Friday, February 08, 2019

The Vitaphone Project

When the writing mojo has flown away with the swallows and can be found face down in a dive bar in Capistrano, at least this time we can take the 5th for gorging ourselves on film noir at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for 10 days.

Now back in New York doing post-travel R&R, this writer must, unfortunately, transition into some lousy news; the passings of prolific movie and TV actress Julie Adams, the incomparable baseball legend, Hall of Famer and fierce competitor (as player and manager) Frank Robinson, and lastly, a giant of classic film and vintage music preservation, Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project.

Over more than a quarter century of hard work, Ron's organization brought back numerous early talkies produced in the 1920's using Vitaphone's sound-on-disc system from the Land Of Lost Films to festivals, screenings and eventually DVDs. Featuring vaudeville acts and musicians of the day, they are astonishing and entertaining throwbacks to the era just before and during the onset of the Great Depression.

The Vitaphone Project's work has been covered in detail in Peter Monaghan's stellar article, A Resounding 25 Years of Restoring Early Film in Moving Image Archive News.

Among the tributes: from the Silentology website by Lea Stans, In Memory Of Ron Hutchinson; from Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy website, Farewell To Vitaphone Champion Ron Hutchinson, One Of The Good Guys.

Mr. Maltin elaborates:

"An avid collector of 78rpm records, he came upon a number of rare 16 –inch discs that provided soundtracks for some of the first sound movies ever made. The majority of them were Vitaphone short subjects featuring Broadway and vaudeville stars, and hadn’t been seen since they were made in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Several archives had the equally-rare 35mm film negatives for these shorts but were missing the audio to go with them.

With no professional experience in this arena, Ron played matchmaker for major institutions like the Library of Congress and UCLA Film and Television Archive and got them to cooperate in order to make the films whole again. Before Warner Bros. made a major (and welcome) commitment to its vintage talkies, he raised private funds from individuals who wanted to see these tantalizing shorts. He organized Vitaphone programs around the world and even tracked down relatives of old-time vaudevillians to give them the thrill of seeing their parents and grandparents in action. Over the course of time, news of his work yielded more “finds” and helped put feature films as well as shorts back into circulation."

I did not know Ron, but did see his epic Vitaphone Vaudeville: 1926-1929 program, presented in 2007 by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival; enjoyed the Vitaphone Varieties on the big screen immensely.

Mr. Hutchinson, quite the aficionado of 1920's and 1930's music, started collecting the shellac discs from the Vitaphone films and formed The Vitaphone Project in 1991 to reunite the original soundtracks with the films they played with back in 1926-1929.

After making alliances with Warner Brothers and film archives (Library of Congress, George Eastman House, UCLA Film & Television Archive), The Vitaphone Project scoured the world for both discs and the pictorial content that went with them, Vitaphone Varieties were restored and remastered, with sound now on 35mm film.

Vitaphone's technology was not the first to combine sound with picture - there were experiments going back to the beginnings of movies, including the Dickson Experimental Sound Film of 1894, the work of filmmaking pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché using Léon Gaumont's Chronophone sound system, Edison's Kinetophone, as well as the Lee DeForest Phonofilms (in limited distribution) of just a few years prior to the Vitaphones in 1923 - but, with the 1926 releases of features with a synchronized musical track and sound effects (Don Juan, The Better 'Ole ) and Vitaphone Varieties, including Al Jolson's first appearance in A Plantation Act, Warner Brothers/Vitaphone, at least briefly, established an advantage over Fox as the major studio leading the transition from silents to talkies.

Two technologies - sound on disc and sound on film - were battling it out in 1926-1927; Bell Labs and Western Electric were developing both. Using Vitaphone's sound-on-disc process, the 1-reel Vitaphone Varieties played with Vitaphone silents in 1926 and were an immediate hit with moviegoers. Producer-mogul William Fox, eager to market the competing Movietone sound-on-film technology as the alternative to Vitaphone's system, was making newsreels, short subjects and comedies as early as 1927.

These included the Fox answer to the Vitaphone Varieties, the Movietone Musicals series, featuring the likes of Beatrice Lillie, Ruby Keeler and Winnie Lightner (who also starred in Vitaphone Varieties). While commercial 78's of songs from Fox Movietone Musicals exist, no 35mm film elements from the 1927-1928 titles do. Presumably, all were destroyed in the infamous vault fire at the 20th Century Fox film storage facility in Little Ferry, New Jersey on July 9, 1937.

Today's post pays tribute to The Vitaphone Project by posting key examples of films the organization rescued and restored. The duo of Witt & Berg were among the first acts featured, appearing in a 1926 short subject promoting the series and the Vitaphone sound-on-disc technology.

While the time capsule quality and lunacy of the 1920's Broadway, music and comedy acts starring in these long lost 1-reelers can utterly defy description, the following TCM Film Comment piece by Imogen Sara Smith on the Vitaphone Varieties does a fine job describing both the technology behind and content in the series. And now, enjoy just a few Vitaphone Varieties!

Among the many performers seen in the Vitaphone Varieties, before success in radio, feature films and television: comedy and show business legends George Burns & Gracie Allen.

Burns & Allen started their long career onscreen in Lamb Chops, Vitaphone Varieties #891, released October 14, 1929. George & Gracie were already charmers!

There were also performers who, like wisecracking comedian Bobby Clark, in some respects were too larger than life for movies, but spectacular onstage - such as vaudeville star and stage actress Trixie Friganza.

Sometimes these 1920's short subjects provide a glimpse of a performer known for a much later film. While musical comedy star Jack Buchanan did appear in the Jeannette McDonald musical Monte Carlo, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, his claim to fame in movies was a memorable and hilarious supporting role in the classic MGM musical The Band Wagon, directed stylishly by Vincente Minnelli and starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.

Not only did The Vitaphone Project's work succeed in bringing back dozens of Vitaphone Varieties from lost status and The Twilight Zone, it enabled a restored version of Why Be Good, the last silent movie starring winsome "flapper" comedienne Colleen Moore, to be re-released with the original music and sound effects. Warner Brothers' Ned Price restored the film using a soundtrack disc discovered by The Vitaphone Project, and - voila - Why Be Good had its first public screening with the original soundtrack in 85 years.

After many decades thought to be lost forever, the 1-reelers are now available on a slew of different DVD sets from Warner Archive, including Vitaphone Varieties 1926-1930, Vitaphone Varieties volume 2 and Vitaphone Varieties volume 3.

A few Vitaphone Varieties are on the Vitaphone Cavalcade of Musical Comedy 6-DVD set.

Many more can be found on The Jazz Singer (1927) 3-DVD set, which features, as extras, lots of Vitaphone Varieties.

Unlike a Buster Keaton flick from the same era, which has a timeless appeal, both The Jazz Singer and the Vitaphone Varieties, many featuring current vaudeville acts, are very much of their time. The phrase "put on your 1926 glasses" comes to mind.

We suggest approaching 21st century reviews of these DVDs and Blu-rays with more than a few grains of salt. Frequently, reviewers evaluate 1920's filmed vaudeville from current mores and entirely forget that these films were made almost 100 years ago, that World War I and the passings of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had only transpired a few years earlier.

Ron Hutchinson expounds on the work of The Vitaphone Project in the following presentation. Some films seen in Ron's lecture (Burns & Allen in Lamb Chops) have been featured in today's blog post. Others, notably the wonderful Sharps And Flats (starting at 57:18), starring the zany vaudeville husband-and-wife comedy team of Conlin & Glass - yep, the same Jimmy Conlin from Preston Sturges' stock company - have not been.

Thanks, Ron and the superb historians of The Vitaphone Project (Vince Giordano, John Newton, Sherwin Dunner and the late David Goldenberg) for all the hard work involved in making these historic films available for viewing! For more Vitaphone soundtrack discs and Vitaphone Varieties, by all means check out the following extensive VITAPHONE playlist on YouTube, as well as a complete Vitaphone Varieties series list from Wikipedia and the aforementioned Peter Monaghan article about The Vitaphone Project in Moving Image Archive News.

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