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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Paramount Goes For All-Talking Lead

Sound Takes A Stride With Interference (1928) --- Part One

The early talking era works like a magnet on me, what with survivors washing up on DVD shores and TCM serve from bottomless barrels. It's easy to look at emerging sound and laugh, or be bored. Fun along that line began with Singin' In The Rain in 1952 and hasn't abetted. Try as many might, it's tough assuming place of thrilled onlookers when screens learned to speak. Experiments with talk had gone on since movies themselves got a start, these stymied by gremlin host of trip-overs. Even Edison did a bow-out after failing to match voice with picture. What sound needed was big money and corporate patience in putting technology from telephones and radio to service of movies. That merger could happen only when biggest players took an interest and lent discoveries to betterment of picturegoing. Audiences were thrilled by dialogue they could finally make out and for most part withheld criticism as kinks were smoothed. What excited most was amplification of sound to levels a seated thousands would hear. In large enough theatres, this alone told truth that a new era was upon us.

Progress was a watchword. As major studios joined the fray, each swore a next would surpass the last, and they'd be right for improvements made week-to-week by staff sped round learning curves. An exploding market for talk had been ceded to Warners and Fox by other majors, but two seasons was enough of that and now with assurance that sound was here to stay, big players Paramount and MGM took the field with goal of seizing lead via bigger/better merchandise typical of these giants. Fall of 1928 saw engines revving for a contest to get serious now that all players were in the game. Warners still led, as they had since August 1926 and Don Juan, thanks to September 19 rollout of The Singing Fool at the Winter Garden, opening night tickets a jaw-dropping $11, sold out and being scalped for several times that by Broadway sharpies. Here was a biggest so-far smash of talkers and a spinner of cash undreamt of by makers or observing trade. Paramount had been testing water with a Richard Dix baseball comedy appropriately called Warming Up, with synchronized music and sound effects, and that company's own historic hit, Wings, owed at least part of its two-a-day success to a synced score the handiwork of resident sound expert Roy Pomeroy.

Pomeroy was Paramount's tech creator-in-chief, having made a name as part-er of the Red Sea for DeMille in The Ten Commandments and now as chief reader of talking tea-leaves. Pomeroy had spent time with Western Electric staff in the east and understood best how to harness sound on Para's behalf, having put across the Wings score and further experiment with R. Dix and audible baseball batting. Every studio needed a resident genius, and Pomeroy was Paramount's. With The Singing Fool toppling pins on B'way, it was time to push a GO button. Interference had begun as a silent feature directed by Lothar Mendes; in fact, he'd finished it. But was the play-derived yarn a better bet for talkies? Paramount thought so, especially after eyeball of advance Singing Fool ducats sale as reported by trades. Announcement came "suddenly," said Exhibitor's Herald World (9-13-28), that Interference would be done again, this time as 100% talker. The cast reported on 9-22 for sound shooting under Mendes direction, but it was Roy Pomeroy who'd take over, him having done tests all along using Interference cast members in talking scenes for the film.

Meanwhile there were four stages under construction at Paramount, each 70 feet wide, 100 feet long, and customized for recording ("plans formulated by Roy Pomeroy," said the Exhibitor's Herald World). With Paramount's headline came pledge that Interference would be finished and in release by November. "Progress, not hysteria, will mark Paramount's advance in the field of audible pictures," declared production chief Jesse L. Lasky in Publix Opinion, the studio's house organ. Meanwhile, race was on to complete Interference and have it ready for November 5's World Premiere at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. Company brass knew how much rode on quality they'd achieve. Interference would simply have to look and sound better than anyone else's talkie up to then. A best and maybe only way to achieve that was by giving Roy Pomeroy carte blanche. Who of a nervous industry knew more of sound and how to capture it? That Pomeroy took over like a field marshal would be overlooked, at least for now. Nothing could be left to chance, Interference as a title being risky enough, for what if wags used it ultimately to describe Paramount attempt at voicing?

Pomeroy was early on recognized as wand-waver over stars who sought to speak. Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd both came to him for assist and supervision of their first voice tests. Roy had a system that involved use of two negatives, one to record picture and the other for sound. That meant he could process each to maximum quality result, unlike sound-on-film technique where developing of aural plus visual usually meant sacrifice of seeing, hearing, or both. Tough part was the expense, as Pomeroy had to make two prints that would run in sync, sort of like Vitaphone but with tandem films projected rather than film plus accompanying disc. It was a system not unlike Natural-Vision3-D to come, with its two prints side by side. Whatever the cost, Paramount was willing to spend, at least for initial playdates attended by industry rivals and opinion-makers who'd confirm Para sound as clearest in town. Trade columnists got an early peek and lauded Pomeroy's innovation, but would note necessity of everything in twos --- negatives, release prints, twice the supply of projectors and operators. "This, of course, is alright with the large (Paramount) Publix-owned theatres, but what will happen in the small towns?," asked Exhibitor's Daily Review.

Paramount put day-and-night shifts to work in what was described as "the busiest era of activity in the history of the organization," with three sound-enhanced features in west coast production. As Interference barreled toward set-in-stone opener date, there was Emil Jannings laboring under Sins Of The Fathers, which would have talking segments, and Richard Arlen/Nancy Carroll at work on Manhattan Cocktail. Six further audions were in varying stage of preparation. Insurance was had with the silent version of Interference as completed by Lothar Mendes. This was, after all, how most audiences would receive the movie (Greenbriar's own hometown and unwired Rose Theatre was one). Exhibitor's Herald World published a Western Electric estimate of 849 theatres that had been equipped for sound as of 11/17/28 (Interference would open in NYC on 11/16). The Herald World said this included "all of the greatest theatres, and greatest revenue producers." That left the rest of nationwide houses mute, result being many of earliest talkies never played smaller markets except in silent versions. Viewers who got to see and hear Interference were very much in a privileged minority, this being case with numerous features released during 1928 and into 1929.


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