Europe picked up the yen for syncing sound with film in 1896 and so continued the initial attempts to sync film with the phonograph. German filmmaker Oskar Messter invented the Tonbilder Biophone which connected the two and used electromagnetism to sync sound with film in 1903. Unfortunately, sound and film could not be recorded at the same time and thus the process was not fully formed yet. This didn’t stop Messter from making many 3-4 minute sound films. Most featured opera singers and they were wildly successful—so much so that over 500 theaters had his Tonbilder Biophone system in Germany between 1905 and 1913. Later, he would employ a compressed air gramophone or Auxetophone which was able to project sound at a much higher volume, but this was a rough way to sync sound to film. Since the two were not synced, they referred to them as sound images rather than sound films. Here’s an example of one of his early sound films circa 1905.
Edison was also dabbling in the pseudo sound films just after the turn of the century. Essentially the film played and a live performer or gramophone hidden behind the screen would dub in the voice. He made hundreds of these, but very few survive. Here’s one from 1907.
And another one for good measure.
Edison finally achieved synchronization with a fishing line and a series of pulleys with the Kinetephone. These were a fair synchronization of sound, but often failed and were too complicated for many operators to control. They were never meant to replace silent films—they were only shown to one person at a time. One of the first of these was a series of nursery rhymes.
German inventor Eugene Lauste really changed everything when he was the first to record sound on film in 1910. He had moved to the United States and worked in Edison Labs in the late 1890s then moved to England and worked for Biograph after the turn of the century where he filed his first patent in 1907. His sound on film method which he started tinkering with in 1904 worked by speaking into a microphone where the sound waves would be converted to changes in an electric current which is then converted into light. The light is then photographed onto the film negative. The dense portions of light would give a stronger signal. When light is then sent through the negative it is converted back into electric current and then back into sound. We now refer to this as optical sound. This method was perfected with the Tri-Ergon process which was created by Josef Engl, Joseph Massole, Hans Vogt from Germany in 1919. The Tri-Ergon process added variable density which better amplified the sound.
In order for the sound to be clear it needs a highly sensitive light. That’s where Lee de Forest stepped in. He was able to see the advantages of radio early on and worked with Howard Armstrong who was the true inventor of positive feedback which allowed for radio signals to be boosted substantially (Lee de Forest attempted to take credit for it). Radio signals are actually light waves and the light created by positive feedback was highly sensitive. So with this De Forest worked on the same process as Eugene Lauste, but he brought on Theodore Case as well who provided Thallofide Cell which produced much better sound. De Forest made many shorts from 1921 to 1930. He filmed opera, radio shows, and vaudeville acts. One of the latter was DeWolf Hopper who was legendary for his recitation of “Casey at the Bat” a poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer.
Theodore Case knew that his work would be more appreciated elsewhere and went on with this process and brought it to Fox Movietone. Instead of using 21 frames per second as he did with phonofilm, he used 24 frames per second which is still standard for shooting on film. Fox Movietone also bought all the patents for the Tri-Ergon process. At Fox, they decided to produce Newsreels bringing in famous figures and stories from all over the world.
Things started moving quickly from here on out. Edison was recorded on August 12, 1927. The Jazz Singer was released on October 6, 1927. More about the rise of Vitaphone and the inevitable switch back to the sound on film in the next section.
Mankind has always tried to find ways to broadcast information at a distance. Smoke signals would allow for gathering people to one specific spot as well as sending news or important information. There were carrier pigeons, beacons of light, horns as well as drums, but these systems were limited. The first system to send complicated messages was visual telegraphy (semaphore line) by Claude Chappe in 1791. It was made up of a series of towers with arms that would broadcast symbols with panels to the next tower and would be carried across long distances in a fairly short time depending on how well the message receivers were trained.
In a natural progression from the semaphore system, in the age of electricity, was the electric telegraph 45 years later. Samuel Morse is associated with the telegraph more than any other even though he was not the first to invent it. The telegraph works by using waves of electricity to send audible sound via an electromagnetic circuit. A battery is connected to the bottom half of the telegraph key and if you complete the circuit by having the telegraph or “Morse key” pressed down a click is produced. The longer the contact is made the longer the click. The first telegraphs could only send messages short distances. After hearing about the death of his wife three days after she died in childbirth (he was also a painter and was commissioned to do a portrait of Revolutionary legend Marquis de Lafayette at the time), Morse decided that there had to be a quicker way to send messages. He advanced a code and a system of sending more information over longer distances with Samuel Vail.
Around the same time the telegraph was seeing further advancements in the 1850s from Morse and Vail who were attempting to create a transcontinental telegraph, in France the first recorded sounds of the human voice were being produced by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. They were never intended for playback, but with modern technology they can indeed be heard. The first surviving recording from these was a bit of the French folk song Au Clair de la Lune.
The late 1850s also brought the first working telephone by Philipp Reis who found that a galvanic current which is continuously interrupted with an iron rod placed through an empty wire could be used to transmit the human voice. Alexander Graham Bell and his brothers studied Reis—their ideas were taken on by Bell in 1876-1877. Bell was also heavily influenced by Antonio Meucci whose labs and equipment he had used in the 1860s. This was only live. True sound recording was not far behind.
1877 was a monumental year for sound and it was also Thomas Edison’s year to truly dabble in sound. His greatest contribution was the phonograph which was able to not just record the human voice, but was able to play back the recordings. It used Édouard-Léon Scott’s idea of recording onto a cylinder, but this time with a thin layer of tin foil. He recorded a bit of “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” The original recording did not survive, but on the 50th anniversary of the phonograph he recreated the moment for a newsreel recorded in sound in 1927.
After seeing the Zoopraxiscope demonstrated (invented in 1879) by film inventor Eadweard Muybridge in 1888, Edison and Muybridge decided to collaborate combining the phonograph and Zoopraxiscope for sound film. What they ended up with is the Kinetoscope in 1894. Edison used his phonograph and as with future attempts to follow via phonograph it was too quiet for a full theater and too unreliable to be synced. Unable to get a reliable sound system to sync to film he settled in 1895 for a peep show format where one holds a speaker to the ear and looks through a hole. Edison was convinced this would take off, but it did not. He called it the Kinetephone. The first of these films was of two men waltzing to a violin player playing a song from The Bells of Corneville. The sound was initially lost and the experiment initially failed, but when it was discovered split in two in 1964 and it was properly synced and restored in 2002.
Next week: Thomas Edison and his continuing experiments to sync the phonograph with film.
Most early sound films are completely forgotten, even overlooked by film historians. Usually any given history of the film musical starts with The Jazz Singer and nearly anything before it is excluded—even Al Jolson’s first film appearance in the Vitaphone short “The Plantation Act.” The story of sound film is more complete when you look at the transition from silent films to sound films, but in my research I found Lee de Forest dismissed in many early histories and without Lee de Forest sound would not have been able to be amplified to the level it needed to be in theaters. The Jazz Singer was released in 1927. The earliest sound film was created somewhere between 1894-1895. There’s three decades of film history in between—numerous attempts to amplify sound and then solve the problem of syncing it to film.
I thought I knew the story or at least most of the story. Even tonight I’m still struggling to write this without going back to smoke signals and I might just do that in the next bit. Amplification was such a large part of why early sound films didn’t take off. Had amplification gone hand in hand with the ability to record we would have had a very different film industry from the start.
Singin’ in the Rain is a good jumping off point. When we jump back into 1927 with Kathy, Cosmo, Lina we see some of the early problems with sound in some of the greatest scenes in a film musical—we initially see the use of mood music while filming scenes showing that on set and more often in theaters silent films were not truly silent even off-set. Orchestras were hired for the bigger theaters with full orchestrations and smaller theaters hired piano players to add sound effects.
It wasn’t as easy to add sound as to “just add talking to it” when it’s decided that the film will now be a musical. In Singin’ in the Rain, we see the trouble in trying to hide a microphone—attempts at trying to hide it bush or bosom. The sound fidelity was pretty poor depending on the sound system being used and if heads were turned away words were missed. You get Lina Lamont unable to utter her lines in a manner befitting opulently dressed character. We see Kathy dubbing for her which at the time would have been done live. They didn’t have the ability to dub after filming in 1927. Certainly not on a wax record. It’s believed Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause from 1930 was the first to edit sound.
It’s true that sound stages were built overnight and the studios attempted to have their stars trained in proper speech, but it was a long road to get to the nearly overnight turnover. The studios didn’t want anything to do with sound. At every turn, they tried to dodge it any way they could. Warner Bros. was not a big studio at the time of the transition and they truly took a gamble with Vitaphone. Sound destroyed careers and out of the ashes were a new set of stars to fill the void and new genres to come—not only the film musical, but also screwball comedies and it was a game changer for horror films.
My hope with this project is to do something two-fold—revamp ReelJewels.com and try to give an in depth look at the history of sound in film, but keeping to the theme of what ReelJewels has always focused on in the last 20 years, advancements in sound that made a huge difference to the evolution of the film musical.