Vaudeville in a Can
The prime motivation for the Warner Bros in pursuing Vitaphone and sound films had little to do with actors talking on the screen. Harry Warner was quoted as saying “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” In actuality, the effort and the huge investment was driven by a business model that would provide quality musical accompaniment to Warner Bros features, thereby letting theatre owners fire their house musicians. During the 1920’s, over 30,000 musicians were employed in movie theatres, so the savings potential was significant.
But to be successful, a business plan must match the public’s interests. The studio’s plans for Vitaphone quickly took an unexpected turn. The August 6 , 1926 premiere of Warner Bros’ first feature with synchronized music and sound effects, John Barrymore’s Don Juan, was preceded by eight sound short subjects. Unlike the feature, these shorts had fully synchronized talking and singing. The preluded program of Vitaphone shorts included popular ukulele player Roy Smeck, opera greats Martinelli, Anna Case and Marian Talley, the New York Symphony Orchestra, and an opening speech by industry czar Will Hays.
While the reviews for Don Juan and its synchronized score got good reviews, it was the public’s reaction to the preceding shorts that were the true hit of the program. They received the lion’s share of praise in the press, and so the shared light bulb above the Warner Bros heads went on.
Suddenly, they realized that they could supply the biggest names in show business to theatres – even to the smallest theatres which otherwise could never afford to book them. The idea was to supply “vaudeville in a [film] can.” By the second Vitaphone-scored feature — The Better ‘Ole starring Syd Chaplin — the studio’s detour was already evident. More popular acts, along with several classical performers, filled the bill of talking shorts that played before the feature. Al Jolson appeared in A Plantation Act, singing three songs and collecting $25,000 ($350,000 in 2017 money) for his efforts. From vaudeville, the comedy team of Willie and Eugene Howard essentially canned their act for Vitaphone. And in a particularly ironic twist, George Jessel, Broadway star late of The Jazz Singer performed his routine of calling his momma. Shortly after this, the Warner Bros announced that Jessel would recreate his stage role in a film version of The Jazz Singer. In retrospect, the overwhelming public reaction to the Jolson short likely convinced the brothers that “The World’s Greatest Entertainer’ would better promote Vitaphone.
As talkies picked up momentum in mid-1928, it became obvious that the public preferred watching a top star with Vitaphone – say Eddie Cantor, Burns & Allen, Al Jolson or Jack Benny — to a lesser local live vaudevillian. The Vitaphone studios in Hollywood and Brooklyn ground out 2-3 shorts each week, drawing upon the top names of vaudeville, opera, and Broadway. A theatre manager could easily assemble a fully balanced prologue, beginning with a band short (for example Red Nichols, Ben Bernie, or Horace Heidt), then follow it with comedians (Jay C. Flippen, Jack Benny, Jack Osterman), an opera star (Martinelli, DeLuca, Raisa), singers (The Revelers, The Happiness Boys) a dramatic playlet (with Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien or Sessue Hayakawa) and instrumental virtuosi (mandolinist Bernardo DePace or accordionist Guido Diero). At the Palace in New York City, such a program could cost $15,000 a week. At a theatre in Omaha, the same performers would cost under $300.
Seeing these shorts today, it is clear that Warner Brothers was attempting to recreate an actual stage performance rather than a cinematic experience. Performers are framed such that they fit perfectly into the theatre’s proscenium. The acts often speak directly to the audience, occasionally looking from side to side. And until 1930, most acts closed the short by bowing to the (expected) audience applause. This is particularly entertaining in Al Jolson’s talkie debut in A Plantation Act (1926), in which the star takes three full curtain calls and blows kisses to the audience. It still works in modern screenings. This short was considered completely lost since 1933. No discs were known, and the picture portion had disappeared. In the early 1990’s, The Library of Congress found a film can labeled “Jazz Singer Trailer”. Inside, though, was something else entirely. When screened, out came Jolson in his typical blackface on a farm set. It was immediately clear that this was Jolson’s long-lost short, released a full year before The Jazz Singer (1927).
A Sampling Of Vitaphone Shorts Performers
1926 - 1930
Al Jolson Martinelli Ephraim Zimbalist, Sr.
Burns & Allen Spencer Tracy Fred Allen
Frances Williams The Foy Family Eddie Peabody
Happiness Boys Fred Waring Ben Bernie
Weber & Fields Baby Rose Marie Buddy Rich
Georgie Price Russ Columbo Anna Case
Gigli Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy
Lyda Roberti Guido Diero Ruth Etting
Blossom Seeley & Benny Fields Sylvia Froos
Jack Haley Pat O’Brien Joe E. Brown
The Revelers Whispering Jack Smith Shaw & Lee
Raymond Hitchcock Lou Holtz Elsie Janis
Yacht Club Boys Bea Lillie Jack Buchannan
Johnny Marvin Red Nichols Ben Pollack
Benny Goodman Lee Morse Jack Benny
Jack Norworth Ohman & Arden Ann Pennington
Trixie Friganza Gregory Ratoff H.B. Walthall
Hugh Herbert Robert Ripley Benny Rubin
Charles Ruggles Bert Wheeler Sissle & Blake
Albert Spalding Six Brown Brothers Marion Talley
Rudy Vallee Van & Schenck El Brendel
Irene Franklin Horace Heidt Molly Picon
Mae Questel Miller & Lyles Joe Frisco
Judy Garland Willie & Eugene Howard Conlin & Glass
Since The Vitaphone Project’s founding in 1991, over 12 1926-30 short subjects have been restored in partnership with UCLA, The Library of Congress, Warner Bros and private donors and collectors. A large percentage of the shorts star long forgotten vaudevillians in precise recreations of their stage act. Thanks to public screenings, Warner Archive’s many Vitaphone Varieties DVD sets and airings on Turner Classic Movies, performers like Shaw & Lee, Conlin and Glass and Georgie Price now have a new army of fans.
Vaudeville as an art form was already reeling from inroads by radio, and talkies finished them off. By 1930, big time vaudeville was over, and what remained were its remnants as seen in motion picture theatre presentations. While vaudeville performers were essentially sowing the seeds of their art’s destruction by filming their acts on Vitaphone, today the restored shorts allows modern audiences to see them exactly as they were performed on stage.
– 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: