came to life and danced, shimmering in black, white and gray. Shadow plays, as contrasted with spoken plays. They were, in reality, a logical extension of thousands of years of humans playing with fire and light. Having tamed these elements to provide the basic needs of warmth and sight in places of cold and darkness, they were repurposed for entertainment. But humans also imagined a world where sights and sounds at great distances could be seen and heard in an instant. Faster than flight, and without the effort.
By the end of the nineteenth century, electricity had been tamed to provide light, heat, and instant communication. On an elemental level, electricity provided the telegraph, the telephone and the incandescent light bulb. Photography on the other hand was a chemical process, not an electrical one. Combined with mechanical experimentation in cameras, it produced motion photography. It was only the mass demonstration of motion photography “thrown” or projected onto a screen by electrical motor and illumination that brought motion photography into the realm of electricity and into the lives of millions of people with enough spare time to enjoy it as entertainment.
From the beginning, the public exhibition of motion pictures was sold and bought as electrical entertainment rather than the chemical/mechanical creation that it was. From Thomas Talley’s “Electric Theatre” in Los Angeles to Adolph Zukor’s “Automatic Vaudeville” in New York City, “the movies” were associated with electricity. But in the first decades of the twentieth century, serious study of and experimentation with the properties of electricity by scientists and researchers laid the foundation for the incredible technological developments that we take for granted today, that allow you to read these words. It was the beginning of what we now call electronics, but to these earlier researchers and scientists, it was thermionics.
The properties of electrical current running through and heating metal inside a gas-filled or vacuum glass tube, a by-product of Edison’s original experimentation with electric light in the 1870s and 80s, would in two decades allow humans to “see” or “hear” over great distances. Communication made “wireless” by these developments was able to save ships at sea, and played a major role on a very public stage during the congressional hearings that followed the Titanic disaster in April, 1912.
One of the first major figures in the field of electronics, Guglielmo Marconi, gave testimony on the properties and usage of wireless radio transmission on ships equipped with the technology. And a young man named David Sarnoff, a Marconi employee, had received the first transmissions at a wireless station in Nova Scotia that the Titanic was mortally wounded and her passengers in dire straits. That same young man would later head a company that served as a member of the wedding party at the marriage of motion pictures and sound, the Radio Corporation of America — RCA.
The companies that controlled the patents for vacuum tube technology, General Electric and A. T. & T., wanted to expand the licensing for the use of this technology for as many purposes as they could, hence radio, then sound in theaters, at first broadcast, then wedded to the projection itself via amplification of the sound produced by either the sound-on-film or the sound-on-disc method. Whichever of the two “won” out wasn’t critically important to those who controlled the licensing of the amplification technology. Neither process worked without electronics or as it was then known, “thermionics,” in the form of the vacuum tube.
It isn’t my intent to delve into the depths of this subject, but simply give you enough to interest you in looking further. One excellent study is Volume 4 of the History of American Cinema series, The Talkies, American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926 – 1931, by Donald Crafton. And peruse the Media History Digital Library, particularly the scanned, searchable copies of “The Film Daily,” the daily trade paper of film distributors and exhibitors. You can access it at http://mediahistoryproject.org/
The Media History Digital Library has a complete run of issues from 1918 to 1936, but you’ll want to hone in on the key years from 1927 to 1930 or so. Even if you’re not inclined read entire articles, the headlines are eye-popping (see similar examples that illustrate the remainder of this article), and the advertisements, many in multiple colors, are revelatory in themselves. If you want to understand this critical period of cinema, there is no better original source of information readily available to you.
* * *
Radio and the movies were seen by some as a potential marriage made in heaven. In one noteworthy, early example from 1925, actors Norma Shearer and Lew Cody performed what we would call a simulcast by broadcasting their lines from a short film they made specially for the occasion from a radio station in sync with the projection of the film at a group of theaters miles away. Who came up with this seemingly (to us) wacky idea? Why none other than Norma’s brother Douglas Shearer who within four years would become the sound director at her and husband Irving Thalberg’s studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
At the same approximate time, on the east coast, another more plausible, practical use of radio broadcasting as a sound source — and a bit easier to “synchronize,” was the use of a broadcast score for an exhibition of Fritz Lang’s 1923 silent UFA production, Siegfried. Broadcast to the Century Theatre in New York from a radio station thirty-five miles away, the broadcast suffered from intermittent static and dropouts. Yet the experiment was a success in that it proved the viability of radio combined with motion pictures as a new form of what we would now call multimedia entertainment. But movie exhibitors, as well as the editorial staff of The Film Daily, saw radio as competition and a threat to movies. Subsequent developments would enable the exhibitors to keep sound as an important adjunct completely within their control.
“The Voice Of The Star.” Pre-recorded voices of the stars promoting their latest films, designed to be played as a coming attraction. One of many ways offered to exhibitors to get sound into their theaters. This ad appeared in the October 23, 1927 issue of Film Daily, along with the first review of a film that would make such pre-recorded novelties pointless, The Jazz Singer.
A proposed series of broadcasts by United Artists into 88 theaters by 55 radio stations nationwide ended with just one event, March 29, 1928, after a majority of exhibitors protested that the broadcasts, booked into large theaters in prime movie exhibition times, benefitted radio interests over that of the theaters. Underwritten by the Dodge Brothers Automotive corporation, theater audiences booed when commercials for Dodge cars interrupted the “entertainment” provided by the broadcast voices of the stars.
Radio Pictures was the production unit of RKO, a distribution firm that itself was a subdivision of the Radio Corporation of America, RCA. This particular ad was published in conjunction with the 1929 RKO release of Rio Rita, an all-talking, singing, dancing version of the 1927-28 Broadway musical hit produced by Florenz Ziegfeld.
* * *
Most discussions, even some serious studies, begin (and often end) with the Warner Brothers’ October 1927 release of The Jazz Singer as the seismic event that caused the supposedly rapid collapse of the silent film. But in reality, The Jazz Singer was not the huge blockbuster hit that historians and even contemporary journalists breathlessly described. Its premiere — which was actually a trade screening held in New York the night after the death of Sam Warner — had in-person appearances by Al Jolson and other invited celebrities and was attended by throngs. But in it’s 22 week run at the Warner Theater, it was out-grossed on a per seat basis by its direct competition, the silent Wings (featuring Clara Bow) and Love (starring Garbo and Gilbert). The Jazz Singer was even bested by its Warner’s Vitaphone brethren Don Juan and The Better ‘Ole (both from 1926).
The Jazz Singer argument is a red herring, a Hitchcock maguffin, largely perpetuated by those writing without adequate research into both the market results of the period AND the market forces — forces that were selling a technology that was already driving telecommunications and radio. Market forces overrode artistic interests, and they not only determined the direction of movies in the late 1920s, but continue to do so, though now in digital form, in the 21st century. Amplified sound, first in the form of telephone and radio, then in the movies, was the force driving this market that brought the curtain down on the silent motion picture.
If one is inclined to credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) the Warner Brothers, then do so for the way they were able to succeed without having the resources to heavily advertise their Vitaphone (sound on disc) system — you won’t see splashy ads for The Jazz Singer at the time of its release in October, 1927. Fox’s Movietone (sound recorded directly on film) system was promoted early and often, from 1926 on, but it was the Warners’ success the year following The Jazz Singer, 1928, in which the slow but steady successes of a Jolson follow-up, The Singing Fool, and the Biblical epic Noah’s Ark, convinced the conservative elements of Hollywood (which was just about everyone aside from the Warners and William Fox) that an investment in sound made sense at the very least as a financial “hedge,” keeping the sound option as part of their product mix. In 1928 not every producer saw sound as the future of cinema.
Below, a deceptive headline. For the time being (which was not long), silent films were to stay as at least part of the product mix of most studios, each to a varying degree. The exceptions were Warner Brothers and Fox, two studios that unsurprisingly had committed their future to sound.
* * *
For Further Reading:
Donald Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926 – 1931, Volume Four of the History of American Cinema Series, University of California Press 1997 (cloth), 1999 (paperback).
The Media History Digital Library at http://mediahistoryproject.org/, for The Film Daily. This resource includes a complete run of issues from 1918 to 1936 of this early industry periodical geared toward exhibitors and distributors. It is an indispensable resource for researchers attempting to understand the developments of the production, distribution and exhibition systems of the peak years of American film product, or, “Hollywood.” And The Film Daily is only one of many publications painstakingly scanned and made keyword searchable, including a nearly complete Photoplay Magazine collection and a complete run of issues of the monumental early industry weekly publication, The Moving Picture World, from its first issue in 1907 through 1919.