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On this Day in Movie History, April 20, 1926: Vitaphone Gives Voice to Film

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On April 20, 1926, Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T), and the Warner Brothers film studio officially introduced Vitaphone, a new process that enabled the addition of sound to film.

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The major studios turned away Western Electric, makers of Vitaphone, in 1925. The Vitaphone system logged sound on a record linked electronically to the projector, keeping sound synchronized with image. Because the precise alignment of projector and phonograph had to be set by hand, the system was prone to human error; fitting a movie theater for a Vitaphone sound system was also extremely costly.

Warner Brothers, then a minor studio, decided to act aggressively. It sank $3 million into the promotion of Vitaphone, which the studio announced it would use to provide synchronized musical accompaniment for all its films.

Vitaphone debuted in August 1926 with the costume drama Don Juan, starring John Barrymore and featuring an orchestral score by the New York Philharmonic. 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.

Not wanting to take any more of Harry Warner’s refusal to move forward with using sound in future Warner films, Sam agreed to accept Zukor’s offer. 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.

On October 6, 1927, The Jazz Singer premiered at the Warners Theater in New York City, broke box-office records, established Warner Bros. as a major player in Hollywood, and single-handedly launched the talkie revolution.

The success of these two films led directly to the motion-picture industry’s conversion to sound, as the major studios quickly lobbied to gain the rights to use Vitaphone as well. Warner Brothers agreed to give up its exclusive rights to the system in exchange for a share of the royalties, and by the spring of 1928 virtually every Hollywood studio had jumped on the sound bandwagon.

Birthdays
1937 – George Takei (actor: Star Trek, Kissinger and Nixon, Oblivion, Star Trek 1-6, The Green Berets, Red Line 7000, Ice Palace)

1941 – Ryan O’Neal (actor: Love Story, Paper Moon, What’s Up Doc?, Peyton Place)

1945 – Michael Brandon (Feldman) (actor: Lovers and Other Strangers, Red Alert, Rich and Famous, Promises in the Dark)

1947 – David Leland (actor: Time Bandits, Personal Services; director/writer: Wish You Were Here; director: Checking Out, The Big Man: Crossing the Line; writer: Mona Lisa, Personal Services, Running Wild)

1949 – Jessica (Phyllis) Lange (Academy Award-winning actress: Tootsie [1982], Blue Sky [1994]; Frances, King Kong, All That Jazz, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Sweet Dreams)

1959 – Clint Howard (actor: Backdraft, Cocoon, Ice Cream Man, That Thing You Do!, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, How the Grinch Stole Christmas)

1964 – Crispin Glover (actor: Dead Man, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Doors, Twister, Back to the Future, Friday the 13th, Part 4: The Final Chapter, My Tutor, Charlie’s Angels [2000])

1976 – Joey Lawrence (actor: Gimme a Break, Blossom, Chains of Gold, Pulse, Wait Till Your Mother Gets Home, Radioland Murders)

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