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Vitaphone was a sound film process used on features and nearly 2,000 short subjects produced by Warner Bros. and its sister studio First National from 1926 to 1930. This was not the original process. The first process was called Fuchessound. Vitaphone was the last, but most successful, of the sound-on-disc processes. The soundtrack was not printed on the actual film, but was issued separately on 16-inch phonograph records. The discs would be played while the film was being projected. Many early talkies, such as The Jazz Singer (1927), used the Vitaphone process. (The name "Vitaphone" derives from the Latin and Greek words, respectively, for "living" and "sound.")

Early History

In the early 1920s, Western Electric researched both sound-on-film and sound-on-disc systems, aided by the purchase of Lee De Forest's Audion amplifier tube in 1913, and the development of the public address system and the condenser microphone in 1915. The company decided to go forward with the disc system as the more familiar technology.

The business was established at Western Electric's Bell Laboratoriesmarker in Manhattan, New Yorkmarker, and acquired by Warners Bros. in April 1925. Warner Bros. introduced Vitaphone film shorts (recorded in Brooklyn, NY) on August 6, 1926, with the release of the silent feature Don Juan starring John Barrymore with music score and sound effects only (no dialogue), accompanied by several talkie short subjects featuring mostly opera stars and classical musicians of the day (the only "pop music" artist was guitarist Roy Smeck), and a greeting from motion picture industry spokesman Will Hays.

Don Juan was able to draw huge sums of money at the box office, but was not able to match the expensive budget Warner Bros. put into the film's production. In the wake of the failure of Don Juan, Paramount head Adolph Zukor offered Sam Warner a deal as an executive producer for the company if he brought Vitaphone with him. Sam, not wanting to take any more of Harry Warner's refusal to move forward with using sound in future Warner films, agreed to accept Zukor's offer, but the deal died after Paramount lost money in the wake of Rudolph Valentino's death. Harry eventually agreed to accept Sam's demands, and Sam pushed ahead with a new Vitaphone feature, based on a Broadway play starring Al Jolson, who had just starred in a musical short for the company, A Plantation Act. The Jazz Singer broke box-office records, established Warner Bros. as a major player in Hollywood, and single-handedly launched the talkie revolution.

Orchestra leader Henry Halstead is given credit for making the first talking sound Vitaphone movie short in Hollywood with Warner Brothers in 1927 called "Carnival Night in Paris" where actor Lew Ayres was discovered playing banjo. The three music selections for the Vitaphone production where listed as follows: 1. Volga Boatman, 2. At Sundown, 3. Rosy Cheeks.The production is done while featuring the Halstead band while also showing a large cast of hundreds of costumed dancers in a Carnival atmosphere.

How Vitaphone Worked

A Vitaphone-equipped theater used normal projectors equipped with a special turntable and reproducer, a fader, an amplifier, and loudspeaker system. The projectors operated as normal motorized silent projectors would, but also provided a mechanical interlock with an attached phonograph turntable. When the projector was threaded, the projectionist would align a start mark on the film with the picture gate, and would at the same time place a phonograph record on the turntable, being careful to align the phonograph needle with an arrow scribed on the record's surface.

When the projector rolled, the phonograph turned at a fixed rate, and (theoretically) played sound in sync with the film passing the picture gate simultaneously. Unlike the prevailing speed of 78 revolutions per minute for phonograph discs, Vitaphone discs were played at 33-1/3 r.p.m., and the normal spacing of the grooves were compressed further together in order to increase the playing time to match the 11-minute maximum running time of a reel of film. Also unlike most phonograph discs, the needle on Vitaphone records moved from the inside of the disc to the outside.

The Vitaphone process made several improvements over previous systems:
  • Amplification - The Vitaphone system was one of the first to use electronic amplification, using Lee De Forest's Audion tube. This allowed the sound of the phonograph to be played to a large audience at a comfortable volume.
  • Fidelity - In the early days, Vitaphone had superior fidelity to sound-on-film processes, particularly at both low and high frequencies. Phonographs also had superior dynamic range, on the first few playings.

These innovations notwithstanding, the Vitaphone process lost the early format war with sound-on-film processes for many reasons:
  • Distribution - Vitaphone records had to be distributed along with film prints, and shipping the records required a whole infrastructure apart from the already-existing film distribution system. Additionally, the records would wear out after an estimated 20 screenings (a checkbox system on the record indicated the number of plays), and had to be replaced. This consumed even more distribution overhead. Damage and breakage were also inherent dangers.
  • Synchronization - Vitaphone had severe and notorious synchronization problems. If a record skipped, it would fall out of sync with the picture, and the projectionist would have to manually restore sync. Additionally, if the film print became damaged and was not precisely repaired, the length relationship between the record and the print could be lost, also causing a loss of sync. The Vitaphone projectors had special levers and linkages to advance and retard sync, but it required the continual attention of the operator, and this was impractical. The system for aligning start marks on film and start marks on records was far from exact.
  • Editing - A phonograph record cannot be physically edited, and this significantly limited the creative potential of Vitaphone films. Warner Brothers went to great expense to develop a highly complex phonograph-based dubbing system, using synchronization phonographs and Strowger switch-triggered playback phonographs (working very much like a modern sampler.)
  • Fidelity versus Sound-on-Film - The fidelity of sound-on-film processes improved considerably after the early work by Lee DeForest on his Phonofilm process, and the introduction by the Fox Film Corporation of Fox Movietone in 1927. The DeForest and Fox systems were variable-density, but were superseded by RCA's variable-area sound-on-film process RCA Photophone, introduced in 1928.

With improvements in competing sound-on-film processes, Vitaphone's technical imperfections led to its retirement early in the sound era. In early 1930, Warner Bros. and First National stopped recording directly to disc, and switched to sound-on-film recording. The Warner studio had to publicly concede that Vitaphone was being retired, but put a positive spin on it by announcing that Warner films would now be available in both sound-on-film and sound-on-disc versions. Thus, instead of making a grudging admission that its technology was flawed, Warner appeared to be doing the entire movie industry a favor.

Theater owners, who had invested heavily in Vitaphone equipment only a short time before, were unwilling (or financially unable) to abandon the sound-on-disc process so quickly. Sound on film was now standard, but demand for sound on discs continued, compelling the Hollywood studios to offer disc versions of new films until 1937. (This is analogous to today's movie studios continuing to issue new films on VHS videotape after the DVD format had eclipsed it.)

Warner Bros. kept the "Vitaphone" name alive as the name of its short subjects division, The Vitaphone Corporation (officially dissolved at the end of 1959), most famous for releasing Leon Schlesinger's Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, later produced by Warner in-house from 1944 on. The Vitaphone name was adopted in the 1950s by Warner Bros.' record label, as a trade name for high-fidelity recording ["Vitaphonic"].

The Vitaphone Project

Today there is a group of hobbyists known as "The Vitaphone Project", whose mission is to restore long-unseen Vitaphone productions. The members track down mute picture elements and their corresponding Vitaphone discs, and produce new, synchronized 35mm versions using the latest motion picture and sound technology. (Today's technicians have found that the original Vitaphone discs have superior sound fidelity, and are often preferable to the identical tracks in archival, sound-on-film copies.) To date the Project has restored several dozen Vitaphone shorts from the dawn of sound, featuring many stars of 1920s vaudeville, radio, and the concert stage.

Though operating on principles so different as to make it unrecognizable to a Vitaphone engineer, Digital Theater Sound is a sound-on-disc system, the first to gain wide adoption since the abandonment of Vitaphone.


The Vitaphone process was among the first 25 inductees into the TECnology Hall of Fame at its establishment in 2004, an honor given to "products and innovations that have had an enduring impact on the development of audio technology." The award notes that Vitaphone, though short-lived, helped in popularizing theater sound and was critical in stimulating the development of the modern sound reinforcement system.


Further reading

  • Barrios, Richard (1995), A Song in the Dark, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195088115. Examination of early sound musicals, with extensive coverage of Vitaphone.

  • Bradley, Edwin M. (2005), The First Hollywood Sound Shorts, 1926-1931, McFarland & Company. ISBN 0786410302

  • Crafton, Donald (1997), The Talkies: American Cinema's Transition to Sound, 1926-1931, Charles Scribner's Sons ISBN 0-684-19585-2

  • Liebman, Roy (2003), Vitaphone Films: A Catalogue of the Features and Shorts, McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-1279-8

See also

External links

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