Vitaphone Your Sanity Away!
My job was stressful, so I thought, but I’d have rather dug roads in prison stripes than be a Vitaphone projectionist. The only thing worse would have been managing the house where sound was being introduced. Both were the roughest assignments in town during the late twenties. Not that things hadn't been bad enough before. Boxoffice receipts were dwindling as radios and gramophones were being carted into homes to widen entertainment possibilities there. Moviegoing was a seasonal affair in many towns, certainly the small ones. A visit to the local Bijou during summer months was like entering that sweatbox they put Alec Guinness in. Sound was knocking at the door, for patrons heard voices in their heads even as they sat watching what seemed increasingly old-fashioned silent images. Music and speech was now available at home after all. If we could electrify our living rooms with sound, why couldn’t theatres do the same? That desire for something new, and excitement upon getting it, inspired viewer patience that would see them through one of the most agonizing transitions an industry ever faced. Audiences sat still for presentations so wretched as to make today’s multiplex bunglings seem like models of efficiency, but end results, and everyone could envision the potential there, made all suffering worthwhile. The preceding silent slump was one distributors hoped to conceal, especially from exhibitors to whom they were peddling soon-to-be obsolete goods. So-called forced runs on Broadway created illusions of hits that seldom translated to the smaller marketplace. Harrison’s Reports noted an audience of four hundred on a Sunday afternoon at the Capitol where MGM’s silent Telling The World, starring William Haines, was otherwise playing to forty-six hundred empty seats, and yet shows drawing poorly as this remained weeks in New York palaces, just so trade ads and sales staff could trumpet them as first-run drawers. The trick, and it was surely that, was to bamboozle contracts from smaller houses denied actual head counts and records of boxoffice receipts. Hits that were really flops included Drums Of Love, The Enemy, and even Sunrise. Each played metropolitan houses beyond the public’s interest; all were touted as Broadway (and elsewhere) successes by distributors shuffling cards for potential buyers down the exhibition line. Truth is, New York first-runs had little to do with movies being shown. They were incidental to programs revolving around big time vaudeville acts. Those were the real attractions. Motion pictures, even good ones, became afterthoughts. Who cares what’s on the screen when Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman, or John Philip Souza are among the bill of fare? Theatres were spending fifteen to thirty thousand dollars a week to load up stages, and competition was fierce among NYC palaces. Total weekly expenses for such powerhouses ran as high as one hundred thousand. Extravagant numbers representing boxoffice receipts were published, but who was verifying these? Movies few cared about got the credit for three ring circuses in which they’d had but small roles, and salesmen used numbers generated by "A" list vaude talent to parlay undeserved rentals from showmen dazzled by (often doctored) numbers rung up in Gotham. Disappointment inevitably followed and distrust fermented. Sound, and distributor grabs for even higher rentals, would make things worse.
Vitaphone began as a strictly cosmopolitan offering. Initial programs were customized for urban audiences. There was, from the beginning, a highbrow vs. lowbrow division between those who regarded Vitaphone as harbinger for cultural uplift and others who saw it as dispenser of broad-based entertainment with appeal well beyond Manhattan sophisticates. Warners wasted little time covering all bases. Don Juan lured the carriage trade with Vitaphone prologues featuring mostly classical and operatic performers. That opened in August 1926. By October, slap-shoe comic Sydney Chaplin headlined The Better Ole, not so much in itself, but accompanied by possibly the greatest all-star vaudeville bill ever gathered, according to Variety. A highlight was Al Jolson’s Plantation Act, wherein he sang and ad-libbed to his unseen audience as though standing before them. Whether anyone realized it at the time, this was the future of Vitaphone, for patrons responded strongest to spoken word as supplement to song. Casual speech electrified as surely as currents running through horns and amplifiers. Opinion makers tried spinning emphasis toward orchestral accompaniments. New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall referred to these as Vitaphone Concerts, lofty occasions for the great moviegoing unwashed to improve themselves. Vitaphone will give its patrons an excellent idea of a singer’s acting and an intelligent conception of the efforts of musicians and their instruments. There was much sneering among columnists over tin pan pianos (or worse, woman-handled pianos) and squeaky violins that would be replaced in small towns across the country as Vitaphone rescued provincial sinkholes denied good music for too long. So far, sound was a revolution very much supported by the elites. To further gratify rarified tastes, Warners offered When A Man Loves for February 1927, the third Vitaphone program and one that would play nineteen weeks at Broadway’s Selwyn Theatre. Shorts preceding the feature were back in longhair mode with the exception of vaudeville favorites Van and Schenck, whom the Times damned with faint praise. Although they are aptly registered, (Van and Schenck) jar on one after listening to the classical airs (in this case, tenor Charles Hackett along with selections from Rigoletto). When A Man Loves, like Don Juan, limited its Vitaphone accompaniment to orchestral scoring, with familiar to New Yorkers Henry Hadley as composer (he’d been conductor for the city’s Philharmonic earlier in the twenties). Sound effects included knocks at doors, bells ringing, and as with Don Juan, clashing of swords, but still no dialogue. Warners maintained Vitaphone as music only adjunct to play in first runs and palaces wired. Take away the limited sound and you'd still have fully intertitled silent versions for servicing of neighborhood and smaller situations. Establishment resistance to speech on screen remained an inhibiting factor. When motion picture action is interpreted not by words, but by music, an interesting art is created. True enough, and maybe we’d have been better off if electronic assist were limited to scores it could provide, but would there have been profit in that? Maybe not, for initial Vitaphone success was not to last. Receipts would begin dipping after the first three.
Vitaphone as a novelty, if not a modern miracle, saw Warner’s innovation through Don Juan (profits $473,000), The Better Ole ($305,000), and When A Man Loves ($150,000). Going to these was like attending opening night of a new play or symphony. Movies had seldom attained such prestige. Attractively designed souvenir books were available for a quarter. At twenty pages, with embossed cameos of John Barrymore and Dolores Costello on the cover, these keepsakes for When A Man Loves were sold in the Selwyn Theatre’s lobby. A copy I located bore a handwritten tribute from the nameless fan who bought it eighty years ago. I saw this at the Selwyn Theatre on Friday matinee, April 1,’27 with Helen Roone, Lil’s sister from Baltimore. One of the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever seen. Splendidly acted. Dolores Costello is exquisite as Manon and John Barrymore is fascinating as ever, if not more so. TCM can offer us When A Man Loves with picture and sound beautifully restored, but they’ll not reclaim the romance and excitement of first-run discovery like this. Precious few experienced it even in 1927, for this feature with Vitaphone accompaniment would have enjoyed but limited playdates. Speedy developments with regards sound rendered product even a few months old passe as metropolitan houses across the country began wiring (very few played sound over the 1926-27 season). Still, Warners had a grand first season with Vitaphone. Don Juan, The Better Ole, and When A Man Loves accounted for thirty-six percent of all studio profits for 1926-27, and this was a year in which Warners also released twenty-six conventional silent features, most of which saw profit well below $100,000 (Rin Tin-Tin, considered a top draw, ended but $58,000 to the good for Jaws Of Steel). By autumn of 1927, newly installed Vitaphone theatres were crying for brand new attractions to put on their talking screens. Specifically, they wanted The Jazz Singer, which would be released in October. Most audiences received Don Juan, The Better Ole, and When A Man Loves as conventional silent programs. Those woman-handled pianos would not be silenced just yet. As city patrons became accustomed to Vitaphone through 1927, inertia set in. The fourth offering with sound, Old San Francisco (June 1927), saw profits fall to $78,000. It seemed customers were back to judging movies on merit rather than novelty. Chickens came home with the fifth Vitaphone, The First Auto, which actually lost $124,000. Number Six, The Jazz Singer, would arrive not a moment too soon.
The complicating factor with Vitaphone was a human one. You could sooner juggle six orange crates than get one of these shows to play through without breakdowns or complications (accent on plurals). Managers and projectionists lived in daily fear of losing their jobs. Each blamed the other for screw-ups neither could be entirely blamed for. You’d rehearse these shows all night before opening (many did) and still something (everything!) would go wrong. Sound equipment was Greek to booth veterans accustomed to projectors dating back to the teens, and synchronizing records with pictures on screen was hell itself. They needed operators with a dozen arms like those creations Ray Harryhausen built to menace Sinbad decades later. Unions got wise in a hurry and demanded two (at least) of their membership to handle presentation. That sent house nuts through the roof, but was nothing beside what distributors were trying to rake off by way of increased sound film rentals. Minimal flat rates for silents was the norm that kept small houses solvent through much of the twenties, but this was a grim new day. Better to avoid sound altogether. Stay silent! Pick the best programs and don’t pay over $7.50 -- $10 -- $12.50 and $15.00 for from two to three days. Sage advise if you could live by it, but what to do when your customers are driving out of town to see talkers? Buy the installation --- five thousand and up for so-called dependable ones, then get ready for rentals climbing past fifty dollars per feature, plus twenty-five more for the platters. Those often came in scratched or otherwise defective. One manager drove Bulldog Drummond and accompanying discs over seventy-five miles to three other houses and couldn’t get it to play properly in any of them. A lot of owners gave up and closed. Our own Rose Theatre tried getting by with silents till late in 1929, then shuttered. Yet to come were distributors instituting percentage policies (previously applied only on super-specials). Cleveland exhibitors dug in their heels and refused to play that game. Their resolve melted in the face of a public’s demand for talkies. Film companies really had showmen by the throat this time. Salesmen for Warners went around peddling silent prints of Vitaphone features at inflated prices, citing big grosses these shows had earned in the flagships. What they didn’t address was why anyone would pay to see The Jazz Singer without sound. Things were a mess even in major venues. You needed mechanical genius and exquisitely attuned senses to checkmate gremlins hiding in this dread calliope. Motion Picture Herald acknowledged the crapshoot nature of projection with sound. Individual performances are of varying quality in reproduction and there is a wider range of quality between one show and the next. That was a tactful way of putting it, but then MPH was accepting ads from the film companies, so tact /understatement would remain first /foremost. Small comfort for lone eagles flying solo in booths above two and three thousand angry patrons. So Al Jolson jumps out of sync. Where does the operator go from there? All he can do is try to get it back right again and it is just luck if he can strike it right, said one exhausted operator. Cool heads would prevail or hit the bricks. No longer would you fire up the arcs, then sit and read a newspaper. DVD reviews of a newly released The Jazz Singer indicate there are minor sync issues yet, so I suppose the Vitaphone curse, eight decades running, is indeed eternal.
Notes On Photos: That's a Vitaphone projection set-up above, with turntable. The posed group of four includes Jack Warner, Dolores Costello, John Barrymore, and director Alan Crosland on the set of When A Man Loves.