The sound industry was established after no less than a curious chain of events. Back in 1919 three German inventors, Josef Engl, Joseph Massole, and Hans Vogt, patented the tri-ergon process. A process capable of transforming audio waves into electricity. It was initially used to imprint those waves into films strips that, when played back, a light would shine through the audio strip, converting the light back into electricity and then into sound.
The real issue in all this, however, was the amplification of the sound. which would be tackled by an American inventor who played a pivotal role in the development of radio broadcast, Dr. Lee de Forest. In 1906, de Forest invented and subsequently patented a device called the audion tube, —an electronic device capable of taking a small signal and amplifying it. The audion tube was a key piece of technology for radio broadcast and long-distance telephones.
In 1919, de Forest’s started to pay special attention to motion pictures. He realized his audion tube could help films attain a much better degree of amplification. Three years later, specifically in 1922, de Forest took a gamble and designed his own system. He then opened up the ‘De Forest Phonofilm Company’ to produce a series of short sound films in New York City. The impact of his technology was well received, and by the middle of 1924, 34 theaters in the American East Coast had been wired for his sound system.
The fact that a considerable amount of theatres in the East Coast had acquired De Forest system didn’t pick the interest of Hollywood. He had indeed offered the technology to industry leaders like Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures and Adolf Zukor of Paramount PIctures; however, they initially saw no reason to complicate the solid and profitable film business by adding other features as frivolous as sound. But one studio took a gamble: Warner Brothers.
Vitaphone was a sound-on-disk technology created and patented by Western Electric and Bell Telephone Labs they used a series of 33 and ⅓ rpm disks. When company officials attempted to get Hollywood’s attention in 1925, they faced the same attitude of disinterest that de Forest had, except for one slightly minor studio: Warner Brothers Pictures.
In April of 1926 Warner Brothers. decided to establish the Vitaphone Corporation with the financial aid of Goldman Sachs, leasing the disk technology from Western Electric for the sum of US $800,000. In the beginning, they wanted to sub-lease it to other studios in hopes of expanding the business.
The studio, Warner Brothers. never imagined this technology as a tool to produce and create talking pictures. Instead, they saw it as a tool synchronize musical scores for their own films. In order to showcase their new acquisition and the feature they had managed to add to their films, Warner Brothers launched a massive US $3,000,000 premiere in the Warner’s Theatre in New York City on August 6, 1926.
The feature film of this premiere was ‘Don Juan’. An amazing musical score performed by the New York Philharmonic accompanied the film, and the whole project was an outstanding success; some critics even went on to praise it as the eighth wonder of the world, which ultimately led the studio to project the film in several American major cities.
However, and despite the tremendous success, industry moguls weren’t too sure about spending money on developing the sound for the film industry. The entire economic structure of the film industry would necessarily have to be altered in order for it to adopt sound —new sound studios would have to be built, new expensive recording equipment would have to be installed, theatres would have to be wired for sound, and a standard sound system process would have to be defined.
Additionally, foreign sales would suffer a drastic drop. At that time, silent films were easily sold overseas. Dialogues, however, was a different story. Dubbing a foreign language was still conceived as a project that would take place in the near future. If studios were to adopt sound, it would also affect musicians who found employment in the movie theatres, as they would have to be laid off. For all these reasons Hollywood basically hoped that sound would be a simple passing novelty, but five major studios decided to take action.
MGM, Paramount, Universal, and Producers Distributing Corporation signed an agreement called The Big Five Agreement. They all agreed to adopt and develop a single sound system if one of the several attempts that were taking place alongside the Vitaphone should come to fruition. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers didn’t halt on their Vitaphone investments.
They announced that all of their 1927 pictures would be recorded and produced with a synchronized musical score. Finally, in April 1927, they built the first sound studio in the world. In May, production would begin on a film that would cement sound’s place in cinema: The Jazz Singer.
Originally ‘The Jazz Singer’ was supposed to be a silent film with a synchronized Vitaphone musical score, but the protagonist, Al Jolson, improvised some lines halfway into the movie. Lines that were recorded and could be heard by the audience. Warner Brothers. liked it and let them in. The impact of having spoken lines, however, was enormous —it marked the birth of what we know today as the sound for the film industry.