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.
“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.
A 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).
The 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.