Victor Pict-Ur-Music: In Case the Silents Hang Around
It is hard to believe, nine decades after the talkie revolution began, that at the time many felt sound films would be a passing fad soon rejected by the public. After all, hundreds of earlier attempts to synchronize motion pictures and sound had consistently failed. Some of the biggest producers of the period publicly stated that talkies would soon disappear and that the public would always prefer a quality silent to a sound picture. No less than Thomas Edison and Charlie Chaplin said as much.
With its premiere, The Jazz Singer truly kicked off the sound revolution. But heads of the other major studios (except Fox, which had its own sound system in Movietone) decided to take a “wait and see” approach. MGM, Paramount, First National, Universal, and Producers Distributing Company met secretly to decide what to do. The resulting “Five Cornered Agreement” stipulated that none of their studios would convert to making talking pictures unless all of them did. And that they would all adopt the same sound process. Needless to say, a revolution waits for no one, and within a few months it was clear that any studio that resisted the switch to sound would soon be out of business.
So by mid-1928, the studios decided to play catch-up with Fox and Warner Bros and began wiring their studios for sound and testing their stars’ voices. But even then, many studio heads felt that before long, the public would reject talkies and they would be back making silent pictures.
Amid this uncertainty, the Victor Talking Machine Company saw a business opportunity. One of the pioneering makers of phonographs and 78 rpm records for the home, Victor constantly changed with the times. Before being bought by RCA in 1929, they had rolled out increasingly sophisticated phonographs, a electrical recording process, automatic record changing players, radio-phonograph combinations, and an all-star roster of artists.
In 1928, Victor launched its “Pict-Ur-Music” line of hundreds of 10- and 12-inch 78’s with mood music and sound effects. Targeting theatres seeking to fire their house musicians or resisting conversion to sound films, their catalog offered recordings for every conceivable category of mood: romance, hurry, danger, peppy comedy, and dozens more.
The key behind the Pict-Ur-Music concept was the use of a dual turntable console that allowed switching from one disk to the other to provide continuous accompaniment to a silent feature. Music could also be played on one turntable while a sound effects disk (bells, horns honking, wind, etc.) was played on the other. For a time, Victor issued “cue sheets” that would suggest which disks could be used to back each scene of a film. Rehearsal was strongly suggested, and today one can only imagine how stressful and hectic the operator’s job was.
The Victor Pict-Ur-Music disks were two sided, with the same selection on both sides. The idea here was that once one side became too worn, the other could be used. Some of the disks derived from non-vocal commercial Victor 78s that were already offered to the home market. In other cases, new “mood” tunes were specifically recorded for the series.
To give you an idea of what some of these recordings sounded like, here are links to a few of my own Pict-Ur-Disks:
Enough theatres apparently bought these disks as they still turn up today on eBay and on record collector auction lists. I own about a hundred myself. The number two and three phonograph record companies of the time, — Columbia and Brunswick respectively — saw a business opportunity and came out with their own series of mood and sound effects 78s after Victor launched their Pict-Ur-Music line.
Needless to say, none of this lasted very long. Launched in mid-1928, the dual turntables and mood disks were finished in theatres within a year. By mid-1929, every Hollywood film being made was with synchronized sound, although silent versions were also offered for a short time.
Many of these recordings survive today because they soon found another home and use: radio. Both the mood music and sound effects disks found extensive use on radio programs and often batches of them have turned up when a station cleans out their storage rooms.
– 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: