As I write this, I'm ensconced on Dubbing Stage 6 at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California where the sound mix (re-record) of "City Island" is underway. We are privileged to be working on one of the biggest stages in one of the best post facilities in the business, with an excellent mixer, Brad Sherman. The journey this movie has taken us on continues to be unpredictably interesting and almost always fufilling in ways that I hadn't expected when we started. So as not to act too impressed with our surroundings, I'm crashed out on the leather sofa's in the back of this cavernous room, cooly banging the keys of my MacBook Pro, a piece of equipment that is now de rigeur pretty much everywhere I seem to go...

Warner Brothers is also a marvelous place to wind up doing the final sound work because of its fascinating part in the history of sound film. Vitaphone--a Warner Brothers subsidiary--was the company that developed a way to marry sound and picture in the 1920's--not the first, by the way, that was Lee DeForest's pioneering (and far superior) sound on film system that he used to document a handful of entertainers as early as 1923 (remember the much touted "first sound film", Warner Brother's "The Jazz Singer" wasn't released until 1927). But Vitaphone's system prevailed and for a time seemed to be the answer to how talkies would be made and shown.

vitaphoneThat sound on film--an elegant solution that persists in use to this day--was passed over by the Warner Brothers (who were the most agressive studio in pursuit of bringing sound to the movies) for the Vitaphone system is, in hindsight, truly baffling. For Vitaphone was a far more cumbersome idea--it involved a 78RPM disc which contained the soundtrack of the film which was in turn hooked up to the projector which projected the mute image of the movie. Sync marks were provided for the projectionist at each theater to accurately insure the record and the projector were properly aligned. Since most projectionists were (and are) drunks, this would seem to be a recipe for disaster, with audiences guffawing there way through out of sync love scenes, a la the Don Lamont/Lina Lockhood catastrophe movie-in-a-movie, "The Dueling Cavalier" as seen in Donen and Kelly's 1952 "Singing In The Rain" (see below). Vitaphone, as a system for sound delivery, was doomed early on and Warners switched to optical sound in early 1932. Nonetheless, the investment they had in the original Vitaphone system was heavy and they continued to release alternate versions of their movies using the sound-on-disc format to theaters already equipped to show their films this way well into 1937.

vitaphonesignThe Vitaphone story has an interesting footnote. In the late twenties, when sound was still a novelty and Warners was eager to cash in on the appetite of the public to see talking pictures, Warners used their Brooklyn New York studios to photograph current Vaudeville acts and stars of Broadway shows doing specialty numbers. In between the killing schedules these performers had (Vaudeville performers often did eight performances a day), they'd be rushed from midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn where they'd be put in front of two behemoth cameras encased in sound proof booths (so that the motors of the cameras couldn't be heard turning) and they'd go into their act. These films, which run about ten minutes, were shown as filler between features and were mere novelty presentations. Technically stilted, they were mere photographic representations of the performers acts--no story, no film technique. Nobody thought much of these films beyond their ability to temporarily satisfy the public's hunger for sound movies.

But of course an "accidental history" was being made, and today many film geeks (myself among them) are violently addicted to the Vitaphone shorts as an incredible history of the musical theater and the culture of the 1920's. Their technical clumsiness turns out not to be a drawback in viewing the films--indeed it provides one of their pleasures. For the non-moving, impassive camera that the performers play too gives one the sense of what it might have been like to be sitting in the middle of the Palace theater experiencing the act live. That many of these films exist at all is a miracle; the sound-on-disc system (and the drunken projectionists) insured that many discs were separated from their film, leaving 78RPM recordings of films that didn't seem to exist, or mute reels of film of performers with no voices. In the early 1990's a society of film enthusiasts began a remarkably successful project to pair the disparate elements of these films--elements that often turn up in unusually far-flung places (discs have been found in attics in Norway only to be paired with a reel of film found in an old building in Texas that's about to be demolished...that kind of thing). If you're interested in knowing more about these films, go to the Vitaphone Project's website.

Below I've posted what is believed to be the very first Vitaphone Short, a vaudeville team called Witt and Berg doing their Hawaiian act song. It is primitive even by Vitaphone standards and a rather haunting document of a forgotten world.And then I've added the "Dueling Cavalier" preview sequence, from "Singing In The Rain"...

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