HENRY BLANKE (producer): Western Electric [developers of sound] went to everybody in the business before the Warner brothers were offered it. All the big studios at this time turned it down. Western Electric finally came down to the small Warner Bros. studio. There were three brothers: Harry, the financier; Sam, who was interested in sound; and Jack Warner, who did the silent pictures. Harry was invited to come to the Western Electric studios, and he went there and there were speakers, and he heard music. Western Electric always had the idea of using sound for talking, which Harry Warner never thought much about. His idea was not to record voices but to use music for accompaniment. He says, “I can give every little town in America a hundred-and-ten-piece orchestra, the same as New York has at the Roxy” with this system. And that’s how they began. Harry had the idea of starting out by giving every little theater a big orchestral sound … and Sam perfected it.

HAL MOHR (cinematographer): Vitaphone—sound at Warner Bros.—was created by Sam Warner. He didn’t invent it, but he was instrumental in the introduction of it as a kind of novelty thing. They started making short films of people singing or a band playing or dancers dancing to music or little comedy skits. It was a novelty for the theaters.

HENRY BLANKE: Warners put sound on discs. And that’s how they did Don Juan with John Barrymore, which had a complete score … and then the shorts, the Vitaphone short subjects with [Giovanni] Martinelli singing or Al Jolson singing or Edgar Bergen and his dummy. That’s how it started, with all those shorts, which were the real first “talking pictures.” Sound on disc. Sam comes to me, and he says, “Henry, come and join me.” And I went to Jack Warner, and I say, “Sam wants me.” Jack says, “That sound thing will be dead in two weeks.” So you see, even the pioneers of sound weren’t all that convinced, but Sam believed, and he ran with it. Sam worked so hard on sound.... He worked so hard he died.

Mary Pickford and Johnny Mack Brown beneath a boom microphone on the set of Coquette, 1929.

JEANINE BASINGER (film historian): Sam Warner’s sudden death the very day before the premiere of The Jazz Singer brought real-life melodrama to the proceedings. And Sam, the Warner brother who had been a real advocate of sound, was married to one of the most famous and glamorous movie stars of the era, Lina Basquette.

SAM WASSON (film historian): Everybody knew the Warners were in financial trouble, which was drama enough, and now a sudden death with a beautiful widow in furs and diamonds …

JEANINE BASINGER: … and Al Jolson, the star, coming to the opening in person and crying about Sam and going out into the audience and personally shaking every customer’s hand …

SAM WASSON: … you couldn’t write a better script …

JEANINE BASINGER: … All this drama off-screen is part of what made The Jazz Singer the movie that everyone latched on to, including the business itself, to be defined as “the first all-talking picture” …

SAM WASSON: … which it wasn’t …

JEANINE BASINGER: … the first all-talking movie was Warner Bros.’ Lights of New York. The Jazz Singer was one of the early part-talkie experiments that Warners did. It was the most successful one … and certainly the one with the off-screen drama.

HENRY BLANKE: People stood in line for blocks and blocks just to hear someone talk. And Jolson sing.

KARL STRUSS (cinematographer): Everyone suddenly seemed to think sound was the most important thing in the world.

KING VIDOR (director): I was in Europe when Variety had a headline that said, Hollywood Goes 100 Percent Sound. The Jolson picture had been a big hit.

ALLAN DWAN (director): Well, the talking picture stimulated the box office. It was one of the new gimmicks that brought people back. Sound came at about the time when the silent picture needed some stimulating.

TEETE CARLE (publicist): As a matter of fact, sound probably saved the industry. The business had come to a crisis where the entertainment dollar was being attracted by so many competitors. The motion picture business needed a shot in the arm, and the shot in the arm came with sound. It was a whole new field. It was a time when they could hear Garbo talk.

A New Dimension

HAROLD LLOYD (actor): Everybody went sound happy, but some of the comedians, most all of them, weren’t quite equipped for sound.

KING VIDOR: Take Chaplin, for example. I think you can take all the comedians, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and all of them. They were the product of silent films. They couldn’t just sit down and have a conversation.

HAROLD LLOYD: It was difficult to keep the same kind of pace you had in the silents and still have your sound. They thought because you were making a sound picture you had to talk all the time. You had to go to the verbal. Verbal comedy was cheaper to do. You can get verbal gags much easier than you can get sight gags.

KING VIDOR: Chaplin fought it for a long time. Sound was practically the end of Mack Sennett, but Chaplin resisted for five years. It must have been five years before he made his first talkie.

ALLAN DWAN: I thought it was the end of a fine art. I thought, That’s it! and I kissed it off. Because I don’t think talking pictures compare with silent. They’re a different thing. They’re just not the same. I think they’re an extension of the theater. They’re the theater with more sets, bigger sets, and more expanse but still the same as the theater. Everything’s based on what you say or what is the sound. And I liked pictures as pictures. I like the idea of pictures in motion. We always got the best effect from doing something rather than saying something. And we said as little as possible.

With sound, you could hear Al Jolson sing, Garbo talk, and Rin Tin Tin bark.

KING VIDOR: When sound first came in, that’s when popcorn and all the drinks started and necking in the theater started, because you could turn away and do all sort of things and you could still hear. You wouldn’t miss anything, you know. The sound would take care of it. In silent pictures, you had to pay attention the whole time. You had to sit there and try to figure it out. The uppermost thought of directors who grew up in silent films was that the photography was it, was No. 1. That was the reason that when the accent on dialogue came, it was a shock. For quite a while into the sound era, I was aware that directors who had made silent films produced work that was much more interesting than that of those who hadn’t. They were still thinking in terms of photography. It’s much more articulate and much more dynamic than the soundtrack coming through loudspeakers. I still think that’s true. We had developed a sort of language of pantomime and gestures and so forth. When sound hit, everything went static. It meant the end of movement, of pantomime, of ballet. I used to think very much in terms of choreography in films. I think I still do. There were quite a few directors—René Clair, Sergei Eisenstein, Clarence Brown—there’s quite a list of fellows who were sad about sound coming in.

HENRY HATHAWAY (director): I loved it! We had about used up everything there was to do in silent pictures, and it gave a new dimension to movies. Change always happened. Later, color would come in and add another dimension. Then there would be the new size of the screens and Cinerama would be added. Sound was just an added dimension. The latest dimension is smut—pornography.

“People stood in line for blocks and blocks just to hear someone talk.”

WILLIAM WYLER (director): The transition from silent pictures to sound pictures affected different people in different ways. To me it was a very welcome thing. I was just starting directing, had made just a few pictures, but I always loved the theater, and I always felt the restriction of the silent screen, and while many people hated the idea of sound, I welcomed it. I knew that to be able to hear what people are saying would be an added value to pictures.

RAOUL WALSH (director): When sound came in, it didn’t hit me as a problem. I just kept the thing moving regardless of the sound. I just kept going. Of course, it was pretty tough on a lot of actors and actresses who’d had no stage experience, but I handled directing the same way I always have. Of course, there was a great upheaval amongst the directors when talking pictures came in. They called me a renegade because I was one of the first ones to do an outdoor talking picture. They said that they’d created such a medium with pantomime, you know, and now this talking stuff was going to destroy it all. I said it was going to destroy us all if we didn’t go along and get in with it. So they finally all came in and faced the problems.

HENRY HATHAWAY: It was by sheer perseverance that directors finally got it together during the transition to sound. Over time they broke down all the rules of everything, from the cameramen to the electricians to the sound guys, to make it all work. In the end, it seemed to me that a picture was made exactly the same way as it had always been during that time, except that the cameras at first were in a booth … which we all loved because we couldn’t hear the cameramen.

Ludwig Berger directs The Vagabond King from inside a soundproof booth used to shut out the noise of the cameras, 1930.

GEORGE FOLSEY (cinematographer): Looking back on the whole thing, I would say the business used those “iceboxes” [the heavy, soundproof booths used to enclose the noise of the cameras] and those immobile booths for about a year … maybe a year and a half … then we all moved forward.

FRIZ FRELENG (animator): Sound developed very fast. At that time, it didn’t seem that way, but when you look back, you can see that it developed quickly.

Our “Product”

ALLAN DWAN: Sound brought on the building of the bigger studio lots. The original studios, which were started up about 1911 or 1912, were smaller, more like offices with some facilities attached.

KARL STRUSS: When I first came out here right after World War I, there was the Famous Players-Lasky, which became Paramount, and Metro, which became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Universal, of course, and maybe Columbia. But that was about it. There were a lot of independents like Sennett, and small outfits with small studios. These places had employees like cameramen and office people, but they were not like the big studios that emerged and became the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s onward. Not really.

FRANK CAPRA (director): Sound marked a big change in the business. It drove filmmaking indoors. In talking about the history of film, we’re dealing with something that was living and growing. Most people think about Hollywood as a fixed place, one thing, never changing from its beginning to now. Just, you know, “Hollywood.”

GEORGE FOLSEY: We all had to learn a new way of making movies with sound, but one thing that didn’t change was that we kept on working incredible hours. We still worked every single Saturday, all day and all night until the morning. We would be shooting exteriors … night stuff … and the sun would be coming up and the daylight would be there. You slept all day Sunday so you could come back and work on Monday. And there was no overtime pay. Eventually, after the unions, they had to pay overtime over 16 hours, so then they only worked you to 16 hours.

JOHN CROMWELL (director): You can see how sound brought in the formation of a dominant business system. It pulled people together into bigger buildings, onto lots, into a working hierarchy, and it created a structure to assess product, budget product, and make product.

FRANK CAPRA: “What’s your product for next year?” That’s what you started hearing. The original slapdash, out-in-the-field, shoot-it-and-cut-it-and-let-it-go silent-movie-making world became a studio system, growing into it from about the mid-1920s to the arrival of sound, when it really formed up. We began to turn out a manufactured product—expertly manufactured, of course. It had all started out with men like D. W. Griffith making their own pictures. But then, where the hell was he going to show his pictures?

Edmund Lowe, Mary Astor, and (at far right) director Irving Cummings get a demonstration of the latest sound-recording technology, 1928.

Well, somebody had to find or build theaters, and they built these little nickelodeons, and the finance people came in and built bigger buildings for theaters. Then they had to make bigger pictures to bring in there. It was, in a sense, the growth of the theaters … the growth of the demand of this new thing, moving pictures, that practically dictated the advent of the large studio where they could make pictures in some kind of order and on a regular schedule. It was the theaters that needed to be supplied with product once a week or once every two weeks. They needed a steady diet of pictures so they could have audiences every night. This is what probably created the vast empire that in the 1930s and 1940s became the official definition of Hollywood: the studio system. You see, the major companies owned their own theaters, owned their own distribution, owned their own studios. This, of course, led to some kind of an industry, and every industry likes to have it all neatly done, you know. I mean, you start this today, you finish it that day, and these things you’re making come off an assembly line costing so much a foot. And I think that the large studios, in a sense, had their origin in the need to supply their own theaters. It wasn’t the coming of sound that made this happen. Sound just made the demand bigger. The studio system had begun in the 1920s.

ARTHUR KNIGHT (critic): For the most part, from the 1920s onward, if you wanted to be a filmmaker, there was one place to do it, and that was in the studios.

FRANK CAPRA: Every studio began to make 50, 60, 100 films a year. That meant one or two a week had to be started and finished, and they had to make budgets to do this. They had to create a business hierarchy and have department heads and compartmentalize the work. Centralize everything. They were going to turn movies out like sausages, and that turned out to be a very good idea: the assembly-line concept. And they could make good films that way. The compartmentalization made them become very expert in all departments: in the camera department, in the sound department, in the laboratories, and very expert in distribution and sales, very expert in finding and building beautiful, attractive theaters. This was all big money and how best to use big money in turning out what they began to call “product.” They weren’t our films then. They were called our “product.”

“The original slapdash, out-in-the-field, shoot-it-and-cut-it-and-let-it-go silent-movie-making world became a studio system.”

RICHARD SCHICKEL (film historian): The excitement and novelty of sound carried the business, with its strongly emerging studio system, across the earliest years of the Depression. At first the business was not directly affected by the stock-market collapse. It hit them later.

MARGARET BOOTH (film editor): When the stock market failed, we realized that everyone else was out of work, but we weren’t out of work. It finally hit Hollywood, but only after the first couple of years.

PANDRO BERMAN (producer): I think the film business suffered from the Depression to a certain extent, but mostly after the first two or three years of it had already passed. Strangely enough, it suffered less than many other industries, for two reasons: One, the cost of making films was reduced drastically during that period. And two, the public seemed to want entertainment very much, and they could still buy it at a reasonable price at the movies. So that actually I found the period during the Depression my most successful period, financially speaking, and others may have done so, too. Costs were down; therefore you could make a profit.

WILLIAM TUTTLE (makeup artist): We went through the first years of the Depression on the success of sound movies. This was a couple of years after the market crash in 1929, and just prior to Roosevelt coming into office. The Depression was in full swing then, around 1931. Believe me, I felt lucky to have a job in the studios, any kind of job. Outside, there were people begging for work. In general, the film business kept going fairly well, not untouched but operating. The studios suffered, some more than others. I doubt if MGM was hit very hard.

“Count Me Out,” a Merrie Melodies Technicolor Vitaphone animated short, 1938

JEANINE BASINGER: When the transition to sound settled down, you were looking at the major studios more or less the way they were going to be for the next three decades.

HARRY WARREN (composer): It was sort of a factory.

GEORGE CUKOR (director): I want to tell you something in principle. There are all sorts of books written, very authoritative books, about how it was in those days, all written by people who were not there. And there’s sort of a cliché: “Oh, how could you live in that factory thing? How awful it was! You had no freedom of expression. They were crass and commercial, and now we can express ourselves with no restraints,” and all that. Well, actually, I do want to say something for the studio system. And I was not a company boy.

I think the men who built the studio system were very smart showmen. If you worked for them, they provided you with all kinds of things. You had the best stories, the best actors, the best technicians, the best scripts you could get. You were helped enormously. There were certain restraints, but they were intelligent restraints, you know. People were not allowed to indulge themselves. A director couldn’t say, “Get out of here! I’m going to do this my way! I don’t want to see you at all!” And all that. I think those balances … and working with people you respected … were very salutary and helpful. Of course, the studio system is all gone, it’s in the past, and it’ll never happen again. But I do want to say that the studio system was not a prison. It was not mainly full of buttonhole makers and people who didn’t know anything and they were crass and they crushed artists to the ground. That was not the case. It was tough but certainly no tougher than it is now. And they were very helpful. I worked with those studio tycoons, and if you had anything at all to give, they encouraged you. Why? Because it was to their advantage. They realized that talent was the coin of the realm, and they were very sympathetic to it. And patient, very, very patient. You had enormous help and sympathetic help, and that had a lot to do with the success of the cinema at the time.

WALTER REISCH (director): It was the New York press that dubbed Hollywood a “factory” system, which it wasn’t at all. Everything was about teamwork, a wonderful collaboration, and everyone taking time to get things right.

WILLIAM TUTTLE: Although time mattered, you were given sufficient time to experiment, to play around. Try. Test. See it on the screen. Try again. Remake it. Revamp the thing. Redesign it. Try it again. This was in the pre-production stages, where all the craftspeople were involved in planning and doing what was their own particular talent. Everything was thoroughly approved … and thought about … before whoever it was starred in the picture. You know, even if they had to hold up the picture before shooting it, they got everything right first, thought about what they wanted first, and took the time with that. The “factory” came after the first stages of filming, when it was all in place, and because it was in place, you could roll it out. And there was no problem in holding up a picture’s start, because everyone working on it was under contract, as opposed to today, when we’re subject to availability of sets, actors, writers, and directors. Now there’s very little time for the technicians to do what they have to do, and that creates lots of pressures and in the end is very limiting.

FRED ZINNEMANN (director): There are two sides to the studio-system format. A lot of people feel, quite rightly, that the studio system was oppressive in many ways. The bureaucracy was enormous. They could fire you, but you couldn’t quit because of the ironclad contract you had to sign. On the other hand, the studio gave you a chance to learn your professional craft in a continuous manner without having to fight from one thing to the next. You were employed. There was a job progression. I made silent shorts, then sound two-reelers for a series called Crime Does Not Pay. Well, those shorts were a kind of warm-up. You knew that if you did all right with those, you’d be offered a seven-year contract and a chance to direct features. And you’d get a raise. You were learning, and you were making a good living.

Until the development of quieter film cameras, recording dialogue necessitated restricting the movement of the camera. Early talkies were visually very static compared with silent films, but audiences were too dazzled by hearing the actors talk to care.

GEORGE CUKOR: In all the literature, you read about how terrible everybody was and that it was just a soulless, heartless factory. It really wasn’t.

ANN RUTHERFORD (actress): It was not, believe me.

GEORGE CUKOR: It was not fairyland. It was not perfect, but if you wanted to work, you could work, and you could live. That was a great thing.

ANN RUTHERFORD: As far as I was concerned, it was not a factory at all. It was absolutely incredible. They created a climate for young players, where it was almost like you were in a nursery and they weeded and weeded and hoed and watered you every day. If you had a spark of talent, they found it.

ADELA ROGERS ST. JOHNS (screenwriter): All the studios looked for talent, nurtured it in all categories. They were in business!

Sam Wasson is the author of several books, including The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood and Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art

Jeanine Basinger is the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University and the author of several books, including I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies