One hundred brief films using Gaumont’s Chronophone system, which employed synchronized wax cylinders to record sound using a “Morning Glory” horn, a large acoustical “hearing aid,” to capture the voices of the performers. But the Chronophone and similar processes prior to the de Forest sound-on-film process lacked the obvious benefits of electronic amplification, which de Forest’s newly perfected vacuum tube made possible. Lee de Forest, in fact, was drawing on a series of experiments that dated back to the nineteenth-century work of the American inventor Joseph T. Tykociner, as well as work done by Eugene Lauste, who also conducted early experiments in sound-on-film. In addition, in 1919, three German scientists, Joseph Massole, Josef Engl, and Hans Vogt, created the Tri-Ergon system, which employed a primitive photographic sensor to transform sound into striations of light and dark, creating the prototype for de Forest’s optical sound-track process.
To publicize his new invention, de Forest created roughly one thousand short films featuring comics, musicians, and vaudeville stars of the era. His invention, which he called Phonofilm, was a modest financial success, but without the backing of a major studio sound-on-film remained a novelty. From 1923 to 1927, the studios all resisted the coming of sound, realizing that it would create profound economic and technological changes. As with the advent of color film and later television, Hollywood was resistant to any changes in the status quo, and for all intents and purposes sound was suppressed by the industry until Warner Bros., in dire financial straits, risked nearly everything they owned on The Jazz Singer in 1927. When that film clicked resoundingly with the public, a new era was born.
The major battle in the competing sound processes was between de Forest’s sound-on-film and Vitaphone’s sound-on-disc. Warners opted for sound-on-disc for The Jazz Singer and its subsequent talkies, and at first the other studios followed suit. But by 1930, sound-on-film was being used as well, and the need
for a standardized system became apparent. Acting with rare unanimity, the studios voted for a sound-on-film process then being touted by Vitaphone, which was largely based on de Forest’s work. Theaters, meanwhile, were still scrambling to make the changeover; by 1931, nearly all the nation’s theaters were wired for sound. The motion picture industry would benefit from the new technology after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, as audiences flocked to theaters to escape the real desperation of their own increasingly uncertain lives.
By 1930, ninety million Americans were going to the movies at least once a week, and many families, especially in the larger cities, virtually lived at the movies, watching the same film over and over again in second-run “grind” houses to avoid the cold or to escape the confines of their homes. In the wake of the Crash, many were homeless and jobless, and theaters provided an inexpensive and entertaining way to pass the time indoors. While first-run theaters charged top prices and ran a single feature a few times a day, neighborhood theaters would run two films as a double bill, along with cartoons, travelogues, newsreels, and coming attractions, to create a program running nearly four hours in length, repeated continuously from noon to midnight, or sometimes even twenty-four hours a day. For a populace deprived of the real American dream, the escapist fantasies of the Hollywood dream factory offered some relief from the drudgery of daily existence.
THE STUDIO SYSTEM
The studio system was in essence an assembly line that cranked out roughly a feature film per week for each of the major studios, regimented into “A” pictures, with top casts and directors and luxurious shooting schedules, and “B” pictures, which were shot in one or two weeks on existing sets, using second-string players under contract to the studio for maximum economy. There were also short subjects, cartoons, serials, and even “C” pictures (mostly program westerns) shot on microscopic budgets in as little as two or three days from the barest of scripts. All studios maintained a roster of directors, writers, actors, and technicians under contract, to be used on any project at the whim of their bosses. Literary properties (novels, short stories, plays) for “A” and “B” pictures were purchased and then turned into shooting scripts. Cast, directors, and crew were assigned to shoot the films, while an army of decorators, costume designers, and prop men completed the sets. With shooting finished, the films would be edited into rough cuts and screened for studio executives, who would suggest revisions and retakes, while staff composers would create a suitable musical score.
Almost immediately, each major studio established a generic identity, which differentiated it from its competitors. Warner Bros. specialized in hard-boiled gangster films, social melodramas, and Busby Berkeley’s outrageously over-the-top musicals, while Universal rapidly became known as the home of the horror film, with such productions as Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), with Bela Lugosi, James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), with Boris Karloff, and many other such works. Paramount was home to the madcap antics of the Marx Brothers at their most anarchic, in addition to the sizzling double-entendres of reigning sex goddess Mae West and the droll misanthropy of comedian W C. Fields. Paramount was also the studio that pushed the envelope of public morality with the greatest insistence, which, as we shall see, had major consequences for the entire industry.