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In 1919, Lee De Forest, inventor of the audion tube, filed his first patent on a sound-on-film process, DeForest Phonofilm, which recorded sound directly onto film as parallel lines. These parallel lines photographically recorded electrical waveforms from a microphone, which were translated back into sound waves when the movie was projected. Some sources say that DeForest improved on the work of Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt -- who was granted German patent 309.536 on 28 July 1914 for his sound-on-film work -- and on the Tri-Ergon process, patented in 1919 by German inventors Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massole.

The Phonofilm system, which recorded synchronized sound directly onto film, was used to record vaudeville acts, musical numbers, political speeches, and opera singers. The quality of Phonofilm was poor at first, improved somewhat in later years, but was never able to match the fidelity of sound-on-disc systems such as Vitaphone, or later sound-on-film systems such as RCA Photophone or Fox Movietone.

The films DeForest made were short films made primarily as demonstration films to try to interest major studios in Phonofilm. These films are particularly valuable to entertainment historians, as they include recordings of a wide variety of both well-known and less famous American vaudeville and British music hall acts which would otherwise have been forgotten. Some of the films, such as Flying Jenny Airplane, Barking Dog, and a film of DeForest himself explaining the Phonofilm system (all 1921) were experimental films to test the system.

Some of the people filmed included vaudevillians Joe Weber and Lew Fields, Eva Puck and Sammy White, Eddie Cantor, Ben Bernie, Oscar Levant, Phil Baker, Roy Smeck, jazz musicians Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, "all-girl" bandleader Helen Lewis, harmonicist Borrah Minnevitch, Nikita Balieff's company Chauve-Souris, opera singers Eva Leoni, Abbie Mitchell, and Marie Rappold, Broadwaymarker stars Helen Menken and Fannie Ward, folklorist Charles Ross Taggart, flamenco dancer Concha Piquer, and politicians Calvin Coolidge, Robert La Follette, Al Smith, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Smith and Roosevelt were filmed during the 1924 Democratic National Convention, held June 24 to July 9 at Madison Square Gardenmarker in New York Citymarker. Coolidge became the first U. S. President to appear in a sound motion picture when DeForest filmed him at the White Housemarker on 11 August 1924.

In November 1922, De Forest founded the De Forest Phonofilm Corporation with studios at 314 East 48th Street in New York Citymarker, but was unable to interest any of the major Hollywoodmarker movie studios in his invention.

Premiere of Phonofilm

On 15 April 1923, DeForest premiered 18 short films made in Phonofilm -- presenting vaudeville acts, musical performers, opera, and ballet -- at the Rivoli Theater in New York City. The printed program for this presentation gave credit to the "DeForest-Case Patents". However, according to a letter written to DeForest immediately after the event by Theodore Case, no credit was given to Case during DeForest's presentation. Case also states in the letter how displeased he is with DeForest crediting the "DeForest-Case Patents", as Phonofilm's success was fully due to the work of Case and his Case Research Lab.

DeForest was forced to show these films in independent theaters such as the Rivoli, since Hollywood movie studios controlled all major U.S. movie theater chains at the time. De Forest's decision to film primarily short films (one reel), not feature films, due to lack of Hollywood investment, limited the appeal of his process. All or part of the Paramount Pictures features Bella Donna (premiered 1 April 1923) and The Covered Wagon (premiered 16 March 1923) were reportedly filmed with Phonofilm as an experiment, but, if so, were only shown this way at the premiere engagements, also at the Rivoli Theater in New York City.

One of the few two-reel films made by DeForest in the Phonofilm process was Love's Old Sweet Song (1923), starring Louis Wolheim, Donald Gallaher, and the 20-year-old Una Merkel. DeForest kept to one-reel films because he was unable to solve the problem of reel changes -- and the disruption in sound which would occur -- when a projectionist in a movie theater changed reels.

Development of Phonofilm

Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer used the Phonofilm process for their Song Car-Tunes series of cartoons -- all featuring the "Follow the Bouncing Ball" gimmick -- starting in May 1924. Of the 36 titles in the Song Car-Tunes series, 19 used Phonofilm. The Fleischers stopped releasing the Song Car-Tune films in Phonofilm in September 1926, and later re-released some of these titles from 1929 to 1932 through Paramount Pictures with new soundtracks using the RCA Photophone process, under the name Screen Songs.

DeForest also worked with Theodore Case, using Case's patents to make the Phonofilm system workable. However, the two men had a falling out, shortly after DeForest filed suit in June 1923 against Freeman Harrison Owens, another former collaborator of DeForest's. Case later went to movie mogul William Fox of Fox Film Corporation, who bought Case's patents, the American rights to the German Tri-Ergon patents, and the work of Owens to create Fox Movietone.

DeForest's Use of Case Patents

Case's falling out with DeForest was due to DeForest taking full credit for the work of Case and Earl I. Sponable (1895–1977) at the Case Research Lab in Auburn, New Yorkmarker. To record film, DeForest tried using a standard light bulb to expose amplified sound onto film. These bulbs quickly burned out, and, even while functioning, never produced a clear recording. To reproduce his nearly inaudible soundtracks, DeForest used a vacuum tube that could not react quickly enough to the varying light coming to it as the soundtrack passed through the sound gate, causing an incomplete reproduction of sound from an essentially inaudible recording -- a dual failure. DeForest's attempts to record and reproduce sound failed at every turn until he used inventions provided by Case.

Having failed to create a workable system of recording sound onto film by 1921, DeForest contacted Case to inquire about using the Case Research Lab's invention of the Thallofide (thallium oxysulfide) Cell, for use in reproducing his recorded sound. Case provided DeForest with that invention from his lab, and later provided DeForest with the AEO Light, another Case Research Lab invention, used for reading the soundtrack of a finished film. Due to DeForest's continuing misuse of these inventions, the Case Research Lab proceeded to build its own camera. That camera was used by Case and Sponable to record President Coolidge on 11 August 1924, which was one of the films shown by DeForest and claimed by him to be the product of "his" inventions.

Seeing that DeForest was more concerned with his own fame and recognition than he was with actually creating a workable system of sound film, and because of DeForest's continuing attempts to downplay the contributions of the Case Research Lab in the creation of Phonofilm, Case severed his ties with DeForest in the fall of 1925. On 23 July 1926, William Fox of Fox Film Corporation bought Case's patents.

Producer Pat Powers Attempts Takeover of Phonofilm

By 1926, DeForest gave up on trying to exploit the process -- at least in the U.S. (see UK section below) -- and his company declared bankruptcy in September 1926. Without access to Case's inventions, DeForest was left with an incomplete system of sound film. Even so, producer Pat Powers invested in what remained of Phonofilm in the spring of 1927. DeForest was in financial difficulty due to his lawsuits against former associates Case and Owens. At this time, DeForest was selling cut-rate sound equipment to second-run movie theaters wanting to convert to sound on the cheap.

In June 1927, Powers made an unsuccessful takeover bid for DeForest's company. In the aftermath, Powers hired a former DeForest technician, William Garrity, to produce a cloned version of the Phonofilm system, which Powers dubbed Powers Cinephone. By now, DeForest was in too weak a financial position to mount a legal challenge against Powers for patent infringement. Powers convinced Walt Disney to use Cinephone for a few sound cartoons such as Steamboat Willie (1928) before Powers and Disney had a falling-out over money -- and over Powers hiring away Disney animator Ub Iwerks -- in 1930. Cinephone continued to be used in low-budget Westerns through 1930, and in Disney's Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons -- including Flowers and Trees and The Whoopee Party -- through 1932. (See list of Cinephone titles at IMDB in External Links below.)

Hollywood Chooses Other Sound Systems

While shunning Phonofilm, Hollywood studios introduced different systems for talkies. First up was the sound-on-disc process introduced by Warner Brothers as Vitaphone -- which used a record disc synchronized with the film for sound. Warner Brothers released the feature film Don Juan starring John Barrymore on 6 August 1926 in Vitaphone, with music and sound effects only.

On 6 October 1927, Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson in Vitaphone and is often incorrectly credited as the first talking picture. The Jazz Singer was the first feature film to use synchronized sound for talking sequences rather than just for music and sound effects, and thus launched the talkie era, but DeForest's sound-on-film system was in fact the basis for modern sound movies.

In 1927, producer William Fox introduced sound-on-film Fox Movietone with the film Sunrise by F. W. Murnau, and in 1928, the sound-on-film process RCA Photophone was adopted by newly created studio RKO Radio Pictures and by Paramount Pictures.

Phonofilm in the UK

In 1926, the owner of a chain of cinemas in the UK, M. B. Schlesinger, acquired the UK rights to Phonofilm. DeForest and Schlesinger filmed short films of British music hall performers such as Marie Lloyd -- along with famous stage actors such as Sybil Thorndike reading excerpts of works by Shakespeare, Shaw, and Dickens -- from September 1926 to May 1929. (In July 1925, The Gentleman, a comedy short directed by William J. Elliott in Phonofilm, was the first sound-on-film production made in England.)

On 4 October 1926, Phonofilm made its UK premiere with a program of short films presented at the Empire Cinemamarker in Londonmarker, including a short film with Sidney Bernstein welcoming Phonofilm to the UK. According to the British Film Institute website, the UK division of DeForest Phonofilm was taken over in August 1928 by British Talking Pictures and its subsidiary British Sound Film Productions which was formed in September 1928.

In March 1929, a feature film The Clue of the New Pin, a part-talkie based on an Edgar Wallace novel, was trade-shown with The Crimson Circle, a German-UK coproduction which was also based on a Wallace novel. Crimson was filmed in DeForest Phonofilm, and Pin was made in British Phototone, a sound-on-disc process using 12-inch phonograph records synchronized with the film. However, the UK divisions of both Phonofilm and British Phototone soon closed.

The last films made in the UK in Phonofilm were released in early 1929, due to competition from Vitaphone, and rival sound-on-film systems Fox Movietone and RCA Photophone. The release of Alfred Hitchcock's sound feature film Blackmail in June 1929, made in RCA Photophone, sealed the fate of Phonofilm in the UK.

Phonofilm in Australia

In June 1925, Phonofilm opened its first Australian office at 129 Bathurst Street in Sydneymarker. On 6 July 1925, the first program of Phonofilms in Australia were shown at the Piccadilly Theatre in Sydney. A program was also shown at the Prince Edward Theatre in November and December 1925. On 6 April 1927, Minister for Trade Herbert Pratten appeared in a DeForest film to celebrate the opening of a Phonofilm studio in Rushcutters Baymarker in Sydney.

Legacy of Phonofilm

Almost 200 short films were made in the Phonofilm process, and many are preserved in the collections of the Library of Congressmarker (45 titles) and the British Film Institute (98 titles). In 1976, five Phonofilm titles were discovered in a trunk in Australia, and these films have been restored by Australia's National Film and Sound Archivemarker.

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