A History of Early Sounds in the Movies

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In the 1920s, Hollywood studios were riding high. There was skepticism when a new technology came along that would let movie audiences hear actors talking. But Warner Brothers took a gamble and wired theaters for sound. Ben Shapiro has this story of the rise, and fall, of the Vitaphone short films.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The early part of the 20th century was a good time for Hollywood. In the 1920s, the studios were riding high with established stars and their own theater chain. The last thing they wanted was to upset the system with an expensive new gimmick like sound. One studio had famously asked, who wants to hear actors talk.

But Warner Brothers took a gamble. Relatively new to moviemaking, their biggest star at the time was the canine action hero "Rin Tin Tin." Warner wired theaters for sound, and in 1926, started to make talking films. Producer Ben Shapiro has this story of the rise and fall of the Vitaphone short films.

BEN SHAPIRO: In 1927, the "Jazz Singer" opened in New York. Virtually overnight, silent film disappeared and Hollywood became a talking film factory.

(Soundbite of movie, "Jazz Singer")

Mr. AL JOLSON (Actor): (As Jack Robin) (Singing) Wait a minute, you need (unintelligible). You ain't heard nothing yet. You ain't heard a thing.

SHAPIRO: That's the myth anyway. The reality is that a year before the "Jazz Singer," Al Jolson made his talking film debut in blackface, in this Vitaphone short called, "A Plantation Act."

(Soundbite of movie, "A Plantation Act")

Mr. JOLSON: (As himself) (Singing) I've heard a robin this morning. I'm feeling happy today. I'm going to put my cares in a whistle, blow them all away.

SHAPIRO: The Vitaphone shorts were found on a stage set, often complete with proscenium and curtains. The performers looked straight into the camera and did their usual act for 8 to 10 minutes without stopping.

(Soundbite of Vitaphone film)

THE HAPPINESS BOYS (Singing Group): (Singing) How do you, everybody? How do you do?

SHAPIRO: Sometimes, they'll even introduce themselves at the beginning and bow at the end.

Mr. BILLY JONES (Singer): (Singing) I'm Billy Jones.

Mr. ERNIE HARE (Singer): (Singing) I'm Ernie Hare.

THE HAPPINESS BOYS: (Singing) We better thank you through the air if you're a funny looking pair. How do you do?

SHAPIRO: The shorts, which first shared a bill with full-length silent films, brought big city entertainment to small towns across America.

Mr. RON HUTCHINSON (Co-director, Vitaphone Project): They would ship a top act like Burns and Allen or Al Jolson or whoever to these small theaters throughout the country in a can.

SHAPIRO: Ron Hutchinson is the co-director of the Vitaphone Project, a group dedicated to restoring these early sound films.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: And wily new people knew it wasn't a live performer, you need to remember the power on the marquee of some little theater in the Midwest or south or wherever, also playing Vitaphones act, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, that could never in a million years afford their salary even for one week.

(Soundbite of movie, "Finding His Voice")

Unidentified Man: Hello Talkie, what's on your mind now?

Unidentified Man #2: That's my old friend, Mutie. He wants you to put him through the works.

SHAPIRO: Audiences were introduced to the idea of combining sound and pictures with this cartoon, in which Talkie explains the new technology to his friend, Mutie.

Unidentified Man: Now, I'll explain. Inside this booth is a motion picture camera, which is taking pictures through this window. We use a soundproof booth. When it's closed, it keeps the camera noise away from the microphone. Whew, it's hot in this booth. Let's get around on the set again.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: Vitaphone used oversized, 16-inch disks synched along with the reels of film. Audiences and critics were thrilled by their first exposure to amplified sounds as a public spectacle.

Unidentified Man #3: The natural reproduction of voices and the timing of the sounds to the movements of the lips and singers was almost uncanny. The future of this new contrivance is boundless, for inhabitants of small and remote places will have the opportunity to listen to and seeing grand opera as it is in New York. And the genius, the singers and musicians who have passed, will still live. Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: The Vitaphone films did include high culture, like this film of the opera diva Anna Case. But most of the shorts were popular entertainment, everything from acrobats to jazz bands.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: Jazz chased comics who eats everything from his lit cigar to his ukulele.

(Soundbite of ukulele playing)

SHAPIRO: An all-girl singing orchestra, playing 13-band jazz.

(Soundbite orchestra playing)

SHAPIRO: And Baby Rose Marie.

(Soundbite of music)

BABY ROSE MARIE (Actress): (Singing) I like (unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: In the 1950s, Rose Marie became known for her role as Sally Rogers on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." In 1929, when she made this Vitaphone short, she was build as Baby Rose Marie, the child wonder.

Professor EMILY THOMPSON (Historian, Princeton University): Baby Rose Marie looks like Louise Brooks and sings like Sophie Tucker, but she's 4 years old.

SHAPIRO: Princeton University professor, Emily Thompson, researches the transition to sound films.

Prof. THOMPSON: You really have to see and hear her to believe her.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE MARIE: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #1: Quiet please.

(Soundbite of whistle)

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. THOMPSON: I think the best of these films are often characterized by a wonderful combination of absurdity and irreverence. So you get that wisecracking as it plays on words, the poking fun at authority and high culture. We are pre-Wall Street crash. We're not in the Depression yet. We're looking for solace in the movies or comfort. This is the more of the smart-of-the-age.

(Soundbite of Shaw and Lee comedy act)

Unidentified Man #2: Twenty people fell off a 10-storey roof, not one got hurt. How is that? They were all killed.

SHAPIRO: Shaw and Lee were a deadpan comedy act. They would tell one painfully dead, joke after the other, do a take at each other occasionally. It was so modern. It was like they didn't care what the audience reaction was.

(Soundbite of Shaw and Lee comedy act)

SHAW AND LEE (Comedians): (Singing) The guy who wrote this song was deaf. He couldn't hear a note. This is the verse. This is the verse. But he knew all the rules he didn't, that is why he wrote the first verse, verse. The first verse verse. (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: Warners made hundreds of Vitaphone shorts in just a few years. And they ran in thousands of theaters across the country with the bill changing two or three times a week.

Mr. RUDY VALLEE (Singer; Actor): Hi, ho everybody. This is Rudy Vallee announcing and directing this is our first Vitaphone picture.

SHAPIRO: But the success of the films carried the seeds of their demise. Studios quickly realized audiences like the talking, joking and singing, and began to include sound bits in their silent-feature films. After a few years, the Vitaphone canned acts became passé.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: Over the years, many of the films were lost and forgotten. Most were separated from the soundtrack discs. Then in 1985, Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film and Television Archives met someone who worked at the Warner Bros. Studio, who said he remembered seeing some big old phonograph records stashed behind the screen in the mixing room.

Mr. ROBERT GITT (Film Preservation, UCLA Film and Television Archives): And we went inside this room behind the screen. It was dusty and apparently nobody had been there in quite a long time. And there were cabinets with 2,500 Vitaphone discs in aging paper sleeves. I'm sure somebody at the sound department, years earlier, wanted to save these and that's why they were hidden back there.

SHAPIRO: Other Vitaphone discs have been found in everywhere from annex in the Midwest to record collectors who didn't know they were rare movie soundtracks. The UCLA Film and Television Archives and Warner Bros. have restored about 75 of the Vitaphone shorts so far. And Warners plans to release some of the films on DVD.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) High up in my airplane through the fog and the haze. High up in my airplane, I've been flying for days.

SHAPIRO: For the performers, the Vitaphone shorts were a sideline, quickly made for some easy cash. After appearing in them, many soldiered on to the dying days of vaudeville. The shorts are all that remained of their acts, a lost world of American show business.

For NPR News, this is Ben Shapiro.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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