NMSAT :: Networked Music & SoundArt Timeline

1923 __ Phonofilms
Lee de Forest (1873-1961)
Comment : The Rivoli Theater in New York exhibited on April 15, 1923, one of the first programs of de Forest short Phonofilms. It featured vaudeville stars Weber & Fields, Sissle & Blake, Phil Baker, Eddie Cantor, Eva Puck & Sammy White, Conchita Piquir. The next year de Forest made a 2-reel sound comedy, "Love's Old Sweet Song", with 17-year-old actress Una Merkel. But studios resisted spending millions to equip theaters with sound equipment. (Steven E. Schoenherr, "Motion Picture Sound 1910-1929", 1999)In 1919, Lee De Forest, inventor of the audion tube, filed his first patent on a sound-on-film process, DeForest Phonofilm, which recorded sound directly onto film as parallel lines. These parallel lines photographically recorded electrical waveforms from a microphone, which were translated back into sound waves when the movie was projected. Some sources say that DeForest improved on the work of Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt -- who was granted German patent 309.536 on 28 July 1914 for his sound-on-film work -- and on the Tri-Ergon process, patented in 1919 by German inventors Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massole. The Phonofilm system, which recorded synchronized sound directly onto film, was used to record vaudeville acts, musical numbers, political speeches, and opera singers. The quality of Phonofilm was poor at first, improved somewhat in later years, but was never able to match the fidelity of sound-on-disc systems such as Vitaphone, or later sound-on-film systems such as RCA Photophone or Fox Movietone. The films DeForest made were short films made primarily as demonstration films to try to interest major studios in Phonofilm. These films are particularly valuable to entertainment historians, as they include recordings of a wide variety of both well-known and less famous American vaudeville and British music hall acts which would otherwise have been forgotten. Some of the films, such as Flying Jenny Airplane, Barking Dog, and a film of DeForest himself explaining the Phonofilm system (all 1921) were experimental films to test the system. Some of the people filmed included vaudevillians Joe Weber and Lew Fields, Eva Puck and Sammy White, Eddie Cantor, Ben Bernie, Oscar Levant, Phil Baker, Roy Smeck, jazz musicians Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, "all-girl" bandleader Helen Lewis, harmonicist Borrah Minnevitch, Nikita Balieff's company Chauve-Souris, opera singers Eva Leoni, Abbie Mitchell, and Marie Rappold, Broadway stars Helen Menken and Fannie Ward, folklorist Charles Ross Taggart, flamenco dancer Concha Piquer, and politicians Calvin Coolidge, Robert La Follette, Al Smith, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Smith and Roosevelt were filmed during the 1924 Democratic National Convention, held June 24 to July 9 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Coolidge became the first U. S. President to appear in a sound motion picture when DeForest filmed him at the White House on 11 August 1924. In November 1922, De Forest founded the De Forest Phonofilm Corporation with studios at 314 East 48th Street in New York City, but was unable to interest any of the major Hollywood movie studios in his invention. On 15 April 1923, DeForest premiered 18 short films made in Phonofilm -- presenting vaudeville acts, musical performers, opera, and ballet -- at the Rivoli Theater in New York City. The printed program for this presentation gave credit to the "DeForest-Case Patents". However, according to a letter written to DeForest immediately after the event by Theodore Case, no credit was given to Case during DeForest's presentation. Case also states in the letter how displeased he is with DeForest crediting the "DeForest-Case Patents", as Phonofilm's success was fully due to the work of Case and his Case Research Lab. DeForest was forced to show these films in independent theaters such as the Rivoli, since Hollywood movie studios controlled all major U.S. movie theater chains at the time. De Forest's decision to film primarily short films (one reel), not feature films, due to lack of Hollywood investment, limited the appeal of his process. All or part of the Paramount Pictures features “Bella Donna” (premiered 1 April 1923), “The Covered Wagon” (premiered 16 March 1923, and directed by James Cruze, based on a novel by Emerson Hough about a group of pioneers traveling through the old West from Kansas to Oregon. J. Warren Kerrigan starred as Will Banion and Lois Wilson as Molly Wingate), “A Musical Monologue” (premiered 15 April 1923, composer and songwriter Phil Baker sings and plays the accordion in this short film directed by Lee de Forest), “A Boston Star : Borrah Minevitch” (Borrah Minevitch, billed as the World's Champion Harmonicist, performs in this short film), etc. were reportedly filmed with Phonofilm as an experiment, but, if so, were only shown this way at the premiere engagements, also at the Rivoli Theater in New York City. One of the few two-reel films made by DeForest in the Phonofilm process was ”Love's Old Sweet Song” (1923, directed by J. Searle Dawley), starring the 17-year-old Una Merkel. DeForest kept to one-reel films because he was unable to solve the problem of reel changes -- and the disruption in sound which would occur -- when a projectionist in a movie theater changed reels. (Compiled from various sources)
Urls : http://www.cahabahometheater.com/documents/information/motionpicturesound.pdf (last visited ) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonofilm (last visited )

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