Early Talkies Talk Again!
The Vitaphone Project was formed in 1991 by several film buffs and 78rpm record collectors with the goal of seeking out the 16 inch diameter shellac soundtrack disks that provided the audio portion of 1926-30 early sound films. These disks were shipped to theatres with the picture (film) portion of shorts and features and in an elaborate but generally reliable system, the picture and sound indeed remained in synchronization — contrary to what you may recall from Singin’ in the Rain. Our initial outreach was to record collectors who may have found random Vitaphone disks while hunting for 78s. As the Internet expanded, so did the Project’s effectiveness in finding these lost disks.
Twenty-six years later, we have located over 6,000 disks worldwide, and worked with Warner Bros, UCLA, The Library of Congress and private collectors to get over 125 early Vitaphone shorts and over a dozen features restored with picture AND sound. Many are now available on DVD through Warner Archive.
But just how did these very large, fragile soundtrack disks survive for over nine decades? Since 35mm nitrate film is notoriously unstable, the odds of finding the missing picture portion of an early talkie is very low. But it does happen. In recent years — often in Australia where it was too costly to return prints to Hollywood where many perished in vault fires or due to decomposition — Technicolor nitrate prints of The Three Stooges’ lost 1933 short Hello Pop, reels for Mamba (1930) and one reel of the still largely lost Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929) were found.. The 16 inch Vitaphone soundtrack disks were at least stable, and if not broken or discarded could still occasionally survive.
During the era of sound on disk talkies, roughly 1926-31 with some stragglers after that, Studios required that theatres return disks after the film’s run. Otherwise a $3 per disk penalty ($43 today) was supposed to be assessed. Fortunately, this rule apparently was rarely invoked. As a result, a number of disks are still around.
The reasons for a disk’s survival are many, but always welcome. Record collectors sometimes find them intermixed with 16 inch radio transcription disks. Both could provide 10-15 minutes of sound at their 33 1/3 rpm speed. In the late 1980’s, over 1,000 Vitaphone disks were found behind the screen of a Warner Bros scoring stage. Allegedly rock bands recording there sometimes flung them like Frisbees during breaks. In 1992, 3-D film preservationist Bob Furmanek was working for Jerry Lewis, archiving his collection. While going through a stack of 16 inch recordings of audience reactions to previews of Martin and Lewis films, intermixed were several Vitaphone disks. Presumably, these were in the theatre’s storage room along with the audience reaction disks, and just came along for the ride when Lewis acquired them. The disk for a favorite Vitaphone short, Trixie Friganza in My Bag ‘O Trix (1929) was found in this stack.
Often, a disk survives because the finder’s relative ran a theatre and brought some disks home. This happened in England with previously lost soundtrack disks for Fanny Brice’s 1928 feature My Man (the picture portion is still missing). A major find occurred in 2011 when I was contacted by the grandson of a theatre operator in New Haven, CT. He was handling the estate and found 80 (!) Vitaphone soundtrack disks. His grandfather ran three theatres in the area during the twenties and thirties. Of course, I immediately arranged a visit and negotiated the purchase of all 80 disks, carefully driving them back to my home in New Jersey. This collection included long missing disks to match surviving mute pictures for 25 early Vitaphone shorts as well as soundtracks for such films as Redskin, The Mysterious Island and other features. Many of the since-restored shorts using disks from this discovery are on Warner Archive’s new Vitaphone Varieties Volume 3.
But sometimes the finder has no idea where the disk came from, or even what it is. Fortunately the Vitaphone Project is easily found with a Google search. In one case last year, a purchaser of an old house outside Chicago found one disk in the attic. They were able to track me down and I arranged to get the disk. It was for a 1928 hot band short, Irving Aaronson’s Commanders from MGM. The film is still lost.
As of this writing, The Library of Congress holds about 320 mute 35mm prints for which the accompanying Vitaphone soundtrack disks are still sought. If any are found, we then work to arrange a restoration with participation by all the parties mentioned in the first paragraph. This is a very unique and cooperative relationship between collector, archive, studios and The Vitaphone Project.
So please keep your eyes peeled for any of those big soundtrack disks! They may help yet another early talkie find its voice!
– Ron Hutchinson, Founder of The Vitaphone Project, for Classic Movie Hub
Ron is widely recognized as one of the country’s foremost film historians, with special emphasis on the period covering the transition to sound (1925-30) and early attempts to add sound to film. As the founder of The Vitaphone Project, he has worked with Warner Brothers, UCLA, LOC and private collectors worldwide to find previously lost soundtrack discs and restore early sound shorts. Ron’s unique knowledge has been sourced in over 25 books as well as documentaries for PBS and TCM, and commentary for “The Jazz Singer” DVD boxed set. He was awarded the National Society of Film Critics “Film Heritage Honor” for his work in film preservation and discoveries, and was the presenter of rare Vitaphone shorts at the 2016 TCM Film Festival. For more information you can visit the Vitaphone Project website or Facebook Group.
And, if you’re interested in exploring some of these newly discovered shorts and rarities, you can pick them up on DVD via amazon: