As Ben M. Hall, in The Best Remaining Seats, observes with a deal of irony, “Look who’s talking!” By the time Fox made this remark, the Warner Brothers had already taken the plunge with Vitaphone, a Bell lab wonder of synchronized sound, that consisted of a turntable which took twelve or sixteen-inch discs timed (more or less) to match the lip movements of actors on screen. So many technologies had already preceded Vitaphone (the Phonokinema, Phonofilm, Web’s Electrical Pictures, the Kinetophone, the New Kinetophone, the Cameraphone) it’s hard to keep track. Fox, the naysayer, was soon to join the parade with “Movietone,” based on a German invention, Tri-Ergon (sound on film).
When his adaptation of this process was complete, Movietone became the granddaddy of movies as the world eventually came to know them, with a “stripe” of sound consisting of variously-dense lines along one side of film. This was better than Vitaphone, more exact, but, for a time, Vitaphone would be the expensive process theater operators dug deep into their pockets to absorb the cost of, just in time to offer their patrons the first spoken (movie) words, “Wait a minute — wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothing yet!” — Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.
Actually, the first “talkie” had already aired in New York (August, 1926), Don Juan, a romantic adventure (most kisses in film history — 127 actually!) starring John Barrymore. It was technically the first feature-length film to utilize Vitaphone (with synchronized musical score and sound effects) though it has no spoken dialogue. The talking picture Rubicon had yet to be crossed.
In 1976 at the St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat movie palace in Staten Island which I took a hand in helping to run, we found a Vitaphone handbook in the projection booth, and an old, non-functioning speaker backstage that bore the Vitaphone logo. Our theater had opened in 1929, with So This is College, a (Warner/Vitaphone) talking picture, two years after Jolson spoke and sang. By this time, every theater operator worth his (her?) salt already knew the Vitaphone Manual front-to-back, enough to program talking short films in place of the less-interesting live acts that used to play between silent features. Vaudeville was on the run, and so were some silent film stars who couldn’t talk without sounding like a squeaky mouse, had unacceptable accents, or simply couldn’t adjust to a different style of acting. Clara Bow (the “It Girl”) was one such: when she heard that there was a fire at Paramount, she quipped "I hope to Christ it was the sound stages!" A seasoned actor, she went on to make 11 talkies before retiring to become a rancher in Nevada.
What exactly was it about sound pictures that so disappointed a number of actors? Beyond wishing the sound stages would go up in flames, Bow observed, "I hate talkies ... they're stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there's no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me." Harold Lloyd’s career never quite recovered when sound came in; the very soul of a physical actor, he had always done his own stunts. When sound was more or less a fait accompli, Lloyd actually made a film (Welcome Danger) in two versions, one a talking picture and the other a silent. Charlie Chaplin, who wrote and produced most of the movies he starred in, simply refused to accept sound, producing City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936) without dialogue. (His use of sound-effects in both these films was brilliant).
But despite Chaplin’s sophistication, sound was here to stay; nothing in Hollywood would ever be the same. In February 1929, sixteen months after The Jazz Singer's debut, Columbia Pictures became the last of the eight major studios to release its first (part-) talking feature, Lone Wolf's Daughter.
It would take a while for all of America to follow the new technology: the number of sound cinemas grew from 100 to 800 between 1928 and 1929, but were, for a brief time, vastly outnumbered by silent theaters--which nonetheless grew in number in the same period, from 22,204 to 22,544. For a while, a little way into 1930, Hollywood produced movies in dual versions, silent and talking. Though few in the industry had predicted it (including William Fox, whose early opinion on sound started this blog post), Points West, a Hoot Gibson Western released by Universal in 1929, would be the last purely silent mainstream feature to emerge.
By the time I came of age in the sixties, most of the silent stars had left their handprints and footprints in Grauman’s cement, and, endangered species that they were, had gone off to live in the Hollywood Hills or elsewhere, if they had made enough money, at an ironic remove from official Hollywood. There are interesting exceptions, including Lillian Gish who kept working until six years before her death in 1993, making her last screen appearance in 1987.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking about movie palaces as the natural homes of the silents, but it ain’t necessarily so. Our theater, the St. George, was built when silents reigned, but opened in 1929 with a talkie. Its dressing rooms (rubble-strewn and vacant by the time we came along in 1976) housed vaudeville actors a little way into the 30’s, but silents were, as it turned out, never on the bill. Nor were they available at a host of other prominent palaces, including, among others, the gorgeous Atlanta Fox (1929), the Pomona Fox (1931), The Loew’s 175th Street Theatre (1930 — “Times Square entertainment nearer your home!”) (now the United Palace), all of which were completed in the age of sound.
As for the movies themselves, what exactly is a movie, and how long will movie-going last? When I first entered the projection booth of the St. George Theatre, its hulking carbon-arc projectors were already obsolete. Not so long ago, friend Bob Endres, who worked the better part of his adult life as the head projectionist at Radio City Music Hall, a man I remember for his white-gloved treatment of film, dropped a small disc into a computer at Dolby Sound, where he currently works, and a crisp movie appeared on the screen in their viewing studio. Think of the kinetoscope at the beginning of the 20th century, film’s century. It was a single-viewer device. And then there were nickelodeons — those primitive storefront theaters. And crowds gathered in vacant lots in places like Toledo, Ohio — my mother remembered sitting on some wooden benches watching flickering images on a bed sheet, batting away the mosquitos.
That’s how it all began, followed by movie palaces and hometown theaters. And then TV comes along, right there in your living room, smaller but free. TV forces the movie industry to create smaller theaters with more screens to allow for select crowds and greater choice. (I had the bad luck or poor judgement to try running a movie palace at that juncture!). Movies, by this time, have come to TV. A decade later TV is in every room of every house and then it too begins to disappear! The Internet, that biggest of all fishes, swallows it whole, and here we are again, watching tiny screens — it’s an endless loop of technology.
During my theater management year, we ran Silent Movie, a film by Mel Brooks in which nobody actually speaks, except, once, a mime...It may have been the only silent our twenties movie palace ever presented...