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Thursday, December 20, 2007

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. Conditions were bad enough before. Boxoffice receipts dwindled as radio and gramophones widened entertainment options at home. Moviegoing was a seasonal affair in many towns, certainly the small ones. Patrons heard voices in their heads even as they watched increasingly old-fashioned silents. 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? Desire for something new, and excitement upon getting it, inspired viewer patience to see them through a most difficult transition the industry ever faced. Audiences sat still for presentations so wretched as to make today’s multiplex bunglings seem like models of efficiency, but end result, and everyone could envision potential there, made all of 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 attractions.

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 flop
s included Drums Of Love, The Enemy, and even Sunrise. Each played metropolitan houses beyond the public’s interest, all 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 they were showing. These were incidental to big time vaudeville acts also on the bill. Motion pictures, even good ones, became afterthoughts. Who cared what was on the screen with Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman, or John Philip Souza performing in person? Theatres were spending fifteen to thirty thousand dollars a week to load up stages, competition 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 of minor interest got the credit for
three ring circuses in which they had but small roles, salesmen using numbers generated by "A" list vaude talent to increase rentals from showmen dazzled by numbers rung up in Gotham. Disappointment inevitably followed and distrust fermented. Sound, and distributor grabs for ever more revenue, 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 a great 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, th
e 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 that were 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 development with regards sound rendered product even a few months old passe as metropolitan houses across the country began wiring. 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 gains 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 responsible 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. Unions got wise in a hurry and demanded two (at least) of their membership to handle projection. 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 Vitaph
one 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.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Very nice:

The sound film revolution is still a fascinating topic for me. I used to spend a few years reading original papers and magazines in Buenos Aires, to realize that the transition from silents to talkies is a much more complicated matter than any documentary have ever displayed.

I guess that most of what we read derive from a superficial retelling of the events from the late thirties. Contemporary publications have been shelved for years and on occasion they are hard to access, but they reveal a story in which audiences were frustrated and demanded better shows than the ones studios, distributors and exhibitors were providing.

In Argentina, the sound film revolution started around June 1929. Remember that date... since your article deals with 1927. Fox Film Corporation could have started the revolution around the world at that time, since they had all the resources. Yet they postponed it, Warners, despite their Vitaphone shows, was still a minor company in the world scene and their films were handled by third party distributors.

That explains why THE JAZZ SINGER was not the very first talkie seen in Buenos Aires. It was released in 1930 to insignificant business.

The very first sound film was, then, THE DIVINE LADY with its Vitaphone soundtrack (Max Glücksmann wired his theaters for both systems). And the following month, the release of THE BROADWAY MELODY (in English and with Spanish subtitles), would begin to change the landscape forever. (MGM, erroneously considered to be the last studio to jump in the sound wagon, was the only one that did a very good job handling the transition).

And then, by the end of that year, you had Universal's BROADWAY, promoted as the very first film in Spanish. But the result was a big and messy disaster: the film introduced the dubbed version, and the discs were not in sync... Audiences booed the entire movie and the reviews were totally negative... yet the film had to be exhibited for several more weeks.

By the end of the year, Fox decided to release their first sound film, FOUR DEVILS, after all of the other companies already presented sound synchronized productions or talkies.

Warner was a stupid company, by the end of 1930 they were still releasing silent versions of their talkies... and I am sure that they lost a lot of money doing so. It was not until SALLY that they finally decided to scrap the silents.

As said, by the time the sound film revolution started in Argentina, it had already finished in the United States. All companies tried to postpone the inevitable, but during 1930 the transition was daily thing with articles in the papers, protests of the musician unions and the loss of jobs. The transition finished in 1931 and many of the most popular orchestras that performed in the theaters (and had recording contracts) would vanish forever, sadly.

7:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful. After reading Scott Eyman's excellent THE SPEED OF SOUND, I garnered the same impression about the seemingly impossible practice of projecting Vitaphone pix. I still have nightmare memories of 16mm Pageants and Eikis going wrong when projecting films in high school and college, and the audience would go nuts or perhaps become abusive... and nothing ever happened back then that couldn't be solved by a quick splice, re-thread or bulb change. So simple, really. As you and Eyman make abundantly clear, there was nothing simple about Vitaphone -- and, of course, it was nitrate film...

Merry Christmas to the proprietor -- and to all patrons of the Greenbriar.

8:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, can you imagine the headache of trying to keep a Vitaphone screening straight? I wonder, if projectionists had been unionized in 1927, would we ever have gotten sound? If you compare those old Vitaphone recordings with the early sound-on-film from De Forest and Fox, the quality of Vitaphone sounds (to my ears, at least) distinctly superior. Yet it was clearly doomed; the hassles were insurmountable against the manifest convenience of a printed soundtrack. Ironic, then, isn't it, that with Digital Theatre Sound, we've essentially come back full circle to Vitaphone -- this time the sound is on a CD rather than a phonograph disc, the synch is computerized and foolproof -- and there's a soundtrack on the film just in case.

Also, I second Griff's wishes for a Mery Christmas and a Happy 2008 to all!

2:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amiable post and this mail helped me alot in my college assignement. Say thank you you for your information.

8:08 PM  

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