Early Talkie Restorations and the Theory of Relativity
When The Vitaphone Project began in 1991, its primary goal was to seek out, mainly in private collectors’ hands, long-lost 16-inch soundtrack disks for early talkies. When a match with a surviving mute 35mm film turned up, that meant a restoration was possible.
But while our focus was on tracking down physical elements, we never could have predicted how many of the relatives of stars of restored films would be found. We’ve either heard from, or located, the relatives of over two dozen Vitaphone shorts performers over the past 26 years. And in many cases, those relatives have been able to sit in a theatre with an audience as the relative’s performance of eight decades earlier is enjoyed again.
Two early examples of these fortuitous connections involve bandleaders’ sons. Horace Heidt led a popular dance band from the twenties into the sixties. In 1929, he made two Vitaphone shorts, one of which was restored from a surviving soundtrack disk and mute film. Once we announced the restoration possibility, we soon heard from Heidt’s son, Horace, Jr. He generously funded the total cost of the restoration and enjoyed its screening at UCLA in the mid-1990’s. Another bandleader’s son, Tal Henry, Jr., similarly paid for the restoration of his dad’s rousing 1929 Vitaphone, Tal Henry and his North Carolinians (1929). I sat next to him at the UCLA screening of the restoration, and he cried when his dad announced the first tune.
Vitaphone shorts restorations have rejuvenated interest in long forgotten vaudevillians whose acts still seem fresh today. Eddie White in I Thank You (1928) presents the singer/comedian in 9 minutes of music and patter. I knew nothing about him, but called upon friend Bill Cappello who can seem to find relatives of the most obscure performers. In one day (!) he located Eddie’s son in Florida, and I shared the short with him. I learned that Eddie had seen a comedy act in Atlantic City while he was headlining at the Steel Pier. He brought them to his major venue and soon their career took off. The act was Abbott & Costello, who never forgot Eddie’s generosity. Cappello also found the son of Jack Waldron, anther forgotten talent whose Jack Waldron in A Breath of Broadway (1928) proved the claim he was one of the very first stand-up comics. His son told me of Jack’s close friendship with Burns and Allen and Jack Benny.
Having relatives of performers present at restorations is a real treat. Often the relatives most interested are not the sons or daughters — who often endured the rough life of a traveling star. Instead, I’ve found that interest often skips a generation, with the grand kids being most interested. I have hosted over two dozen screenings of Vitaphone shorts restorations at New York’s Film Forum, and have been pleased to have in the audience the grandkids of the stars of Jack Osterman in Talking It Over (1929), Zelda Santley in Little Miss Everybody (1929) and Grace Johnston and the Indiana Five (1929). Each performer was a hit, and the relatives were beaming at the audiences’ appreciation of their talent.
Perhaps the most touching relativity story is that of the then-forgotten team of Shaw and Lee. Their 1928 Vitaphone short, The Beau Brummels, beautifully preserves their deadpan and bizarre humor, and modern audiences love them. The short even joined the National Film Registry in 2016. After the strong reaction to this short’s screenings in 1997, we sought out their relatives. Again Bill Cappello came though and found the grandsons of both Shaw AND Lee. I was able to build a friendship with both and quickly got funding for the team’s second Vitaphone, Going Places (1930) a few years later. In 2007, I learned from the grandson that Al Shaw’s son, his dad, was dying. In a wonderful case of synchronicity, I also learned that a Vitaphone program was being planned soon at the Mary Pickford Theatre in Hollywood. We arranged for them to include the Shaw and Lee short on the program. Shaw’s son was able to sit with an audience of over 700 and to hear their continuous laughter and enjoyment of his father from up on the big screen from 79 years before. This relativity angle sure makes the effort to restore these films worthwhile!
– 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: