Warner Bros. Introduces Talking Motion Pictures Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Warner Bros. innovated talkies, films with sound, giving rise to the Golden Age of the Hollywood film.

Summary of Event

When shown in theaters, silent films were accompanied by live sound, featuring music and sound effects. Five-hundred-seat neighborhood theaters made do with a piano and violin; four-thousand-seat picture palaces in New York and Chicago maintained resident orchestras with more than seventy members. What the silent cinema lacked was prerecorded, synchronized sound. During the late 1920’s, the Warner Bros. studio led the American film industry first to motion pictures with sounds recorded on synchronized records and added on the film beside the images. [kw]Warner Bros. Introduces Talking Motion Pictures (Aug., 1926-Sept., 1928) [kw]Talking Motion Pictures, Warner Bros. Introduces (Aug., 1926-Sept., 1928) [kw]Motion Pictures, Warner Bros. Introduces Talking (Aug., 1926-Sept., 1928) Warner Bros.;Vitaphone Motion pictures;sound technology Sound recording technology;motion pictures [g]United States;Aug., 1926-Sept., 1928: Warner Bros. Introduces Talking Motion Pictures[06690] [c]Motion pictures;Aug., 1926-Sept., 1928: Warner Bros. Introduces Talking Motion Pictures[06690] [c]Communications and media;Aug., 1926-Sept., 1928: Warner Bros. Introduces Talking Motion Pictures[06690] [c]Entertainment;Aug., 1926-Sept., 1928: Warner Bros. Introduces Talking Motion Pictures[06690] [c]Science and technology;Aug., 1926-Sept., 1928: Warner Bros. Introduces Talking Motion Pictures[06690] [c]Inventions;Aug., 1926-Sept., 1928: Warner Bros. Introduces Talking Motion Pictures[06690] Warner, Harry Warner, Albert Warner, Sam Warner, Jack

Crowds outside Warners’ Theatre in New York for the 1926 opening of Don Juan, a silent film with recorded synchronized musical accompaniment.

(NARA)

The ideas that led to the coming of sound were the products of corporate-sponsored research by American Telephone and Telegraph Company American Telephone and Telegraph;sound recording technology (AT&T) and the Radio Corporation of America Radio Corporation of America;sound recording technology (RCA). Both improved sound recording and playback to help their design of long-distance telephone equipment and improvement of radio sets. Neither company could or would enter filmmaking, however. It took Warner Bros. to prove to the predecessors of today’s Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Universal Pictures, and Columbia Pictures that motion pictures with synchronized sound should be made standard in the film industry.

Warner Bros. pioneered sound in motion pictures with a plan formulated by brothers Harry and Sam Warner. In 1924, Warner Bros. (the studio’s official spelling, to cut the cost of printing “Brothers”) was a prosperous, albeit small, corporation that produced films needing financing. That year, Harry Warner approached the important Wall Street investment banking house of Goldman, Sachs and secured the help he needed. In 1925, Warner Bros. purchased Vitagraph, a pioneer film producer and distributor, an action that doubled the company’s production capacity and provided a worldwide network to market its films. Thus, in 1925, before Warner Bros. even considered the new sound technology, astute film industry watchers began to notice the rise of the company.

As part of this initial wave of expansion, Warner Bros. acquired a Los Angeles radio station in order to publicize its films. Through this deal, the four Warner brothers—Harry, Sam, Albert, and Jack—learned of the new technology the radio and telephone industries had developed to record sound. During the spring of 1925, the brothers devised a plan to use the new recording technology to help with their corporate expansion. Warner Bros. could record the most popular musical artists on film and then offer these short films as added attractions to theaters that booked its features. (Albert Warner was instrumental in getting Warner Bros. films into theaters.) As a bonus, Warner Bros. could add recorded orchestral music to the studio’s feature films and offer it to those theaters that relied on small musical ensembles. Brothers Sam and Jack Warner would handle the actual filmmaking.

The innovation of sound did not come easily for Warner Bros. For example, it contracted for necessary equipment from AT&T. The telephone company would have rather dealt with a more important Hollywood corporation, but Paramount and the other major Hollywood companies of the day did not want to risk their sizable profit positions by junking silent films. The giants of the film industry were doing fine with what they had; they did not want to switch to something that had not been proved.

On August 6, 1926, Warner Bros. premiered its new technology, which it labeled Vitaphone. The first package consisted of a traditional silent film (Don Juan) with a recorded musical accompaniment, plus six recordings of musical talent that were highlighted by the most famous opera tenor of the day, Giovanni Martinelli, doing his specialty from I Pagliacci. These recordings were made in New York, before almost all filmmaking moved to Hollywood in 1927.

From the fall of 1926 through the spring of 1927—during the prime moviegoing season in those days, before theaters had air-conditioning—Warner Bros. developed several packages consisting of a silent film with recorded orchestral music plus six shorts of noted musical talent. As this policy evolved, the shorts became more “pop” and less classical. Al Jolson, Jolson, Al for example, appeared before the Warner cameras and recorded two of his most famous hits. Warner Bros. concentrated on these so-called vaudeville shorts. By April, 1927, the company had recorded all the popular stars of the day.

Warner Bros. soon ran out of musical stars to record and had to devise something new. The company began to add Vitaphone segments to feature films. The reasoning was that if Jolson did so well in a short subject, a feature film designed and written especially for him would likely be even more successful. The film would be silent as the necessary narrative moved along, but as soon as the Jolson character was required to break into song, the sound technology would be utilized. This strategy, merging the new with the old, was designed to avoid offending dedicated silent filmgoers while attracting new patrons to theaters throughout the United States.

The first such Vitaphone feature was The Jazz Singer, Jazz Singer, The (film) which premiered early in the fall of 1927. Over the summer months, Warner Bros. had convinced enough theater owners to install the required sound equipment to make the investment in the part-talkie feature film a financial success. During the summer of 1927, Warner salespersons performed a masterful job of selling skeptical exhibitors on the idea, and the Vitaphone projection equipment began to appear in picture palaces throughout the United States.

The Jazz Singer premiered as scheduled in October, 1927. From the opening it was a hit. (Sadly, Sam Warner did not live to see and hear it; he died shortly before the premiere.) The Jazz Singer package (including its accompanying shorts with sound) forced theaters in cities that rarely held films over for more than a single week to ask to have the package stay for two, three, and sometimes four straight weeks. (One week was considered normal in the 1920’s; two weeks’ duration usually set a house record.)

The Jazz Singer did well at the box office, but it failed to better records set by such silent film blockbusters as Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), Ben-Hur (1925), and The Big Parade (1925). Skeptics questioned the staying power of talkies. If sound was so great, they wondered why The Jazz Singer did not move to the top of the all-time box-office list. That would come a year later with The Singing Fool, Singing Fool, The (film) also starring Al Jolson. From that film’s opening day (September 20, 1928), reviewers from The New York Times to the cynics writing for Variety tracked the greatest motion-picture hit of its day. The Singing Fool cost an estimated $200,000 to make and returned $5 million. By Thanksgiving Day of 1928, the Warner brothers knew that The Singing Fool was inexorably climbing to become the new Hollywood box-office champion. In New York City, The Singing Fool registered the heaviest business in Broadway history, with an advance sale that exceeded more than $100,000.

Warner Bros. pioneered the use of sound in motion pictures and thus functioned as the innovator of this important new feature. The Fox Film Corporation (predecessor of the later Twentieth Century-Fox) came second. Once it was shown that talkies could make money, the other major Hollywood movie corporations soon followed.

Significance

The coming of sound transformed filmmaking in its day as did other later changes in motion-picture technology, such as the coming of color, wide-screen images, and stereo sound. Indeed, film history is segmented by this monumental change. The addition of sound led to major shifts in the economic, aesthetic, and social power of films.

Through its innovation with sound, Warner Bros. changed the American film industry in a fundamental manner. Hollywood was transformed from a competitive environment to a tight oligopoly of eight companies. Those eight companies (except for Radio Keith Orpheum—RKO—which dropped out in the 1950’s, and MGM and United Artists, which merged) remained dominant in the industry for decades. As a single company, Warner Bros. was the sole small competitor of the early 1920’s to succeed in the Hollywood elite, producing films for consumption throughout the world and for presentation in the more than eight hundred theaters the company owned throughout the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States in the 1930’s and 1940’s. This transformation led to what is known as the Golden Age of Hollywood, the period of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Hollywood, with its images of multimillion-dollar deals, film stars, and press agents, became a symbol of the film as a popular cultural force throughout the world. By 1930, for example, more reporters were stationed in the filmmaking capital of the world reporting on the images and sounds of the new talkies than were found in any capital of Europe or Asia.

In particular, through The Singing Fool, Warner Bros. taught the film industry how to spill over into other popular entertainment markets through what came to be called spin-offs. Warner Bros. created the first talkie sequel: Say It with Songs, Say It with Songs (film) released at the beginning of the 1929-1930 movie season. (Like many a future sequel, Say It with Songs failed to match the box-office take of its predecessor.) Two tunes from the film, “Sonny Boy” and “There’s a Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder,” went on to make up the first million-selling phonograph record of the talkie era. Thereafter, popular films would prove to be a gold mine for creating new hit tunes.

Filmmakers had a new standard by which to fashion future classics of the cinematic art. No longer were films presented with different sounds from theater to theater. The sound track became one of the features controlled by the filmmaker. Indeed, sound became a vital part of the filmmaker’s art. A musical score, in particular, could make or break a film.

Finally, the coming of sound made films the dominant medium of mass culture in the United States and throughout the world, increasing their influence on fashion, design, and slang. Many cultural observers had not viewed the silent cinema as important, but with the coming of the talkies there was no longer any question of the power of films. The talkies gave birth to a means of expression that affected all aspects of society. This is reflected in the fact that soon after the coming of sound, the notorious Hays Code of prior restraint on film content went into effect. Talking films were so powerful it was deemed necessary to prevent filmmakers from presenting many realistic images and sounds. Warner Bros.;Vitaphone Motion pictures;sound technology Sound recording technology;motion pictures

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Massive tome includes analysis of the implications of the coming of sound for the making of films and the Hollywood production process. Argues, surprisingly, that the addition of sound changed little in the look and style of the Hollywood film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eyman, Scott. The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Comprehensive history of the period in Hollywood filmmaking when silents gave way to sound. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geduld, Harry M. The Birth of the Talkies: From Edison to Jolson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. Pioneering study details the creation of the inventions that were necessary to make talkies technologically possible. Includes substantial material on the film industry’s relations with the phonograph and radio industries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gomery, Douglas. “The Coming of Sound: Technological Change in the American Film Industry.” In The American Film Industry: A History Anthology of Readings, edited by Tino Balio. Rev. ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. Discusses the coming of sound and the important role this technological change played in the transformation and development of the American film industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Warner Bros. Innovates Sound: A Business History.” In The Movies in Our Midst, edited by Gerald Mast. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. A history, based on corporate files, of the rise of a major movie company through its success in innovating sound films. Argues that the innovation was based on business, not artistic, factors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “The Warner-Vitaphone Peril: The American Film Industry Reacts to the Innovation of Sound.” In The American Movie Industry: A Case Study Approach, edited by Gorham Kindem. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. Previous film historians argued that the film industry happened into sound in a chaotic manner. Gomery argues, based on company records, that Warner Bros. slowly and systematically innovated talkies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higham, Charles. Warner Brothers. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975. Examines the history of the family and the company that pioneered the coming of sound and operated a major studio into the 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sarris, Andrew.“You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film—History and Memory, 1927-1949. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Comprehensive history of American cinema since The Jazz Singer by one of the most respected American writers on film. Opens with a chapter on the Hollywood studios that includes discussion of Warner Bros. Features an index of films and an index of names.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shindler, Colin. Hollywood in Crisis: Cinema and American Society, 1929-1939. New York: Routledge, 1996. Describes the state of American cinema in the decade immediately following the advent of sound, the years of the Great Depression, during which Warner Bros. produced a number of radical films. Includes filmography, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Alexander. The Shattered Silents: How the Talkies Came to Stay. New York: William Morrow, 1979. History of the innovation of sound in films, by Warner Bros. and others, based solely on a close reading of the trade paper Variety. Interesting but limited.

Edison Shows the First Talking Pictures

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Sound Technology Revolutionizes the Motion-Picture Industry

Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age

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