It was on April 20, 1926 that Warner Bros., a small struggling movie studio at the time, took the first bold steps in bringing synchronized sound to films and thus changing the world of entertainment forever. All movie studios at the time had the chance to take the historic leap from the silent films to the “talkies,” but it was Warner Bros. that took the ultimate risk.
THE VITAPHONE TECHNOLOGY
It all began after Sam Warner, the most forward-thinking of the four Warner brothers, visited Western Electric’s Bell Laboratories and was impressed with their “sound-on-disc” system that would allow for sound in motion pictures. But that was only the beginning of this revolution as urging the eldest Warner brother and company head, Harry, to make a deal with Western Electric for the technology was not easy. Like most in the industry at the time, Harry was less than enthralled with the prospect of sound in movies, eventually agreeing to have it used only for background music.
In these two historic videos, from the 1926 experimental sound film, The Voice from the Screen, Edward B. Craft, executive vice president at Bell Laboratories, explains the Vitaphone recording system, filming the popular vaudevillian duo Witt and Berg.
VITAPHONE SHORTS AND DON JUAN
The contract, which was signed on this day in 1926 and led to Warner Bros. forming Vitaphone Corporation, allowed WB to use the system in more than 1,000 short subject films over the next five years. But the real gamble was using the technology in full-length feature films as soon as possible—and that use evolved very quickly. First up was Don Juan, released less than six months after the formation of Vitaphone. Although, in this first instance, the studio was obviously hedging its bets as the only sound incorporated was for the background music and sound effects. There was no spoken dialogue from the stars John Barrymore, Mary Astor and Estelle Taylor.
YOU AIN'T HEARD NOTHIN' YET
While the film was a box-office success, Don Juan failed to recapture the rather large budget, which led many in the industry to conclude that all this talk of sound movies was a failed experiment; nothing but a gimmick. Undeterred, Sam first threatened to leave the company until Harry eventually accepted his brother’s demands to make further films with sound. Next up was 1927’s The Jazz Singer with mega stage star Al Jolson. While the film did showcase actual singing performances, in addition to the background music and sound effects, it only actually featured two minutes of actual dialogue, including Jolson’s now-legendary ad-lib: “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
Ironically, Sam Warner—the man who had pushed the envelope of what films could become—had worked himself too hard on The Jazz Singer and fell ill and tragically died the day before the film’s premiere in October of 1927. The Jazz Singer was a massive success and the tide of the talkie was changing forever, cementing Sam’s legacy in the history of motion pictures.
THE FIRST "ALL-TALKING" FILM
By the summer of the following year, Warner Bros. released the first “all talking” film, Lights of New York (which, incidentally, has just been released on DVD for the first time by the Warner Archive Collection).
Against a budget in the low five-figures, Lights of New York brought in an astronomical seven-figure gross in 1928 as movie fans were amazed by this talking picture. By the end of 1929, Hollywood as a whole was producing only talking films and the era of the silent picture was officially over as reluctant theater owners were forced by public demand to install sound systems into their theaters at great cost. By the end of the 1920s, the world of cinema had changed forever and Warner Bros. led the revolutionary charge.