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Tuesday, January 13, 2009


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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Sunday, January 11, 2009


I can’t imagine anyone was surprised that Sir Charles Wetherell eventually started a riot. Sir Charles (above) was “…half mad, eccentric, ingenious…a coarse, vulgar mind, delighting in ribaldry and abuse …” He was also rich and a bigot. He was fired from his cabinet post in the Duke of Wellington’s government because he made a vicious anti-Catholic speech when the government was trying to de-criminalization Catholicism. And when the government moved to reform the stifling limitations on suffrage in Britain, Sir Charles opposed that, too. A colleague noted, “…no one spoke more than Sir Charles Wetherell; often to no good purpose.” Sir Robert Peel watched his performance in the House of Commons and was not impressed. “This Wetherell unbuttoned his braces (suspenders) when he began to speak, and put his hands into the waistband of his breeches…Horace Twiss said he was very mad, and had but one brief lucid interval, which was between his breeches and his waistcoat.” Sir Charles represented the tiny market town of Boroughbridge, 13 miles northwest of York. It was the very epitome of “a rotten borough”. The election districts of Parliament had not been redrawn in two hundred years, and fishing villages that had been washed out to sea, and hamlets long abandoned still had sent representatives to London. Meanwhile, newly industrialized population centers were underrepresented, like Bristol, where only 6,000 out of the 104,000 citizens could vote in 1831.
Typical of the problem, there were only 947 people in Boroughbridge and only 65 of the 154 households were recognized as “entitlements”, meaning ownership or occupancy brought with it the right to vote. Yet this village with just 65 legal voters still qualified for two representatives in Parliament, Sir Matthias Attwood, and Sir Charles Wetherell (far left on the tetter-totter above). The public was desperate for reform, and despite (or because) of Sir Charles’ opposition the Reform Bill carried the House of Commons by 345 to 239 votes. But Sir Charles was also a member of the cloustered red robed House of Lords, and was able to vote against the bill twice. He helped to kill it in “the Lords” by 41 votes and became the public face of the opposition to reform.There were riots that fall in Manchester and Birmingham, and a half dozen other towns. But things came to head on Friday, October 29th 1831, when the Courts were set to open in the west coast port city of Bristol. The Official Recorder for those courts came parading into town in a carriage pulled by four magnificent matching grey horses. He was none other than Sir Charles Wetherell, and it is hard to see how he could have chosen a worse time for a display of ostentation and pomp. Shops and markets had closed so no one would be dissuaded from joining the crowds gathering to “welcome” Sir Charles.Expecting trouble three troops of Dragoons were stationed on the outskirts of Bristol. Sir Charles’ carriage was met by 300 “marshals”, especially hired for the occasion. A crowd estimated at 2,000 people packed the route, hissing and booing as Sir Charles passed. And when the carriage crossed the bridge over the River Bath, stones were thrown.The procession reached the Guildhall at noon. There the town clerk, Mr. Ludlow, tried to make a speech praising the reform movement. But the crowded courtroom would not be placated, and the hissing drove poor Mr. Ludlow into retreat. From atop the bench Sir Charles imperiously threatened to arrest anyone interfering with the court, and the catcalling became even louder. Eventually Sir Charles had to withdraw. Once he was gone, the crowd gave three cheers for the King.A carriage took Sir Charles through the thick crowds to the Mansion-house on Queen Square, where he was to spend the night. But once he was safely inside several of the “Marshals”, so called “Bludgeon Men”, sallied into the crowd to arrest individuals they deemed troublemakers. This increased the anger of the crowd, who attacked the house and drove the mayor and the town council up the staircase to the second floor. This attack was stopped by the timely arrival of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Brereton, with a single troop of dragoons. Despite Sir Charles’ demand that the troops open fire on the crowd, Brereton spoke to them instead and they dispersed willingly. At about three o’clock Col. Brereton returned with his troopers to their barracks. He might have been more cautious had he known that while transporting their prisoners to jail, the Bludgeon Men were waylaid and the “troublemakers” were freed.The Mayor and council spent the night boarding up the broken windows and doors, but all their work was for naught. Saturday afternoon some six hundred angry men and women smashed through the front door while Sir Charles escaped out the roof, jumping into a neighboring house. He was then spirited out of town dressed as a groom. But his work in Bristol was done.
The Mansion-house was trashed and burned, and its wine cellar looted. Several other buildings surrounding Queen Square were ransacked as well. Then the New jail was attacked, followed by the Gloucester Prison. The gates were rushed, the jailers beaten, and some 200 prisoners released.
The Custom’s House, the Excise Office, and some fifty private houses and warehouses were looted and burned. But it was a very selective riot. All the lost property belonged to those who had opposed the reform bill. And no one was killed or even seriously injured by the rioters.
The city was finally 'brought under control' when reinforcements arrived Monday afternoon and the dragoons were turned loose on the crowd. Several hundred were now killed. Total damages were estimated at between four and eight hundred thousand pounds sterling.Sir Charles (above) was at first confused by what had happened. The night of his escape he confessed to an inn keeper, “I am not aware that I ever injured any individual in the city.” But by the time Parliament convened in December he was sure again.
He denounced the London press for laying for the blame for the riot on him. He also demanded that he be allowed to sit as judge of the rioters. That request was denied. However a statue of Sir Charles was erected in Queen Square, to remind the citizens who had won the battle for Bristol.In January of 1832 eighty-two people went on trial for crimes committed during the riot. Despite a petition for clemency signed by 10,000 citizens of Bristol, four men were hung over the gates of the new jail. The punishment drove the hangman to sob uncontrollably so that he almost fell off the scaffold. But the four were hung, nevertheless. A fifth man, James Ives, was judged insane and his death sentence was commuted to transportation to Australia for life. Seventy-four others were also exiled to Australia, while forty-three were sentenced to hard labor in England. Of those forty-three, one old woman, convicted of receiving silver plate looted from the Mansion-house, hung herself in prison. Col Brereton was court-martialed for refusing to fire on the crowds, and after a week of testimony at his court-martial, he shot him self in the heart. He left behind two small motherless children. His second in command was allowed to resign and sell his commission. Meanwhile, seven of those sentenced to transportation to Australia died of cholera before their ship even set sail. Another, Matthew Warry, jumped ship. While swimming to shore he was shot and killed by a sentry, as was James Ives, the man judged too insane to hang for his crimes against property. And that was the fate of the victims of Sir Charles Wetherell’s “…coarse and vulgar mind…”, all save one.No one tried to defend any of these victims. Instead the champions of reform concentrated their efforts on passing the Reform bill in 1832. One of the last to speak against the bill, again, was Sir Charles, who knew he had done much to ensure the elimination of his “rotten borough.” He concluded his remarks by saying, “This is the last dying speech and confession of the member for Boroughbridge.” And it was. When Sir Charles stood for election that fall for one of the “new” seats from Oxford University he received so few votes he withdrew his name as a candidate after the first day. He died of a “concussion of the brain” caused by a carriage accident, on Monday, August 17, 1846. He left behind no heirs. And in 1983 his statue was removed from Queens Square in Bristol, because, in the words of the City Council Engineer, “We are redesigning the garden for the 17th century period and Sir Charles will not blend in”.I would have thought the old fool matched the seventeenth century a lot better than he did his own nineteenth.
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