The Day Movies Learned to Speak


A quick glance at the calendar will reveal that I’m a bit late in pulling the “Welcome to August” trigger, but better late than September.

So let me be the last to welcome you to the eighth month of the year. (And as the eighth month, shouldn’t it be called Octo-ber? The answer is yes. It would have been had a couple of megalomaniac Roman emperors named Julius and Augustus not inserted months named after themselves into the middle of the summer, thereby messing up the calendar forever.)

There are dozens of Deadwrite’s Dailies anniversaries worthy of a blog post during the first half of this month, including: August 1 – Concert for Bangladesh (1971); MTV’s debuts (1981); August 2 – Wild Bill Hickok gunned down (1876); August 3 – Wings formed (1971); August 4 – President Obama’s 50th birthday; August 9 – Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics (1936) …

Lucille Ball would have turned 100 on the 6th of August, something a good chunk of the world (and Google) seemed to remember. But also on that date back in 1926, a little remembered film debuted that changed the world. Today’s post is about that.

On August 6, 1926, Warner Bros. taught movies to “speak.”

On that day, WB first brought sound to movie audiences with the premiere of Don Juan. Before that night, filmmakers had essentially ignored the sense of hearing, relying on live accompaniment for their presentations.

Don Juan, starring John Barrymore, premiered at the Warners’ Theatre in Manhattan to a packed house that paid the record-setting price of $11 per ticket for the night’s entertainment.

Don Juan’s sound came from a 16” phonograph that was synchronized to the film in a complicated process called “Vitaphone.”

Vitaphone was the brainchild of Sam Warner, the second youngest of the four Warner brothers. Sam felt that the studio he and his brothers created would never rise to the highest rung of the Hollywood ladder unless they took a bold step. That bold step was sound.

Sam loved tinkering with technology and had previously worked alongside Western Electric technicians setting up WB’s radio station KFWB on their Sunset Boulevard studio lot. It was here that he learned of a process Western Electric had developed to synch sound to movies. Sam talked his brothers into purchasing the system which was named Vitaphone to capitalize on WB’s recent purchase of Vitagraph Studios.

Don Juan was still essentially a silent film with all the dialogue written on cards. What is most notable about the movie is that it added the sound of an orchestra (along with some special effects), which removed the need for live musicians.

In spite of its huge opening night receipts, Don Juan couldn’t recoup its budget and WB was left seriously in debt. But Sam Warner pressed on in the development of sound, much to the chagrin of his brother Harry – the keeper of the company’s accounts.

Don Juan would prove to be the warning shot fired across the bow of silent films. The genre would be effectively killed fourteen months later by WB’s release of the first “talkie,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer.

Sadly, Sam Warner wouldn’t live to see its release. The stress of overseeing its production ruined his health, and he died 24 hours before The Jazz Singer’s premiere from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Vitaphone itself would pass away by 1930 (the process anyway, the name would survive until 1959) when improved sound-on-film technology replaced it.

The huge profits that WB reaped from their pioneering efforts into sound gave them the funds to purchase the First National Studios in Burbank in the late 1920’s, which remains their headquarters to this day.

(And if you want to see the place, stop by the studio this summer and I may be the one giving you a tour! www.wbstudiotour.com)

 

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About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

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