cVitaphone was a sound on disk process created by Western Electric and Bell Telephone Labs that used a series of 33 ? discs. When representatives tried to sell the technology to Hollywood in 1925 they faced the same disinterest that DeForest had. That is except for one relatively minor but venturesome studio: Warner Bros. Pictures.
In April of 1926, Warner Bros. with the financial assistance of Goldman Sachs established the Vitaphone Corporation, leasing the sound technology from Western Electric for the sum of $800,000 with the intent of subleasing to other studios.
Warner Bros. never intended the technology to create “talking pictures” - instead using it to provide synchronized musical accompaniment for Warner Bros. films. To demonstrate their new acquisition Warner Bros launched a massive $3 million dollar premiere in the Refrigerated Warner Theater at Broadway and Fifty second Street in New York City on August 6, 1926. (It was called refrigerated because the movie theater was really the first time people of that era got to experience air conditioning).
The feature film was Don Juan with a lavish score performed by the New York Philharmonic along with many sound shorts including a brief speech from the president of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America: Will Hays.
The premiere was a resounding success with critics praising it as the eighth wonder of the world. Warner took the show on the road, hitting Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, St. Louis as well as touring Europe. Despite the success, industry insiders weren't sure about sound’s future.
You see the entire economic structure of the film industry would necessarily have to change. New Sound studios would have to be built and new expensive recording equipment installed. Theaters would have to be wired for sound and there was really yet to be a standard sound process. The star system, with actors trained in the ways of pantomime, would be upturned as now they would be required to speak for the first time.
Foreign sales would plummet. Silent film’s title cards could easily be translated for export, but not dialogue and dubbing a foreign language was still technology of the future. Even the musicians who found employment in the movie palaces would have to be laid off.
For all these reasons Hollywood hoped that sound would be a passing novelty but the moguls began to move to protect themselves anyhow. Loew ( which would become MGM), Famous Players Lasky (soon to be Paramount), First National, Universal and Producers Distributing Corporation signed an agreement which came to be known confusingly as the “Big Five” agreement, where the studios agreed to all adopt a single sound system should an industry wide conversion come to fruition.
Meanwhile Warner Bros didn’t halt on their Vitaphone investment. They announced that all their 1927 films would be produced with synchronized musical accompaniment and in April of the same year built the very first sound studio in the world. In May, production would begin on the film that would cement sound’s place in Cinema: The Jazz Singer.
Originally the Jazz Singer was suppose to be a silent film with vitaphone musical accompaniment. But Al Jolson improvised those famous words and Warner Bros. left them in. Later Jolson adds more dialogue in this tender and intimate scene where his character sings to his mother.
As you see the film slips back into silent film title cards. These were the only two pieces of improv were the only pieces of spoken dialogue in the film but the impact was enormous. This wasn’t a speech or a canned performance, this was seeing actual drama unfold on the screen. And although synchronized sound had been around before, it was the Jazz Singer that was the first feature film to use it in such a realistic almost voyeuristic way.
The film went off to be an international success earning 3.5 million dollars worldwide.
At roughly the same time Fox Film Corporation’s William Fox who was not part of the Big Five Agreement but a minor studio, much like Warner Bros., also saw potential in the talkies. In 1927, Fox acquired the Tri-Ergon sound-on-film process for $50,000 and began releasing Newsreels with sound. These newsreels were a hit and Fox began sending camera crews around the world to interview famous personalities on camera pumping out three to four newsreels per week to Fox theaters.
In a shrewd move, Fox negotiated a reciprocal contract with the Vitaphone corporation in which each studio would license the other’s systems, technicians and theaters thus covering both Fox and Warner Bros. should one sound system become standard over the other.
By the end of 1927 it was becoming quite clear - sound was here to stay. A dismal year for the industry, only the sound films were able to attract and do big business. Even the worst sound film outsold the best silent ones. The moguls were forced to act.