The invention: The first practical system for linking sound with moving pictures.
The people behind the invention:
Harry Warner (1881-1958), the brother who used sound to
fashion a major filmmaking company Albert Warner (1884-1967), the brother who persuaded theater
owners to show Warner films Samuel Warner (1887-1927), the brother who adapted sound-
recording technology to filmmaking Jack Warner (1892-1978), the brother who supervised the
making of Warner films
Taking the Lead
The silent films of the early twentieth century had live sound accompaniment featuring music and sound effects. Neighborhood theaters made do with a piano and violin; larger “picture palaces” in major cities maintained resident orchestras of more than seventy members. During the late 1920′s, Warner Bros. led the American film industry in producing motion pictures with their own soundtracks, which were first recorded on synchronized records and later added on to the film beside the images.
The ideas that led to the addition of sound to film came from corporate-sponsored research by American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Both companies worked to improve sound recording and playback, AT&T to help in the design of long-distance telephone equipment and RCA as part of the creation of better radio sets. Yet neither company could, or would, enter filmmaking. AT&T was willing to contract its equipment out to Paramount or one of the other major Hollywood studios of the day; such studios, however, did not want to risk their sizable profit positions by junking silent films. The giants of the film industry were doing fine with what they had and did not want to switch to something that had not been proved.
In 1924, Warner Bros. was a prosperous, though small, corporation that produced films with the help of outside financial backing. That year, Harry Warner approached the important Wall Street investment banking house of Goldman, Sachs and secured the help he needed.
As part of this initial wave of expansion, Warner Bros. acquired a Los Angeles radio station in order to publicize its films. Through this deal, the four Warner brothers learned of the new technology that the radio and telephone industries had developed to record sound, and they succeeded in securing the necessary equipment from AT&T. During the spring of 1925, the brothers devised a plan by which they could record the most popular musical artists on film and then offer these “shorts” as added attractions to theaters that booked its features. As a bonus, Warner Bros. could add recorded orchestral music to its feature films and offer this music to theaters that relied on small musical ensembles.
On August 6,1926, Warner Bros. premiered its new “Vitaphone” technology. The first package consisted of a traditional silent film (Don Juan) with a recorded musical accompaniment, plus six recordings of musical talent highlighted by a performance from Giovanni Martineli, the most famous opera tenor of the day.
The first Vitaphone feature was The Jazz Singer, which premiered in October, 1927. The film was silent during much of the movie, but as soon as Al Jolson, the star, broke into song, the new technology would be implemented. The film was an immediate hit. The Jazz Singer package, which included accompanying shorts with sound, forced theaters in cities that rarely held films over for more than a single week to ask to have the package stay for two, three, and sometimes four straight weeks.
The Jazz Singer did well at the box office, but skeptics questioned the staying power of talkies. If sound was so important, they wondered, why hadn’t The Jazz Singer moved to the top of the all-time box-office list? Such success, though, would come a year later with The Singing Fool, also starring Jolson. From its opening day (September 20,1928), it was the financial success of its time; produced for an estimated $200,000, it took in $5 million. In New York City, The
In the early days of sound films, cameras had to be soundproofed so their operating noises would not be picked up by the primitive sound-recording equipment. (Library of Congress)
Singing Fool registered the heaviest business in Broadway history, with an advance sale that exceeded more than $100,000 (equivalent to more than half a million dollars in 1990′s currency).
The coming of sound transformed filmmaking, ushering in what became known as the golden age of Hollywood. By 1930, there were more reporters stationed in the filmmaking capital of the world than in any capital of Europe or Asia.
The Warner Brothers
Businessmen rather than inventors, the four Warner brothers were hustlers who knew a good thing when they saw it. They started out running theaters in 1903, evolved into film distributors, and began making their own films in 1909, in defiance of the Patents Company, a trust established by Thomas A. Edison to eliminate competition from independent filmmakers. Harry Warner was the president of the company, Sam and Jack were vice presidents in charge of production, and Abe (or Albert) was the treasurer.
Theirs was a small concern. Their silent films and serials attracted few audiences, and during World War I they made training films for the government. In fact, their film about syphilis, Open Your Eyes, was their first real success. In 1918, however, they released My Four Years in Germany, a dramatized documentary, and it was their first blockbuster. Although considered gauche upstarts, they were suddenly taken seriously by the movie industry.
When Sam first heard an actor talk on screen in an experimental film at the Bell lab in New York in 1925, he recognized a revolutionary opportunity. He soon convinced Jack that talking movies would be a gold mine. However, Harry and Abe were against the idea because of its costs—and because earlier attempts at “talkies” had been dismal failures. Sam and Jack tricked Harry into a seeing a experimental film of an orchestra, however, and he grew enthusiastic despite his misgivings. Within a year, the brothers released the all-music Don Juan. The rave notices from critics astounded Harry and Abe.
Still, they thought sound in movies was simply a novelty. When Sam pointed out that they could make movies in which the actors talked, as on stage, Harry, who detested actors, snorted, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” Sam and Jack pressed for dramatic talkies, nonetheless, and prevailed upon Harry to finance them. The silver screen has seldom been silent since.
As a result of its foresight, Warner Bros. was the sole small competitor of the early 1920′s to succeed in the Hollywood elite, producing successful films for consumption throughout the world.
After Warner Bros.’ innovation, the soundtrack became one of the features that filmmakers controlled when making a film. Indeed, sound became a vital part of the filmmaker’s art; music, in particular, could make or break a film.
Finally, the coming of sound helped make films a dominant medium of mass culture, both in the United States and throughout the world. Innumerable fashions, expressions, and designs were soon created or popularized by filmmakers. Many observers had not viewed the silent cinema as especially significant; with the coming of the talkies, however, there was no longer any question about the social and cultural importance of films. As one clear consequence of the new power of the movie industry, within a few years of the coming of sound, the notorious Hays Code mandating prior restraint of film content went into effect. The pairing of images and sound caused talking films to be deemed simply too powerful for uncensored presentation to audiences; although the Hays Code was gradually weakened and eventually abandoned, less onerous “rating systems” would continue to be imposed on filmmakers by various regulatory bodies.
See also Autochrome plate; Dolby noise reduction; Electronic synthesizer; Television.