Last night at the Vitaphone show, when Martinelli came out and opened his mouth to start signing, the audience was greeted with the delightful strains of Roy Smeck’s banjo. It apparently ruined their show, but was amusing to all of us and thought you would like to know about it.

-Dwight Eldred to Ted Case, December 1926

Movietone vs. Vitaphone

Movietone vs. Vitaphone

Movietone vs. Vitaphone

Movietone vs. Vitaphone

Movietone vs. Vitaphone

Movietone vs. Vitaphone

Four dueling sound film systems were engaged in a “sound film war” each determined to be the first to give the Roaring 20s their roar. The main rivalry was between Warner Bros.’ Vitaphone and Fox Film’s Movietone.

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By late 1926, the Case Research Laboratory’s briefly lived Zoephone system was incorporated into Fox-Case Corporation with a newly minted name: Movietone. Determined to avoid the negative press associated with the experimental nature of sound film at the time, William Fox held the newly acquired Movietone a closely guarded secret until its debut in 1927. This slow roll out allowed a competitor, Warner Brothers, to release the first feature length synchronized sound movie months before Movietone’s public release.

However, while Warner Brothers would be the first to gain recognition for their sound system, they would soon find their sound-on-disc Vitaphone system to be wholly lacking in competition with the far superior Movietone and later systems employing optical soundtracks.

Warner Bros. & Vitaphone

By 1926, Warner Bros. Entertainment was still in many ways an emerging entertainment company. Having come in to existence only three years earlier, the company looked to adopt sound film technology at a time when the innovation was still very much considered a passing fad in entertainment.

Vitaphone was originally maintained by Western Electric, one of two organizations which had a complete stranglehold on amplification equipment. In 1925, Warner Bros. purchased Vitaphone from Western Electric, impressed by the familiarity of the sound-on-disc system. The familiarity of Vitaphone made it relatively easy to use, but its reliance on a record to produce sound meant the synchronization was often off, which could lead to disastrous results such as the instance observed by Case Lab employee Dwight Eldred:

The gossip about town this morning is as follows: Last night at the Vitaphone show when Martinelli came out and opened his mouth to start singing, the audience was greeted with the delightful strains of Roy Smeck's banjo. It apparently ruined their show, but was amusing to all of us and thought you would like to know about it.

The observation by Dwight Eldred occurred while viewing Vitaphone’s debut feature, Don Juan, which included a series of shorts beforehand and a musical score played entirely on Vitaphone. While audiences predominantly enjoyed the experience, the entertainment industry remained cautious due to the difficulty of implementing a sound-on-disc system on a wide scale. As Fox debuted Movietone in 1927 with newsreels and its own feature length film, Warner Brothers released their blockbuster, The Jazz Singer. The film would create such a sensation with audiences that the company was catapulted to become a dominant force in the entertainment industry, rivalled only by Fox.

On the technological side, however, Warner Brothers’ early success was largely despite Vitaphone’s drawbacks rather than because of it. While the studio was able to negotiate near exclusive implementation of the system in movie theaters due to their contract with Western Electric, Vitaphone proved to be so cumbersome that it only briefly was capable of competing with Movietone and later sound-on-film systems. Warner Brothers would shortly adopt their own sound-on-film system and Vitaphone would be largely abandoned by the 30s, with Movietone proving to be commercially successful on a much wider scale.

Fox Film & Movietone

William Fox and Ted Case together created Fox-Case Movietone to debut the Fox Film Corporation sound film system. Fox was especially cautious about releasing content, perhaps deterred by the largely negative press which had marred sound film’s growth in the first place. Vitaphone’s premiere preceded Movietone by only five months, and although Movietone was not the first to bring sound film to a large audience, its reception was much more positive:

The Movietone, guarded these many months by the discrete William Fox and the equally quiet Theodore W. Case, has at last emerged from its quiet nursery...into the full glare of limelit success.

Movietone News

The first all-Movietone premiere debuted on May 25, 1927 with a series of newsreels: short clips of major news events of the day. These clips included Charles Lindbergh’s takeoff from New York to Paris; an American moment of national pride in human achievement made Lindbergh an instant star. The Lindbergh clip became the first major sensation in sound film, setting the bar for Fox Film Corporation to become a dominant force in bringing sound-on-film to the world. With audiences now being able to engage with the news as if they were in these far flung places, newsreels quickly became an essential part of the movie going experience, paving the way for later film based news media.

Sunrise

On September 23, 1927, utilizing Movietone music and effects (including shorts of the rising dictatorship of Benito Mussolini) Fox released its first synchronized full feature length film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The film received glowing reviews and won an Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture at the first Academy awards in 1929. While critically acclaimed, it was surpassed in attention two weeks later by Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer. With the continued success of the Movietone system, however, the end of the Silent Film Era was confirmed, and Vitaphone would eventually be superseded itself as the Talkie Era emerged.

 

Crediting for Images on this Page

Header: Movie-goers awaiting Don Juan opening at Warners’ Theatre, 1926, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Image: Screen on roof of Movietone truck

Image: A Vitaphone projection setup at a 1926 demonstration, History Department at the University of San Diego

Image: The Warner brothers: Albert, Jack, Harry and Sam, Adapted from The Motion Picture Director (December 1925), pp. 16-17 https://archive.org/details/motionpicturedir02moti/page/n17/mode/2up

Image:Poster for the movie The Jazz Singer , 1927. Warner Bros. (original rights holder)

Image: Movietone truck in Rome, c. 1927

Image: Movietone truck in Africa, c. 1927

Image: Movietone truck w/ sheep

Image: Promotional poster of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans