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Monday, December 08, 2014

The Man Who Gave Volume To Sound

DeForest and Phonofilm Come and Go In The 20's

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 sound movies, 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 there weren'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 not so 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 getting out 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 calming influence 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.


Blogger Beowulf said...

Ah, yes, those were the days. Don't know what documentary you are referring to, but PBS's wonderful "Vaudeville" used many of these early talkies because they captured Vaudeville acts otherwise lost to time. I remember an Eddie Cantor clip where he speaks about someone getting out of jail a long time off--1928 or so. HOLLYWOOD's wonderful "End of an Era" goes into a lot of this stuff, and the hour-long documentary that comes with the latest super-duper THE JAZZ SINGER has yet another close look at the era and its pioneers. Sound on disc had no future...until Spielberg put a Jurrasic soundtrack on a CD to be played in the theater! Everything old is new again.

9:50 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts supplies further and very welcome background on De Forest and early sound systems:


The other great book about Lee Deforest and the invention of broadcast and
motion picture sound is Tom Lewis's EMPIRE OF THE AIR and the Ken Burns
Documentary made from it, it tells the story of all the chicanery that went on
in the development of all that technology, and the arguement can certainly be
made that DeForest both screwed and was screwed by any number of folk in what he
invented and what he stole from others. I'm sure you know the other main name in
the Deforest case is Theodore Case, his one-time partner and the one who most
likely did the real thinking behind the development of the sound-on-film

When Case split from DeForest, he continued on his own trail of experimentation
and design, and it was he that finally sold the process that became Movietone to
William Fox (in fact, Movietone was first billed as the "Fox-Case Process")and
made the money DeForest felt was his and sued everyone in an attempt to get some
of. Years later, Deforest did finally get a modest settlement, but it was too
little too late, and he was a forgotten man by that time.

One amazing sidelight about Theodore Case is that his laboratory and studio in
Auburn, New York still stands basically as it was when he was developing his
process in the 1920's and is a Museum today. It is an amazing place that he
abandoned in the 1930's and was just locked up and ignored until it was
discovered and turned into a museum in the 1990's. It was a perfect side visit
to make during a Syracuse Cinefest several years ago, and is truly like going
back in time. I can absolutely state that I have stood in the exact same place
where Gus Visser made his duck sing by whatever vicarious means he did so, even
the curtain he stood before is still there.

One more interesting thing about the Deforest Sound Process is that the only
"major" movie producers to utilize it was, oddly enough, the Weiss Brothers, who
bought Deforest's Studio and Phonofilm Process in 1929 and made and released
several features in the process. The first feature, a Craig Kennedy mystery
titled UNMASKED(1929) starring Robert Warwick as Detective Kennedy, no longer
survives, but the second one, HER UNBORN CHILD (1930) does and it is an
interesting early talkie centering on the rather controversial-at-the-time movie
subject of abortion and was the film debut of Elisha Cook Jr. The Phonofilm
Process was a bit more sophisticated by then (and running at 24 frames per
second)and certainly sounds no better or worse than Movietone did at the time,
but the Weiss's were forced to abandon it several years later and move over to
Western Electric's system.


12:01 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

De Forest produced a series of shorts in Argentina, the first sound and talkies there. Also, there was a documentary feature length of the events when HipĆ³lito Yirigoyen was sworn as president, filmed on October 12, 1928.

According to the reviews of the day, those shorts had better soundtracks than those imported from the United States.

2:32 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer knows how good we've got it, and says so:

The marvels of this digital age include not only the abundance of rare items we could only have dreamt of seeing--or hearing--but in experiencing them as they might have appeared under optimal conditions--perfectly synchronized and perfectly registered--as they so seldom did, in their own time.

Some years ago, I attended a Cinefest showing of Gaumont Chronochrome demonstration films, courtesy of Eastman House. Chronochrome was an additive color process which used the three primary colors to produce images of stunning beauty. Many of the demonstration films featured illuminated glass objects on turntables, revealing the subtlety and depth of color of the process. Others, of cavalry on parade, for example, displayed lustrous blacks and reds and were as fresh as though they had been taken the day before, and not in 1912. The films had been transcribed to modern film stock, however, so that, if anything, they were only an approximation of what Chronochrome was capable of, except that what I was seeing would have required an unusual conjunction of planets, in order for it to occur. There were many technical problems with the process, not the least of which was the need to constantly adjust the lenses for the projection of the images for two of the three primary colors, so that the resulting image on screen would be kept reasonably sharp and in register. As with the Vitaphone sound system, whenever this kind of intervention is required, there is almost certainly going to be variable results, at best. In this case, the best occurred so infrequently that the system was never adopted or used by anyone, except for such demonstration films as I watched.

With DVDs, however, those Chronochrome films are more readily available and in even closer fidelity to the process. Likewise, we can watch DeForest Phonofilm or Vitaphone films and marvel at how good the sound is, since we're no longer troubled by problems with synchronization or sound reproduction. We have them as though the projectionist was having the night of his career, the operation of the system was equal to the hyperbole of the advertisements for it, and for once the squawk of a duck was perfectly realized.

Truly we live in an age of wonders.

5:21 AM  

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