Pictured above: 1926 photograph ofWestern Electric engineer E. B. Craft (left)demonstrating Vitaphone sound film system/History Department at the University of San Diego
The Vitaphone was an early sound system of the 1920s that synced together the sound of a separate phonograph recording to a projected moving picture. Back in the day, Vitaphone, a name derived from both Latin and Greek, respectively, for ‘living’ and ‘sound’, was the last major analog sound on disc system and the only to be so widely and successfully used.
In 1896, Albert Edward Smith (4 June 1875 – 1 August 1958) and his business partner James Stuart Blackton (January 5, 1875 – August 13, 1941) acquired the Vitascope made popular with the use of Thomas Edison’s name and involvement. In 1897, Smith and Blackton began producing silent films under the names ‘Edison Vitagraph’, ‘Commercial Advertising Bureau’, and later as ‘American Vitagraph’. They produced the films “The Battle of Manilla Bay” and “Tearing Down the Spanish Flag” and “The Humpty Dumpty Circus”. Despite being plagued with legal issues involving the Edison company, the Studio was very successful and in 1905 relocated to the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. During WWI, the company experienced financial hardship and on April 22, 1925, Smith sold the company to Warner Bros. and later renamed it Vitaphone. Warner Bros. first unveiled the Vitaphone to the public on August 6, 1926 and an estimated 1,000 shorts issued by Warner Brothers and sister studio, First National followed.
The Warner Bros. premiere of the silent film, ‘Don Juan’, coupled with the Vitaphone, was a resounding hit with the audiences!
While the audience was enthralled with the film, unfortunately, it failed to meet its projected budget expectations.
Another new Vitaphone feature starring Al Jolson in “A Plantation Act”, was released on October 7, 1926.
On October 6, 1927, “The Jazz Singer” was released at the Warner Theater in New York City and made Warner Brothers one of the heavy hitters in Hollywood. (Harry Warner acquired the Piccadilly Theater in Manhattan, New York City, and renamed it the Warners´ Theatre). Directed by Alan Crosland, and starring Al Jolson performing the 6 songs in the Movie, “The Jazz Singer” was also credited with the advent of the talkies.
The Warners moved a portion of their organization to the Burbank, California, where band leader Henry Halstead starred in 1927’s “Carnival Night in Paris. This was the first Vitaphone short subject to be filmed in Hollywood rather than New York.
Today, Vitaphone recordings offer up some historic and exclusive recordings of the remarkable talents of the era, to include 1929’s Baby Rose Marie featured in ‘Baby Rose Marie the Child Wonder,’ the now-legendary duo George Burns and Gracie Allen featured in 1929’s ‘Lambchops,” an unforgettable Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen in 1936’s ‘Nut Guilty,’ and The Nicholas Brothers’ talent with ‘The Black Network’.
Elsewhere commercially, the Vitaphone was a success coupled with other films in other big name movie houses to include ‘Madam X’ featured at the Loew’s Jersey Theatre in New Jersey.
All good things do come to an end, and by 1959, the Vitaphone Corporation had dissolved BUT not before releasing nostalgic shorts to include the all important ‘Looney Tunes’ and ‘Merrie Melodies’ cartoons in an “A Vitaphone Release”. Old legends never die, however. In the 1960s, the ending titles of Merrie Melodies cartoons featured the caption “A Vitaphone Release”. Looney Tunes of the same period were credited as “A Vitagraph Release” thus paying homage to the original Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn,purchased by the Warners 1925 and where the Western Electric sound-on-disc system had been derived.
Vitaphone was among the first 25 inductees into the TECnology Hall of Fame in 2004.
Today, efforts by dedicated individuals, to include collectors and archivists, are underway to restore Vitaphone productions in what is known as “The Vitaphone Project“.
Below is footage of the Vitagraph Film Company Brooklyn as it is at present date, including a portion of footage from the final film made there