Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Before talkies, there was Vitaphone

If you know about Vitaphone shorts, the news that a newly restored selection is ready for public viewing courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive is all the information you need. If you haven't heard of them, be prepared for a genuine time machine experience that will revolutionize your thinking about the way sound came to Hollywood.

Though conventional wisdom has it that Al Jolson singing and talking in 1927's "The Jazz Singer" is where sound all began, in fact, Warner Bros. had been producing short subjects that featured top vaudeville acts talking, singing and playing musical instruments since 1926.

Between 1926 and 1930, Warner Bros. used its Vitaphone system to produce more than 1,000 brief films that included jazz bands, comedy acts and opera singers. But because of the cumbersome nature of the system, the shorts disappeared from sight so completely that the 11 screening at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood will be getting their first public showing in more than 80 years.

Though 20th Century Fox was working on the sound-on-film method that eventually became the industry norm, Vitaphone used a different technology, one that synchronized the photographed image with simultaneously recorded 16-inch 33 rpm phonograph records.

The filmed portion of these Vitaphone shorts have long been at the Library of Congress, but no one was able to hear what they sounded like until 1986, when a huge trove of recorded discs was found in a vault hidden behind a sound department screen at Warner's Burbank studio.

No comments: