The Warner Brothers Make Noise

(The Jazz Singer)
By Stephen Schochet 

2004 by Hollywood Stories. 
All rights reserved

Hollywood was an attractive place for the early filmmakers to settle, full of good weather, orange and lemon trees. It was especially attractive for producers who owed money on borrowed camera equipment; if a creditor came after them, they could hide among the trees. 

Making films was a hard business, full of casualties and it took a pirate's mentality just to survive. Most of the studio heads were from poor backgrounds, with limited English skills and they never forgot their childhood, or a personal slight either. 

That included Jack, Harry, Albert and Sam, the four Warner Brothers from Youngstown, Ohio. They had gotten started in show business by showing movies off the side of a tent in Youngstown.  Times were so tough the brothers had to borrow all their chairs from the local undertaker. Consequently, every time there was a funeral in Youngstown, they had to give all the chairs back and the film patrons were forced to stand. 

As a boy Jack Warner wished to become a singer and a comedian. Unfortunately his brothers recognized his lack of talent and instructed him to sing in the tent, but only when they wanted the audience to leave. 

Jack was later advised that the money was not in the performing anyway; it was in paying the performers. Among the early stars that would be under contract to him would be 

  • Betty Davis
  • James Cagney
  • Humphrey Bogart 
  • and Errol Flynn. 
  • Rin Tin Tin

Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd that -- according to his publicity anyway -- was born in a foxhole in World War I.  He was the company's biggest star. Heroic as he might have been on the screen, he proved to be, like many stars, cantankerous in person. 

The last straw came when Jack Warner took the dog on a publicity tour. As he introduced him to the crowd, his ungrateful employee bit him on the behind.  That led to the dog's dismissal. It proved to be only a prelude to Warner's many future battles with stars. 

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  Silent Film Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford rarely ever had a flop as their films were shown around the world because the silent films knew no language barriers. 

The silent days were a struggle for Warner Bros. 

Trying to make a name for themselves, the four brothers got great publicity by announcing that the renowned opera tenor Caruso would be arriving from Italy to make a film for them. They paid him 25,000 dollars -- and then put him in a silent movie. 

They didn't have to do that because even then the movie studios already had the technology to make talking films. One of the reasons why the studios resisted the idea was that they didn't want to risk losing their overseas market. 

Then in 1926 the silent films faced their biggest competition from a new device called the radio which brought entertainment right into the home. As movie attendance dwindled the studio heads shut their eyes and pretended the competition of radio was not there. 

But the Warners -- lead by the ambitious brother Sam -- decided to push the envelope and try to save their sinking studio by experimenting with movie sound.  He purchased an experimental sound system called Vita-phone. 

They then acquired the rights to "The Jazz Singer".  This was a popular play about a young man who had a beautiful voice and is offered a Broadway career.  In the play the son gave in to his Old World Jewish father.  But the Warner brothers, wishing to reach a wider audience, Americanized the story by having the son follow his own dreams. The star Al Jolson adlibbed the dialogue, "Wait a minute, wait a minute you ain't heard nothing, yet!"  The Warners were only intending singing but at the last minute they impulsively kept the line in the film. 

The Jazz Singer received a standing ovation when it premiered in New York in 1927 and went on to make three and half million dollars at a time when movie admission cost 20 cents. The sound revolution was under way! 

" How boring!" said Mary Pickford. "At first we moved! Now everyone is standing around talking!"  But the change swept on irresistibly.  Nervous Silent Film Stars soon began consulting astrologists and tarot card readers to foretell their futures. 

Many changes had to be made in the industry with the advent of sound.  Before the revolution movie audiences had often been loud and noisy while watching silent films. Now the theaters got quiet as people strained to hear every word. 

Movie theaters had to be rewired for sound, costing major studios, like Paramount and Fox, millions of dollars. On top of that, movies now had to be filmed mostly at night because any passing truck noise could ruin a sound recording. 

In fact, microphones were so sensitive that even the sound of a few crickets could stop production of a whole set.  

This was discovered when one enterprising actor was hired for just one day's work.  When the director wasn't looking the new employee let a bunch of crickets loose on the set. It was five days before the crew could round up the chirping crickets, and the actor had to be kept on hold all that time.  Consequently, he received five times the paycheck the studio had expected to provide him. 

=====================

Want to hear more stories? Stephen Schochet is the author and narrator of the audiobooks "Fascinating Walt Disney" and "Tales Of Hollywood". The Saint Louis Post Dispatch says," these two elaborate productions are exceptionally entertaining." Hear RealAudio samples at http://www.hollywoodstories.com  

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