Visual Communications Images with Messages Fourth Edition (Upcoming) ?2004 By Paul Martin Lester
The history of the motion picture can be summed up in one word—adaptation.
Innovative studio executives, directors, and inventors worked to make sure that movies would become and remain a popular source of entertainment. Whenever movie sales dipped, the industry created better stories, turned up the publicity about the stars, and developed innovative technology to attract more viewers. When audiences became bored with the documentary, home-movie style of the short films at the turn of the twentieth century, the action-adventure drama was created. When radio became a popular mass medium, movies followed with films that could be both heard and seen. When sales dropped during the Great Depression because so many people couldn’t afford a ticket, the studios generated excitement about movies and their stars while at the same time lowering prices and introducing double features. When television threatened to keep moviegoers at home in the 1950s and 1960s, movie screens became larger and wider, films were shot in color, and three-dimensional movies were tried. Today the motion picture industry is adapting to challenges from other entertainment sources by producing ―must-see‖ blockbusters, cutting costs with multiplex theaters, adding improvements in image quality and sound, and diversifying into other entertainment businesses—television, motion simulator amusement park rides, and the World Wide Web.
A Sideshow Amusement
With the invention of Richard Maddox’s gelatin–bromide dry plate process in 1871
and George Eastman’s roll film innovation in 1888, still photography could be transformed into the motion picture medium (see Chapter 12). American inventor Thomas Alva Edison, who had invented the phonograph in 1877, had the idea in the 1880s to etch pictures on his phonograph cylinders so that music could be illustrated with images—an early version of the music video. Some of his early experiments have survived over the years. One of his assistants, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, however, convinced the inventor to switch to celluloid film produced by the Eastman Company. Dickson reportedly made a motion picture using a machine with the awkward name of Kinetophonograph to demonstrate synchronized motion with sound on celluloid film in 1889, but no record of the movie exists—probably because Edison
stood by the phonographic cylinder invention.
Edison patented his Kinetograph camera and the Kinetoscope peephole viewer in the United States. In 1891 his machine contained an eyehole through which a viewer could watch a filmstrip pulled along by the machinery. But so little did Edison think of
this new invention that he never bothered to pay the $159 patent fee to secure European rights.
In 1891, Edison and Dickson made the first motion picture to be preserved in the collection of the Library of Congress. The short film was a close-up of a slightly self-conscious mechanic pretending to sneeze for the camera in Fred Ott’s Sneeze (Figure
13.6). Within three years, Edison had established Kinetoscope arcades in which phonographs could be heard on one side and thirty-second movies viewed on the other. Edison sold each viewer to arcade owners for $250 and each film for $10. Customers were charged 25 cents for each viewing (adjusted for inflation, the amounts were about $5,000, $200, and $5.00 respectively today). Dickson made the films, which were fifty feet long, with no editing or camera movements. Early movies simply showed dancers, clowns, and other entertainers performing in front of the camera inside a tar paper shack called the ―Black Maria‖ on the grounds of Edison’s laboratory in New Jersey.
Because Edison didn’t secure patent rights in Europe, an English scientific
instruments maker, Robert Paul, bought a Kinetograph and made an important technical improvement. Because Edison was so fond of electricity, his camera was large and not easily moved. Consequently the films produced with the electrified machine had to be staged productions inside a studio. Paul fitted the camera with a hand crank, which allowed more portable setups.
In 1894, the two French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière purchased one of Paul’s Kinetographs. The two were already in the photography business, because their father owned a successful factory in Lyon that made photographic plates. Their variations of the Kinetoscope proved to be the most important technical advance for the medium. The Lumière brothers invented a camera that not only could make films but also could process and project the movies. With Paul’s hand-crank variation, the camera
easily could be taken anywhere and the films shown to audiences. They made the 35-mm film size the standard for all cameras and projectors. Edison showed his movies at forty frames a second, which resulted in relatively high quality animation but often caused the film to jam in the machine. The Lumières used a film speed of sixteen frames a second, which also became an industry standard until movies with sound required a faster twenty-four frames a second. They named their invention the Cinématographe,
which soon was shortened to cinema.
The Lumières’ first films were similar to those created by purchasers of video
cameras—glorified home movies. Early in 1895, the two previewed their first effort, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, with a group of friends and family members (Figure
13.7). After receiving the enthusiastic support of their first audience, the two waited almost a year to announce their invention publicly. They used the time to build a large number of cameras and distribute them around the world. On December 28, 1895, the first public audience for motion pictures was treated to a series of short films in the basement of the Grand Cafe in Paris. Auguste and Louis were not present at this first showing because they were busy preparing for a larger opening in their own movie theater. Their father, Antoine, introduced the silent movie selections that included the factory short, a Lumière baby enjoying a meal, a comedy about a young boy teasing a
gardener, and a train arriving into a station. The latter movie produced howls from the audience, who, unaccustomed to the new medium, were afraid that a real train was about to crash through the screen. Shortly thereafter, the Lumières established the first movie theater. It seated 120 people and projected twenty shows a day at half-hour intervals. With an admission price of a single franc (about the price for a matinee today or just under $4.00), the brothers made about 2,000 francs a day (a little under $7,500 today). Filmmakers, with strict instructions not to reveal the secret of the camera, sent films from every part of the world except Antarctica. Soon the Lumières had four movie theaters in Paris.
Edison’s short films, usually produced by William Dickson, differed from the Lumière works in a fundamental way. Instead of a documentary approach, where the camera filmed people and situations often without them being aware of its presence, Edison favored heavy-handed staged productions in the fiction genre. Typical was the gruesome Mary, Queen of Scots, in which her head was seen to roll off the guillotine. As it turned out, both the Lumières and Edison had it wrong. What the public wanted was the best of both documentary and staged productions—fictionalized films set outside in
the open air.
One of the first to realize the aesthetic potential of movies was George Méliès of France (Figure 13.8). The son of wealthy parents, Méliès started his career as a caricaturist, stage designer, magician, and actor. At an early Lumière showing, Méliès was intrigued by the new medium. But when he inquired about purchasing a camera, the Lumière brothers, as they did with all requests, politely refused to sell their device. But Méliès purchased a camera from Paul and made his first movie, A Game of Cards, in
1896. By 1900 the public had grown bored with documentaries. The Lumière brothers, more inventors than artists, went on to develop the first practical color photographic film—the autochrome (see Chapter 12). Méliès stepped in to fill the void left when the Lumière brothers and Edison quit production. Méliès created surreal films inspired by his experiences as a magician and stage performer. By 1907, fiction films outnumbered nonfiction works for the first time.
Méliès is considered to be the founder of movie special effects. Once while he was filming a scene, the camera suddenly jammed, but started up a few moments later. When he processed the film, Méliès discovered that the accident resulted in a ―jump cut‖ in which the actor suddenly disappeared from view. This special trick along with his elaborate sets and animation techniques resulted in charming films that exploited the magical quality of motion pictures. His most famous work is the ten-minute classic A Trip to the Moon made in 1902. Roughly based on the Jules Verne stories of From the
Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, the movie shows a group of professors who take
a voyage in a rocket ship that lands in one of the ―eyes‖ of the face on the moon (see Chapter 11).
The Action-Adventure Film
One of the early innovators in filmmaking who understood the public’s desire to see action movies produced outside a studio was the American Edwin Stratton Porter.
In 1896, he had left the U.S. Navy and went to work for Edison as a mechanic, electrician, and Vitascope operator. He soon left Edison’s employ, bought his own camera, made films, rented a theater, and showed his movies under the name of Thomas Edison, Jr. He made his two most famous pictures in 1903—The Life of an
American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery. They showcase his technical
achievements in which dramatic exterior chase scenes with innovative angles and panning camera movements are cut with interior, studio views that were dull by comparison, but nevertheless moved the action along. His Fireman movie, for example,
tells the story of rescue workers outside a burning house and cuts to a frightened woman and child inside. In Robbery, he used camera pans and hand-painted some of his
prints with red to make gunshots and explosions more dramatic (Figure 13.9).
The First Blockbuster
The rise and fall of David Wark Griffith is a metaphor for the entire silent era. Edwin Porter was making Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest for Dickson’s Biograph Studio in 1907
when he hired Griffith, a young actor, for a lumberjack role. Born in Kentucky, Griffith had been a reporter for a Louisville newspaper and had written and acted for the stage when he was signed as an actor at five dollars a day. Because of the growing popularity of U.S. movies, separate theaters outside of vaudeville houses were built. These nickelodeons, named for the price of a ticket, required the production of many more films. With his stage experience, Griffith soon was offered a director’s position.
Griffith is best known for the infamous The Birth of a Nation. The movie is a
demonstration of the maturity of Griffith’s film work, but unfortunately tells a mean-
spirited and racist story (Figure 13.10). Originally titled The Clansman from the book of
the same name by Thomas Dixon, the movie tells of the history of the United States immediately after the Civil War. When a struggling community is attacked by a ravaging group of African Americans (most were white actors played with heavy black makeup), the people are saved by white-hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) who ride into town on horseback. Griffith probably was attracted to the story because he was a southerner and his father had been a Confederate soldier.
Compared to the other Biograph movies, Birth was an incredible gamble. Most films
of the day cost no more than $100 (about $1,700 today) for the total production. Birth
cost about $83,000 (about $1.5 million)—the most ever invested in a motion picture at
that time. It required six weeks of rehearsal, nine weeks to shoot, and the services of thousands of actors and horses. The three-hour movie premiered at Clune’s Auditorium
in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915, to immediate controversy. The NAACP issued a pamphlet called ―Fighting a Vicious Film‖ and began a boycott of the studio. Many leading politicians and civic leaders were unanimous in their condemnation because of the racist message of the movie. When it was shown in Boston, a race riot followed, but attendance at road show engagements was high. The public probably was drawn to the movie by its controversy, not unlike the present popularity of Mel Gibson’s The Passion
of the Christ (2004). Over the years, The Birth of a Nation reportedly made $20 million
(almost $350 million today). Although the KKK had disbanded in 1869, the film also was responsible for the racist extremist group’s revival.
Although Birth was motion picture’s first blockbuster hit and made a fortune for
Griffith, he was stung by the adverse commentary about the film. His next movie, Intolerance, was an attempt to improve his reputation. Griffith invested all the profits from Birth to make the epic that was a complex, eight-hour financial disaster. Intolerance
told four different stories, from a young man falsely accused of murdering a baby to a historical drama set in ancient Babylon. The critics and the public of his day never appreciated the film. It cost Griffith his financial independence, and he had to ask others for backing. In 1919, Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford formed their own film company, which they named United Artists.
In his later years, Griffith lost much of the creative energy associated with his early films. In the 1930s, he tried to make movies with sound, but his lack of technical experience with audio and studio executives, who viewed him as a quaint, silent-movie dinosaur, prevented him from doing so. For the last seventeen years of his life he lived as a virtual hermit in Los Angeles. He died in 1948 on his way to a Hollywood hospital from a hotel where he had been living alone.
Lasting Legacy of Silent Films
The silent-film period is important because during that time the motion picture industry established itself as a powerful business force, started the careers of numerous directors, and began the concept of ―stars,‖ which were elevated to a higher
status than mere actors. The triad of business dealings, directors, and stars crucial to filmmaking during that time remain vital in today’s world of moviemaking.
The Movie Business
Some of the most powerful studio executives had humble beginnings. Adolph Zukor, a Hungarian immigrant, established his first movie theater in 1904. Eight years later he became an independent producer. Porter convinced him to show full-length motion pictures in his theater chain. Zukor’s production and theater business was later named Paramount Pictures. Marcus Loew was a successful furrier and owner of a chain of vaudeville houses in 1904. When it became evident that vaudeville would lose out to movie theaters, in 1924 Loew bought the Metro Picture Company and the Goldwyn Picture Company founded by Samuel Goldfish (who had changed his name). When Loew put a theater owner, Louis B. Mayer, in charge of production, their partnership eventually led to the powerful studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). During World War I, many European companies were forced to stop commercial production, which allowed Hollywood to take over. By 1915, most American studios had established complexes in the Los Angeles suburb of Universal City, where the weather, environment, and real estate prices were favorable for movie production. Many Europeans who migrated because of the war became successful in the film industry.
Several ―poverty row‖ yet successful studios flourished during this period. Three of the most famous stars in Hollywood—Chaplin, Fairbanks, and Pickford—formed
United Artists along with director D. W. Griffith to give them more autonomy over their work. Nevertheless, they found distributing their movies difficult because Paramount owned most of the theaters. In 1925, Gloria Swanson and two years later Samuel Goldwyn joined the group and helped turn United Artists into a major studio.
William Fox, an exhibitor and movie distributor in 1912, merged his company with Joseph Schenck and Darryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century. The American Pathé Studio earned its keep with a popular serial, The Perils of Pauline, in 1914. The Hearst
newspapers also featured cartoon versions of twenty melodramatic films. Theater owners Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner started making their own films in 1912 under the name Warner Bros.
The proliferation of studios indicated the rise in popularity of motion pictures generally, with the public clamoring for new movies to satisfy their film appetite. The numerous business deals among producers, distributors, and banking groups (J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller) reflected the rising costs of movies.
Directors Although making movies has always been a collaborative effort, the role of the director is the key to a production. A director turns the words of the screenwriter, the talent of the actors, and the expertise of the technical crew into an art form with a unique style.
Several early American film directors became famous. Mack Sennett was an actor under Edison and later worked for Griffith. In 1912, he financed his own production company, the Keystone Film Company of Los Angeles. The studio was famous for its madcap chase scenes involving the Keystone Kops and romantic comedies featuring the sophisticated star Gloria Swanson. Keystone launched the careers of writer-turned-director Frank Capra and comedic actors Harold Lloyd and Charles Chaplin, the most famous silent-film star. But when the silent-film period ended, Sennett’s comedies were
no longer popular.
Hal Roach was Sennett’s biggest competitor in directing comedies. Roach wooed Lloyd away with more money. With his alter ego, whom he called the ―Glass
Character,‖ Lloyd made more than 100 one-reel comedies that exhibited his acrobatic
skills and a sophisticated sense of visual humor. Roach went on to direct Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in several comedy classics and the Our Gang comedy series.
The most famous silent-film director was Cecil B. DeMille, who often clashed with studio executives over his high budgets. For example, his 1923 The Ten Commandments
cost more than a million dollars to produce. DeMille had been inspired to become a director after watching Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. He initially worked for
Samuel Goldwyn and moved their production facilities to a barn in Hollywood in 1914 to begin making feature films. DeMille was popular with the public because his movies always contained a hint of sensuality as opposed to Griffith’s sentimentality.
In the tradition of the Lumière brothers, the English documentary photographer Robert Flaherty began shooting a Canadian Eskimo’s struggle to survive in 1913. In 1922, his documentary classic Nanook of the North was released. The film is noted as an
early example of documentary filmmaking, but Flaherty often posed Nanook in order to make the movie more dramatic. Modern documentary directors try to be more objective in their presentations.
Erich von Stroheim, a child of Viennese aristocratic parents, arrived in the United States in 1906. He played one of many extras hired by Griffith to portray African Americans in blackface for The Birth of a Nation. During the filming of Intolerance, he was
promoted to assistant director. His most famous work was the 1925 classic The Merry
Widow, which questioned the social mores of a declining upper class.
In France, Abel Gance expanded the language of film by creating a 1927 masterpiece, Napoleon. Gance used three projectors to form a triptych by which he treated the audience to various views of the action-packed scenes.
The silent-film period in Germany was cut short by the interference of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Robert Wienz’s tale of supernatural powers and murder frightened
1919 viewers in his The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. The German expressionist movement
inspired the set designs, and the actors walked in ―living paintings.‖ F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), the first version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is a film classic for its
experimental use of lighting and makeup effects for actor Max Schreck. Probably the most famous German director of this period was Fritz Lang, who produced Destiny
(1921) and the futuristic Metropolis (1926), a film noted for its stunning visual effects
(Figure 13.11). Supposedly, the latter was one of Hitler’s favorite movies and the Nazi leader invited Lang, who was half-Jewish and a liberal, to make films for the Third Reich. Fortunately, Lang and many other German directors escaped from Germany and settled in Hollywood. Unfortunately, director Leni Riefenstahl, inspired by Metropolis,
committed her talents to the Nazi Party with her 1935 classic propaganda film, Triumph
of the Will. Nevertheless, her work is every bit as innovative and cinematic as that of the other German directors. Particularly striking is her film about the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, Olympia (1938), which celebrates the human body rather than military might.
By far, one of the most influential directors in the history of silent films was the Russian Sergei Eisenstein. Like Orson Welles, Eisenstein is known primarily for his innovative film technique in one motion picture. The son of a shipbuilder, he studied architecture and engineering before being bitten by the theater bug. He gave up his engineering career when he landed a job with an experimental theater where he designed sets and directed plays. He became interested in filmmaking after watching Griffith’s use of montage sequences in The Birth of a Nation to tell the story of rich and
poor characters. In 1925, he released his classic The Battleship Potemkin, which told the
story of the 1905 sailors’ rebellion in Odessa and the Tsar’s brutal reprisal. The movie is
probably best known for its famous ―steps‖ scene in which montage and quick editing
techniques created dramatic tension (Figure 13.12). Eisenstein was inspired by dada, in which multiple images were employed for maximum graphic effect. With film pieces as short as 1⁄16 second, the murder of Russian civilians by the Tsar’s troops (an incident that
probably was not as severe as shown) is one of the best examples of the art of editing in the history of film. Eisenstein became a teacher of motion picture art and wrote several books about the power of film as a communication medium before his death in 1948.
Stars Some actors and actresses became so popular that people went to the movies to see them rather than their actions. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (who were united first in the movies and then in marriage in 1920) and Charles Chaplin were stars of this magnitude. The charisma of these stars boosted their salaries to enormous amounts (and charisma is the reason, even today, why stars are usually paid more than directors). Stars paid a personal price for their high salaries because they could never
escape their on-screen personalities and celebrity status. For example, in only three years the salary of Mary Pickford, a famous star of the time, jumped from about $25,000 to almost $1 million a year ($10 million today). But the three United Artists’ founding members could never escape their typecast roles or find the privacy that ordinary people take for granted. Typified by her movie Tess of the Storm Country (1922), Pickford
always played an innocent waif. Douglas Fairbanks, a swashbuckling ladies’ man, played that role in Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Baghdad (1924). When Pickford
hurriedly went to Nevada in 1920 to get a quick divorce and three weeks later married Fairbanks, the public was outraged by the scandal. Fans asked how could such a sweet, girl-next-door type behave in such an immoral way? A few years later, however, the two divorced.
Charles Chaplin was the most famous screen personality of this or any other day. He was born in the slums of London and worked hard to achieve his dream of becoming a stage actor. During Chaplin’s vaudeville tour of the United States, Mack Sennett spotted him. The director wooed Chaplin from the theater with the promise of $150 a week (a little over $2,500 a week today) and a year’s guarantee to play in his Keystone Kop
comedies in 1913. But Chaplin became frustrated, believing that Sennett wasn’t using his character, the Little Tramp, enough. In 1915, Chaplin joined the Essanay (S&A) Studio for $1,250 a week (over $22,000 a week today). By 1918, Chaplin’s character of the sad-eyed hobo with the baggy clothes and dark mustache was so popular that he could command a one-year salary of $1 million (about $10 million). The next year, United Artists was formed, and Chaplin became the first writer, director, and actor in Hollywood. His most famous movies were The Gold Rush (1925), with its famous scene
in which he eats his own shoe, and The Great Dictator (1940), a spoof of Adolf Hitler
(Figure 13.13). After criticizing the politics of the government and losing a paternity suit (in which a blood test revealed he wasn’t the father of the child in question), Chaplin left the United States in 1952 and was refused reentry. George Bernard Shaw called Chaplin ―the only genius in motion pictures.‖ But when the silent little tramp started talking, the public could not tolerate his opinions.
While Chaplin played a sentimental tramp, his rival comic of the day, Buster Keaton, played an everyday person facing impossible odds. Joseph Francis Keaton was born into an acrobatic vaudeville family in 1895. The famous magician Harry Houdini gave the young performer the nickname ―Buster‖ after seeing him fall down a flight of steps as a toddler. Keaton first performed on stage when he was just one year old. By 1917, he had appeared in three movies directed by Roscoe Arbuckle. His most famous comedy is The General (1927), in which he plays a Confederate locomotive operator trying to save his train from Union soldiers who want to destroy it. Trying to deal with great forces beyond his control that were disrupting his everyday activities—and never changing
his pessimistic expression—was a constant theme in Keaton’s work (Figure 13.14).
Another reason for Hollywood’s dominance over the world’s output of motion
pictures was that many actors emigrated from Europe. Successful studios knew the public’s fascination with these often sensual and mysterious stars. Swedish actress Greta Garbo was discovered when she worked as a hat model for a department store.
After she had played in several Swedish productions, MGM Studios brought her to the United States. Rudolpho d’Antonguolla (later changed to Rudolph Valentino) was a playboy and tango dancer in Argentina when he was discovered. Women everywhere adored him, and men admired the rugged adventure tales in which he starred. In The
Sheik (1923) he established the sultry screen persona that he was never able to shake.
Scandals The new Hollywood sensuality on and off the big screen caused many people to become concerned that movies could have a corrupting influence on the morals of the nation. Sparked by the sensual love scenes on the screen and the personal scandals of a handful of stars, a private censorship board was established to regulate the industry. The actor and director Roscoe ―Fatty‖ Arbuckle was involved in a 1921 scandal. A young actress died during a party at his rented twelfth-floor suite in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, and Arbuckle was charged with rape and murder. Even though he was found not guilty, his reputation was ruined because of vicious attacks in the Hearst newspapers. Mary Pickford’s hasty postdivorce marriage and the Arbuckle affair led to the formation in 1922 of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America by Will Hays, former Postmaster General in the Harding administration. A Presbyterian elder, Hays and his committee members offered informal advice to movie executives about studio scandals and movie content. More important, the office issued a seal of approval for work that they considered acceptable for mass audiences. Without that approval, a film was doomed to a low-budget status. This early form of censorship led to sanitized and banal works in the 1930s and 1940s that could win easy approval from the Hays office. The office inspired the 1945 group the Motion Picture Association of America, which was created for the same purpose, and the 1970s Motion Picture Rating System.
The Oscar The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences first presented its Academy Awards on May 16, 1929, partly as a public relations ploy to help dignify the criticized film industry. The treasured, eight-pound, 13-1⁄2-inch-tall, gold-plated award
originally was called ―The Statuette.‖ But when an Academy librarian remarked that
the standing man looked like her uncle Oscar, the name stuck.
Hollywood Finds Its Voice
The 1930s and 1940s are considered by most motion picture historians to be Hollywood’s great age. Technical innovations brought improvements in presentation,
studios became powerful arbitrators of careers and content, and the public flocked to films in record numbers.
Sound Beginning with Edison’s Kinetophonograph, linking pictures and sounds was considered an inevitable technical development. However, the advent of ―talking
pictures‖ was delayed because various inventors produced different sound systems. Another reason for the delay was that theater owners were not convinced of the necessity to fit their movie houses with expensive sound equipment.
Amplified sound that could be heard by large audiences was made possible by Lee De Forest’s invention of the audio tube. Based on an earlier idea of Edison’s, De Forest created a vacuum tube that eventually led to public address systems, radio, stereo equipment, and television. The American Telegraph & Telephone Company (AT&T)
bought De Forest’s technology and developed it in the company’s Western Electric Bell Laboratories subsidiary. General Electric’s scientists also were working on sound
development. Both Western Electric and General Electric announced their amplification systems at about the same time.
The next step in the process was to combine synchronized dialogue, music, and sound effects during a movie’s filming. Two sound systems—the Vitaphone (sound on
disk) and the Phonofilm (sound on film)—became available to filmmakers at about the
same time. Vitaphone was an adaptation of Edison’s phonographic cylinder in which a
recording disk was made when the film was shot. To produce sound during a movie, a theater exhibitor had to run the picture and the cylinder with two different machines. Occasionally problems arose (considered humorous by early audiences) when the two didn’t match or a haphazard projector technician accidentally played the wrong disk. Phonofilm, the technology eventually selected, was a sound-on-film innovation that converted recorded sounds into visual representations that were printed on the film itself. Consequently, no separate machine was required because the visual and the audio components of the movie always matched.
Warner Bros. studios invested heavily in Vitaphone, whereas Fox advocated Phonofilm. On October 5, 1927, Warner debuted Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer using the
Vitaphone process. Although not the first sound picture—there had been earlier
experiments with recorded voices and music—The Jazz Singer was the first movie in
which sound was used in a feature motion picture to tell a story. The movie is forgettable except as a footnote in the history of sound presentations. It basically is the story of a vaudeville star that returns home to sing for his mother. In blackface makeup Jolson sings the song ―Mammie‖ and speaks the famous line ―You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.‖ Although the film contained only four sequences in which sound was heard,
audiences immediately reacted favorably to the innovation. The heyday of the silent movie was quickly coming to an end. Warner’s next movie, the first all-talking film, was
the following year’s The Lights of New York, a gangster genre Vitaphone picture. Fox
hyped the Phonofilm process by showing Charles Lindbergh’s famous departure for Paris in one of its 1927 Movietone newsreels.
Although the public demanded talking movies, critics and studio executives were lukewarm to the innovation. Because of technical limitations with early microphones, actors had to speak their lines in static positions. Action-adventure films were practically impossible to make with the limited equipment. Writers criticized the return to indoor stage productions. Many people predicted the eventual end of the movies. In Singin’ in the Rain (1952), ―talkies‖ are portrayed comically as microphones are hidden in flowers.
Studio heads and movie distributors didn’t favor sound because it added to the cost
of making a movie: Camera sound equipment and speaker systems for theaters had to be purchased. One reason that Adolph Zukor of Paramount was against sound was that he had recently invested in several new movie theaters. He thought the technology unnecessarily disrupted the industry. Other problems were soon discovered with audio production. Shooting schedules had to be lengthened because of technical difficulties