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The Talkies

Lawrence Bush
April 19, 2017

The Vitaphone sound system was unveiled on this date in 1926 by Western Electric, opening the era of “the talkies,” movies with sound. Warner Brothers, a three-year-old movie studio founded by Canadian brothers Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner (all but Jack were born in Poland), invested heavily and exclusively in Vitaphone and used it to produce Don Juan, the first talkie, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and then The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, which was the studio’s first big hit and signaled the end of the silent film era. The Vitaphone system was cumbersome, “and the inconsistent quality of the synchronized sound system often produced unintentional laughter from audiences,” notes the UF Library Database. But Don Juan, which starred John Barrymore, “was treated as a legitimate concert hall presentation with eight short Vitaphone films” that starred a galaxy of performing artists that included Metropolitan Opera tenor Giovanni Martinelli, violinists Mischa Elman and Efrem Zimbalist, and Al Jolson, and The Jazz Singer’s success turned Warner Brothers into a major film studio -- and enabled them to fire all of the musicians who were providing live musical accompaniment to silent films.

“There were some 200 Vitaphone films produced prior to The Jazz Singer. Vitaphone does occupy a place in film history as the first synchronized-sound-and-image system to meet with commercial success. Its predecessors had failed, tarring the concept of ‘talking pictures.’ Thomas Edison’s Kinetophone introduced in 1913, abandoned by 1915 attempted to synchronize phonograph cylinders with movies. There was also the Phonofilm and the Vivaphone, among others. France had the Chrono-Phonograph and the Phonorama. Germans endured the Synchroscope and the Biophon.”

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.