Vitaphone View: The Talkies
How Could They Be So Wrong?
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said, the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly
They told Marconi
Wireless was a phony
It’s the same old cry
– Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Paying for water in bottles. Cell phones that take pictures. Computers in every home… You can kind of understand how some new ideas and predicted innovations can bring out the skeptics and naysayers. It was no different for talking pictures.
Some of that skepticism is understandable, given the troubled and failure-ridden path the new medium had to negotiate. Between 1893 and 1926, literally hundreds of talking picture systems were tried, and crashed and burned. Often laughed out of theatres due to poor synchronization and other technical deficiencies, “talking pictures” became a term synonymous with bankruptcy.
So, by the time “perfected” talkies arrived with Vitaphone in 1926, most in the industry chose to either ignore it or deride its chances for success. The arguments against it were predictable. “A fad.” “The public doesn’t want talking pictures.” “Silent pictures are fine as they are.”
During Vitaphone’s first year, it was still unclear if the public wanted these improved, well-synchronized and recorded sound films. During that trial year, Warner Bros released about a dozen features with music but no dialogue, except for The Jazz Singer ( ’27). Also released were about 80 one-reel Vitaphone short subjects with singing and talk. With the release of the Jolson feature and the expansion of wired theatres, Vitaphone and talkies became harder to ignore. Concurrently, William Fox’s Movietone sound on film system also boosted audience interest and comfort with the new medium.
By 1928 – at least retrospectively – it should have been obvious that the silent picture was doomed and that talkies were here to stay. But that year the naysayers found their voice and did all they could to reject the idea of the inevitable transition. Since the sound films from Warner Bros and Fox were doing well at the box office, we must look for reasons why some of the most prestigious and influential industry leaders were so opposed to talkies as a permanent new business norm.
Unquestionably, the other studio heads considered the cost of rewiring their studios and theatres (many owned by them). But that argument was never spoken publicly. Instead, arguments focused on the beauty of the silent picture, and the unsubstantiated claim that the public would have no lasting interest in sound films.
Here are a few contemporary quotes from individuals who should have known better, and likely did:
“ No, I don’t think the talking motion picture will ever be successful in the United States. Americans prefer silent drama. They are accustomed to the moving picture as it is and they will never get enthusiastic over any voices being mingled in. The American people do not want it [talkies] and will not welcome it. We are wasting our time in going on with this project.”
– Thomas Edison, March 4, 1927
“ Talking pictures will never displace the silent drama from its supremacy, or affect the appeal of motion pictures with synchronization and sound effects.”
– Joseph Schenck, United Artists July 6, 1928
“ A good voice in a talking picture will be a canned voice nevertheless.”
– Fred Niblo, MGM director Sept. 16, 1928
“ I consider the so-called ‘all talkie’, the film with conversation from beginning to end, nothing but rotten trash.”
–Sergei Eisenstein, director Feb. 23, 1930
Each year, Film Daily put out a nearly 1000-page compendium of the industry, listing every film, studio and professional details and ads, and predictions from filmland leaders for the coming year. It is fascinating to read those predictions from the 1928 edition, and then those for the very next year. The contrast is both chilling and telling. In 1928, out of nearly three dozen predictions from studio heads and producers, only TWO mention sound films at all — Jack Warner and William Fox — who were then the only producers of talkies The others chose to not even mention them, much less predict their impact on the industry in the coming year. Considering how far along the transition already was in early 1928, this studied cluelessness is bizarre.
Here are 1928 predictions …
Then, just a year later, everything had changed. By then, MGM, Paramount, Universal and the other studios had acquiesced to the public’s insistence for talking pictures, and even the most vocal naysayer could no longer ignore that fact. Film Daily’s 1929 Yearbook predictions section revealed that 100% of the leaders commented on talkies, in almost all cases as a boon to the box office. Here are a few examples….
Two “hedgers” was Paramount producer Jesse Lasky and Universal studio head Carl Laemmle…
The real test of whether or not talkies were just a fad ultimately was determined by comparing production numbers of 1928-29 to those of 1929-30. As Donald Crafton discusses in his book The Talkies:
“ In the final quarter of the 1928-29 season (that is, the period ending in April 1929), of the 200 films actually released, more than half (114) were silent-only… The scorecard of proposed films for the 1929-30 season announced 504 films. Less than 10 percent (43) were to be pure silents.”
Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, was probably the most entrenched of the studio heads in committing to continuing to produce silent features and dual versions. His company, after all, served many rural theatres, which were struggling to deal with the costs of converting to sound. Incredibly Universal and other studios created purely silent versions of allegedly music-based features as Showboat, My Man, The Jazz Singer, and The Singing Fool. For Showboat’s re-release in 1929, Universal added a synchronized score to the 1927 film and appended a series of sound vignettes with Aunt Jemima and other cast members to serve as a prologue. It did well at the box office.
Regardless of the soothsayers and deniers, by the end of 1930, the silent film was dead. Only Chaplin resisted, producing the silent City Lights (’31) and Modern Times (’36) before acquiescing to talking with his The Great Dictator in 1940.
But I still can’t figure out selling tap water in bottles!
– 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: