talking movies: an example of media innovation

“Haven’t you been around the show world long enough to know that a talking picture is something to run away from?” Sam Warner declared early in 1925 to a radio engineering urging him to consider new talking picture technology for the Warner Brothers’ moving picture production and exhibition business. His brother Harry added, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”[1] In 1927, the celebrated inventor Thomas Edison put his authority behind this view:

No, I don’t think the talking moving picture will ever be successful in the United States.  Americans prefer silent drama.  They are accustomed to the moving picture as it is and they will never get enthusiastic over any voices being mingled in.  Yes, there will be novelty to it for a little while, but the glitter will soon wear off and the movie fans will cry for silence or a little orchestra music.[2]

The Warner Brothers and Thomas Edison soon changed their minds.  In April, 1925, the Warner Brothers purchased talking movie technology that they called Vitaphone. When Thomas Edison dismissed the talking moving picture in 1927, Harry Warner pointed out that 50 theaters were already equipped with Vitaphone talking movie technology, and that number was growing by five per week. The Fox Film Corporation sent a crew to demonstrate personally to Edison talking movie technology.  After this experience, Edison changed his mind and described the new talkies as a “distinct advance.”[3]

Talking movies destroyed the vaudeville business.  Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone advertisements directed at vaudeville theaters declared that a talking movie “puts your whole show on the screen”:

No more stage presentations.
No more stage acts.
No more prologues.
No more units.
No more profit-eating overhead and salaries!
No more booking worries.
Check off your overhead and production costs.

Talking movies offered all theaters simultaneous choices from a wide catalog of unique attractions:

Take your pick of the stars of operatic, concert, vaudeville, musical comedy, drama, circus, night clubs, and every other field of amusement. Vitaphone brings them all to you — over 1000 different acts to choose form, and more made every week. Whether it be Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees; Al Jolson in a song; or Beniamino Gigli of the Metropolitan Grand Opera Company; Willie and Eugene Howard in a vaudeville comedy skit or Charles Hackett, the concert artist — they’re not too big for the Vitaphone program. They’re all yours! Million Dollar names for your marquee! The world’s greatest drawing cards on your screen! The surest boosters your box office has ever known![4]

Talking movies were as big a disruption for the vaudeville business as the Internet is for today’s mass media businesses.

The Keith-Albee Vaudeville Exchange, which ran the largest vaudeville exhibition circuit in the U.S., quickly responded to talking movies.  Its first action was to ban Vitaphone headliners from the vaudeville engagements that it controlled.[5] But apparently recognizing that such tactics were not likely to succeed, in 1927 Keith-Albee merged with Orpheum theaters. In 1928, Keith-Albee-Orpheum merged with Joseph P. Kennedy’s Film Booking Offices of America studio and the Radio Corporation of America to become Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Pictures.  The Keith-Albee vaudeville business was thus transformed into a part of a major Hollywood (talking movie) studio.

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[1] Kirsner, Scott (2008) Inventing the movies: Hollywood’s epic battle between innovation and the status quo, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs (CinemaTech Books) pp. 17-8.  Lyle Talbot seems to claim to have heard Harry Warner say roughly this some time in 1930 or later.  But that’s implausible; by that time Warner Brothers and all the major Hollywood studios recognized that talking movies were the future of the industry.  In 1931, 13,880 of a total of 21,739 motion picture theaters in the U.S. were wired for electric sound. See Crafton, Donald (1997) The talkies: American cinema’s transition to sound, 1926-1931. History of the American cinema, v. 4 (New York: Scribner) p. 155, Table 6.1.

[2] Crafton (1997) p. 101, quoting Film Daily, 4 Mar. 1927, pp. 1,2.

[3] Id. pp. 101-2.

[4] The text is from a Vitaphone advertising flyer displayed in the Library of Congress exhibition, Bob Hope and American Variety.  The flyer is from the late 1920s, probably 1929.  Similar text occurs in a 1929 Vitaphone advertisement from a July, 1929, issue of Variety.  The above photograph of the Warner Theatre’s opening of Don Juan shows underneath the theater overhang a sign stating, “refrigerated washed air.”  That’s probably a competitive distinction.  Less lavish theaters, particularly vaudeville theaters, probably had less attractive conditions for the audience.  About 14 months later, a photograph of the Warner Theatre’s opening of the Jazz Singer does not show this sign.

[5] Crafton (1997) p. 108.

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