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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

TALKING PICTURES

I know who is going to win the Blue Ray verse Hi-Def DVD competition, and you would too if you knew who won the battle between “Vitaphone” and “Photophone”. The question in the mid-1920’s was how to make moving pictures talk. And the choice that was made had little to do with practicality or science or even business. It was rather a titanic struggle of personalities; the insight of a genius, the unlimited chutzpa of one man, the unlimited greed of another, and the gullibility of a movie sex goddess.Alexander Graham Bell (above) was a Scottish eugenics enthusiast who had already invented the telephone by converting sound waves into electrical waves using magnets. In 1880, with the help of Miss Sara Orr, his assistant, Bell stumbled upon an amazing purple-gray metal usually found in soils beneath locoweed; when hit with photons this metal, selenium, gives off electrons; the more photons the more electrons. Bell realized that by varying the amount of light striking a strip of selenium he could vary the amount of electricity flowing out of the metal. Bell figured this idea, which he called the Photophone, was going to make him even richer. It didn’t. His patents sat unused in corporate vaults for fifty long years, waiting for the application of a little chutzpa.Thirty-nine years later The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was formed as a subsidiary of General Electric with two major assets, the technical know-how of the Marconi Wireless Company, and the unlimited self confidence of a Marconi employee, David Sarnoff (above). Sarnoff was put in charge of the broadcast arm of RCA, the National Broadcasting Company. And in 1929 he engineered its take over of the Victor Talking Machine Company, because they were the world’s largest maker of phonographs.
Sarnoff figured his radio network would increase sales of his RCA Victor Records, which would increase sales of his RCA Victor Phonographs which would increase the ratings of NBC. Today this is called synergy. In 1925 Sarnoff okayed the creation of a spinoff to that technology, the RCA Photophone, which was an improvement on Bell’s patent for recording sound directly onto film. But Western Electric had already introduced a better quality sound with its Vitaphone technology. This involved recording the motion picture soundtrack onto an 11 inch wax disc, what would one day be called an LP. The turntable that held the record was driven (at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute) by the same motor that also drove the film reel (11 minutes long at 18 frames per second). If the projectionist was careful to align the film correctly in the gate and the phonograph needle correctly on the record before starting each reel of film, the picture and sound match would be seamless.
This system was used by Warner Brothers Studio to record the first huge “talkie” hit, “The Jazz Singer”, in 1927, and gave Warner and Western Electric a lead in the movie/sound business. The Western Electric system was clumsy and expensive. But the sound was of a higher quality than the RCA PhotoPhone system. To compete Sarnoff was going to have to create audience demand for his inferior alternative. And what he lacked was the audience. And that is where Joe Kennedy came in.Time Magazine insisted that Joe made his money because “…he possessed a passion for facts, a complete lack of sentiment and a marvelous sense of timing.” Baloney; Joe was greedy, he was also lucky and he was a major horn dog. Back in 1925, when Joe was still a banker, he had been hired to put together a stock offering for a group of vaudeville producers who were making silent movie shorts to show in their theatres as part of the vaudeville programs.
Joe had taken a hard look at these “pants pressers”, as he called them, and decided he could do better. He bought out his erstwhile employers and formed the Film Booking Office, which was quickly turning a tidy little profit making cheap westerns and melodramas for a string of Vaudeville houses. And when David Sarnoff came sniffing around Joe was smart enough to see the potential. Kennedy and Sarnoff agreed to a partnership, and to keep it secret for the time being.Using RCA’s money and Joe’s insider connections at FBO, they bought controlling interest in the 700 theatres of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Theatres Corporation (KAO). Edward Albee agreed to the deal only if he was allowed to stay on as President. But a month later Albee issued an order to Kennedy, who then bluntly informed him, “Didn’t you know, Ed? You’re washed up. Through.” And he was. Albee died 16 months later, just about the time Joe made the acquaintance of a four foot eleven inch movie goddess with a daddy fixation, who gave him the keys to the kingdom.Gloria Swanson once accurately observed, “All they had to do was put my name on the marquee and watch the money roll in”. By 1927, after making 57 movies, she was the highest paid star in Hollywood. She was also broke, thanks to her three husbands and her lavish life style. On the advice of her accountant she met with Joe Kennedy and he talked her into granting him power of attorney. He immediately fired her accountant and incorporated her in Delaware, as Gloria Swanson Productions, with him as president at a healthy salary. Joe was clearly now in the inside of Hollywood and a respected part of that business.
Gloria admitted to being relived that “Joe Kennedy had taken over my life.” Fairly shortly Joe also became her lover. She wrote, “He was like a roped horse, rough, ardous...”. Gloria had no idea.
On October 23, 1928, the deal with Sarnoff came out into the open with the formation of RKO Pictures, (sometimes labeled “RKO RADIO PICTURES”) which would make “nothing but talkies”. In exchanging his FBO and KAO stock for RKO stock Joe pocketed at least $2 million profit. He stayed on to manage the start up company, but he really wasn’t interested in making movies. Less than a year later, during a quiet dinner, Gloria mentioned she had overheard that Joe had given a writer a new car and charged it to her company. She thought it was just a mistake. Unexpectedly Joe exploded in anger and walked out. Gloria learned later, via a press release, that Kennedy was returning to New York and had resigned from Gloria Swanson Productions. Assembling what records that could be found, Gloria’s old accountant discovered that besides drawing a salary till the day he quit, Joe had run her company into debts of close to one million dollars (today’s equivalent would be $12 million). Gloria would later write “When I die, my epitaph should read: she paid the bills. That’s the story of my private life.”Joe’s exit left Sarnoff in sole control of RKO, but again, Sarnoff was not interested in running a studio. He was thinking bigger. By keeping down the costs of the PhotoPhone system, and by not insisting that individual theatres chose one or the other, he isolated the VitaPhone system and within a couple of years starved it for product. Soon even “The Jazz Singer” had to be re-released with an inferior RCA Photophone soundtrack, which is the scratchy horrible soundtrack you hear on prints of the film today. That meant that Sarnoff had a financial share of every film shot, not just the ones exhibited at RKO theatres, like the Roxy Theatre in Manhatten (below). And that was how the RCA PhotoPhone system beat out a superior sound system and by 1935 had come to dominate the motion picture industry, as it did until the introduction of digital sound in 1988. And sure, high speed internet connections are quickly making the DVD as obsolete as the 35mm film with analog soundtrack, but there are still fortunes to be made in DVD's before the personalities catch up to the technology, again. But the photo ops with the internet are not nearly as dramatic as the ones left behind by the old technology.(Below, Gloria Swanson emoting in the wreckage of the Roxy, New York.)

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