The Vitaphone Short Subjects: When Sound Came to the Screen – By James L Neibaur

Jack WarnerThe Warner Brothers — Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack — began in the film industry in 1907, but it was in 1912, when they moved to the West Coast, that their output beared notice. Their first important feature, My Four Years in Germany,was produced in 1918. In 1925 Warners acquired the Vitagraph Company for $735,000, which gave the brothers studios in Brooklyn and Hollywood, as well as Vitagraph’s thirty-four exchanges. The Vitagraph name continued to be used as a trademark by the studio through the 1950’s.

Also in 1925, the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system was introduced to Sam Warner. This system had been created by Western Electric, using the audion tube invented in 1906 by Dr. Lee DeForest and an electromagnetic photograph reproducer which had been invented in 1913 by Dr. Irving B. Crandall and F.W. Kranz. Upon seeing a demonstration of the sound-on-disc system, Sam Warner approved and the studio created the Vitaphone Corporation on April 20, 1926, taking the name from the recently acquired Vitagraph Company.

The first Vitaphone shorts were produced at the former Vitagraph studios in Brooklyn. Warner Brothers set up a program to be presented at New York’s Picadilly Theater on August 7, 1926 to introduce Vitaphone. The first feature to utilize the Vitaphone system was Don Juan (1926) starring John Barrymore. The sound for this film was synchronized music and effects, but the accompanying shorts — a speech by Will Hays, President of the Motion Picture Producers of America, followed by several musical pieces — were all-talking subjects. Thus, the first fully talking pictures were short subjects. The release of The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson the following year was heralded as the first feature to have spoken dialog.

When The Jazz Singer premiered at the Warner Theater in New York on August 6, 1927, it was immediately a tremendous sensation and ushered in a new era. The one sad note was that the man most responsible for seeing the potential of Vitaphone, Sam Warner, had died just the day before this triumphant premiere. While the story creaked even then, The Jazz Singer benefited greatly by Jolson’s performance. He had been the world’s greatest stage entertainer for decades and now, at 41, was eager to try something new and different. He accepted a $75,000 fee for the film, part of this salary to be reinvested in the movie, allowing him a share of the profits. The film made over $4 million, a completely unprecedented amount for that period. It was essentially a silent film with the musical numbers and a brief dialog sequence done with sound. Interestingly enough, theaters not equipped for Vitaphone ran The Jazz Singer as a silent, and it still did well.

This sound film novelty revolutionized the business, ruining the careers of such silent film luminaries as John Gilbert and Buster Keaton, while even some of Warner’s own stars like Billie Dove, Colleen Moore, and Corrine Griffith failed to make the transition. Warner Brothers released Tenderloin in 1928, which was an 85-minute feature with about 15 minutes of sound dialog. Their next part talkie, a mystery entitled The Terror released that same year, featured only slightly more spoken dialog, but eschewed title cards altogether.

The first all-talking feature, The Lights of New York premiered at the Mark Strand Theater in New York, on July 6, 1928, less than a year after the premiere of The Jazz Singer. In its 57-minute length, this crime melodrama presented, for the first time, dialog cliches like "Take him for a ride," but audiences were thrilled to see a 100% talkie. The Lights of New York was also a harbinger for things to come, in that Warner Brothers soon became known for its keen interpretation of the 1930’s criminal element. Most of the best Warner features of the thirties are gangster pictures like Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Angels With Dirty Faces.

Between 1926 and 1929, hundreds of short films were produced by Warner Brothers at their east coast Vitaphone studios, featuring famous and lesser known Vaudeville performers doing songs, dances, novelty acts, and dramatic sketches. Producers filmed excerpts from hit Broadway plays that were currently running. Some of the performers in these early shorts were to become famous film stars in the next few years: Bert Wheeler, George Jessel, Leo Carillo, and Hoot Gibson among them. While more often dull and leaden than of any artistic merit, these shorts were a sensation in theaters where patrons were enjoying films with musical numbers and spoken dialog for the first time. But as most film studies naturally praise early talking pictures for their historical significance in spite of their artistic merit or ability to remain timeless, the shorts from this same period are casually overlooked.

Short films are central to the development of the cinema in that the first moving pictures were only a few seconds in length. Once narrative movies were established, a running time of one-to-three reels was standard. Innovative filmmakers the likes of D.W. Griffith and Thomas Ince made some of the first great feature pictures of the silent era.
Throughout the golden era of silent movies, while classic features like Birth of a Nation, The Kid, and The Crowd were being run in theaters across the nation, short films, especially comedies, were a very significant part of the program. Haowever it was rare that shorts were advertised with the feature, unless the comedy featured a star the caliber of Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy.

 Once sound was established via The Jazz Singer and some experiental Vitaphone shorts, it allowed short subject producers to ponder the variety now possible with advances in the film medium. In their April 6, 1930 issue, Film Daily printed the results of a survey they conducted among 600 exhibitors throughout the nation. A vast majority believed that sound had added to the entertainment value of short subjects. The concensus was that short subjects of all kinds, and comedies in particular, had underone such improvement since sound came along that they now constituted an indispensible part of the program, and were being demanded by patrons. Exhibitors stated that shorts were responsible for saving the program when the feature was weak, that not having a short with the feature was like a main course with no dessert, and some even went so far as to suggest feature pictures be made uniformly shorter, thereby allowing for shorts. Comedies were the most popular, with slapstick the preference of most men and youngsters, while situational humor was enjoyed by most women. Two-reelers were preferred to single reel subjects.

Rita McGoldrick, then chairman of the Motion Picture Bureau, International Federation of Catholic Alumnae stated:

In the ten years (we) have been previewing pictures, (we) have watched with the greatest interest the steady development of the short subject from the insignificant filler-in on the average program, to the high class project which, in so many instances lately, have threatened to run away with the show. Sound gave new life, a new vigorous vitality, to the humble shorts . . . a new day has dawned for these attractive stepchildren of the movies.

The death knell was sounded for silent pictures. Silent movies were still embraced by people as important as columnist Alexander Woolcott, but the public seemed to dismiss them as an anachrnoism almost immediately upon the advent of talkies.

Exhibitor H.E. Hoag stated in 1930:

A silent comedy is very flat now. In fact, for the past two years, my audiences seldom laughed out loud at a silent. The bigger studios hastily transfromed recently shot silent features into talkies by dubbing in voices and sound effects. The smaller studios did not have the funds to accomplish this, and thus their late silents of late 1929 and early 1930 received very little distribution, save for small town theaters that were not yet equipped for sound. But by the 1930’s sound was so firmly established in the cinema only someone with the status of Charlie Chaplin was able to pull off making a silent picture.

Warner Brothers decided to evolve from a series of haphazardly-produced experiments with the new sound medium and produce quality talking shorts. Sam Sax took over as production manager of the Vitaphone shorts in 1930. The studio announced that an average of six subjects were being turned out each week, and expected to produce about 300 one and two reelers by the year’s end.

Unlike, say, the Hal Roach productions, which had their roots in silent pictures; the Vitaphones were established as a result of the talking picture revolution, and thus were more inclined to concentrate on sound over picture. Hence, while the Roach shorts were comedies that, although talkies, still relied heavily on the type of slapstick gags that harked back to the silents, Vitaphone’s major concentration was musicals, known as Vitaphone Varieties, Broadway Brevities, and Melody Masters. Sam Sax stated in a 1930 article for Film Daily:

The talkers have attacted many stage and feature production favorites to the short subject field because they have greater opportunity to display their histrionic talents than in the old silent days, when looks counted more than ability. The proximity of the Eastern Vitaphone studios to Braodway has enabled us to use some of the biggest stage names in our Vitaphone Varieties. Most of these performers were engaged in a Broadway production at the same time and could spare time for a two-reel picture where it would have been impossible for them to do a feature.

 The quality of the Vitaphone musicals was usually good. Musical director David Mendoza recruited fledgling songwriters Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, whose work would later provide several popular standards. Roy Mack, a dancer, was the director/choreographer, and many of the top vaudville and Broadway performers agreed to appear in the films. It was generally easy work (performing songs they had been doing on stage for years), the pay was good, and it was an opportunity to appear on film for one of the major studios. In many cities, theater managers listed Vitaphone musicals above the feature picture, giving a handful of the shorts equal display with the feature. Given the heading "Acts of Vitaphone Vaudeville," exhibitors would bill the shorts as a vaudeville show.

While many musical stars appeared in a small number Vitaphones; including Russ Colombo, Phil Silvers, June Allyson, Dorothy Lee, and Betty Hutton; dancer Hal LeRoy appeared several two-reel shorts throughout the 1930’s, as did singer Ruth Etting.

Sam Sax believed that the success of Vitaphone’s musical shorts would spur the same type of feature. In 1933, he used the example of Warner’s feature success Forty-Second Street to emphasize the public’s interest in musicals, stating that Vitaphone’s musical shorts paved the way for their success. Hence, he stated that production would be stepped up on Vitaphone musical shorts, which, he felt, would not only go great with the coming musical features to be released, but would further inspire more of the same type of feature picture.

Others agreed. Carl E. Millikien, then Secretary of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America stated:

With a chorus of young and good looking girls that have been rehearsed in dance numbers, a few specialty numbers by people of talent, the two-reel spot on the show is lifted from a time killer to one of merit and interest.

Comedy was less significant at Vitaphone as is borne out in the fact that a comedy unit wasn’t established until early 1933. Comedies were made from the late twenties onward, and Vitaphone sought out comedians like Joe Penner and Poodles Hanneford to sign them for series, but it wasn’t until a June 10, 1933 issue of Film Daily that Sam Sax announced an effort to make more and better comedies by organizing a separate unit, stating also that production time on the comedies would be doubled in order to better work up the comedy situations.

The comedies made for Vitaphone, known as Big V Comedies (formerly sometimes Pepper Pot novelties), are more interesting than entertaining. They were a starting ground for comedians like Bob Hope, and Red Skelton, as well as the last stop for silent great Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen appeared with puppet Charlie McCarthy in a series of shorts, as did Shemp Howard, who later achieved immortality when he joined the Three Stooges after illness forced younger brother Curly Howard to leave the act. Other comedies featured the likes of William Demarest, Harry Gribbon, Jack Haley, Joe Penner, Fanny Brice, and Ben Blue. Despite this sort of talent, and directors the caliber of Ray McCarey, Lloyd French, Crane Wilbur, and Ralph Staub, the quality of the comedies was more often mediocre, with only a few real gems in the lot. Character actor Lionel Stander, who appeared as a supporting player in several Big V Comedies, recalled for this writer in a 1985 interview:

"The shorts were shot in a couple days. I would play supporting roles, so I would film scenes for six or seven different shorts in one day. The directors and writers were good and some of the performers, like Shemp Howard and Fatty Arbuckle, were terrific. But we went through them so fast. When I started acting in feature pictures for directors like Harold Lloyd and Frank Capra, and opposite actors like Gary Cooper and Eddie Robinson, I was astounded at how much time they took for one scene. Hell, they would spend more time on an entrance than it would take to film three shorts at Vitaphone."

Along with comedy series featuring star performers, Vitaphone also did series based on other media. Radio was the inspiration for a series featuring The Naggers, while the newspaper comics page provided the spark that resulted in the Joe Palooka comedies with Robert Norton as the dimwitted prizefighter and the indefatigable Shemp Howard as trainer Knobby Walsh. Perhaps the most interesting attempt at a series was reviving the old fashioned silent screen slapstick that was around less and less by the mid-thirties. Initially, old Sennett comedies were re-issued with obtrusive music and sound effects (and sometimes even more bothersome narration). Then director Ralph Staub, who had worked for Sennett during the twenties, sold Jack Warner on an idea to do similar comedies with some of the old Keystone players, who’d been having trouble finding work. The result was only one film, Keystone Hotel, in 1935, which has become something of a latter day slapstick classic.

Vitaphone Projection BoothInterestingly enough, while many of the best comedies of other studios from this period benefited from gags that were dreamed up on the spot, director-in-chief Murray Roth announced as early as 1930 that off-the-cuff shooting was out as far as Big V comedies were concerened. He eliminated the old method of the director taking a couple of ag men on a set, putting his cast before the cameras, and allowing the performers to ad lib. All of the Vitaphone comedies were given a complete script; a conference being held with the writers, and the cast being rehearsed several days before shooting.

The Vitaphone years also brought several dramatic anthologies during the early 1930s, featuring pre-stardom performances by the
likes of Pat O’Brien, and a series of S.S. Van Dine mysteries featuring John Hamilton and Donald Meek. Also in the early thirties, Vitaphone produced a series of shorts based on Booth Tarkington’s Penrod stories, with Billy Hayes as Penrod and David Gorcey as Sam (David actually pre-dating his more noted brother Leo in entering films). Another popular Vitaphone series was Robert Ripley’s Believe it or Not, based on the author’s strange-but-true incidents, and featuring Ripley himself.

The Vitaphone studios ceased production in 1940, and Sam Sax moved over to Warner Brothers’ West Coast studios to contnue short subject production. Now the shorts were more lavish, with bigger sets, stronger production values, and, more often than not, were shot in technicolor. Musicals continued to flourish, and westerns featuring the likes of Robert Shayne were produced. Several of the top swing bands were featured in musical shorts. But by this time most of the short films produced by Warner Brothers were more educational than entertaining. There were documentaries on sports, history, patriotism, nature, Hollywood night life, travelogues, even a circus series for the kids. The one comedy series still in production was the Joe McDoakes Behind the Eight Ball shorts starring George O’Hanlon, which ran into the 1950s.

By the mid-fifties, Warner Brothers was slowly moving into TV production and dispensed with producing live action shorts for theaters. But in three decades it managed to provide some of the best (and worst) short films; an output that has great significance for including the first all-talking movies as well as some of the last theatrically-produced short subjects.