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The Speed of Sound
Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930

By Scott Eyman

Simon & Schuster

(C) 1997 Scott Eyman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-684-81162-6


In New York, in the year of our Lord 1907, the horse-drawn cars on West Street, Chambers Street, and Canal Street and even the cable cars on Broadway were slowly being replaced by electric streetcars. After the trolley passed, pedestrians would walk over, kneel down, and feel the heat coursing silently through the tracks. For those theaters and stores that wanted to be in style, electricity, in the form of the arc light, was de rigueur.

    It had been only a few years since nickelodeons started showing movies, and some audiences still believed that the actors on the screen were real people behind gauze. On Clinton Street, a theater was actually advertising talking pictures, which turned out to be nothing more or less than two actors in back of the screen improvising dialogue to accompany the action on the translucent screen in front of them. One night a western was on the bill, and an actor moonlighting from the Yiddish theater got excited and began speaking Yiddish. "There was," remembered a reporter who was there, "nearly a riot in the ... audience."

    In 1907, movies were new, but not that new. Likewise, sound movies. Talking pictures existed for years before The Jazz Singer. The desire for synchronized sound arose simultaneously with the possibility of projecting images. From the beginning, the cinema abhorred silence; the cinema needed some sort of sound, if only to cover up the distracting noises of the projector and the shuffling of the audience. That sound was music; by the mid-1920s, movie theaters were the foremost employers of musicians in the country.

    The most obvious method for achieving sound movies was to harness the projector with Edison's phonograph, but this was not as easy as it appeared. Uniform speed was difficult to maintain, and achieving decent amplification was deeply problematic. Not only that, but a reel of film lasted about ten minutes whereas a phonograph record couldn't last more than three or four, so the discs or cylinders had to be specially machined. In addition, as one technician wrote in 1914, "The sound must proceed from the stage ... at the front of the house while the projector must of necessity be located at the rear. This great distance between the mechanisms ... makes a positive mechanical connection impossible ..."

    Thomas Edison's obsession with sound had produced the phonograph in 1877, and he was even more determined to take the next logical step: extend his invention into movies. As early as 1891, he had announced that "I hope to be able ... to throw upon a canvas a perfect picture of anybody, and reproduce his words ... Should Patti be singing somewhere, this invention will put her full-length picture upon the canvas so perfectly as to enable one to distinguish every feature and expression on her face, see all her actions, and listen to the entrancing melody of her peerless voice. I have already perfected the invention so far as to be able to picture a prize fight—the two men, the ring, the intensely interested faces of those surrounding it --and you can hear the sounds of the blows."

    Despite his self-confidence, Edison got nowhere with synchronization at this point. By 1895, he seems to have abandoned work on authentic synchronization and settled for dabbling with what he called the Kinetophone: a Kinetoscope with a built-in phonograph and an earphone. A belt drive connected the two machines, and provided a nonsynchronous musical background to Edison's brief visual vignettes. The Kinetophone never took off, selling only 45 units compared with over a thousand units for the Kinetoscope.

    Across the Atlantic, other corporate and creative minds were toying with the problem. Among the most interesting experiments was Léon Gaumont's Chronophone, little one-reel performance films made during 1905-06, most of them directed by Alice Guy Blaché. The Chronophone usually featured headliners from the French music hall. The performers would emerge from behind a curtain and advance toward the camera until they were in a medium shot, cut off at the waist or knees, startlingly close for the period.

    They would then launch into their routine, while a sound horn behind the camera recorded the routine at the same time it was being photographed. Because of the essential insensitivity of the apparatus, the actors had to SPEAK THEIR LINES VERY LOUDLY! The projectionist had a motor to control the differential; move the lever in one direction, the projector would speed up and the phonograph slow down; moving the lever in the other direction would slow the picture and speed up the record.

    The Chronophone was successfully exhibited in theaters, some holding as many as three thousand people. The necessary amplification was achieved via pneumatic sound boxes powered by a one-horsepower compressor that blew air through the speakers and the sound out into the auditorium. Synchronization would always be an inherent problem for any film/disc system, so the Chronophone's jerry-built system for producing a sufficient volume of sound for a large auditorium would seem to have been another obstacle. Yet, "the sound amplification was terrific," inventor and cameraman Arthur Kingston told film historian Kevin Brownlow. "It was marvelous."

    With the marginal differences of electrical recording replacing acoustic recording, and the presence of that crude but workable rheostat, the Chronophone was virtually identical to the Vitaphone that would sweep the world in twenty years: a large disc in supposed sync with a movie projector. Some of the Chronophones survive, notably a reel of a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac starring the great French actor Coquelin, who is passionate and quite intelligible.

    Concurrently with the Chronophone, but back in America, an invention called the Cameraphone was marketed, with a studio and laboratory on the top of Daly's Theater, on Broadway near Thirtieth Street. The records were made first, at the plant of Columbia Records. At the movie studio, the actors would memorize the prerecorded lines until they could play in perfect synchronization with the record.

    John Arnold, who later became head cameraman at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was one of those who made films using the Cameraphone. "We made them by selecting a good phonograph record," he remembered in 1929, "rehearsing the artist ... in unison with the record until his synchronization was passable, then photographing him." According to William Haddock, a director for the Edison company, the first Cameraphone pictures were exhibited at Sevin Rock, Rhode Island, in 1907.

    The Cameraphone used two Edison phonographs with very large horns that alternated for the length of the film. It achieved a fair amount of success in markets as large as Baltimore and Washington, and as small as Johnston and Elkins, West Virginia. "All the operator had to do," wrote projectionist Gustav Petersen, "was to match the two things by listening to the record, reading the lips and watching the motions of the players and keeping the speed of the projector adjusted to the sounds. But that was easier said than done, and if he got a second or so behind or ahead he was in trouble, sometimes till the end of that reel."

    Using already existing records such as "Silver Threads Among the Gold" and "Harrigan, That's Me" soon gave way to Cameraphone producing their own records, "record[ing] the sound on records in the old mechanical way," said John Arnold, "then photographing the cast on a set as a moving picture, they singing and playing their roles in time to the phonograph offstage." These films were up to two and three reels long. Cameraphone made films of The Mikado, The Corsican Brothers, H.M.S. Pinafore, and personality shorts with people like Eva Tanguay, Blanche Ring, and George M. Cohan.

    The system needed two men, one to man the twin phonographs behind the stage, another in the booth, with a buzzer system enabling them to communicate. Gustav Petersen was working the phonograph one night when they started off with an Eva Tanguay short. It began in perfect synchronization but soon the record began moving ahead of the projector. "Speed up!" buzzed Petersen, to no avail. "The record finished," he remembered, "but Miss Tanguay was still on the screen, hopping back and forth, waving her hands, opening and shutting her mouth without a sound coming forth."

    The longer the film, the more opportunities for disaster; if the actors were in long shot for a while, chaos was imminent, because they were too far away to allow for lipreading. "By the time we got familiar with all of the cues ... we had another show come in," groused Petersen. Cameraphone cost exhibitors about $200 a week, not counting the operator's salary. It went out of business in 1910, the victim of what Haddock in 1938 called "friction among the backers of the company."

    As early as 1908, Carl Laemmle, then headquartered in Chicago, had imported a machine called the Synchroscope, invented by a German named Jules Greenbaum, that he had seen on one of his frequent trips to Europe. As might be inferred from its name, the Synchroscope attempted to synchronize records with specially made films ("... It is still the only device which makes the moving picture machine and the phonograph work in perfect unison," read Laemmle's advertising). Initially showing only German-language shorts, Laemmle hired Greenbaum's son to personally install every Synchroscope that he sold.

    Although the invention was pretty much limited to towns with either a large German-speaking audience or a taste for classical music --the programs were strictly musical in nature—Laemmle managed to place one in Omaha. Greenbaum's son spoke no English, which, recalled the theater manager, "permitted me to say to him with impunity and delightful safety many very caustic things when the first Synchroscope tests in Omaha did not work out as smoothly as was desired."

    The initial Synchroscope price was a hefty $750, but Laemmle managed to get it down to $395 on the low end and $550 on the high end. The business reacted with alarm. "Is the moving picture business about to be revolutionized?" asked Billboard. "Has the time arrived when vaudeville houses can put on a whole bill by machinery? ... I was fairly stunned the other day, when I witnessed a performance that was so startlingly realistic that I don't hesitate to say the questions already are answered in the affirmative."

    Yet, cooler heads understood that inventions like the Synchroscope were for novelty only. Silent films were still groping toward a syntax, let alone a comprehensive vocabulary, so sound must have seemed a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. The Synchroscope petered out because, Will Hays claimed, "there were not enough sound films to meet the market's demand. The supply was exhausted. Another reason for failure was that the phonograph records which were used were capable of holding material for only two reels, while the theaters were demanding four and five reels."

    What was the caliber of sound that audiences were hearing? William Hornbeck, later to become the editor of Shane and Giant, recalled a talking picture he saw as a boy in Los Angeles in 1913. "The picture was always out of sync," he remembered. "The sound did not match the photography at all. The screechy sound was pretty bad; you could hardly understand what was being said. [The audience wasn't] pleased with it; they kind of laughed at it because it was so crude that the voices didn't match what the lips were saying."

    While the Cameraphone, the Chronophone, the Synchroscope, and various and sundry imitations approached their predestined doom, an unheralded, amazing man named Eugene Augustine Lauste was busily forging the matrix for a revolution that wouldn't happen for another twenty years. The semifamous Lee De Forest would be the nominal Edison of film sound, appropriating, borrowing, doing little real inventing of his own; Lauste would be sound movies' Augustin Le Prince, the man who, in 1890, may very well have been the first to invent the movie projector.

    Born in Montmartre in 1856, Lauste had filed fifty-three patents in France before he was twenty-three. By trade he was an electrical engineer who worked for Edison for six years beginning in 1886, and, in 1896, Biograph. The impetus for Lauste's inventions was an article about Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. It occurred to Lauste that sound waves could be photographed and reproduced using a variation on Bell's technology.

    In 1904, Lauste built his first complete sound-on-film apparatus. It was primitive but clearly the product of a man who was on the right path. Because there was no amplification system, Lauste's invention utilized earphones rather than speakers, and a selenium cell rather than one of the photoelectric variety. In addition, it was a double system, that is, the sound was on a different piece of film from the picture, and occupied almost the entire strip of 35mm film. In 1907, Lauste was issued an English patent (number 18,057) for what he called the Photocinematophone.

    It was, in every way, a master patent, but under English law a patent lasted only sixteen years; by the time sound pictures became commercially viable, Lauste's ideas were in the public domain. In essence, the sound was captured by a microphone and translated into light waves via a light valve, a thin ribbon of sensitive metal over a tiny slit. The sound reaching this ribbon would be converted into light by the shivering of the diaphragm, focusing the resulting light waves through the slit, where it would be photographed on the side of the film, on a strip about a tenth of an inch wide.

    "I visited Mr. Lauste every week," remembered George Jones, whose company, London Cinematograph, was financing the inventor, "and saw and heard of his progress, and he got as far so that we could hear the sound through a telephone receiver but could not get the loudspeaker. We went to Paris and tried to get something in that line but failed ... We paid Mr. Lauste a weekly wage, also all of his expenses and the rent of his shop and house."

    Despite the failure of London Cinematograph in 1910, Lauste continued working at his studio at Brixton, outside of London. That year, he was visited by an engineer named Egrot, who recalled in 1930 that "the results [Lauste] obtained were very promising. Listening to the music ... was as good as listening through [the] telephone ... He had already records on both principles, variable density and variable area ... Mr. Lauste was doing everything himself—designs, patterns for casting, all the delicate engineering and precision work, all electrical fitments, coils, transformers, etc...."

    Lauste's work was interrupted by the war and his own poverty, difficulties that were heightened by the traditional indifference of English capital to the economic possibilities of inventions. Lauste did partially demonstrate his invention in 1913 in London: "The machine was set at work, like an ordinary cinematograph," said one contemporary account. "No pictures, however, appeared, but from a great megaphone there came voice sounds, and later the strains of a band. The rays of light pouring from the cinema projector were cut off suddenly. The sounds as suddenly ceased. A moment later the light began to play again, and the speech was resumed at the exact syllable where it was cut off."

    According to the Daily Chronicle of August 27, 1913, the selections Lauste demonstrated included the sound of a match being struck, a duet on flute and piano, a military band playing "El Capitan," and a little speech by the inventor's son: "Gentlemen, I have great pleasure in giving you a demonstration of this wonderful invention called the Photocinematophone, invented by my father, Mr. Eugene Lauste, by means of which sound waves are photographed and reproduced on a film by a new process."

    In 1914, it seemed that Lauste's run of bad luck was about to end; two wealthy Englishmen agreed to spend $100,000 to equip a modern laboratory, hire some assistants, and give Lauste a full year to perfect his sound-on-film process. The contracts were drawn, but the outbreak of World War I put an end to that particular deal. In truth, Lauste's run of bad luck was just beginning.

    "My capital was too limited to make great progress on my invention," he wrote in 1930. "Also, it was very difficult for me to interest anybody in it as at the time nobody would believe such a revolutionary invention was possible. Therefore I had to do the best I could with the means at my command. I knew that it would take considerable money to experiment on the vacuum tube [for amplification] and as I could not then afford to spend any great sum, I decided to turn my attention to work on a loud-speaking telephone ..." Although he never really got out of the lab with his invention, except for the problem of amplification Lauste had devised the essentials of the talking picture.

    Lauste ended up in Bloomfield, New Jersey, philosophically resigned to his fate but insistent about his theoretical accomplishments (his stationery was headed SOUND-FILM ENGINEERING). Almost penniless by the late 1920s, Lauste was given a sinecure by the Bell Laboratories that enabled him to live comfortably in a small cottage. "I think the wine will be good this year," he wrote in 1932 to a friend and supporter, "... so when you come out, which we hope will be soon, we will make a very good test of them." This remarkable, unsung man died in 1935.

* * *

Thomas Edison had his old interest in sound movies reawakened by the Cameraphone experiments. In 1909, Edison staff director William Haddock was told to make no more standard silent pictures but to put himself and his staff at the disposal of Daniel Higham, from the Edison Laboratory at Orange. Their task, wrote Haddock in 1938, was "to do the experimental work on what was to revolutionize the industry, an Edison machine to combine the motion picture and the phonograph."

    Actually, it appears that Edison had begun his research a year earlier, in 1908, at his studio on Decatur Avenue in the Bronx. The partial basis for Edison's efforts was an invention by the Frenchman Auguste Baron, who received a French patent in April 1896 for a machine very similar to what Edison would call the Kinetophone, and an American patent in August 1900. How did Edison utilize somebody else's technology and get away with it? "He was Edison," says Robert Gitt, film archivist at UCLA. "He had an awful lot of clout."

    As with the Cameraphone, the initial records and pictures for Edison's first system were made separately. Haddock spent weeks convincing his boss that the "only way to get perfect synchronization was to make the picture and the record at the same time." According to Haddock, after successful tests with an actor named Thomas Fortune singing "My Wife's Gone to the Country" on February 1, 1910, the Edison Talking Picture Company opened for business on West Forty-third Street. "The Forty-third Street studio was used for several months and then production was moved to the Bronx studio," wrote Haddock. "But they did not make many pictures there, as Mr. Edison found something more interesting to work on and dropped the `talkies.'"

    A few years later, the mercurial Edison reactivated the project and called it the Kinetophone. After four years and what Edison said was nearly a million dollars in research-and-development costs, he was ready to bring his invention to market. In essence, the Kinetophone was Edison's phonograph hooked up to a projector by means of a silk cord or belt. The spring-driven recording unit with a large recording horn was placed alongside the set and was connected by a belt to the camera. To mark the start of synchronization, two halves of a coconut shell were knocked together in a primitive form of a clapper board.

    The Kinetophone was hampered by Edison's odd but chronic habit of misjudging some of his best ideas. When a record was made in those days, the artist usually stood within a foot of the recording horn. When orchestras made records, horns were directly attached to certain instruments in order to direct the sound waves into the recorder. It was nearly impossible to make a record of anybody standing any distance from the horn, yet Edison was trying to reproduce opera and stage drama with a technology that made movement impossible.

    The films were shot at about sixteen frames per second on 35mm film, with the sound being captured on soft wax cylinders rather than discs. The films for this second incarnation of the Kinetophone ran about five minutes and fifty-five seconds because that was the length of time it took to photograph 400 feet of film.

    Edison worked hard to make the phonograph horn sensitive enough to pick up actors' voices from a distance, but that meant it also picked up noise from the street. Another complication was that the heat from the lights softened the wax used for the phonograph cylinders.

    In order to show the films, a large phonograph was placed by the screen, connected by a looping cord that ran over a system of pulleys to the projector in the back of the theater. The projectionist's assistant would line up the filmed striking of the coconut shells with the sound of the knock on the disc. The projectionist would start to crank, and the resulting synchronization was totally controlled by how smoothly the projectionist cranked his machine. Many of the first Kinetophone shorts were dramas and musical numbers deriving from the stage, including scenes from Faust, Julius Caesar, and Il Trovatore.

    On Monday, February 17, 1913, four theaters in New York and seven others from Chicago to St. Louis simultaneously premiered the Kinetophone. The evening began with a man on-screen explaining Edison's latest invention. He ended his introduction by breaking a plate and blowing a whistle. "The distinctive sound of each was heard," reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the next day. Other performers appeared in the same stage setting, playing "The Last Rose of Summer" and "Way Down Upon the Swanee River."

    "The voice reproduction was astonishingly good," reported the Post-Dispatch, "and, most convincing of all, the notes of the song seemed to come actually from the singer's own throat ... The big ... audience sat literally spellbound before this exhibition ... when the screen became black for a moment, the Columbia [theater] rang again and again with applause." The New York Times reported that the musicians were listened to "with fascinated attention." At one theater, "at the close of the pictures the audience applauded for fifteen minutes ... New York applauds the talking picture."

    Introduced to vaudeville by the powerful United Booking Company, the Kinetophone quickly became quite popular, or at least Edison labored mightily to give that impression. It even inspired knockoff inventions, such as the "Real Life Talking Motion Picture" based on West Thirty-first Street in New York. Kinetophone studios were established in Vienna and St. Petersburg, and among those who appeared in the films were Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Watson, and New York's Mayor Gaynor. In spite of the initial success, Edison realized the system was too primitive. "The talking pictures are very crude as yet," he told the New York Tribune in September 1913. "It will take a year to perfect them and my new invention." But Edison didn't have that long.

    Variety reported of a Kinetophone show at the Palace Music Hall on May 7 in Chicago that "from the very beginning the house was in an uproar. Persons in the audience mocked the voices, shouted, catcalled and applauded so it was impossible to hear the voices. During the speech some shouted `Louder' and `Sit down.' Others clamored for the show to go on." By March, Variety was calling the Kinetophone THE SENSATION THAT FAILED. By that time, Edison's only hope was the foreign market, but the outbreak of World War I put an end to that possibility.

    The tide had turned, and quickly; Variety wrote that "The talking, instead of enhancing the picture, simply annoys ... The general verdict was that the Edison Pictures are an out-and-out flop." The Kinetophone studio was dismantled and sold. Years later, after Vitaphone had taken the world of show business by storm, surviving technicians who had worked on the Kinetophone would claim that "the Kinetophone was the equal of any sound picture system existing today."

    What had happened becomes clear when the Kinetophone recordings preserved at the Library of Congress are examined. The sound is that of a static-filled radio broadcast—the performers are intelligible, but you have to concentrate. What finally makes the invention insupportable is the fact that they're all virtually screaming their lines. Initially funny, it's wearing after five minutes; an entire program of it would be maddening.

    The mere fact that Edison had to resort to vaudeville as a means of getting some of his money back, rather than far more lucrative bookings in either nickelodeons or legitimate theaters, is indicative of trouble behind the scenes. Certainly, the sound volume would have been inadequate—the amplifier that had been devised by Daniel Higham increased surface noise as well as volume—and synchronization would have been very difficult to maintain. Just because something works moderately well under the controlled conditions of the lab is no guarantee it will work in the field.

    The great Edison had slammed into the same barrier that would stymie all inventors seeking to perfect a film/disc system: the phonograph and the motion picture worked on two separate principles. The phonograph involved a continuous record of vibrations etched onto a wax-coated cylinder; the motion picture involved a discrete series of individual frames that created the illusion of continuous motion by the phenomenon of persistence of vision. Trying to synchronize one unit moving continuously with another unit engaged in stopping and starting some sixteen times a second was a virtual impossibility. Fewer than fifty of the Kinetophone units were sold.

    It seems clear that the Patents Company—a trust formed in 1908 that pooled competing motion-picture patent claims and assigned them to Edison—was none too thrilled about one of their own introducing an invention that just might render the rest of the company's product obsolete. There were also rumors of powerful enemies bribing projectionists to throw off synchronization purposely, not that the projectionists would have needed much encouragement --they weren't paid anything extra for what they regarded as additional work.

    In short, the Kinetophone—indeed, the entire confluence of sound and cinema—was an idea without a constituency. The abrupt failure of the Kinetophone—it was extinct by 1915, after having been used for the production of about 260 films—meant that the idea of adding sound to movies was regarded as a fool's errand. It had been tried in the marketplace, found wanting, and that was that.

    By the mid-1920s, the resistance of exhibitors to spending money on anything technical or experimental was ubiquitous within the industry. "We owned a lot of theaters," said J. J. (Joe) Cohn, production manager at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, "and a lot of the theater [managers] said if we made [pictures with] sound, they wouldn't run 'em."

    Even Edison was chastened by the failure, and decided that if he couldn't beat them, he would join them. "Americans require a restful quiet in the moving picture theater," he said in May 1926, "and for them talking from the lips of the figures on the screen destroys the illusion ... the idea is not practical. The stage is the place for the spoken word."

    Clearly, if sound was going to reappear, it would have to come from outside the industry for which it was intended. Only technicians and theoreticians continued to believe in movies with words. Among the undiscouraged partisans was a man named Austin Lescarboura, who fearlessly ventured an outrageous opinion in 1921: "The talking picture ... is gathering strength in the laboratory. When the proper time comes, it will soon live down its unfortunate past."

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