Vitaphone View: The Coming of Talkies
The Theatre’s Angle, Part 1
This is the second part of my two-part blog series on the effect of the coming of sound to exhibitors in the late 1920’s……..
A New Deal on Ticket Sales
The huge success of The Jazz Singer (WB, 1927) triggered a restructuring of the studio/exhibitor relationship. Prior to that film, except for blockbusters, theatre owners paid a flat rental fee to studios to exhibit films. Typical costs in the twenties would be $2 – $3/day per short and an average of $25/day for the average feature. Enterprising theatre owners could improve their profits by running creative publicity campaigns, contests, or presenting outstanding prologues with local talent to pack in audiences. With the advent of talkies, studios required both a flat fee and a percentage of the gate at every show. This practice enriched the studios, while driving exhibitors to cut costs by eliminating expensive live stage acts.
Putting on the Show
In presenting a Vitaphone disc-synchronized program, the projectionist was expected to prepare and rehearse the program in advance. In addition to providing training, Western Electric issued a 60-page instruction book titled “Operating Instructions for Synchronous Reproducing Equipment – Western Electric Sound Projector System For Theatres.” Besides giving the nuts-and-bolts instructions on operating and maintaining equipment, the guide includes a dozen pages dedicated to rehearsing and troubleshooting the show. If a projectionist was running a sound-on-film Movietone show, a film break could be quickly fixed, and the program resumed. Not so with the Vitaphone disc process.
Western Electric told projectionists that if the film broke on a short subject, to simply abandon it and switch to the next title on the other projector. Keep in mind that if the film broke, the sound disc continued playing and there was no practical way for the projectionist to fix the film and resume it in precisely the same spot and in synchronism with the disc.
A feature, however, could not just be written off. Western Electric suggested that the film be re-threaded and warned “synchronism is usually lost under these conditions, but this can be tolerated in an emergency unless there is a direct cue in the record, such as a knock, voice or cheers. In such a case,” WE directed the projectionist to turn the sound down to zero.
In running a Vitaphone program, discs were set up on the turntable connected to each projector. While new theatres got the entire projector/turntable assembly installed, existing theatres could have the turntable/reproducer mechanism added to the Simplex, Motiograph or other projectors already in the booth.
Soundtrack discs were two-sided and pressed such that the first would contain reels 1 and 3, the next one 2 and 4, and so on. This allowed the first projector to be cued for playing back reel 1, while the second projector had reel 2. Once reel 1 film and sound had played, the projectionist would switch over to the second projector playing reel 2. He would then flip the reel 1 disc over to play reel 3 and thread up the film for that reel, awaiting the changeover. This process continued through each program.
Each 16-inch soundtrack disc was initially pressed in heavy shellac, with the starting point for the placement of the reproducer needle clearly marked with an arrow just outside of the label. Each disc played from the inside out and at 33 1/3 rpm. This foreshadowed the speed later used for LP’s in the late 1940s. Playing at this speed enabled one full reel (about 10 minutes) of sound to be reproduced.
Major studios often provided theatres with a disc containing specially recorded audience entrance, or overture, music. These were often non-vocal medleys of tunes from musical films, and readily addressed the reality that most theatres had dismissed their entire pit orchestra. The practice of producing audience entrance/exit non-synchronous music on discs continued well into the 1930s. Paramount Publix, Warner Brothers (which bought Brunswick Records in 1930) and later the American Record Corporation (ARC) all made such recordings available. Often, one lone Vitaphone turntable was left in the projection booth after the others had been scrapped, solely to play the audience music.
Each Vitaphone disc was shipped, in duplicate, to the theatre with the film. Normally heavy wooden or steel boxes were used by the local exchange to ship the discs. Each disc was in its own padded sleeve, and marked on the label with the film title and reel number. In rare instances, the studios might change the film’s title before release. Several surviving discs show in the space surrounding the label the crossed-out original title with the new one inscribed next to it in the wax. Such was the case with Fifty Million Frenchmen (WB, 1931) which was originally to be called Nancy From Naples. And Laurel and Hardy’s first feature comedy, Pardon Us (MGM, 1931) went through many title changes, with one — The Rap — present on some existing discs.
Contrary to the impression created in Singin’ in the Rain (MGM, 1952), the miscues and loss of synchronization of Vitaphone discs was not rampant. Nevertheless, the earliest known on-screen kidding of errant synchronization appears in The Talk of Hollywood (SonoArt, 1929), helmed by later Astaire/Rogers director Mark Sandrich, As in the MGM musical, Talk has the wrong voices coming from the mouths the screen actors, to great comedy effect. Notably, this film was produced in the RCA Photophone sound-on-film process.
In 1930, Warner Brothers was able to reduce the diameter of Vitaphone discs from 16 to 12 inches. Finer grooves were used to accomplish this. In 1931, a new and more forgiving record material was used in place of the brittle shellac. RCA’s “Vitrolac” was a somewhat rubbery and flexible material that was difficult to break during handling and shipment. Sound quality, though, was not as good as the shellac. But by now the handwriting was on the wall for the disc system.
Few Vitaphone turntables remain today. Most were pulled out of theatres in the 1930’s, bulky relics from the early days of talkies. Those still around in the early 1940’s were scrapped during wartime metal drives. The same, ironically, happened to the tens of thousands of steel stampers used to press the soundtrack discs. The Vitaphone Project uncovered the 1941 payment slip provided to Warner Brother for the scrap value of all of their stampers — just $971. They were melted down for the war effort. With thousands of shellac soundtrack discs missing today, these stampers would have provided the ability to still restore sound to otherwise surviving mute 35mm prints.
– 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: