Talking Pictures

It was 1926 and another marvel of science–talking pictures–was unveiled to audiences at Broadway’s Warners’ Theatre. It was here that the Warner Brothers launched their ‘Vitaphone’ talkies including The Jazz Singer, which would premiere the following year.

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Aug. 14, 1926 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

The Vitaphone soundtrack was not printed on the film itself, but rather recorded separately on phonograph record, the sound synchronized by physically coupling the record turntable to the film projection motor.

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A Vitaphone projection setup at a 1926 demonstration. Engineer E. B. Craft is holding a soundtrack disc. The turntable, on a massive tripod base, is at lower center. (University of San Diego History Department)

Don Juan was the first feature-length film to use the Vitaphone system, which was not a continuous soundtrack but rather a sprinkling of sound shorts (the musical score, performed by the New York Philharmonic, and various sound effects) throughout the film. No spoken dialogue was recorded.

First-nighters_posing_for_the_camera_outside_the_Warners'_Theater_before_the_premiere_of_%22Don_Juan%22_with_John_Barrymore,_-_NARA_-_535750
First-nighters pose outside Warners’ Theatre before the premiere of Don Juan, August 6, 1926 (US National Archives)

Produced at a cost of $789,963 (the largest budget of any Warner film up to that point), the film was critically acclaimed and a box-office success. However, and predictably, The New Yorker was not so impressed with Vitaphone…

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…or the acting of John Barrymore…

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I have to agree with the critic, identified only as O.C., after viewing this TCM clip of the film on YouTube. Lacking a voice, silent actors had to exaggerate emotions onscreen, but Barrymore here is every bit the ham. This screen grab from the clip says it all:

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The object of his gaze, Adriana della Varnese (played here by a young Mary Astor), reacts rather dramatically to his advances…can’t say I blame her…(however, the 44-year-old Barrymore and the 20-year-old Astor were having an affair at the time…)

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A couple of interesting ads in the Aug. 14, 1926 issue, including this one featuring a couple of sneaky gents who’ve found a solution to life in dry America…Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 1.11.20 PM

…and this not-too-subtle message from a swanky shop on Fifth Avenue:

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Next Time: Time for a Facelift…

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Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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