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WB Sound 80th Anniversary: Evolving Tech of Sound


By Mark London Williams
Leith Adams knows Jack.
Indeed, as corporate archivist for Warner Bros. Studios, he not only can tell you about the early days of Jack Warner, but all the other founding brothers of the studio as well.
Including young Sam Warner, who Adams describe as “the genius of the family.” It was Sam who saw the future of the film industry was in sound, and he was supported by his brother, the older, conservative Harry, but for different reasons — he saw sound as a way to bring the music for silents to the masses.
But somebody else was racing toward the same innovation – namely William Fox. But the Fox process, “Movietone,” was more complex, requiring a soundtrack that resided physically on the film.
The Vitaphone process favored by the Warners was a bit simpler, requiring a separate record to be synched up with the projected image, and was thus easier to bring to market.
An article from the website, written by Stephen Schochet, tells the rest of the story: “They then acquired the rights to The Jazz Singer, a popular play about a young man who had a beautiful voice and is offered a Broadway career against the wishes of his Old World Jewish father. In the play the son gave in to his father but the Warner’s, wishing to reach a wider audience, Americanized the story by having the son follow his own dreams.
“Star Al Jolson adlibbed the dialogue, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet!’ The Warners were only intending singing, but at the last minute they impulsively kept the line in the film.
”The Jazz Singer received a standing ovation when it premiered in New York in 1927 and went on to make $3.5 million at a time when admission costs 20 cents.”
And though Harry Warner originally expressed skepticism with his famous crack, “Who wants to hear actors talking?” evidently
Jolson’s quip – and the attendant box office revenue – was enough to prove that they did.
But there were some risks. As Adams says, international releasing was easy before talkies. You could have “the biggest hit in the world – all you had to was change subtitles” for the different territories.
And while initially everyone else expected sound to fail, the Warners went on to make the first fully-talking picture, Lights of New York.
The film has little else going for it, other than its historical niche, a point made by Adams and underscored in a rather erudite comment on “Assuredly an important historical document, as well as a singular theatrical curio, and an aesthetic nightmare…this really looks more like an early silent film that just happened to have sound.”
But then, they all did. And after Lights, there was no turning back.
“Within two years, silent movies were gone forever,” Adams says. “Every other studio had to make sound movies.” There were some holdouts, like Charlie Chaplin, who, after all, had mastered the silent.
But audiences weren’t interested, since they were convinced that, indeed, they hadn’t heard nothin’ yet — and wanted to hear more.
As for the distribution side, those were the days when studios owned all their own theaters. So obviously, Adams says, when it came time to install the equipment needed for sound, the Warners did their theaters first.
There was Betamax-VHS kind of standoff between Vitaphone and Movietone for a while, best epitomized by silent comedy star Harold Lloyd, who, as Adams recounts it, owned “the first commercial projector used in a private home.”
And on that projector was a switch – Vitaphone to Movietone.
But, of course, Fox prevailed in this instance and the sound elements wound up on the very same prints where the pictures resided.
Innovations in audio were a little slower paced after this first big bang – audio labs were experimenting with stereo, and that found its way into movies first in a single song (a la The Jazz Singer) called “It Never Rains But What It Pours” by Judy Garland, for the film Love Finds Andy Hardy.
And in 1940, Disney released the first full-length feature exhibited in stereo, or rather “Fantasound,” which accompanied Fantasia.
And so it went, through the great developments of the ’70s and ’80s, spurred by Dolby labs and then George Lucas with THX sound, and into the 21st century with the Pro Tools recording and mixing software now used by the studio that started it all on its state of the art sound stages.

Written by Mark London Williams

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