Before anyone had made a single film, Thomas Edison (1847–1931) decreed in 1888 that the phonograph and the motion picture would come together. Early attempts, such as Cameraphone (c. 1908–1909) and Britain's Cinephone (c. 1910–1913), recorded voice in playback to the image. Edison's own Kinetophone in 1913 applied mechanical amplification to a recording horn to place it out of camera range. This enabled sound (recorded on a phonograph) and picture to be recorded at the same time, but sync was dependent upon the operator's ability to advance or retard the picture, and the sound was described as "screeching."
As phonograph-based systems came and went, the possibility that sound waves might be photographed alongside the images, always in "sync," gained strength in the laboratory. Sound would have to be converted to electricity and electricity converted to light, modulated as it struck the photosensitive emulsion. The prior discovery that the electrical resistance of selenium varied in proportion to light shone on it suggested that audio information on film could be recovered with a light beam and photoelectric cell. Eugène Lauste (1856–1935) in 1910 combined sound and picture on the same strip of film but lacked the resources to commercialize his inventions.
The person most responsible for sound-on-film was the independent inventor Theodore Case (1889–1944). Joined by Earl Sponable (1895–1977) in 1916, he worked with combinations of rare earths and inert gases to produce a glow tube called the Aeo Light. Light impulses were concentrated through a slit onto film and registered as lines of black or gray. Case's system was exploited by audio pioneer Lee de Forest under the name Phonofilm in 1923. Phonofilm shorts, produced mainly in 1923 and 1924, included big-name vaudeville acts and Max Fleischer's (1883–1972) musical cartoons. Phonofilm, which solved problems of sync and employed electronic amplification, seemed to have everything going for it. Against it were lack of interest from the industry, visual dullness, less than perfect reproduction, and de Forest's legal and financial difficulties.
Western Electric, a subsidiary of AT&T, acquired rights in 1912 to de Forest's "Audion," a three-element vacuum tube in which a smaller current regulated a larger current, the basis of electronic amplification. A vacuum tube of its own design went into the amplifiers that made possible coast-to-coast telephone transmission in 1915. As part of a general expansion of non-telephone uses of audio in 1916, Western Electric began work on a condenser microphone with a vacuum tube preamplifier, a crucial advance in sound collection, then limited to acoustic horns or the carbon button telephone mouthpiece. In 1919 a project was initiated for a new type of phonograph turntable and tone arm with implications for sound pictures. The disc had to have a playing time equal to the then-standard 1,000-foot film reel. Silent film nominally operated at sixteen frames per second, but cameras were hand cranked at rates up to twenty-one frames per second and were sped up in projection. Western Electric used tachometers to determine that the average actual projection speed was ninety feet per minute, or twenty-four frames per second. A 1,000-foot reel lasted eleven minutes. A sixteen-inch disc, rotating at 33 1/3 rpm, matched it. Sync was perfected in test films made during 1923. A sound film was produced in 1924. The multiple defects of previous systems demonstrated that in order to solve any of the problems, it was necessary to solve all of them. As the largest corporation in the world, AT&T had there sources to develop a complete package: condenser microphone; microphone mixer; disc recorder; amplifiers for recording and playback; turntable synchronized to the projector by reliable electronic and mechanical connections; and a horn-type speaker.
Western Electric offered its sound-on-disc system to an indifferent film industry. Warner Bros., then a second-tier company that looked to expand, needed a competitive edge. One way to gain bookings would be to provide small-city theaters with the kind of symphonic score available at deluxe movie palaces, where the feature was preceded by songs, organ solos, even ballet. If Warner's could provide these "canned," it might even gain access to the theaters of its competitors, who were burdened by the overhead of live performance. Agreement was reached in June 1925 to develop what Warner's named Vitaphone. Its intent was not to produce talking features. What it had in mind was best exemplified by the Vitaphone premiere program of 6 August 1926. A spoken introduction by movie "czar" Will H. Hays was followed by an overture and six shorts, three with Metropolitan Opera stars. The feature picture, Don Juan (1926), was accompanied by a recorded score punctuated by rudimentary sound effects.
Case and Sponable severed ties with de Forest and made improvements intended to render Phonofilm obsolete. The sound attachment, formerly above the projector, was moved below with sound pickup twenty frames ahead of the corresponding picture, the subsequent worldwide standard. Fox Film, another second-tier company that looked to move into the top rank, formed the Fox-Case Corporation in July 1926. Western Electric's "sound speed" of ninety feet per minute was adopted for its first commercial entertainment short, starring singer Raquel Meller (1888–1962) and produced in November 1926. Public showings of Movietone, as the Fox-Case system came to be called, began in 1927.
Western Electric offered Warner Bros. the choice between sound-on-disc and a developmental sound-on-film system that the former rated as comparable (but which Case judged inferior to Movietone). The appeal of sound-on-disc was familiar technology. The discs were pressed by Victor, the leading record label. Movietone required precise exposure, processing, and printing. Vitaphone's turntable ran at constant speed while the Case reproducer had "wow" and "flutter." Sound-on-film had better frequency response but also more noise due to grain in the emulsion. Records could arrive at the theater cracked or broken, they wore out after twenty playings, and the operator might put on the wrong disc. If the film broke, damaged frames had to be replaced by black leader to restore sync. Sound-on-film was easily spliced, but words were lost and a jump in the image was followed by a delayed thump from the track. Western Electric manufactured equipment for both systems and all its sound-on-film installations could also play disc.
Throughout 1927, audiences were exposed to musical and comedy shorts and symphonic scores for the occasional feature. In May they were thrilled by the sound of the engine of the Spirit of St. Louis as Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974) took off for Paris, then by the voice of Lindbergh himself upon his return, a foretaste of the regular issuance of Movietone newsreels beginning in October. Then came The Jazz Singer on 6 October 1927 at Warner's Theatre in New York. It was not the first sound film. It was not even Al Jolson's first appearance for Vitaphone; he uttered his newly prophetic catch phrase, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!" in the 1926 short, A Plantation Act . But it was the first feature with synchronized song and speech. For most of its eighty-eight minutes, it was a silent film with a "canned" orchestral score formed of the usual classical excerpts. In the role of a Jew torn between show business and the religious vocation of his father, a famous cantor, Jolson delivered dynamic performances of five popular songs in four sequences that totaled about thirteen minutes and, by contrast, "Kol Nidre," a prayer. The greatest impact came as Jolson, after singing a "straight" version of "Blue Skies" to his mother, engaged in partly scripted, partly improvised patter, followed by a "jazzy" version. A single word—"stop"—uttered by the actor who played his father marked the first time speech affected a film's story line.
Singin' in the Rain (1952) portrays the coming of sound with the force of cliché. The head of Monumental Pictures, fresh from The Jazz Singer , strides onto a set, halts production, and announces to the bewildered cast and crew that the company will henceforth make only talking pictures. In reality, Paramount head Adolph Zukor (1873–1976) predicted that it would take five years for sound to prove itself. The major companies adopted a public stance of "wait-and-see" and a private one of resistance. The "Big Five," dominated by Paramount and Loew's/MGM, had agreed to hold off until they could unite on one system. Vitaphone, an early contender, faded when Western Electric announced an improved light valve. Whereas Movietone used variable light through a fixed slit, the light valve used constant light through a variable slit, formed by vibrating wire "strings." Both produced a "variable density" track. The other candidate, RCA's Photophone, used a rotating mirror to modulate the light beam. This produced a sawtooth or "variable area" track, part of which was cut off on Western Electric equipment until they were made compatible.
Warners had no plans for another talking feature and kept to its original idea of short subjects and "canned" music even as attendance at The Jazz Singer swelled. In February 1928 Warners started work on a short that was allowed to grow into the first "all-talking" picture: Lights of New York , released in July. With The Jazz Singer held over for an unprecedented eighth or ninth week in cities around the nation in March 1928, the other companies settled on Western Electric's system. Loew's/MGM, Paramount, United Artists, and First National all signed on 15 May, followed by Universal and Columbia a month later. The disc system was already seen as awkward for production, though it survived as a release format for disc-only theaters into the 1930s. RCA had to go into the movie business itself as RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum)
Although it was claimed then that audiences preferred a good silent film to mediocre "talkers," Lights of New York (made for $23,000 and barely an hour long) took in $1 million. Jolson's second feature, The Singing Fool , released in September 1928, had more sound than his first (about 75 of 105 minutes), played in more theaters, and made more money: an amazing $5 million against The Jazz Singer 's $2 million. These and other successes lifted Warner Bros. into first place in the industry.
For the moviegoer, change unfolded in stages. All but a few 1928 releases were still mute. In the second half of the year, many were "synchronized" with music tracks and sound effects. Sound sequences were added to some films already in production or even completed. The first half of 1929 was the heyday of the "part-talking" picture, with synchronous sound in perhaps 40 percent of the running time. Fox's decision to eliminate silent films seemed bold in March 1929. In May, Paramount's Zukor declared the silent film dead. By mid-1929, the "all-talking" picture had taken hold. Out of 582 films released in 1929, some 335 were "all-talking." About half of those were also released in silent versions.
Most countries had not yet made even one sound feature. Western Electric and RCA established themselves in Britain at the outset. They were met in Europe by Tobis-Klangfilm, a combine that, like RCA/RKO, was set up to produce films and supply equipment. Tobis held patents issued from 1919 to 1923 on the German Tri-Ergon sound-on-film system for which prior invention was claimed. An agreement of June 1930 smoothed the way for US films in Europe but squabbles over patents and royalties went on for years.