Sights and Sounds Reunited: The Vitaphone Project

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Without question, one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences in the life of a film historian is the discovery of a film that was presumably lost. The recovery of a film opens the door to new discussions about the feature, its players, the studios, and all of the major parties involved in its inception, production, and dissemination. When the components of a presumably lost film resurface, pieces of cinematic history are recovered as a new generation of audiences and scholars gradually rediscover the film. Thanks to the efforts of the Vitaphone Project, a community dedicated to the location and restoration of Vitaphone features and their matching soundtracks, audiences have been able to enjoy a multitude of feature-length and short subject films that were once thought to be lost.

The Vitaphone Project has worked to preserve and restore the many performances captured in Vitaphone features during the dawn of the sound era, namely highlighting the works of performers who transitioned from live vaudeville routines to careers in the film industry. Moreover, members of the Vitaphone Project community have actively worked with collectors and archivists worldwide to reunite Vitaphone films with their soundtracks. Their discoveries of Vitaphone films and their accompanying soundtracks have led to the complete restoration of several Vitaphone features, leading to studio-sponsored commercial releases of these features for public consumption via modern media formats. Like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, the Vitaphone Project community has been actively working to piece together an important part of film history.

The Vitaphone Project community is comprised of “film buffs and record collectors” worldwide who work to seek out soundtrack discs that correspond with Vitaphone and other talkie shorts (“The Vitaphone Project,” 2016). This group of individuals also includes private collectors who are willing to “partner with the studios (particularly Turner and Warner Brothers), film archives (University of California-Los Angeles, Library of Congress, and the British Film Institute), and [other] private collectors worldwide in order to get these films restored and seen again” (“The Vitaphone Project,” 2016). The founding members are all males namely in their late 60s, including Corresponding Secretary and Editor Ron Hutchinson; Database Manager and Vitaphone Project Web Page Designer Patrick Picking; and Co-Founders John Newton, Sherwin Dunner, and Vince Giordano (“The Vitaphone Project,” 2016). The community also includes Overseas Project Emissaries, including Malcolm Billingsley for the United Kingdom, Paul Brennan for Australia and New Zealand, and Jonas Nordin for Scandinavia (“The Vitaphone Project,” 2016). Contributors to the Vitaphone Project community can be archivists, scholars, and collectors of all ages with varying technological skills. The reasons why these individuals possess Vitaphone films and soundtracks also vary; some individuals may enjoy the films, while others may have inherited a collection or oversee a collection regularly. Oftentimes, the family members of the actors or musicians who worked in these films have held on to copies of the films or soundtracks in which their relative appeared because they are both historical and sentimental artifacts.

Vitaphone made its debut on August 6th, 1926, as the “latest commercial sound-on-disc motion picture system” at a screening of Don Juan (1926) in New York City, with eight short subject films preceding the feature film (Shaman, 1991, p. 35). Though Don Juan (1926) had a “synchronized musical score and sound effects added in” but was composed as a silent film (Hutchinson, n.d.). However, the shorts playing before the feature film attracted the audience’s attention more than the film, because the shorts featured “perfectly synchronized, natural sounding talking” that was new to audiences (Hutchinson, n.d.). In the past, attempts at sound films were marred by “faulty synchronization, inability to fill theaters with phonograph horns and unnatural acoustic recording,” which Vitaphone sought to ameliorate (Hutchinson, n.d.). The popularity of these shorts caused a wave of additional shorts and part-talking features in the years to come, produced by Warner Brothers and its subsidiary, the Vitaphone Corporation. The soundtracks were recorded using equipment developed by Western Electric through the Bell Telephone Laboratories and distributed via one-sided 12-inch or 16-inch 33 1/3 rpm shellac discs produced by the Victor Talking Machine Company. This allowed for recorded dialogue to synchronize with early films prior to the incorporation of sound into film technologies (Harvey & Mahard, 2014, p. 236). Typically, the shorts were “one reel, approximately 600-1,000 feet in length (35mm), running roughly four to ten minutes” and were “photographed in one continuous 10-minute take, using a single camera” (Shaman, 1991, p. 35; Gitt, 1993, p. 262). The discs were coined “Vitadiscs,” and were numbered on a serial basis as “Vitaphone Varieties” (Shaman, 1991, p. 35). Sounds for the shorts were recorded onto a two-inch thick wax blank, which had to be kept at a consistent temperature in a dust-free area (Gitt, 1993, p. 262). Afterwards, the sounds picked up by a microphone were “amplified and fed to an electromagnetic cutting head,” causing a stylus to “cut modulated grooves in the wax blank, which was rotated on a turntable” (Gitt, 1993, p. 262). The newly-cut and negatively-impressed disc would be dusted with graphite and dipped into an electroplating bath, and would later be used to create a master positive or “mother” needed to press the final records for theatrical use (Gitt, 1993, p. 263). Vitaphone produced a multitude of soundtracks “to accompany shorts and feature films from 1926 to 1930” and later used discs “for the distribution of broadcast material to radio stations from the 1930s to the 1960s” (Harvey & Mahard, 2014, p. 236).

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Vitaphone shorts featured a wide range of talent, including performers from vaudeville, the opera, film, and radio. These shorts acted as a “necessary ‘buffer’ to the feature presentation” and ensured “the diversity of appeals necessary to sustain a mass audience” (King, 2011, p. 247). Prior to Vitaphone shorts, theaters would hire live acts or orchestras to serve the same purpose. However, when Vitaphone shorts arrived, theater owners saw a chance to save on operating costs and order shorts from the Vitaphone catalog, which offered the options of travelogues, cartoons, slapstick, sing-alongs, and more. At the same time, theaters enjoyed a sense of autonomy because they no longer depended on whichever local acts or performers were in town; rather, they had a wide range of talents to choose from through the Vitaphone catalog and could compete more effectively with other theaters, as a result. However, many vaudeville theater owners saw Vitaphone as a threat and refused to support the medium; vaudeville theater owner B.F. Keith worked to discourage vaudevillians from signing contracts with Vitaphone and Warner Brothers “under penalty of blacklisting by the Keith circuit” (Slide, 2012, p. 529). In response, Vitaphone and Warner Brothers offered “one-year contracts to vaudeville acts willing to appear in Vitaphone shorts” (Slide, 2012, p. 529). Studios saw Vitaphone shorts as profitable and emphasized producing a broad range of short subject films in order to pique the interest of theater owners and their audience, gradually closing the curtain on live vaudeville to make way for sound motion pictures.

Oftentimes, short subject films are only mentioned in film history courses as part of the gradual move to feature-length sound films and are dismissed in favor of discussing these feature films; however, the short subject film is an important part of film history that warrants preservation and examination. Vitaphone shorts especially shine because their pseudo-synchronous acoustic effects had the power to “announce various technological possibilities, demonstrating the range of sounds that could be reproduced and, more importantly, performing the possibility of synchronization” (Wurtzler, 2009, p. 246). Additionally, Vitaphone shorts acted as “a testing ground for new acting talent,” as studios occasionally experimented with potential stars by initially starring them in Vitaphone shorts rather than major feature film projects (Grainge, 2003, p. 86). Furthermore, the innovations exhibited in the creation of short subject films were capstones that lead to the development of the Hollywood studio system, where business practices were “organized around the production and distribution of classical sound film, both as textual form and as viewing experience” (King, 2011, p. 248). The short subject film “vouchsafed the standardization of film exhibition and spectatorship at the beginning of the sound era; functioned as a laboratory for working through the textual practices and cultural meanings of the sound film;” and “secured the film industry’s structure as a mature oligopoly” (King, 2011, p. 248-9).

Although short subject films have unique importance in film history, film preservation in general was an afterthought for the film industry. Unfortunately, while studio moguls, producers, actors, and actresses reaped the rewards of their screen successes, little thought was given to the preservation of their work. In some cases, studios would dispose of their silent films because they believed that these films had no more commercial value. Moreover, studios actively incinerated film prints in order to retrieve the silver image particles and take advantage of their scrap value or had them “physically axed in two to prevent possible piracy” (Slide, 2001, p. 4). If a studio remade a film, it was typical to dispose of the earlier version. To make matters worse, in early cinema, films were captured on nitrate, a material that is notorious for being “chemically unstable” and “in a perpetual state of decomposition” (Slide, 2001, p. 3). Vitaphone shorts were no exception, as the “high silver content and rich tones” of nitrate stock was argued to be the best type of film for black-and-white photography; however, nitrate is highly flammable and can “self-ignite at 300 degrees or less” (Slide, 2001, pp. 1-2). As a result, the storage of this particular film stock was difficult, leading to major studio vault fires that destroyed original studio prints. Though it is nearly impossible to quantify exactly how many films are truly lost, it is “often claimed that 75 percent of all American silent films are gone and 50 percent of all films made prior to 1950 are lost” (Slide, 2001, p. 5). To date, there are “more than 100 million feet of nitrate film of American origin awaiting preservation, in American and foreign archives, vaults of producers and distributors, and in the hands of private collectors” (Slide, 2001, p. 5). Over time, Vitaphone playback equipment and discs were sold for scrap and “hundreds of features and shorts inevitably became separated from each other” (Eyman, 2015, p. 371). There was no attempt at converting the shorts or films into different formats. Over the years, collectors and archivists have “assembled a reasonable collection of the picture elements for many films of the Vitaphone era, but the sound discs are considerably harder to come by” (Eyman, 2015, p. 371).

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Thankfully, the Vitaphone Project formed in 1991 by record collectors determined to “identify the location of the surviving 16 inch shellac soundtrack discs or mute film elements of early sound-on-disc films, particularly the Vitaphone shorts; research and document Vitaphone’s entire output; and work with archives and the copyright owner to get the films restored and seen again” (Hutchinson, 2002, p. 43). Together, they bridged the gap between studios and collectors, who tended to be adversaries; in the past, there had been “raids of collectors’ holdings by the FBI, further polarizing the potential partners” and causing collectors to be all the more secretive (Hutchinson, 2002, p. 44). The Vitaphone Project established a sense of trust and ownership among collectors and studios, causing studios to welcome collector cooperation for the sake of preservation. Moreover, donors were promised “their own copy of the finished restoration” (Hutchinson, 2002, p. 44). Because of their efforts, over 120 shorts from 1926-1931 have been restored, over 4,000 discs have been located, and $350,000 in funding have been raised (Hutchinson et al., 2013). The amount of “‘rediscovered’ soundtrack discs now averages about 700 per year” (Hutchinson, 2002, p. 44). In accordance with their aims to inventory, fund, restore, and exhibit Vitaphone shorts, the Vitaphone Project has supported over 10 feature restorations, with 53 Vitaphone shorts and 2 full-length scored Vitaphone features in the restoration pipeline (Hutchinson et al., 2013). Additionally, the Vitaphone Project has located over 300 mute Vitaphone picture elements, while another 125 discs without their matching films have also been found. The Vitaphone Project is poised to restore another 40 additional shorts and has worked with studios to make several Vitaphone compilations commercially available on DVD.

While the history of Vitaphone shorts has been turbulent and fascinating, one of the most profound gaps concerning research about Vitaphone is that sound shorts are rarely seen as “much more than the experimental steps on a teleological path toward feature-length talkies” (King, 2011, p. 247). At the same time, conventional film histories typically touch upon short subjects to discuss the balanced program framework, but do not “secure any further analysis beyond the obvious fact of the short subject’s heterogeneity” (King, 2011, p. 247). Though some researchers and film historians have worked to reassess the “dominant historiographic frameworks that have reduced the era’s shorts to the servant’s role in introducing sound technology”, the work of restoring and relocating these films has not been substantially researched (King, 2011, p. 250).

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Annette Bochenek (Hometowns to Hollywood), Ron Hutchinson (The Vitaphone Project), and Henry Sapoznik (The Mayrent Institute)

Overall, the Vitaphone Project community has conducted important work by connecting with collectors all over the world in order to ensure that essential parts of film history are preserved and restored. Vitaphone shorts have been overlooked as an important part of film history and their unique format of separate film reels and soundtracks have been a challenge to restore. Thanks to the efforts of the Vitaphone Project community, audiences all over the world have been able to enjoy Vitaphone features once presumed lost.

 

References

Eyman, S. (2015). The speed of sound: Hollywood and the talkie revolution, 1926-1930. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Gitt, R. (1993). Bringing Vitaphone back to life. Film History, 5(3), 262-274. Retrieved October 16, 2017, from https://dom.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=31385717&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Grainge, P. (2003). Memory and popular film. New York: Manchester University Press.

Harvey, R., & Mahard, M. R. (2014). The preservation management handbook: A 21st-century guide for libraries, archives, and museums. Blue Ridge Summit: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hutchinson, R. (n.d.). Lost no more: The re-discovery and restoration of “Why Be Good?” and “Synthetic Sin.” Retrieved October 16, 2017, from https://sites.google.com/site/colleenmooresite/lost-no-more-the-re-discovery-and-restoration-of-why-be-good-and-synthetic-sin

Hutchinson, R. (2002). The Vitaphone Project. Answering Harry Warner’s question: “Who the Hell wants to hear actors talk?” Film History: An International Journal, 14(1), 40-46. doi:10.2979/fil.2002.14.1.40

Hutchinson, R., Weissman, K., Heiber, B., & Arton, C. (2013). Recent discoveries and preservation efforts for sound-on-disc films. Retrieved October 16, 2017, from http://www.amiaconference.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/AMIA-2013-Vitaphone-Panel.pdf

King, R. (2011). Introduction: Beyond Vitaphone: The early sound short. Film History, 23(3), 247-250. doi:10.2979/filmhistory.23.3.247

Shaman, W. (1991). The operatic Vitaphone shorts. Retrieved October 16, 2017, from http://www.arsc-audio.org/journals/v22/v22n1p35-94.pdf

Slide, A. (2001). Nitrate won’t wait: A history of film preservation in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Slide, A. (2012). The encyclopedia of vaudeville. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

“The Vitaphone Project.” (2016). The Vitaphone Project. Retrieved October 16, 2017, from http://www.vitaphoneproject.com/

Wurtzler, S. J. (2009). Electric sounds: Technological change and the rise of corporate mass media. New York: Columbia University Press.

 

About Annette Bochenek

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a Ph.D. student and scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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One Response to Sights and Sounds Reunited: The Vitaphone Project

  1. Vienna says:

    Great post. Good to know preservation efforts are doing so well

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