Lee De Forest was called "Father Of The
Electronic Revolution" by Maurice Zouary, who wrote a book about the
inventor and owned what survived of pioneering sound movies De Forest made in
the early 20's. These were featured in a documentary that was available at one
time from Inkwell Images, but is currently out of print. Zouary was a champion
for De Forest's legacy and of opinion he was badly used by industry powers that
seized sound and left De Forest curbside. There is disparity as to wronged who,
if that matters after ninety years. As history laced with drama or David
battling multiple Goliaths, the De Forest saga is a grabber still, him not
unlike the guy who developed intermittent windshield wipers only to have the
idea stolen by automotive octopi. De Forest's name is a good one to throw out
next time someone claims Warners and Fox were first with soundmovies, as his
beat them by several years and were as technically finished as well, at least
when properly presented, but there, unfortunately, was the rub.
De Forest had
to run on a crutch because studio-owned and big circuits wouldn't give him
playtime. So-called "maverick" showmen opened doors, but thereweren't enough of them to cover mounting expense of reels De Forest produced, plus
costs distributing same. His was sound recorded on film as opposed to disc-sync
the Warners would use, and ran at twenty frames per second rather than 24FPS as
became standard after corporate claws grabbed hold. De Forest
didn't have a chance once these giants moved in. They weren't about to let a
little fish like him tell them how to swim. Patents De Forest registered were
co-opted and brazenly put to service of talkies shown nationwide. If De Forest
didn't like it, he could sue, but with what? The inventor stayed broke most of the
time, being notso good at business or with partners. De Forest was of sort to
inevitably get it in the neck.
Maurice Zouary came to possession of De Forest
prints via purchase of a stock footage library wherein the stuff was buried
since who knows when. None of it would exist but for Zouary's intercession and
stewardship. The subjects ran to one or two reels, best of these featuring
vaudeville legends captured in many cases for a one and only time on film. De
Forest was in production for a handful of years from 1922, his talkies gettingout there well ahead of everything notwithstanding crude effort by those
(including Edison) who had noodled at
mechanical reproduction of sound. There were complaints over (lack of) aural
quality in De Forest reels, but as survivors sound pretty good even today, we
must chalk that up to theatres bumbling the job or equipment on a fritz.
Without heeled backing to grease wheels or put techs on site, as would be case
with Vitaphone and Movietone (the latter Zouary says was filched from De Forest
concept), the shows had to rely on sheerest luck to unspool to satisfaction.
Then as now with untried method, how often would that happen?
Vaude names were eager to play for nickels or
less, knowing they'd achieve immortality for talking before De Forest's
invention. Eddie Cantor was a booster and encouraged stage peers to participate.
Weber and Fields got aboard and left us a one and only sustained record of
their historic act. These boys dated back to 1877 performing, for all I know
gagging up the Civil War as it was still fresh in memories. They looked like Macy
balloons for costume padding applied to make frequent blows impact less. Yes,
they were a violent act, verbal warfare no less so. Close eyes and you'd think
W&F were Abbott and Costello arrived early, as in past century early. Their
De Forest routine has a pool table for locus of patter along with belly pierce
with cue sticks. You have to listen close for all of staccato exchanging, the
two going at twice a speed of later acts. Eddie Cantor is calminginfluence to
follow, all clap-hand and mincing after fashion of male comics who played the
nance to amuse. You can tell these entertainers miss their audience, a few guys
behind cameras not enough to get juice flowing. To be without a crowd probably
cut effectiveness by half for vaude folk stepping before microphones, and that
robs us of full effect their humor would have had during primes.