Vitaphone View: The Coming of Talkies
The Theatre’s Angle, Part 1
This is the first of my two-part blog series on how the coming of sound affected theatres and exhibitors.
In the conversion to the exhibition of talking pictures, Western Electric held all the cards. In February 1927, to install the full package of disk and Movietone projection and playback, and amplification, the average theatre had to pay roughly $25,000. As with home telephones, Western Electric actually retained ownership of the equipment, “renting” it to the theatres on a five year cycle. They retained the right to reclaim it after that period expired.
As talkies increased in popularity, it became clear to theatre owners that remaining in business meant switching to sound exhibition. The speed and scope of this revolution can be seen in the over-massive increase in wired theatres between 1926 and 1930:
1926 1927 1928 1929 1930 1931
Wired Theatres 12 157 4046 8000 13,206 13,880
By 1928, Western Electric found itself challenged by a multitude of “gray market” and knock-off disc systems. At first, WE threatened theatre owners who played Western Electric-recorded soundtrack discs on non-WE equipment. They backed off when RCA’s David Sarnoff appealed to the US Department of Justice claiming the attempted monopoly was a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
Soon, the market was flooded with alternative synchronized disc systems, with some like Mellophone, Cinephone and Bristolphone costing under $1000. All were essentially the same in principle as Western Electric’s Vitaphone system, but usually with inferior sound reproduction.
Larger theatres usually made the switch to talkies by installing dual Vitaphone (disc) and Movietone (sound-on-film) systems to have the greatest flexibility in exhibition. While Warner Brothers (and also First National, which they bought in 1928) issued films only in disc versions, the other studios filmed productions in sound-on-film, then issued them to theatres in both formats.
For the first few years of talking pictures, the sound quality from Vitaphone discs was substantially better than sound on film. By 1930, however, Movietone had caught up and by March of that year, even Warners switched to that format.
Because the cheapest method of converting a silent theatre to sound was by going with the disc-only format, Hollywood studios were forced to issue discs long after film production had gone exclusively to sound-on-film. After a film was completed, the studio would transfer the optical track onto discs (one per reel) so that disc-only theatres could exhibit them. This costly process continued through at least 1935. The Vitaphone Project has uncovered some discs for RKO’s Roberta (1935), as well as a Monogram 1936 western and the Hal Roach Charlie Chase comedies of 1934. Maintaining these dual systems so late into the thirties was an economic necessity. As late as 1932, over 3,200 theatres (mainly in the south and midwest) still could only exhibit in the disc format.
Vitaphone Thrills the World
By the end of 1929, virtually all Americans lived within driving distance of a talkie theatre. Wired theatres reached 5,251 on July 1st of that year, and 10% of those theatres were in the five boroughs of New York alone. Wiring initially began on the east and west coasts, and migrated towards the center of the country. Some regions of the south and midwest remained unwired until 1930.
Many smaller theatres chose to close rather than go through the expense of converting to sound. In just two weeks of March 1929, 313 theatres closed. Smaller, silent theatres not only had to compete with talking pictures themselves, but against modern theatres with cooled air, new seating, and wired theatres’ ability to pay the higher cost of sound prints.
The Transition to All-Talkies
The first 100% all talking feature, The Lights of New York, did not appear until 1928. During the period between Don Juan (1926) and early 1929, there were hundreds of already completed silent features, as well as many that were in production as the storm clouds of talkies were building. In early 1927, Warner Brothers announced that all of their future releases would have a synchronized Vitaphone accompaniment. This meant full orchestral score and limited sound effects. But not talking. Some surviving examples, such as The Better ‘Ole (1926) and When a Man Loves (1927) are considerably enhanced by this accompaniment.
As the public’s demand for talkies grew, theatres realized that they needed to be advertising features the public could “see and hear.” Sometimes this meant just the synchronized score, but after The Jazz Singer, studios began grafting on brief talking sequences to otherwise completed silent features. In this way, these “goat gland” productions could be advertised as talkies. All of the major studios did this during 1928. MGM’s Show People, First National’s Lilac Time and Paramount’s Warming Up are all examples of silents released with a synchronized score. The switch from silence to talking in part-talkies on screen could be quite jarring, and the public did not care for them. These hybrids were obviously a transitional phase that had to be endured.
Not everyone agreed that silent pictures were dead. Many major studio executives, including Universal’s Carl Laemmle, believed that silent pictures and talkies would always co-exist. Through 1929, the major Hollywood studios released silent versions (with intertitles) of their talking pictures. This enabled theatres that were not yet wired to still exhibit these films. Ironically, on its initial release, more people saw The Jazz Singer as a silent than a talkies, due to the few wired theatres at the time.
In early 1929, if a picture was purely silent (with not even a synchronized music track) it was rapidly dumped by studios to make way for their talking product. That year, the release of each Hollywood star’s talking debut was an event unto itself, and theatres wisely heralded them as such. Harold Lloyd had completed Welcome Danger as a silent feature in 1928. But realizing that talkies were here to stay, he completely reshot the film in sound, retaining only a few scenes from the silent version, dubbing in talk and effects. While perhaps Lloyd’s worst feature up to that time, Welcome Danger still made a fortune. Audiences wanted to hear what their favorite stars sounded like.
The Price of Sound – More than Just Talk
From a people perspective, the transition from silents to talkies had its winners and losers. The revolution was good for theatre projectionists. They asked for, and received, higher pay and assistants. Projectionists now had to handle and synch-up discs, deal with the catastrophic impact of film breaks, and “ride the sound” by adjusting levels per studio-provided scripts throughout the running time of each feature. In 1929, a typical projectionist was paid $150 per week, with a second operator assisting on each shift.
Theatre musicians, by comparison, found their livelihoods largely wiped out by 1930. Many contracts ended annually on August 31st, and warning clouds appeared as early as 1927 after the silent but musically synchronized Don Juan and other WB features began circulating. Initially, union theatre musicians demanded and got full pay during the run of Vitaphone programs, even when they did not play a note. But violence soon erupted in 1928. Exhibitors realized that with canned prologues and synchronized features, the need for a full complement of theatre musicians was rapidly evaporating. Attempts to cut back or eliminate pit bands triggered labor unrest. The Idlewild Theatre in East St. Louis was bombed. To stem the chaos, the Skouras brothers temporarily stopped their wholesale musician layoffs. In one market, seven musicians were kept on the payroll just to play 2-3 minutes between films, while still getting full pay. Clearly, this could not continue for very long.
By the end of 1928, 2600 theatre musicians were unemployed, and things worsened the following year. At the close of 1929, the musicians’ union claimed 35,000 of their ranks were out of work, with little prospects of ever finding work again. A handful went to work at local radio stations or at the film studios. But for the vast majority, the choices were leaving music entirely, unemployment, or suicide.
The Wurlitzer and Morton organ companies were also not happy with the talkies. Virtually all of the larger big city theatres had organs installed during construction in 1927-29, even though talkies would clearly soon silence them. Wurlitzer sold theatres their state-of-the-art theatre organs for a down payment and seven to ten years of monthly installments.
“The Mighty Wurlitzer” theatre organ was designed originally by Robert Hope-Jones, as a “one man orchestra” to accompany silent movies. In all, Wurlitzer built over 2,200 pipe organs (and indeed more theatre organs than the rest of the theatre organ manufacturers combined); the largest one originally built was the 4 keyboard / 58 rank (set of pipes) instrument at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
In the depths of the depression, most theatres had not used their organs for several years and refused to make further payments. Wurlitzer threatened to pull the organs out of the theatres, which they ultimately did in the hundreds during the 1930’s. By the early 1940’s, Wurlitzer’s plant in North Tonowanda, New York had become more of a graveyard for unwanted theatre organs than a manufacturing facility. By then, jukeboxes were what brought in their revenue. This explains why so many surviving theatres of the golden age no longer have their original organs. The Brooklyn Paramount is a rare exception, with their original Wurlitzer recently restored at a cost of over $200,000. In the early 1930’s, struggling theatre owners convinced the IRS to allow for the accelerated depreciation of theatre organs, but only if they were physically removed from the theatre.
Another cost of exhibiting talkies was climate control. During silent days, theatre doors could be opened in the summer to give some level of comfort to audiences. Because street noise would drown out the soundtrack, that practice ended with the dawn of sound. The installation of expensive, quiet air conditioning systems allowed for year-round exhibition, and income. Early air conditioning used ammonia as the heat transfer agent. While efficient, a break in the system coils could release toxic fumes. Other systems used air blown over ice cakes or even early geothermal processes that tapped cool water from underground rivers.
Besides the obvious expense of installing sound projection equipment, speakers, and perforated “sound” screens, theatre owners also had to purchase soundtrack disc storage cabinets which held duplicates of each disc for every reel of the program. For a full program of shorts, trailers, cartoons, a newsreel and a feature, this could mean as many of fifty discs (with duplicates) per program, any one of which could break and ruin the show. Exhibitors were initially charged $3 per disc and were required to return them to the exchange when the show was finished. The expense of pressing, shipping and replacing soundtrack discs — which were to be played no more than 40 times to ensure sound quality — accelerated the death of the disc system even more than synchronization issues.
– 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: