Moving Pictures That Talk - Part
...their own eyes and ears.
by Mark Ulano, C.A.S.In my last article we journeyed through turn-of-the-century France and the flurry of attempts there to birth the sound film into existence. These collective efforts set the stage for the next important period of fertile activity in the development of the art of film sound: 1907-1913.
The film industry was quickly evolving as a business. It had already come a long way from mere novelty and was truly becoming a storytelling medium; storytelling, without a voice. The desire to link sound and picture was never far from the surface. Like the Holy Grail, men kept trying to findthe way. Their attempts seemed to rally in waves, always driven by the absolute confidence of its practitioners that the public would immediately embrace the talking film. This conviction would eventually prove true; however, the technology, as yet, was too immature to win over theintuitive demands placed upon it by audiences indoctrinated into the realism of their own eyes and ears.
"The greatest improvement in the moving-picture business. If you believe I am a good prophet, order a Synchroscope now, for I tell you that talking pictures are the coming craze in all America." 2
Carl Laemmle 1908Carl Laemmle imported Jules Greenbaum's Synchroscope from Germany in the summer of 1909 and British film pioneer, Cecil Hepworth brought out his Vivaphone in 1911. In fact, no fewer than a dozen other manufacturers tried to market competing systems during this period.3 Names like Cinematophone (1907), L.P. Valiquet's Photophone (1908), Animatophone (1910) and Orlando Kellum's Photokinema filled the trade journals with claims of perfection in the art of talking pictures.
Of all the systems brought into the market between 1907 and1913, the biggest commercial effects (preceding the Edison system of 1913) were made by the Chronophonograph, the Cameraphone and the Cinephone.
The ChronophonographThe level of sophistication achieved by these pioneers was startling. The following description by inventor Léon Gaumont of the Chronophonograph of 1902 clearly illustrates this capability.
"Several methods of connecting the apparatus were patented by our organization. One uses two small shunt dc motors of almost the same power and supplied by the same current source. The armatures of these motors contained the same number of sections, and each section of one armature was connected with a corresponding section of the other armature and in the same order. Consequently the first armature turned at the same angular displacement as the second. The first armature controlled the phonograph and the second the projector. Synchronization was obtained by adjusting the speed of unwinding of the motion picture film to the speed of the disk recording...Synchronization of sound and image was perfect, provided the simple precaution was taken of placing the first image in the projector picture gate and at the same time the needle at the extreme start of the disk."4
Since 1902, Léon Gaumont had been demonstrating promising prototypes in France. He showed himself to be one of the individuals most committed to the idea that talking films would succeed. His persistent efforts to profit from popular, sound film entertainment culminated in the commercialpremiere of the Chronophonograph in 1907 at the London Hippodrome.5 The Motion Picture Patents Company, with its vise-grip monopoly on the American film industry, took the Chronophonograph seriously enough to license it exclusively for the United States. Within a year, Gaumont was supplying film shorts containing opera, monologues and dramatic scenes. Despite all this positive activity, the Chronophonograph soon faded away. It suffered from the same problems that would eventually doom all the endeavors of this period. They were too expensive for the exhibitors to install compared to their return, and they had inadequate amplification with less than trustworthy synchronization.
Léon Gaumont was determined to succeed. He worked hard to further optimize synchronization. He also developed the Elgephone. This was a mechanicalamplifier using compressed air based on Parson's Auxetaphone. By 1913 he took another swing at the American market. Gaumont promised major improvements in both sync and volume, but his credibility was damaged. His prior efforts had not lived up to the expectations of his commercial supporters. Furthermore, the general attitude of the industry was turning completely against the idea of sound films. There wasmounting evidence that the whole idea was a financial black hole for anyone who became involved with it.6 Thomas Edison would soon cause this industry attitude to be set in concrete. He would also fail. After all, if "The Wizard" was unable to succeed with sync sound, wasn't it time for the film business to bow to the superior forces of nature and give up on talking pictures? Maybe.
Norton, Whitman and Fitch: The CameraphoneAnother major player in this game was E.E. Norton. He was formerly the mechanical engineer for the American Graphophone Company (known to us by the name of Columbia Phonograph Company, a venerable firm currently owned by the Sony Corporation). Norton invented the Cameraphone, and with James A. Whitman and attorney Francis Fitch founded the Cameraphone Company. They began leasing equipment to exhibitors by the Summer of 1908.7
This appears to describe a live sync sound technology. However, legal documents from the Edison archive have been recently uncovered by researcher Doug DeFeis. They cite Edison's industrial spy, Frank Mackey who has left behind a more technically descriptive testimony:
"...when he saw the actors, they were on stage being filmed while pantomiming their scene in silence. This is significant because it proves that the sequences were filmed first and the recording artists 'dubbed' their voices to the images on the screen. This would later change as Cameraphone's general manager, Carl Herbert, admitted that this method had been a waste of time and money, as far better results were obtained by filming the players lip-synching to the previously recorded cylinder."10
One of the more interesting aspects of the Cameraphone technology was the method of amplification. In 1904, Daniel Higham reduced to practice his invention of the mechanical friction amplifier. Known as the Higham-A-Phone reproducer (pronounced hi-am), his design utilized a rosin wheel and friction shoe with a tensile link to the reproducing diaphragm resulting in very loud mechanical amplification. Columbia immediately snapped up Higham's design in 1904. Columbia used this amplifier in their top-of-the-line Twentieth Century Graphophone that was produced from 1905 till 1908. Cameraphone's Norton, because of his Columbia connection, was intimately knowledgeable with this design and naturally applied it tomotion picture sound reproduction. Mr. DeFeis uncovered a full page advertisement from the Columbia house organ, The Columbia Record, May of 1908. The ad proclaims, "..Columbia Graphophone has been put to a unique and truly wonderful use by the Cameraphone Company...". Ironically, Daniel Higham would be working for Thomas A. Edison on his sync sound system before the end of 1908.
Edison's industrial spies infiltrated the Cameraphone Company's studio looking for any way to stop their productions. They found what they needed, a patent infringing use of a Pathé-Frères camera (Pathé-Frères being a member of the patent trust). But as Edison's people prepared suit, The Cameraphone Company changed names and reincorporated in Arizona, temporarily stalling the Edison action.11 Cameraphone's problems were not just technical or legal. The performers themselves were a major obstacle. Carl Herbert, General Manager, wrote in 1909:
"Most prominent vaudeville actors and actresses make poor records, especially talking acts. So true is this that of a score of high salaried 'headliners' so employed, barely two or three have proved more than provoking disappointments."12
The CinephoneWill Barker's Cinephone was first brought here from England in March of 1909.13 It was one of the simplest and cheapest systemsavailable. It too was a lip-sync playback mechanism. There was no link between the sound and picture equipment. Barker placed the playback gramophone in the corner of the shot with a speed indicator clearly in view while the players mouthed to the playing record. Later, when the film was shown to an audience, an identical gramophone, also with an indicator, was placed on the stage. The projectionist had a control dial for the gramophone and all he had to do was ride herd on matching the two indicators. With the aid of a quick starting double spring projector, he could have the show in sync during the head leader and before the first image. The wholething depended on the projectionist's skill. Cinephone's other asset was a corporate tie-in with the Victor Talking Machine Company (RCA's corporate ancestor), thus affording access to all of Victor's exclusive performing talent, the best in the world. Again it was not enough and Cinephone was out of business by 1911.14
Two Steps Forward and One Step behindAs foreboding as all this failed effort might have been, it did not dissuade the "Mighty Casey" from stepping up to the plate in the person of Thomas Alva Edison with his speaking Kinetophone. Next time wewill witness the power and the glory striking out in Mudville. But oh what a glorious failure it was. The Wizard of Menlo Park was not alone. With him were a colorful cast of characters like Amet, Higham and others. As they all struggled with the obvious and known technologies, the dark horse of Lauste's optical sound-on-film was taking shape in the primordial soup.
4. Gaumont Chrnochrome Process Described by the Inventor by Léon Gaumont, Journal of the SMPTE, January 1959 Vol. 68 - Reprinted in A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television, Compiled by Raymond Fielding, University of California Press, 1967, pp. 65
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