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.

In this 1926 photo, Sid Grauman and Jack L. Warner stand in front of a truck containing the first Vitaphone sound equipment to be placed in Grauman's Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, under guard (with guns/rifles) by Bill Guthrie and Captain Carillo.
In this amazing 1926 photo, Sid Grauman and Jack L. Warner stand in front of a truck containing the first Vitaphone sound equipment to be placed in Grauman's Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, under guard (with guns/rifles) by Bill Guthrie and Captain Carillo.

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