Vitaphone on camera

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.

HAPPY 90th BIRTHDAY, DON JUAN

I just received the latest copy of The Vitaphone Project’s newsletter:  http://www.picking.com/vitaphone134.html celebrating the 90th anniversary of the birth of sound on films.

Don Juan was the first  film that had synchronized sound. However it was music, doors slamming, swords clashing, bodies falling, just sound effects, no dialog. But it was an innovation, birthed by Warner Bros.

And it was the first feature film my father, Stan Watkins, worked on with Sam Warner, after developing sound on disc in the Bell Labs.

The Vitaphone system married recorded sound on large 16″ discs with the visual film on reels. The synchronization had to be accurate to get the sound at the right point; for example, in the sword fights. But it didn’t have to be as accurate as with dialog.

Harry Warner was persuaded by his brother Sam to embark on this project, recognizing that this would allow small theaters the luxury of orchestral music rather than the usual single piano player. He was not interested in Talking Pictures at this stage.

Don Juan opened in New York City on August 6th, 1926, and Stan Watkins was there in charge of seeing that the records and film stayed synchronized. He said he must have seen the film about 90 times which made him notice things.

The continuity wasn’t quite as keen as it is now (though we still catch bloopers in contemporary films from time to time). In one scene in Don Juan a dagger was hidden in a lady’s cleavage; the low cut dresses of the period made that possible. But Stan noticed in some scenes “Her movements …were covered by several camera shots and in some of those the handle of the dagger could just be seen peeping out. The result was that it popped in and out during the scene in a most disturbing manner. One didn’t notice this until after seeing the scene several times. After which it was difficult to see anything else.”

He also learned to sleep silently during the film, but the audience was kept awake by the novelty of sound.

Happy Birthday, Don Juan, and sound movies.