The Warner Brothers Make Noise

by : Stephen Schochet

Hollywood was an attractive place for the early filmmakers to settle, full of good weather, orange and lemon trees. For producers who owed money on borrowed camera equipment if a creditor came after them, they could hide among the trees. It was a hard business full of causalities and took a pirate's mentality to survive. Most of the studio heads were from poor backgrounds, with limited English skills and never forgot their childhood or a personal slight. Included were Jack, Harry, Albert and Sam, the four Warner Brothers from Youngstown, Ohio. They had begun with showing movies off the side of a tent in Youngstown, borrowing all the chairs from the local undertaker. 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 be a singer and a comedian. His brothers, recognizing his lack of talent instructed him to sing in the tent when they wanted the audience to leave. He was later advised that the money was not in performing, it was in paying performers. Among the stars that would be under contract to him would be Betty Davis, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn.

The silent days were a struggle for Warner Bros. Rin Tin Tin, a German shepherd that according to his publicity was born in a foxhole in World War I, was their biggest star. Heroic as he might have been on the screen, he proved to be, like many stars, cantankerous in person. Jack Warner took the dog on a publicity tour. As he introduced him to the crowd, his ungrateful employee bit him on the behind, leading to the dog's dismissal. It proved to be a prelude to Warner's many future battles with stars.

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.

The movie studios had the technology to make talking films years before they made them. One of the reasons why they resisted the idea was that they didn't want to risk losing their overseas market. Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford rarely ever had a flop as their films were shown around the world and knew no language barriers. But in 1926 the silent films faced their biggest competition with a new device called the radio. As movie attendance dwindled the studio heads shut their eyes and pretended the radio was not there. But the Warners lead by the ambitious Sam, decided to push the envelope and try to save their sinking studio by experimenting with movie sound.

Sam purchased an experimental sound system called Vita-phone. They then acquired the rights to The Jazz Singer, a popular play about a young man who had a beautiful voice and is offered a Broadway career against the wishes of his Old World Jewish father. In the play the son gave in to his father but the Warner's, wishing to reach a wider audience, Americanized the story by having the son follow his own dreams. Star Al Jolson adlibbed the dialogue,' Wait a minute, wait a minute you ain't heard nothing, yet!' The Warner's 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 admission costs 20 cents. The sound revolution was under way!

Movie audiences had often been loud and noisy while watching silent films. Now the theater's got quiet as people strained to hear every word. Movie Theater's had to be rewired for sound, costing major studios like Paramount and Fox millions of dollars. Movies now had to film mostly at night as any passing truck noise could ruin a sound recording. ' How boring!' said Mary Pickford. 'At first we moved! Now everyone is standing around talking!' One enterprising actor was hired for one day's work. When the director wasn't looking he 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 kept on hold received five times the paycheck.