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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Art forms of a New Country

article number 667
article date 06-01-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Stagnant Silent Movie Industry Doesn’t See its Savior . . . but the "Talkies" Come, 1927
by Benjamin Hampton
   

From the 1931 book, History of the Movies.

* * *

§ 1926 . . . Accepting George Kleine’s statement that “1896 marked the beginning of all things in motion picture commerce,” the industry had reached the age of thirty years. Story-telling in movies started about ten years later, so the art developed by the industry was not more than twenty years old.

Famous Players, the first of feature-film companies, was organized by Zukor in 1912, and Paramount was organized by Hodkinson in 1914; the larger growth of the industry and the more extensive developments of the art had taken place during the dozen years after 1914.

Whether one allows an age of twelve, or twenty, or thirty years, the American movie industry had accomplished an astonishing growth by 1926.

Wall Street bankers calculated the investment in studios, theaters, exchanges, and merchandise at $1.5 billion; ’Variety’ made a careful compilation of figures that placed the total at more than $2 billion; 20,000 theaters claimed an attendance of 100 million a week, and the annual commerce of the American industry was placed at between $I billion to $1 1/4 billion.

The movies had grown from nothing in 1896 to a position among the half dozen largest industries in the United States in 1926.

At the head of this business was Adolph Zukor. Whether or not he had built a new kind of trust that crushed competition is a question that may never be answered by the courts, but his paramount Famous-Lasky Corporation, worth $150 million, with theaters and theater affiliations in all countries, was the most powerful factor in motion pictures, and Zukor was the foremost individual in the studios and the screens of the world.

The product of the industry of which Zukor had made himself the dominant individual was reaching into the lives of more men, women, and children in more places, and coloring their thoughts and affecting their habits and customs more effectively than newspapers and books, religious institutions, and political governments.

An immeasurable, invisible world power rested on the desk of the Emperor of Entertainment in Zukor’s lofty Paramount Building in Times Square.

Marcus Loew and William Fox were important personages in movie matters, standing next to Zukor, but Loew had been relaxing his driving urge for several years, enjoying the fruits of his prosperous business, and in 1926, Fox had not yet acquired the Roxy and other theaters and properties that were to increase his stature so mightily by 1929.

Laemmle and Universal were active and prosperous, but were definitely in the second flight. Loew, Fox, and First National were the only competitors worthy of Zukor’s attention in the spring of 1926. A few smaller specialized companies were operating successfully, but there seemed to be nothing in the industry that could seriously annoy Paramount.

Even the First National problem had adjusted itself by one of Zukor’s characteristic, far-seeing master-strokes. The Katz-Hoyt plan of merging theaters, studios, and exchanges worked along until there seemed to be a reasonable belief that many, perhaps a majority of members, might agree to it.

   
Adolf Zukor himself was involved in the production of many movies like ’Beau Geste,’ staring Ronal Colman, Paramount Pictures,1926.

Then, in 1925-26, Paramount bought control of the Balaban and Katz theaters, and organized “Publix Theaters Corporation,” placing the stock of Publix in the treasury of Paramount Famous-Lasky Company, and transferring the theater holdings of Paramount to Publix. Sam Katz was elected president of the theater company and managed its affairs as if it were a separate entity.

In this transaction Zukor accomplished several major objectives:

The loss of Balaban and Katz, foremost exhibitors in the Chicago district, weakened First National’s theater position, and strengthened Paramount’s;

In obtaining Katz to head the Publix Corporation, Zukor gained a capable, experienced, energetic young manager;

The movement toward amalgamation of First National interests was so effectively weakened and delayed by withdrawal of Katz, that the plan could not be executed, and Zukor and Katz made good use of the situation by acquiring for Publix, desirable theaters and circuits which otherwise would probably have been consolidated in the proposed Katz-Hoyt First National.

Zukor’s industrial strategy in this instance thus enabled Paramount-Publix to establish its theater interests broadly and soundly, and no competition has been able to menace the Zukor group since then.

Politically and legally, Zukor placed his corporations in position to meet an order from the Federal Trade Commission to divorce production and exhibition. If such an order should ever be entered, Paramount Famous-Lasky could obey it by distributing to its stockholders the shares of Publix. Dismemberment of trusts in this manner had never worked to the injury of stockholders, and Zukor now had no particular cause to be worried by any possible order of the commission.

Stanley Mastbaum had died, and Jules Mastbaum, assuming active management of the Stanley Company’s affairs, had brought into his corporation various important theater interests.

When Katz retired from First National, Mastbaum became the principal individual in that company’s administration.

Among numerous important houses acquired by the Stanley were the Fabian chain in New Jersey, the Strand in New York (Mitchell Mark having been dead for several years), and circuits in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D. C.

Several votes in First National passed to the Stanley corporation with these houses, and as Mastbaum also acquired other stock relinquished by theater owners who had sold to Paramount or to various combinations, he became the largest single shareholder in First National.

North American Theaters Corporation, organized by Frank R. Wilson, president of Motion Picture Capital Company, and the Jeremiah Milbank group, had purchased the Jensen-Von Herburg and other houses in northwestern states, and the Jensen-Von Herburg vote in First National had passed to North American.

The Stanley Company was one of several minority stockholders of the West Coast Company, and Jules Mastbaum, in cooperation with the Wilson-Milbank group, William Fox, and other West Coast stockholders, merged North American and West Coast into a new corporation called “Wesco,” of which Harold Franklin, formerly an important Paramount-Publix official, was made chief executive.

After this transaction, Stanley had about three hundred and eighty theaters and Wesco about two hundred and seventy-five, and these two corporations had acquired the common stock of so many First National members that now they owned control of the company.

Mastbaum’s program was to consolidate as many as possible of the remaining First National owners under Stanley-Wesco control and he was progressing toward this goal when death in the autumn of 1926 brought his labors to an end.

With Jules Mastbaum gone, and Sam Katz safely anchored in Publix, the bitter struggle between First National and Paramount began to abate.

   
Paramount Building, New York City. Movie theatre entrance is on lower left side of building. "An immeasurable, invisible world power rested on the desk of the Emperor of Entertainment in Zukor’s lofty Paramount Building in Times Square."

§ THE Federal Trade Commission had found its anti-trust suit against Zukor and his associates a difficult case to bring to completion. The charges settled down to three main counts:
◦ the use of oppression and coercion in obtaining theaters,
◦ “block booking” to exhibitors, and
◦ exclusion from Paramount-controlled theaters of the pictures of other producers.

The charges of oppression, coercion and intimidation arose from exhibitors affected by the operations of Black and Lynch; such allegations died away after Black and the Lynch wrecking crews obtained the houses they wanted.

“Block-booking” was the system of contract between producers (or, technically, their distributors) and exhibitors, under which the producer’ agreed to supply the exhibitor with a specified number, “a block,” of pictures within a period, and the exhibitor agreed to accept and pay for them.

A block might be a dozen, two dozen, or more pictures, “a block” having superseded the program or series system of renting productions. Booking in this manner had become the general custom of all leading producers except United Artists, which rented each picture separately. Specials and other large expensive productions of all manufacturers were not included in the blocks, but were released as individual items.

This system was like a two-edged sword; it could cut both ways. If an exhibitor attempted to supply his theater with pictures booked one at a time, he would be likely to find his competitors contracting for the entire output of Paramount, M-G-M, First National, or other manufacturers, and presently he would be unable to obtain enough first-class pictures to maintain his screen.

On the other hand, if he booked a block of a dozen or two dozen pictures before they were made, he was sure to find that some of them were good, others of medium quality, and others bad.

Some exhibitors supported the government’s attorneys in their plea that block-booking be abolished; others stoutly insisted that block-booking was necessary to insure stability.

Block-booking was inextricably interwoven with the subject of first-run theaters. The government’s attorneys contended that Zukor’s theaters block-booked Paramount pictures, leaving few or no openings for the exhibition of independent productions. Certainly this was true, and Zukor had acquired control of the houses for that purpose; but it was equally true of Loew, First National, Fox, and Universal.

The government’s charge that Zukor controlled the industry was sustained by his ownership of first-run theaters and alliances with owners of other houses.

But wherein was the offense against the laws of the United States? Zukor had no control of physical raw materials. For a while he had in his employ a large share of the “raw material” of actors and actresses, but gradually worked away from any attempt to employ the highest priced stars.

Zukor had never merged any producing companies except those in the Paramount group. He had no control of patents. Even in his acquisition of theaters he was able to prove that he owned only several hundred in a total of 20,000.

The supreme court has never defined the percentage of the whole that constitutes monopoly.

   
Pola Negri in ’Woman of the World.’ Directed by Mal St. Clair. Produced by Lasky and Zukor, Paramount, 1925.

William Jennings Bryan once declared that the consolidation of a majority of business concerns into one company should be accepted as evidence of monopoly, but if this rule were applied to Zukor he could reply that he owned only three, or four, or five, percent of the theaters of the country.

Also, he could point out that Loew owned and controlled many houses, that First National through its stockholders and franchise holders indirectly controlled several thousands, that Fox owned many and was buying and building more, that Laemmle had acquired several hundred, that Keith-Albee-Orpheum had merged half a hundred vaudeville-picture houses and joined with Radio and F B O to organize Radio-Keith-Orpheum.

Inasmuch as each of these groups followed the practices of block-booking and gave preference in its own houses to its own pictures, Zukor might ask, “if Paramount is a trust, what are these other concerns?"

Nor were these technical points the only obstacles the federal attorneys encountered. They had to carry on their work with no public interest to encourage them.

In the successful prosecutions against the oil, tobacco, and sugar trusts, the public had manifested lively interest; newspapers and magazines in those years had given wide publicity to hearings and trials against trusts, and politicians had ridden into office on the wave of public indignation.

But the sentiment of the country had undergone many extensive changes since the era of the muckrakers. After the war, the subject of trusts no longer appealed to any section of the public except individuals or groups directly affected by specific mergers, or to the more liberal and radical press.

Magazines had forgotten the existence of octopi and malefactors of great wealth, and when government anti-trust litigations appeared from time to time, newspapers for the most part dealt with the subject perfunctorily.

The average citizen cared nothing for the government’s prosecution of Zukor, and if he thought of the matter at all, it was probably to applaud Zukor’s cleverness and initiative in having placed himself in so impregnable a position, or else to make a mental note to buy some Paramount stock.

Within the industry, the government received scant assistance from the producers and exhibitors whose freedom the Trade Commission was trying in vain to save. There was not a trace of the vigorous struggle that accompanied the government’s prosecution of Motion Pictures Patents Company and General Film.

Manufacturers and distributors testified that theaters were steadily closing to independent product, and that independents would soon be unable to live, but as each nursed the secret belief that he would be able to survive the threatened general catastrophe, and all were too proud to declare frankly that Zukor was surpassing them, their evidence was seldom helpful.

The government made the most of instances of oppression of small exhibitors, but Zukor had ceased to buy any but larger houses, and this class of evidence was soon exhausted.

The commission’s attorneys labored diligently and conscientiously on the case for eight years, and no conclusion was reached except in regard to block-booking, concerning which the commission issued orders to Paramount to “cease and desist” any use of block-booking for coercive purposes, and to establish practices permitting “exhibitor and manufacturer to cancel a picture in a block in face of racial or religious opposition after arbitration.”

Exhibitors were also to have the right “to cancel up to ten percent of any block prior to scheduled date of showing upon payment of one-half of the original allocated (rental) cost of the portion cancelled.”

   
Clara Bow in ’It.’ Paramount, 1927.

§ THE only cloud on the sky of 1926 was a tendency toward recession in profits in many theaters. Even large houses in leading cities were not maintaining the speed that the industry had come to regard as normal, and in several cities, neighborhood theaters were having a hard fight to keep income ahead of outgo.

Business was spotty; some theaters were doing well, but too many were barely making expenses.

There were various reasons for this general slackening in attendance.

A very successful new form of entertainment, radio broadcasting, had appeared and had achieved enormous success. Radio receiving sets were installed in millions of homes all over the country. Many theater owners were apprehensive that their houses would be deserted when radio began to leap ahead in gigantic strides.

For a while radio did affect theater attendance adversely, but not seriously. Soon the public adjusted itself to the newer plaything, and returned to the movie houses except on nights when a particularly thrilling event was on the air, and then the theaters were rather lonesome.

But the radio was not the cause of bad business now, any more than the increasing popularity of fiction magazines and national weeklies, detective and mystery novels, or other forms of entertainment were responsible. The causes of unrest were within the film industry, not outside.

There were well-grounded fears that the public was not “as crazy about movies” as it had been. While no perceptible antagonism was present, ticket buyers had grown very discriminating, and there was an increasing luke-warmness that showed itself in empty seats in too many houses whenever the current entertainment was not of the best.

A first-run theater’s regular receipts of $20,000 to $30,000 a week might rise to $60,000 a week during the run of a Charlie Chaplin film or another attractive picture, only to drop back when the film completed its showing.

In neighborhood theaters, conditions were similar: a house would run along for several weeks with moderate patronage, and then suddenly every seat would be filled during the nights a first-run success appeared.

Even well-known stars ceased to be a drawing card if the picture itself was inferior.

Several explanations of this situation were advanced, the chief of which were that too many new theaters had been built everywhere in the United States, and that too many pictures were being produced at costs that were too high.

Undoubtedly these things were true and were gravely affecting the business, but my opinion is that other reasons must be sought for the reduction of movie attendance. They are closely bound up with one another, but they may be analyzed as follows:

◦ First: prices of admittance had become too high;
◦ Second: good pictures had educated audiences, and the appearance of mediocre films injured the industry;
◦ Third: all pictures were made for the large patronage of first-run houses, and, as audiences now included the entire public there was definite need of differentiation in both production and distribution.

The public had never before objected to admittance prices. On the contrary, it had supported advances by increased patronage, and external appearances would seem to refute the statement that ticket rates had grown too high.

But what economists term “a vicious circle” had been established: studio expenses, mounting higher and higher in the search for “bigger and better” pictures, necessitated corresponding increases in film rentals, which in turn brought about higher levels in ticket rates . . .

. . . round and round the circle traveled the always increasing dollar marks, until the industry as a whole lost sight of its basic function of supplying entertainment to all the people at prices all people can afford to pay.

   
Jobyna Ralstonas as Sylvia and her two hometown suitors in the $2 million dollar Paramount production, ’Wings.’

Young people and other individuals perpetually searching for a “good time,” constituted the audiences willing to pay high prices night after night for movie tickets, but family trade calculated carefully before father and mother and two children bought tickets at thirty to sixty cents apiece; each addition to the price reduced the number of their visits to the movies.

Americans are generally sensitive about money matters, and they will not frankly admit their inability to afford an expensive necessity or luxury, but will conceal their economies by pretending to prefer the lower priced motor car or radio set.

When the price of movie tickets advanced to levels demanding careful consideration, millions of patrons never made open protest to exhibitors, but simply remained away from the theaters unless assured of a very good picture or an exceptional novelty, and camouflaged their thrift by declaring that the star or the story did not appeal to them.

Wide differences in the quality of pictures was the second cause of wavering attendance. Competent studio executives estimated that one-third of the pictures of 1922-26 were especially good, another third mediocre, and the remaining third lower grades of product that could find showings only in rural or back neighborhood houses.

The lowest grade may have had its proper place in the movie scheme, but there was no excuse for the middle third which merely disappointed audiences in the better class of theaters and seldom made money for manufacturers or theaters.

As one producer described the situation to me, “our good pictures are very, very good, and our theaters are wonderful. A good picture in a fine house establishes a standard so high that the public feels it is not getting its money’s worth when a medium-grade picture appears on the same screen the next week.

"Orchestras and vaudeville can bring regular patrons to the theaters, but nothing but good pictures will induce the great majority to leave their homes and buy tickets.

"We must have more attendance from these stay-at-homes, and to get it we must have a new method of exhibition, a method that insures longer runs to good pictures, thus shutting out defective product and causing the manufacture of any but good pictures to cease.”

This was the common point of view of far-sighted producers with whom I talked in 1926 and ‘27; they believed that one-third of the pictures then being made could be eliminated with benefit to the industry.

Calculating that 600 medium-cost and high-cost features a year were being produced, 400 would supply the theaters if longer runs of quality product should become general.

The obstacle in the path of this movement—I am quoting these producers—was the conservatism of exhibitors, who had been in the habit of a weekly change of feature, or a change twice or thrice a week in neighborhood houses, and were reluctant to experiment with a new system.

Considered broadly, this was the same obstacle that Hodkinson encountered when he began to select General Film subjects and persuade nickelodeons to run a program two days instead of one, and again when he organized Paramount to secure features that would run as long as a week.

In 1926 there was no young Hodkinson, full of zeal and enthusiasm, to sell the idea of a new method to exhibitors, and the industry had to stumble along with its load of waste and its regiments of stay-at-homes while the movement for longer runs spread slowly from house to house.

   
’The General," staring Buster Keaton and Marion Mack. 1926, United Artists.

A third weakness in the situation was that methods of exhibition had not kept pace with better public taste or with progress in the craft of production.

Although important sections of audiences were now welcoming broader themes and more sophisticated treatments, all important producers made all pictures solely with the intent of pleasing the assemblies in large theaters; no attention whatever was given to the possibility of developing business by satisfying class audiences in small, select houses.

Obviously the intellectual requirements of a first-run screen in a metropolis, playing to 4,000 people a performance, forty to fifty thousand a week, differ materially from those of, say, the Theatre Guild, presenting plays of Ibsen, Shaw, or Eugene O’Neill to 3,000 people a week, or of a village movie house in Mississippi, playing to 300 whites on the first floor and 200 Negroes in the balcony.

The film industry had been created by and for the masses, and as the classes had ignored the screen in its youth, American exhibitors had never become sufficiently interested in analysis of audiences to realize that the more intelligent classes were now represented in the democracy of movie patrons and that the tastes did not jibe with those of the great majority.

The industry had no methods of differentiation; its machinery was set to make pictures pleasing to all individuals in the huge first-run audiences, constituting a cross-section of society, in which all ranges of intelligence and taste and mood are represented.

In attempting such a task the producers were striving, of course, to accomplish the impossible. Confusion, bewilderment, and titanic expenditures of money were the inevitable results of such efforts.

The movie theater had reached a period in which it should have been divided into classes, just as the stage was separated into burlesque, musical comedy, and various types of drama and opera.

There should have been small houses in which long runs of the best films could have been presented to discriminating audiences at high prices, houses of medium size at which the middle ranges of mentality could have found entertainment at lower prices than at the “high-brow” houses, and then the huge theaters for everyone at admittance rates graded to fit all purses.

Unquestionably too many theaters had been built nearly everywhere in America. The profits of theater operation had made the field very attractive to real-estate speculators, and many districts were “over-seated.”

In southern California in 1926, there was a great over-abundance of neighborhood and downtown houses; experts estimated that five years must pass before increased population would absorb all their seating capacity; in Chicago, over-building had forced some theater groups through the drastic reorganization methods of receiverships.

Similar conditions existed in many sections, and when the growth in theater attendance failed to maintain its former speed, competition among theaters for the patronage of the public became very expensive.

Costly orchestras and vaudeville acts preceding the films became a regular part of the entertainment of most first-run houses, and many neighborhood theaters, striving to maintain large attendance at high admittance prices, added orchestras and vaudeville to their programs.

The old showman adage to the effect that people will always find the money to see a startling novelty was followed by the exhibitors, who combed the world for novelties.

The larger houses offered vaudeville acts, condensed versions of light operas, exceptional dancers and eccentric orchestra leaders who hopped and jumped and downed in mad efforts to interest the ticket buyers.

Neighborhood theaters conducted lotteries on Saturday night, giving away prizes contributed or provided at wholesale cost by merchants in the district.

   
Adults 40¢, "Childern" 10¢ . . . Buster Keaton at the movies . . . he was the projectionist. ’Sherlock Jr.’ 1924, Metro-Goldwyn.

Novelties always draw audiences—for a while. "As long as the novelty effect lasts" the public responds, but as soon as the newness wears off, audiences drop away.

The first films themselves were novelties, as was each step forward in the rapid development of movie production and exhibition. Moreover, each new trick, each new improvement in picture quality or picture exhibition, further trained the screen’s followers in habits of discrimination and selection that made the problem increasingly more difficult.

Something was needed to stimulate interest in the screen, something so powerful that it would overcome the luke-warmness and the silent antagonism to the price of tickets and draw people in swarms to the box offices.

What could that thing be? Better pictures? More vaudeville acts? Or what?

The movies found the answer to its problems, and found it in the characteristically romantic manner that has always been the industry’s principal charm.

§ WHEN Edison invented the motion picture machine to be used in conjunction with his talking machine, he had originally intended to combine them in one cabinet. After he lost interest in the commercial development of the movies, his experiments lapsed.

The combination of sound and motion pictures, in crude, imperfect form, was achieved in the Edison laboratory, and test talkie-movies were seen and heard there by the scientist and his associates, but nothing but the kinetoscope was carried to conclusion.

During the following thirty years, many other men continued to work in the field of reproducing sound in connection with the movie screen.

Some of them tried to synchronize the movement of phonograph and film projector so that sound would be delivered simultaneously with the projection of pictures.

Others tried to use a diaphragm and a needle (similar to the diaphragm-and-needle device of the phonograph) to register sound waves on the celluloid of the photographic film. In this latter system, the needle makes a small “sound track” at one side of the picture.

From the early years of screen exhibitions, the movie industry maintained interest in sound pictures, colored pictures, and stereoscopic pictures, the general assumption always being that eventually all three problems would be successfully solved.

It was taken for granted that American inventive ingenuity would encounter no insurmountable difficulties in accomplishing these extensions of the film, and movie people confidently awaited the day when audiences would see motion pictures filling the proscenium arch of the stage in natural colors and with stereoscopic depth, and hear faithful reproductions of natural sounds.

Color pictures had been achieved in laboratories, through various processes, and had been exhibited in theaters in 1912-14; although far from perfect, they gave promise of progress.

Stereoscopic photography was being studied by a dozen or more investigators in the United States, and many others in Europe labored to fasten two eyes to the one-eyed camera—to make a pair of lenses that would lay hold of the third dimension hidden in the background of photographs, and carry it forward to give depth to screen picturization.

The foremost believer in stereoscopic photography was George K. Spoor, pioneer film manufacturer, who organized a laboratory for stereoscopic research in his Chicago studio, and devoted a considerable part of the large fortune accumulated through General Film and Chicago real estate to experiments in the third dimension that continued for more than fifteen years.

Sound received attention from even more scientists, inventors, and engineers than did color photography and stereoscopic lenses. Laboratories announced, from time to time, that the talking picture had been achieved, and occasional exhibitions of sound devices were given, but none of them ever reached a position of practical application.

During the World War great impetus was given to the invention and perfection of all methods of electrical communication.

   
’Yellow Fingers’ starring Olive Borden, Ralph Ince, Fox Films, 1926.

Invention ceased to be a matter of individual ingenuity, and became a scientific operation conducted in large, well-equipped laboratories and shops, where physicists, engineers, and chemists worked together to solve the riddles of electricity, atmosphere, metals, and gases. Such laboratories are owned by the corporations engaged in the telephone, telegraph, and electrical industries, and the patents on devices invented or developed in them usually pass to the ownership of the corporations.

The American Telephone and Telegraph Company and its subsidiaries, Western Electric Company, Electrical Research Products, Inc., etc., owned many important patents before the war, and in the years since, this group of corporations had acquired many more.

General Electric Company and Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company were very active in the field of wireless telegraphy and radio, and each of these corporations acquired a large group of valuable patents.

Lee De Forest and other radio inventors held patents of importance and value.

After the war a condition of confusion resulted from this scattered ownership of thousands of patents, each owner insisting that his rights were being infringed by manufacturers operating under other patents. Radio, the new method of communication and amusement, was threatened with a mass of litigation that would have seriously hampered its progress.

The large communication and electrical companies, acting together, organized a new company, called Radio Corporation of America, and turned over to it many patents essential to radio. R. C. A. immediately became the foremost factor in the new industry.

By 1924-25, several inventors and scientists had definitely established the route that talkie-movies had to follow from actor to audience, which may be simply and non-technically described:

◦ First the sound waves must enter a microphone and be carried to a diaphragm and a needle must record the pulsations on a disc, such as the ordinary commercial talking machines use, or on the celluloid of a photographic film;
◦ second, after the sound waves are recorded they must be reproduced, and this is accomplished by using a needle and diaphragm, as in the talking machines, or by projecting light through the sound track on the film, causing the recorded sound waves to flash against a diaphragm, which pulsates and starts them on their journey into the auditorium;
◦ third, the sound waves, now moving on their journey, must be amplified by tubes similar to those used in radio sets, and carried on by electrical devices similar to those used by telegraph and telephone companies;
◦ fourth, at various points in the auditorium at which the sound waves must be delivered to the audiences, other delicate telephonic and radio devices must be employed to deliver the sound waves to the audience, or amplifiers must be placed near the screen, to project the sound waves into the auditorium.

In order to accomplish these various steps in the journey of sound waves from actor to audience, apparatus or methods must be used that were in whole or in part covered by the many patents of American Telephone and Telegraph, General Electric, Westinghouse or Radio Corporation and other owners of communication and electrical patents. Moreover, the talkie inventors had to enter the field covered by the phonograph patents of Edison, Gramophone, Victor Talking Machine, and others.

The eventual “discovery” of practical talkie-movies, therefore, was not the dramatic achievement of an individual, but a consummation toward which many engineers and laboratory technicians made their contributions.

   
John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in ’Flesh and the Devil.’ 1926, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Some time before William Fox encouraged his engineer, Theodore W. Case, to experiment with the sound-track-on-the-film in 1925-26, engineers in the Western Electric-Electrical Research-Bell Telephone laboratories, and others in the Victor Talking Machine laboratories, were striving to synchronize the talking-machine disc and the movie film so that dialogue would appear to come from the shadow-players’ lips as action flowed along the screen.

In the laboratories of the Radio Corporation another group of scientists were trying to make sound tracks on films, reproduce them and distribute the sound waves through an auditorium.

In a score of smaller institutions, similar experiments were in progress.

The telephone group of research laboratories developed their method of synchronizing the talking-machine disc with the motion picture film, and following the early practice of using Greek derivatives this invention—or, rather, consolidation of several inventions, processes, and methods—was given the trade name of “Vitaphone.”

Fox was the only one of the movie magnates interested in the efforts to produce talkies. Zukor was busy expanding his international empire, Loew had turned over much of his responsibilities to Nicholas Schenck and was enjoying his wealth, Laemmle was bustling from Universal City to New York and to his birthplace in Germany and back again, the heads of First National were intent on their own problems of theater consolidation and studio operation.

The business of movie-making had finally become well established and the few corporations remaining in the industry were making large profits; prudent business men would not jeopardize this apparently safe situation by jumping to something radically different from the existing order.

When representatives of the Vitaphone offered the device to the screen’s principal overlords, the apparatus yielded a squeaky, squawky assemblage of crude noises. They decided its use would be offensive to theater patrons, and, after reasonable consideration, replaced the subject of talkies in the pigeonhole it had occupied for many years.

Years before, the autocrats of General Film had rejected feature pictures because of their conviction that the masses could not assimilate them; the autocrats of 1925-26 rejected talkies: because of their conviction that talkies were not good enough to satisfy the same masses.

Whatever may be the reason for caution, when the rulers of the movies grow conservative, the Muse of the screen must smile as she rolls back the scroll of three decades of history; a brief scroll, and one that has as its most certain constituent the uncertain, the romantic, the adventurous, the picturesque.

The Muse certainly laughed aloud as she recalled the scornful disdain with which General Film magnates had dismissed the upstarts, Carl Laemmle, William Fox, William W. Hodkinson, and Adolph Zukor, with their daring new ideas, only fifteen years earlier.

Now those same upstarts were the new overlords who considered the movies tamed, and believed that the tremendous forces wielded by the moviegoing populace were at last safely in leash. Blinded by their own vast empire, by the bricks and mortar of their temple-theaters, by the power of wealth and the adulation of sycophants, they had grown cautious, fearful of endangering the solid position they so comfortably enjoyed.

And thus they missed their opportunity and the screen went through still another of the mad gyrations that had made its history the most romantic and unpredictable of all American industrial endeavors.

   
John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in ’A Woman of Affairs.’ 1928, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

§ WARNER BROTHERS—Harry, Sam, Albert and Jack—had followed the trail from nickelodeons to exchanges and state’s rights distribution, and finally to the production of pictures. Immediately after the World War, they purchased the remaining forty acres or so of the Beesmyer ranch on Sunset Boulevard, in Hollywood, and built a modern studio.

Harry Rapf, successful in vaudeville and picture producing, was engaged as general manager of the studio, and a program of feature pictures began to go through the state’s rights exchanges which had been assembled into a national organization by the corporation.

The brothers had no sooner got their business under way when the “battle of the bankrolls” swept all studios into the orgy of out-spending, and they saw their own resources melting away. They had to have more money, or retire from the field with nothing but losses to remember. The days of easy capital had passed; the Warner project was rather too large for private financing and not old enough to enlist Wall Street support.

Harry Warner, the oldest of the brothers and the head of the clan, racked his brain in agony and desperation to find a supply of funds.

Although Los Angeles had become the capital of motion picture production, financing for the studios was almost all coming from New York. Los Angeles banks occasionally made loans on individual pictures and to studios and producers, but by and large the movie game was too queer for deposit-bankers to understand, and their cautions, prudent participations in its kaleidescopic changes had permitted New York investment bankers and other financiers to absorb nearly all investments and loans in the industry.

Motley H. Flint, vice-president of the Los Angeles Trust and Savings Bank, was a banker with curiosity and temperament. Interested by the rapid expansion of the movies, he determined to investigate the business to the end that he might learn its peculiarities and make possible and safe the acquisition of motion-picture financing for his bank.

H Flint e extended his acquaintanceship with producers, visited their studios, and obtained first-hand information regarding production, distribution, and exhibition methods; and soon his bank and its associate, the First National, with the assistance of Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles ’Times,’ Thomas H. Ince, and other producers, organized the Cinema Finance Company.

Through the Cinema Finance Company and the Flint banking connections, Los Angeles became an active competitor of New York in studio financing.

Dr. Giannini, head of the Bank of Italy group of corporations, later expanded his operations in southern California, bringing William G. McAdoo, Joseph Schenck, Cecil DeMille and other picture people his association.

The Giannini interests eventually reached a more important position in movie finance than the Flint group. But, in 1919-20, when Harry Warner and his brothers were staring at the cold face of defeat, Motley Flint was the principal Los Angeles banker to whom the studios had to look for assistance.

It so happened that Harry Chandler, George Young, publisher of the ’Examiner,’ Henry McKee, banker, and other Los Angeles business men with appreciation of the importance of the studio to their city, and with keen desire to assist the members of industry in every sensible way, asked me to talk to a group at the Chamber of Commerce.

I spoke of the work of Motley Flint and of the services he had rendered to motion pictures and to Los Angeles. George Young printed the speech in the ’Examiner.’ Harry Warner read it, and, although he had never met Motley Flint, visited the banker and presented arguments to demonstrate that Warner Brothers was an undertaking worthy of banker support.

Flint was favorably impressed by the producer, and investigated the corporation carefully; he made it possible for the Warners to borrow $1 million to carry them through the crisis.

   
Vitiphone sound movie, ’Women They Talk’ About with Irene Rich and Audrey Ferris. 1928, Warner Brothers.

The Warners swung their productions into line with the “bigger and better” movement, making a successful star of Irene Rich, a screen actress, and bringing from the stage one of its best known actors, John Barrymore.

Their business prospered, and within a few years they were able to enlist the backing of Goldman, Sachs and Company, Wall Street investment bankers, who floated an issue of Warner stock amounting to several million dollars.

The money received from this source had to go into the ever-yawning mouth of mounting studio costs, but Warner production and distribution progressed encouragingly until the unanticipated menace of theater concentration spread its paralysis through the ranks of all manufacturers except the few who had safeguarded themselves by buying houses.

The brothers had extended their credit and financing possibilities to the utmost in developing their studio and exchange operations, and they lacked sufficient capital to buy a national circuit of first-run theaters.

As theater lines grew tighter and tighter, and one company after another disappeared from production and distribution because of inability to obtain first runs, the condition of the Warners reached its most acute stage. The Flint money was gone; the Goldman Sachs money was invested in production.

The Warners were making fairly good pictures, but inch by inch they were slipping down hill because of insufficient theater connections. Apparently they were destined to go the way of the great majority of the fighting army that had passed out of the industry.

After the squeaky talkie-movie of the Bell Telephone engineers had been rejected by the monarchs of the screen, it reached Warner Brothers on its journey around the circle to find a sponsor.

Sam Warner went to the Bell laboratories, listened to its demonstrations, examined its mechanisms, and enthustically declared to Harry, “It’s far from perfect, but it’s farther along now than films were when they first swept the, country. It can be improved rapidly, and it will sweep the world.”

Warner Brothers made a contract with the telephone corporations under the terms of which they were to have exclusive use of the new device for a term of years, and then they attacked the grim task of obtaining enough financing to carry through the experimental period of production and exhibition.

With fluency born of desperation they persuaded bankers to advance a limited supply of capital, not enough to make them safe, but, as it was all they could get, it had to suffice.

Their initial experiments in producing talkie-movies were in the form of one- and two-reel comedies and vaudeville acts, and several weary, nerve-racking months had to pass before these offerings could be made ready for exhibition or theaters could be wired for their presentation.

Meanwhile Warner pictures were disappearing from more first-run screens; Warner quarterly reports had changed from profits to losses; Warner shares had sunk almost to the vanishing point on the stock exchanges.

Sam Warner died—and Harry aged ten years in three.

   
Promotion shot for ’Hangman’s House,’ directed by John Ford, Fox Films, 1928. Photo by Max Munn Autrey, noted movie star photographer.

§ IN the late spring and early summer of 1926, the Warner Vitaphone and the Fox Movietone appeared on screens simultaneously. The Movietone subjects were similar to the Vitaphone” principally one- and two-reel comedies and acts transferred from the vaudeville stage, and Fox effectively used the Movietone in his news reels.

One of the momentous events in motion picture history was the Movietone reproduction of President Coolidge’s presentation of the Congressional medal to Charles Lindbergh for his flight to Europe in “The Spirit of St. Louis.”

The industry did not instantly awaken to the importance of Vitaphone and Movietone. By the autumn of 1926, talkies were still regarded as an interesting but very imperfect novelty that seemed to have aroused some enthusiasm in the large cities in which a few theaters had been equipped with sound-reproducing apparatus, but there was no general feeling that the screen had entered the most revolutionary period of its existence.

Theater owners and managers, watching the patrons of houses using Vitaphone and Movietone, and trying to analyze audience reactions, were confused. The critics of the talkies were outspoken, but the majority of ticket buyers, as usual, had no emphatic comment to offer.

The cost of equipping a theater with talking apparatus was ten to thirty thousand dollars, depending on the size of the auditorium and the engineering-acoustical difficulties to overcome; and, as such an investment was not justifiable if the novelty was to be short-lived, many exhibitors hesitated.

The few that plunged and installed sound equipment reaped their reward within a few months. By the spring of 1927, the movement of the public toward talkies was unmistakable; by the autumn of 1927 it was a stampede. The manufacturers of equipment could not begin, to fill orders, and exhibitors grew frantic because of delays in turning their silent screens into talkies.

Sound pictures proved to be more than an evanescent novelty; they were a new fundamental that aroused such wide-spread, deep interest that stay-at-homes, whose flagging zeal had been disturbing exhibitors and producers for several years, rushed from firesides to ticket windows and caused talkie theaters to boom as theaters had seldom boomed in the past.

In every way the reception of sound pictures by the public was a complete and final demonstration of the domination of entertainment by the masses. The Zukor, Loew, First National groups, all the overlords of the screen who had rejected the talkie devices because of their mechanical imperfections and limitations, were proven to have lost their sensitivity to the unspoken desires of the mass of ticket buyers.

The overlords had been right in their anticipation of the disappointment and distress of hundreds of thousands of men and women when their ears were assaulted by the flat, dead tones or the rasping harshness of the early sound-reproducing mechanisms. To these hundreds of thousands, the talkies were canned music and canned dialogue in the most painful form. They missed the restful charm of the silent film, and resented the intrusion of this horrible conglomeration of noises into theaters.

Sophisticated screen critics and professional commentators on the movies, who had spent years in perfecting themselves in the art of sneering and jibing at current offerings of the silent drama, suddenly reversed their positions and poured out pans of praise to the beautiful art that was disappearing before the onward march of the unspeakable talkies.

Fan magazines and newspapers conducted voting contests in which their readers were asked to cast ballots for or against the talkies, and many bitter letters condemned the new horror.

In the ten or a dozen years since features had appeared, the chasm between the educated classes and the populace—those who more or less use their brains for thinking and those whose brains are merely beginning to wriggle—had been concealed beneath the assembling of vast audiences in huge first-run theaters.

The casual observer might have concluded that no mental differences existed in America; the movies had bridged the gulf and our people, at least so far as entertainment was concerned, were living intellectually in common.

But the wide gulf was still in existence, and the talkies tore away the thin veil that concealed it. The great mass of ticket buyers swamped the theaters that offered any sort of noise, reveling in the racket that proceeded from amplifiers and filtered into their ears from all parts of the auditorium.

If they could see and hear a vaudeville act two reels in length they enjoyed it; if they got nothing more than the sounds of an aeroplane or a mob cheering at a football game, or the tinny reproduction of an orchestra, they were pleased.

They selected for patronage the theater that advertised “SOUND” or “TALKIES” in preference to the one which merely offered old-fashioned silent star pictures—”old fashioned” only in the sense that six months before the star had been a popular idol.

   
’The Jazz Singer," a partial "talkie" Vitaphone movie starring Al Jolson.. 1927, Warner Brothers.

§ I VENTURE the suggestion that the great public was unconsciously hungering for sound when the talkies arrived. The phonograph and the radio had created a gigantic appetite for canned noise, just as the spoken stage had for centuries built up an immeasurable desire for entertainment through the canned drama, the “celluloid monstrosities” that so shocked and horrified the intellectuals of 1896 to 1914.

The canned noises of 1926 were certainly no worse than the canned dramas of 1906. And the noises had the very important advantage over the early celluloid dramas in that many engineers and scientists and great electric companies were working feverishly to improve them, whereas the films of early years had to make all their progress through the efforts of novices, unprepared in any way to cope with the problems confronting them.

Month by month the sound pictures improved in quality. By 1927, talkies had lost nearly all of their early squeaks and squawks and were delivering to audiences reliable reproductions of music and of the human voice.

By 1928, several important, well-made sound pictures reached the screen, and there was no longer any room for doubt about the popular acceptance of talkie-movies.

Fox, with his country-wide chain of theaters, was able to exhibit the Movietone as rapidly as factories could build projecting machines to transmit both sound waves and light waves.

The Warners, with only one theater of their own in New York and a few others throughout the country, were dependent on rentals to Paramount, Loew, First National, and other owners of first runs, and for a while they could not exploit their novelty so easily. Although within two years the Warners seemed to have leaped overnight from obscurity and hazard to the heights of glory and rock-ribbed solidity, they encountered many perils before reaching solid ground.

The production of talking pictures required a transformation of studio practices. Sound-proof stages had to be erected at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars each. New cameras were required.

In the Vitaphone process delicate, costly synchronizing machinery, to time precisely the recording of the picture on the film and the music or the voice on the phonograph disk, had to be installed, and a staff of highly paid engineers was needed to operate it.

Directors had to learn how to direct in silence, with the camera and its operators in a glass cage; actors and actresses had to learn the tricks of the microphone, and players whose voices had never been trained had to take lessons in voice culture.

Fresh millions of dollars were required by Warner Brothers and Fox before they could expand their facilities to meet the requirements of this new method of entertainment. Fox was in good condition to meet this strain; but the Warners had extended themselves to the utmost to carry their Vitaphone experiments through the period of initial presentations.

Even after there was no doubt of the popularity of the Vitaphone, there was much doubt of the Warners’ ability to hold on until their talking pictures could fight their way into enough theaters to bring back some of their costs.

   
’Land of the Silver Fox,’ talkie, starring dog, Rin Tin Tin. 1928, Warner Brothers.

During the darkest days of their struggle, they conceived a great idea. They had made pictures with dialogue; they were making the first full-length all-talking picture, (“Lights of New York,” released in 1928, which, although weak and unimportant as a production, enthralled audiences as the forerunner of a new era); they had experimented with music, instrumental, orchestral, and vocal.

Out of the Warners’ experiments arose the conviction that a film interspersed with songs would provide the most successful talkie-movie entertainment.

They concluded that if they could engage Al Jolson, premier burnt-cork stage comedian and dean of the tribe of Mammy singers, to make a full-length picture, the name of Jolson and the novelty of a talkie-movie with his humorous dialogue and sentimental songs would compel first-run houses to open their screens.

Jolson listened, and agreed, and a scenario and music, entitled “The Jazz Singer” (from a play of the same name by Samuel Rafaelson), was prepared. In several months, the production appeared on the screens of the few Warner theaters.

By the time “The Jazz Singer” was ready for release, the principal theater managers throughout the United States had become convinced that talking pictures would work a revolution; enough experiments had appeared to prove that the public had approved sound on the screen, and many exhibitors were ordering apparatus or examining the devices of various manufacturers.

“The Jazz Singer” proved to be one of the plays that have occasionally shaken the movie world like an earthquake, people crowding into houses to see it, and leaving the theaters completely converted to the talkies.

The Jolson production was the final act in closing the doors of the silent film era and sweeping theaters and studios into a whirlpool of “all-talkie” productions. Thereafter there could be no doubt of the success of Vitaphone or Warner Brothers.

After once turning the corner from hardship to prosperity, the progress of Warner Brothers was very rapid. Their balance-sheets showed losses of millions in 1925-26-27; profits of two or three millions in 1928, and more than seventeen millions, for the enlarged Warner group of theaters and studios, in 1929.

Stock dividends, split-ups of the shares, and cash dividends made “Warner Brothers” one of the alluring features of the New York Stock Exchange, to which the shares were transferred early in 1929.

   
The Jazz Singer billboard above Warners’ Theatre.
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