Posted by David Kalat on August 18, 2012
Last week I began a cycle of talking through how the transition to talkies affected the development of American screen comedy, and to continue in this vein we need to take a moment to talk through what that transition was all about. The Jazz Singer has persisted in posterity and popular memory far in excess of the merits of its actual content–it is however remembered as a revolutionary picture, one that precipitated a sudden reorientation of the industry. But the real story behind the switch to talkies is messier–and doesn’t have much of anything to do with The Jazz Singer. It is instead a story about the dynamics of format wars.
The history of mass media has been a history of competing technologies, a chronicle of format wars.
I expect that most of my readership has memories of the VHS vs Beta war of the 1980s; perhaps some of you were early adopters of camcorders and struggled to compare VHS-C to Hi8. There were two kinds of laserdiscs—one was foolish and the other expensive. When DVD was rolled out, it was the product of a consortium of manufacturers who had hoped to work together to avoid another format war, only to face a competitor product called DivX on the format’s debut.
Blu-Ray beat out HD, but then failed to capture the market share it had anticipated because streaming video is beating out physical media—in fact, streaming is now a serious threat to the viability of theatrical motion pictures as well.
Go back in time and you can find Pathex 9.5mm versus Kodak 8mm in the 1920s (and God bless this particular format war—Pathex was the world’s first home movie format, but was killed off by 8mm within a few years of its debut. During its brief life, a number of Pathe releases, many of them comedies, were distributed in this format, purchased by collectors and then abandoned in attics when the projectors turned into obsolete relics. And so, a significant number of movies that are now officially “lost” in their original form actually survive in partial scraps on 9.5mm reels).
You could even go back to the very beginning, where motion picture technology itself was a scrum of competing formats—was film a celluloid product or paper-based, was it recorded on glass, did the sprockets run down the sides or the middle, how wide was the gauge. . . I once met a man who maintained an astounding personal museum of archival movie equipment, including the camera used to film Lilian Gish’s first ever appearance. The number of different film formats from the late nineteenth century he had on display would have choked a horse.
But the format war of interest here is the battle between Vitaphone and Movietone. I set the story up by invoking format wars with which I hope you are familiar, because the more you understand the dynamics of those battles the more you can understand how this particular process played out. And that in turn matters, because the popular reception of The Jazz Singer was not what pushed talkies into American theaters. The movies started to talk because William Fox had his back against the wall trying to compete with Jack Warner.
William Fox is one of those classically American rags-to-riches success stories, who built a movie empire through true grit and personal endurance. He had an infrastructure of nationwide chains of theaters through which he could release productions starring some of the country’s most popular stars. But even at the height of his success he was running behind Paramount and MGM, and by the mid-1920s he was losing ground.
So in 1925, he sat down with his closest advisors—Saul Rogers and Winfield Sheehan—and formulated a strategy to get back on top. The central element of this strategy was to invest heavily in the development of sound recording technology. He had an engineer already, by the name of Theodore W. Case, and Fox also bought the patents of inventor Lee DeForest. This was the foundation of Movietone, a sound-on-film process that by 1927 Fox started to roll out, principally in short subjects like 2 reel comedies or newsreels.
I hope you noted that Movietone is a sound-on-film process–its chief competitor, Vitaphone, involved recording sound on discs and playing the platters while the film unspooled. Remarkably, Vitaphone didn’t have nearly as many synchronization problems as you’d expect, but as a technology it was inferior to the Movietone approach–so the fact that sound-on-film eventually became the default industry standard and sound-on-disc became a museum piece makes sense. Back in 1927, though, this was nowhere near a certain outcome.
The very first ever Movietone program was the premiere of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise, at Fox’s Times Square theater in New York on September 23, 1927. There was a Movietone newsreel and then Sunrise was shown with synchronized music and sound effects—the first ever feature film to have a synchronized soundtrack.
Meanwhile, Fox’s top competitor in the race to sound was Warner Brothers, whose Vitaphone process was similarly used initially on short subjects, and was rolled out as a synchronized music-and-effects accompaniment to an otherwise silent feature, Don Juan.
The conventional wisdom on the advent of sound focuses on the landmark release of The Jazz Singer and the earthquake it allegedly unleashed across Hollywood. But here’s the thing—by that point, sound films had been in theaters for a while, without triggering any earthquake. Instead, the entire industry still eyed sound warily as a novelty. In order to equip themselves to even screen sound films, theaters had to undertake costly retrofitting that could run upwards of $30,000—per screen–and to make the sound films in the first place studios needed to abandon their existing plants and invest in entirely new soundproof stages.
Theater owners are famously conservative businessmen. They don’t, as a rule, even bother paying to clean their sticky floors until a health inspector demands it (yes. I’ve worked at movie theaters. I speak from experience). So why write a $30k check? They did it because sales people from Fox and Warners convinced them they had to in order to keep apace with their competitors–and having spent that money (in 1930s dollars mind you) they weren’t about to let those speakers go idle.
Nobody was eager to go spend that kind of money until they had to—and Fox and Warner Brothers were spending that kind of money only because they were jockeying for position in a future market whose existence they were only speculating.
Fox was winning that race, hands down. And he was winning it by using sound sparingly, and making mostly silent features. Warner Brothers decided on a desperate but bold ploy—
They made an all-talkie feature film, with big musical numbers, starring one of the country’s top singing stars. This was of course The Jazz Singer, and the gamble worked. In 1926, Warners was losing millions of dollars a year—after The Jazz Singer they were seeing profits of millions.
For the industry as a whole, it was the tipping point. Now, all of a sudden, theaters that had been reluctant to switch over to sound did so in droves—which in turn pushed down the costs, making it easier for other smaller theaters to do so too, which created a spiral effect that quickly retrofitted the entire exhibition industry. Having made these investments in new screening technology, those theater owners wanted to make sure they got the benefit of the investment—they wanted to be able to advertise that they had this funky new fad, and they wanted to prioritize talkie screenings. Theaters started to refuse to book silent films.
Please note that their refusal to book silent films was not a response to audience demand for talkies, it was an attempt to create audience demand for talkies—any theater that spent a quarter of a million dollars in 1928 money to hook up some speakers and then let that equipment idle while they paid a piano player to accompany silent films was a chump.
Fox’s Movietone process was now the second-runner. To regain his status, he needed to aggressively push Movietone—bear in mind Movietone and Vitaphone were not compatible formats, so if a theater equipped for one it couldn’t play the other. Every theater that signed up for the opposing side’s format was a lost sale, a vanished customer. Once you buy a VHS player you won’t be buying any Betamax tapes. This was war.
So Fox invested major sums in a new studio complex called Movietone City.
To finance this expansion, Fox took out loans of $30 Million—and that was just for Movietone City. Fox was also buying up theater chains like they were going out of style. All these debts were to come due at the end of 1929 and the start of 1930. His plan was to repay those loans by selling new shares of stock, whose value would be pumped up by the newly expanded production facilities, sparkly new technology, and new theater outlets. It was a risky plan. And it was while he was arranging this new round of stock issuance he was injured in a car crash and hospitalized.
His creditors seized the moment of his incapacitation to claim he was in default—it was a hostile takeover. Suits were filed, old friends stabbed each other in the back, the press ate up the juicy gossip, and when the dust settled William Fox had lost control of his company and was no longer in the movie business. Winfield Sheehan stepped up and took the reins—Fox no longer had any role in the company that bore his name.
Sheehan was a ruthless player, and he sided with the hostile takeover against Fox. Sheehan felt that with all the money going into Movietone, and with the obvious direction the market was going, that it was imperative for the studio to turn out sound pictures and nothing but.
It would be ironic that the first feature film to have a synchronized soundtrack would be F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Ironic because the advent of sound had a direct and palpable effect on his career prospects—Murnau was not an Artist style actor whose accent would deny him roles in talkies. He was, by many measures, the greatest filmmaker in the world. But the behind-the-scenes politics of this format war ruined his Hollywood idyll.
It started in 1926, when William Fox headhunted Murnau away from Ufa to come to Hollywood. Fox signed Murnau to a contract covering but a single work—Sunrise. The film would go down in legend as that rarity—a work of uncompromised artistic freedom, made by a genius filmmaker unfettered by studio intereference.
In 1927, after the completion of Sunrise but before it had been shown to anyone, Fox and Murnau discussed a new contract. This was not made in response to any audience reaction, or critical review, or box office income reports—just two men evaluating how well they thought they had worked together. And they wanted to continue. One year later, with Murnau’s next two films (City Girl and The 4 Devils) in tatters, Murnau voided his contract and walked off the set.
What happened between Murnau and Fox that killed their happy working relationship?
For some, the question seems to answer itself. When you find an orchid improbably growing in the arctic tundra, you don’t trouble to ask yourself why it dies—it wasn’t supposed to be growing there in the first place. Thus, since Murnau’s artistic freedom in commercial Hollywood was an unlikely thing to begin with, its end was foreordained.
But if I found an orchid growing in the tundra my first question would be, how’d it get there? And if we stop to ask how Murnau and Fox came together in 1926, why Fox ever even offered him his freedom, we will find the key to unlocking the mystery.
You see, at the time that Fox was making his overtures to Murnau, the entire American film market was reeling from a precipitous and unprecedented drop in attendance. The old business models were failing, once solid genres and beloved stars were losing their appeal, and the moguls were worried that things they thought they could take for granted were now in doubt.
From today’s standpoint, we can look back and see that the film industry has always been through cycles of bearish and bullish markets, like any market, and 1926 was just one of many sallow funks to come. But in 1926 the whole industry was so young that nobody could say with confidence, oh we’ll get through just fine. Instead they took to soul-searching.
And deep in the inner sanctums of the big studios, an idea was whispered that was never shared with the press—the idea that Hollywood’s problem was it made too many sucky movies. There had been some amazing works of art by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Cecil DeMille and DW Griffith and FW Murnau that had shown audiences what the medium was capable of, but the majority of productions pouring out of the studios were programmatic fare of no ambition and no lasting consequence. Easily a third of what was being made in Hollywood could be discarded, and that money added to the budgets of the remainder to try to make fewer, better movies.
To this end, there was a race to go find visionary artists and sign them up—and Germany seemed to grow visionary artists like weeds.
Paramount had struck a partnership with Ufa, intended, in part, to secure Lang and Murnau as employees of Paramount. It didn’t work—Lang left Ufa to start his own company and wouldn’t make the move to Hollywood for many years, and Fox managed to sneak in and steal Murnau out for himself.
Getting Murnau was a huge public relations win for Fox, partly because he was able to one-up Paramount. Signing Murnau meant he could now boast of having one of the very most respected cinema artists in the entire world. It didn’t matter to Fox whether Murnau made any money—he could let Murnau do whatever he wanted to and no matter what he’d win. If Murnau’s film was a hit, then that’d of course be a happy outcome, but if it wasn’t Fox could honestly say he let one of cinema’s true geniuses loose and if the American people weren’t satisfied that wasn’t his fault.
Murnau had expected 4 Devils and City Girl to be like Sunrise, silent features with a synchronized soundtrack of music and effects. And indeed Four Devils was finished in just this way, and premiered in Murnau’s intended version on October 3, 1928.
The reaction to the 4 Devils premiere was sobering. Silent films now had no viable market. The Fox studio could afford to let Murnau have his head when the commercial prospects of his films were worth less than the critical boost of having cinema’s greatest artist on the payroll. But Murnau’s films were now considered retrograde, and he wasn’t earning the same PR benefit.
Fox might as well throw 4 Devils and City Girl away rather than try to release them as silents. That, or they were going to have to go back and shoot dialogue sequences to retrofit them into being at least part-talkies.
That happened a fair bit in those days—a good number of pictures that had been completed as silents were then adapted to add in limited dialogue sequences to make them marketable in the new environment. It happened enough that there was an accepted industry protocol for it—since talking on camera was something absolutely new, it was taken for granted that movie people were not the ones to do it. Instead, studios brought in Broadway people to supervise the dialogue shoots.
The technology of early sound film was pretty crude—the cameras were locked in place by boxes intended to baffle the sound of their mechanisms, and the cruel irony was that while technicians struggled to keep the cameras from making unwanted noise on the soundtrack, it was hard to get the actors’ voices to register properly on the enormous microphones that were hard to hide on the sets.
Murnau’s reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers of the age had been built on visual artistry. But his famously fluid camerawork was now hampered by the technology. He was hailed for minimizing or abandoning intertitles—but in talkies that didn’t mean a thing. And now, his latest creation was being flatly rejected for the sole reason it didn’t have this gimmick of talk in it. Nobody was even commenting on his artistry—all that mattered was did its characters talk or not. To get them to talk, he would have let some Broadway hack take over.
Put bluntly, all the things that made Murnau great were now being rejected by the film industry. It must have felt like a slap across the face.
So he quit. Formally tendered his resignation in February of 1929. He never did make a true talkie.
Fox’s Movietone process used on Sunrise meant three things to Fox—all of them problematic for Murnau.
One, it meant that theaters stopped booking silent films. Two, it forced Fox to aggressively push Movietone to compete with Vitaphone—such that instead of just writing off those last two silent Murnaus as outliers and letting them stay as arthouse curiosities, they had to be retrofitted—and that process meant giving over control to another creative team. Thirdly, the financial picture around the Movietone push resulted in William Fox being forced out.
It was the perfect storm.
So, in other words, the movie at the heart of this transition from silents to talkies isn’t really The Jazz Singer at all, it’s Sunrise. The Jazz Singer was the first talkie to talk, but Sunrise was the first feature with a pre-recorded soundtrack using the technology that became Hollywood’s standard. If our goal is to understand what was happening in 1927, recognizing how shifts in audience tastes were pushing for changes in popular culture is part one, and understanding the economic dynamics of a format war that incentivized producers and theaters to abandon silents is part two. Part three will be to come to grips with Sunrise.
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