Vitaphone View: THIS IS NOT A MUSICAL!
From Edison’s earliest experiments to add sound to film, the overwhelming majority of pre-1920 talkie efforts included musical performances.
In 1894, barely one year after Thomas Edison built his Black Maria studio at his Orange, NJ laboratory and began making his first films, his assistant W.K.L Dickson attempted to wed the recording phonograph with film. A 17-second test was missing its accompanying cylinder “soundtrack” for nearly a century until it was found by persistent researchers. The violin seen on camera is played directly into the horn of a recording Edison phonograph – which is also on camera and takes up nearly half the frame. The restored test can be seen and heard here:
Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894).
The countless subsequent attempts at talking pictures continued until 1920, usually incorporating singing or the playing of an instrument. The 1920-21 Kellum System preceded Vitaphone by just a few years, and utilized disk recording for the sound, albeit with a somewhat more sophisticated synchronization system, Several Kellum talkies survive at UCLA Film and Television Archive, including one by the legendary banjo playing Van Eps Trio in “The Famous Van Eps Trip in a Bit of Jazz” (1921).
A soundtrack disk label for a 1915 British Gaumont sound short. This is actually a commercially issued Victor 78 rpm record with the Gaumont label stuck over it. When filmed, the performer lip synched to the record.
During the teens, the Cameraphone, Oskar Messter, and Gaumont sound film systems each utilized a disk synchronized to the separate film (picture) portion, driven by two different units which often struggled with synchronization. These and other systems often did not record the sound as it was being filmed, but instead used an already recorded commercial 78. The on-camera talent – often NOT the one heard on the recording – would lip-synch to the record during filming. While today one might call this cheating, it did overcome one major technical problem in making sound films. The commercial 78s were recorded in state-of-the-art phonograph recording studios, with the singer standing inches away from the recording horn. The result was a loud, clear and understandable recording. Before Vitaphone in 1924, early talkie producers did not have access to microphones. So if recording a singer or actor live, the horn of the phonograph had to be hung just over them out of camera range, and the performer had to practically yell in order to ensure sufficient volume on the finished disk or cylinder. This is very evident in the 1912-13 Edison Kinetophone shorts. Here are a few examples:
The Edison Kinetophone (1912).
The Edison Kinetophone Sound Film (1913). (note the “fairy princess”: shouting her lies around 1:22!)
(A DVD set of restored Edison Kinetophones has just been released and is available here)
As previously reported in earlier Vitaphone CMH blogs, every attempt to promote talkies to the public from 1894-1928 failed for three technical reasons: No way to fill a theatre with sound, having to rely on horn phonographs to do the job; no reliable way of assuring perfect synchronization between film and sound, often getting the productions laughed off the screen; and difficulty in recording the performers with horn phonographs, and its inherent less-than-natural sounding acoustical recording process.
Fast forward to Vitaphone, and The Jazz Singer in 1927, and the kickoff of the revolution towards sound films by all the studios by 1928. Musicals led the way in 1929, with at least 32 being produced that year. Often combining two-color Technicolor, musicals did not have to be good to make money. The overproduction of the genre ramped up such that in 1930, the number of Hollywood musicals released had more than double to 78.
Many of the plots were the same, set backstage with predictable storylines of vaudeville teams split up. Even the titles became repetitious. In 1929-30, studios put out Broadway, Broadway Babies, Broadway Melody, Broadway Scandals, Howdy Broadway, and Broadway Hoofer. Musicals did well through the winter of 1929-30. But then, the public finally had enough.
Audience’s rejection of musicals as 1930 progressed can be seen by charting some selected films’ cost and grosses (in thousands). In 1929, musicals ensured a healthy profit. Into 1930, not so much:
Title & Cost Gross Receipts
The Desert Song – $354 $1,549
The Singing Fool – $388 $3,821
Sunny Side Up – $400 (est) $3,000
Broadway Melody – $379 $2,808
Say It with Songs – $470 $1,725
Gold Diggers of Broadway – $532 $2,540
Rio Rita – $678 $1,775
Sally – $647 $1,219
Made and released in 1929, when the public still embraced movie musicals, Fox’s Sunny Side Up brought in $3 million at the box office.
Ad for the Universal super musical, King of Jazz. Begun in early 1929, then put on hold, then finished filming early in 1930, by the time this $3 million all Technicolor production was released in May 1930, the public had shunned musicals. Despite its beauty (recently restored and on Blu Ray & DVD from Criterion), the picture lost $2 million.
A poster for Warner Bros all Technicolor operetta Viennese Nights (’30) The public in general shunned operettas and this picture lost about $300,000, bringing in less than half its cost.
In author Richard Barrios’ essential book on movie musicals, A Song in The Dark, he writes of studios panicking over the many musical features they already had completed or were planning. He states:
“Warners adopted a slash-and-burn policy. As much music was removed as could be without rendering the films completely incoherent. The Life of the Party and three Joe E. Brown features Going Wild, Sit Tight and Top Speed were restructured” as non-musicals.
Other studios, realizing by mid-1930 that musicals, as Barrios writes, “could not draw flies,” similarly took a hatchet to completed musicals and their future releases schedule. United Artists spent over a million dollars on the Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. musical Reaching for the Moon (’31). It originally had six songs by Irving Berlin, but all but one were cut. Warner Bros had backed the Broadway version of the Cole Porter musical Fifty Million Frenchmen in 1929, with the intent of producing an elaborate Technicolor Vitaphone feature after the run ended. When production finally began in August of 1930, musicals were a pariah at the box office, so every song was cut, the gap filled in by more Olsen & Johnson routines. The public was not pleased, and the picture died at the box office. “The show, without any songs, was less than zero” Barrios observes.
Winnie Lightner and Joe E. Brown appeared in the successful early 1930 musical, Hold Everything (now lost). Soon after, the public’s rejection of musical led to other stars films having all songs deleted.
Perhaps the most extreme case of draconian steps taken by a studio in 1930 was at MGM. Their massive production, The March of Time, attempted to document the history of the stage and music through the years, using old-time stars, new ones like Buster Keaton, Bing Crosby, and Marie Dressler, and many large-scale musical numbers. All in Technicolor. And filmed in multiple languages. When production wrapped in mid-1930, the studio realized it had an expensive, unsaleable white elephant on its hands. They elected to not release it at all. In ensuing years, individual production numbers found their way into a many of MGM Colortone short subjects like Crazy People (’31), Wild People (’32), and at least three Ted Healy/Stooges shorts.
The 1933 Technicolor MGM Colortone short Hello Pop starred Ted Healy and the Three Stooges. Lost for 8 decades, a print was found in 2012 and restored. This and other MGM color shorts used musical numbers from the unreleased 1930 musical The March of Time.
Theatre newspaper ads and marquees often added the tagline “NOT A MUSICAL” to avoid public rejection of titles that could be misconstrued as such.
But as always — in life and in Hollywood — the pendulum eventually swung the other way as the number of produced musicals first waned, then took off again:
Year & Number of Musicals Produced:
1929 – 32
1930 – 78
1931 – 11
1932 – 12
1933 – 34
1934 – 44
The resurgence in 1933 was due primarily to the public’s embracing Warner Bros 42nd Street.
– 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: