Tag Archives: sam warner

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)

 

Advertisements

The Untimely Death of Sam Warner

Producer and visionary Sam Warner.

Sam Warner, perhaps the most affable of the four brothers who founded the WB motion picture empire, was always thinking about the future. 

Schmuel Wonskolaser was born in Poland and came to the United States as a child with his family in the late 1880s. As a young man, he worked in several trades before going into the nickelodeon business with his two older brothers near their home in Youngstown, Ohio. Sam’s job, as the most technically-minded of the brothers, was to crank the projector. 

The boys soon moved into film distribution and added younger brother Jack to the business. Sam was able to get along well with all his brothers, and provided a buffer between the argumentative Jack and his other two siblings, Albert and Harry. This pattern would continue for the next two decades as the Warners moved into film production and settled in Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” district. 

The four Warner Brothers. Clockwise from the upper-left they are Harry, Jack, Sam, and Albert.

As second-tier producers during the early 1920s, the brothers constantly hovered on the brink of bankruptcy. Only the success of Rin Tin Tin films kept the young enterprise afloat. The brothers knew that to remain in business, they would have to make a big gamble, but they were rarely in agreement on what that gamble should be. 

Sam felt that the future belonged to sound

Silent films were entrenched into the fabric of Hollywood and few felt that the situation would change any time soon. Sam disagreed. He had worked closely with sound engineers from Western Electric setting up WB’s first L.A. radio station. (Jack Warner would later say that the call letters for the station, KFWB, stood for “Keep Filming, Warner Bros.,” but they were coincidental. The station still exists today and has a news/talk format.) 

Sam was given a demonstration for a new sound-on-disk process that Western Electric had developed and was convinced that it would save the company. But first, he would have to convince his brothers. It was a tough sell, but Harry, the WB president, agreed to buy the invention if Sam would only use it for background music. They named the process Vitaphone, to capitalize on their recent purchase of Vitagraph Studios. 

Hollywood had taken its first baby-step into sound production. 

Sam oversaw the production of several sound shorts, as well as Don Juan, the first sound feature, in 1926. The film had a recorded orchestra and employed a few crude sound effects. It was a huge hit, but was unable to recoup the massive investment that WB made in wiring their theaters for sound amplification. 

The brothers found themselves seriously in debt once again. They decided to push in all the chips and make a true “talkie” film; one where not only the background music would be heard on the soundtrack, but the voices of the actors as well. Sam was again put in charge of bringing this difficult birth to term. 

 

The result was The Jazz Singer, which was released on October 6, 1927 in Manhattan. The film set box-office records, and effectively put the silent era on life support. It also secured WB’s future and propelled the brothers into the ranks of the major film producers. 

Tragically, none of the brothers were in attendance at the theater that night to hear history being made. That’s because Sam, the brother most responsible for Warner Bros.’ and Hollywood’s new era of talkie films, had died 24-hours earlier of a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by the stress of bringing the film to the screen. 

That was 83-years ago today. 

Sam was only 42. 

 

If you would like to learn more about the early days of Warner Bros., check out Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I recently co-wrote with noted Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.