The First Talking Pictures Regain their Voice

0997ae1c908de0568b58bce84c3ec334“What was the first movie?” my 9-year-old niece asked after a recent trip to the multiplex.

I hate questions like that. Because I’m a “movie guy,” I feel like I should have an easy reply, but I never do.

The first time pictures moved? The first narrative short film? The first feature? There’s not really one answer. So I started talking about Magic Lanterns, galloping horses, workers leaving the factory, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, the spaceship in the moon’s eye, and Al Jolson. She asked a simple question and she got a Cinema Studies class.

But like they say on Facebook, it’s complicated. And it gets even more complicated when you start talking about Talkies. I was reminded of this on Saturday when I attended a screening of newly restored Edison “Kinetophone” sound shorts from 1913-1914 at the Museum of Modern Art.

You read that right. Short subjects with sound. From 1913.

A total of 200 Kinetophone shorts were produced by Thomas Edison between 1913 and 1914 at his studio in the Bronx, New York. Similar to the better-known Warner Bros. Vitaphone sound shorts (shot in nearby Brooklyn), Edison’s shorts were mute films with synchronous audio recorded on a phonograph. Both were screened using a complex system that synched film projectors with separate audio playback: shellac discs for Vitaphone, wax cylinders for Kinetophone. But Edison’s shorts pre-dated Vitaphone by 13 years and came 14 years before Jolson promised You ain’t heard nothing yet! in THE JAZZ SINGER – the moment generally considered to be the birth of Talking Pictures.

Film elements for 12 of the 200 Kinetophones are known to survive, with soundtracks extant for 15. To date, eight films have been fully restored, with picture and audio reunited (in some cases) for the first time in more than a century. Six of the restorations were screened on Saturday as part of To Save and Project: The 14th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation.

Titles included: NURSERY FAVORITES (1913) starring Little Miss Muffet, a giant spider, and a dog in pajamas; THE OLD GUARD (1914) with Napoleon’s ghost; THE DEAF MUTE (1914), a multi-part Civil War mystery filmed entirely on location; the Edison Quartette in MUSICAL BLACKSMITH (1914); and JACK’S JOKE (1913) a drawing room farce featuring Arthur Housman, a familiar face from Laurel & Hardy films. The final short ended with a delightfully protracted curtain call sequence that elicited good-natured cheers from the packed house at MoMA.

Edward Boulden and Arthur Housman in JACK'S JOKE (1913)

Edward Boulden and Arthur Housman in JACK’S JOKE (1913)

“This has been my pet project for 25 years,” said George Willeman, Nitrate Film Vault Manager at the Library of Congress and the host of MoMA’s screening. “When I started with the Library back in the 1980s and discovered these films on the shelf and realized what they were, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if someday we could see them with their soundtracks put back on?’”

That day finally came earlier this year, when audio from wax cylinders archived at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey was captured digitally, cleaned up, and married to 2K scans of picture elements housed at the Library of Congress (some surviving in original negatives). In an illustrated lecture that preceded the screening, Willeman explained the history of the shorts and their restoration.

As always, profit was a primary motivating factor in Edison’s early attempt to make pictures talk. (Some things never change.) He controlled patents on both audio and film recording technology and, as early as 1894, was experimenting with technology that would unite the two. The 17-second-long Dickson Experimental Sound Film – two men dancing while Edison collaborator William Dickson plays violin – was shot at the Edison Company’s “Black Maria” studio in West Orange, New Jersey and was the first moving picture with a synchronized soundtrack.

kinetophoneA year later, Edison began producing short “Kinetoscope” film loops for coin-operated players. These standalone devices were also called Kinetophones, because they allowed viewers to watch movies with (non-synchronous) sound. Soundtracks were played on cylinder phonographs housed inside the box while viewers listened via rubber “ear tubes.”

If you’re having trouble visualizing this, imagine watching a short YouTube video on your iPad with earbuds, but in dedicated arcades where many other people are doing the same thing. And every time you replay it it costs another coin. Not a bad business for simple, inexpensively produced shorts that were essentially the Keyboard Cat of the turn of the 20th Century.

By 1913 Edison was in full production of Kinetophone sound shorts that would be presented in Vaudeville houses on the Albee theater circuit, rather than on individual players. Like with all early attempts at sound filmmaking, synchronization of disparate picture and audio sources was the principal challenge. According to Willeman, theaters were rigged with a hand-cranked Edison projector in the back, a specially built phonograph in the front, and a long linen belt running along the ceiling to connect the two. Operators wore headphones, and each projection set-up came with a synchronizer that moved the film four frames in either direction if audio sync began to drift (which it did, often).

kinetophoneadThe Edison Kinetophone shorts were introduced on February 13, 1913 at a presentation in New York City that earned rave reviews and a 15-minute standing ovation. In the film that accompanied that presentation (which has been restored and was screened at MoMA), Allen Ramsey of the Edison Company brags that viewers are watching “the first genuine talking picture ever produced” and promises that people will be able to watch and listen 100 years from now. That line brought cheers at MoMA, 103 years later.

But the success of the series was short-lived. The Kinetophones were discontinued after 1914, in part due to reduced international business during World War I, a devastating fire at the Edison plant, and a desire on the part of the audience for “longer subjects and first class acting.” Unlike the Vitaphones, which were mostly filmed records of Vaudeville acts or band performances, the Kinetophones were six-minute narratives that told self-contained or continuing stories. But the technological limitations of sync sound recording – a single, static shot with no edits and broad performances by actors shouting for the benefit of the the recording – were obvious to viewers spoiled by silent cinema’s increasingly lavish production values and complex storytelling.

But it was the technological limitations that ultimately killed the Kinetophones.

“It was just too darn complicated,” Willeman said. “They tried all the different devices they had in 1913 and 1914, but the technology just wasn’t there.”

To Save and Project: The 14th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation continues through November 23. A DVD release for the Kinetophone shorts is planned. An un-restored version of the introductory short is below. 

About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, producer, and digital marketing consultant. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. I've written for, Game Show Network, getTV, Sony Movies, and NYC weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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8 Responses to The First Talking Pictures Regain their Voice

  1. popegrutch says:

    Meanwhile, in France, Alice Guy produced dozens of sound pictures for Gaumont in 1905. I’ve reviewed several of them at the Century Film Project and they can be seen on the “Gaumont Treasures” collection from Kino.
    Yeah, questions about “the first” anything suck.

  2. Amazing, especially the closing line on the YouTube video you posted, where the host correctly predicts that people will be watching and listening to these films 100 years from now.

  3. jaydro says:

    Nice post! I was unaware of the kinetophone (vs. kinetoscope), but I always enjoyed killing time with the penny/nickel? kinetoscopes in the arcade on Main St at Disneyland before the park opening rope drop. Don’t know if they still have those….

  4. Talking pictures! What next? I am truly awed by the early innovators and their vision. It is right that we should celebrate them today.

  5. Kelly says:

    Hey Will I remember seeing something on PBS History Detectives couple years back when some dude found film footage of some dude talking this like 1899 or something

  6. travsd says:

    Excellent post, Will! I wish I could have been there!

  7. travsd says:

    Reblogged this on Travalanche and commented:
    Will McKinley on the talkies BEFORE the talkies, as seen at MOMA

  8. This is a fine, interesting article. I found it to be extremely informative and entertaining. I enjoyed reading it, and I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    By the way, I would like to invite you to join my blogathon, “The Great Breening Blogathon:” It is celebrating the life and work of Joseph Breen, the enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code between 1934 and 1954. As we honor his birthday, which is on October 14, we will be discussing and analyzing the Code era, breening films from other eras, and writing about our own ideas for classic movies. One doesn’t have to agree with the Code and Mr. Breen to enjoy that! I hope you will do me the honor of joining. We could really use your talent!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

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