December 5th was a great day for fans of Vitaphone short films. Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project screened on the Turner Classic Movies TV channel 24 hours of continuous Vitaphone shorts. These wonderful old classics have been collected and restored by the Vitaphone Project over many years, and this marathon showing, interspersed by Ron Hutchinson chatting with Ben Mankiewitz, was a first. Sadly I was unable to watch being still in London, but I’ve been reading the enthusiastic comments on Facebook of those fortunate enough to have watched this historic event.
My enthusiastic friends, David Wyatt and Malcolm Billingsy, at the Cinema Museum invited me to be videoed talking about my father, Stanley Watkins, and his part in the development of Talking Pictures. That was fun, although I’m sure I left out lots of important stuff when I roared off on a tangent, as I am wont to do.
I am thinking of changing my husband’s nickname from PA (Personal Assistant), to PP (Patient Partner). Recently he came to the Cinema Museum again with me to watch some Vitagraph silent films. They were from the 20s and actually very entertaining.
We were entertained, also, by three pianists who gallantly accompanied the galloping horses, Indian attacks , house fires, crashing waves, dying lovers, etc, in the good old single piano days before my father put orchestral music within the reach of small cinemas. What a nice change from one silent film I watched when they had a local band provide the background music. Only it wasn’t anything to do with the movie we were watching, just a performance, so by itself the music might have been ok, but it added nothing at all to the story we were watching. Didn’t anyone tell them what the accompaniment was for?
We were watching 91.5 notched films; I can’t remember if that’s correct but the notch is to stop the film for the dialog panel. If I remember the explanation – which probably made more sense to the technical film buffs there – this hesitation allows the dialog panel to be shown as a slide (one cell) and the projectionist then moves the film on. Otherwise it would have to be repeated on the film long enough for the words to be read. Not as fast as speech, you know. And a lot of film would be wasted. Very clever.
Well not only does this mean careful attention by the projectionist, but it wouldn’t work on a big screen such as we had last night. So it was being projected onto another screen and digitally enlarged and that’s what we saw! Too complicated for me to understand, let alone explain to you. But it worked.
We saw Indians attack covered wagons, ocean storms threatening to swamp the actors (very scary), saving a woman from a burning building (the ladders crashing down in flames), and heros getting their girls at last.
But even better was meeting a whole tribe of folk mad about sound; I have their cards and addresses to keep in touch and talk about my father. It’s all happening.
The Cinema Museum in SE London http://www.cinemamuseum.org.uk is a wonderful collection of memorabilia, located in the old workhouse where Charlie Chaplin’s mother lived. It’s also a great social gathering location. Screenings and events take place regularly, including a Comedy Weekend coming up in October.
The film ending Saturday’s selection is “A Better ‘Ole” (check out this link for the origin of this phrase: http://blog.maryevans.com/2013/04/the-better-ole.html). It’s a WWI comedy with British Tommies (soldiers), and I understand was the second film to have sound, after “Don Juan”. Wes Connors says:
The production levels offered by Warner Brothers are quite high; “The Better ‘Ole” was the second film to make use of the studio’s synchronized music and sound effects “Vitaphone” process.
This is a photo of the synchronized camera used for the first Vitaphone productions here being studied by Stanley Watkins, Hartley C Humphrey, “Chuck” R Sawyer and “Archie” C Millard. I’ve given the first names by which I knew these engineers. The documents only ever give their initials. (sorry about the large white spaces – I need help to get my photos in the right place).
Now, I know that my father, Stan Watkins, worked with Sam Warner on that first sound film “Don Juan” and then on “The Jazz Singer” with its accidentally added speech, but I have nothing in his memoirs about”A Better ‘Ole” so when the organizer asked me to introduce the film I regretfully said I could not help.
However, he then asked if I could, perhaps, speak briefly about the Vitaphone system, so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m looking out some anecdotes now; people always enjoy them, and these will be from the horse’s mouth, so to speak (no pun intended).
The sun is still shining and my PA comes home tomorrow. Yippee! As Robert Lewis Stevenson said in his “Child’s Garden of Verses” (did you grow up with that too?): The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.