A night of Vitaphone shorts at the Wilder


If you know about Vitaphone shorts, the news that a newly restored selection is ready for public viewing courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive is all the information you need. If you haven’t heard of them, be prepared for a genuine time machine experience that will revolutionize your thinking about the way sound came to Hollywood.

Though conventional wisdom has it that Al Jolson singing and talking in 1927’s “The Jazz Singer” is where sound all began, in fact, Warner Bros. had been producing short subjects that featured top vaudeville acts talking, singing and playing musical instruments since 1926.

Between 1926 and 1930, Warner Bros. used its Vitaphone system to produce more than 1,000 brief films that included jazz bands, comedy acts and opera singers. But because of the cumbersome nature of the system, the shorts disappeared from sight so completely that the 11 screening at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood will be getting their first public showing in more than 80 years.

Though 20th Century Fox was working on the sound-on-film method that eventually became the industry norm, Vitaphone used a different technology, one that synchronized the photographed image with simultaneously recorded 16-inch 33 rpm phonograph records.

The filmed portion of these Vitaphone shorts have long been at the Library of Congress, but no one was able to hear what they sounded like until 1986, when a huge trove of recorded discs was found in a vault hidden behind a sound department screen at Warner’s Burbank studio.

Restoring these films became a passion for Robert Gitt, the UCLA archive’s internationally respected senior preservation officer (his last feature work was on “The Red Shoes.”) Over the years, Gitt has overseen the restoration of approximately 125 of these 10-minute shorts, including the 11 that will be screened at the Hammer.

These shorts, especially the musical ones, are often entertaining in of and of themselves. The new program includes the wizardly steel guitar work that was the trademark of the Gotham Rhythm Boys, the hot jazz of Al Lyons and his Four Horsemen, the singing and dancing of “ Oklahoma” Bob Albright and His Rodeo Do Flappers and the musical stylings of Carlena Diamond, “harpist supreme,” who later became part of the celebrated Phil Spitalny’s All Girl Orchestra.

Like any vaudeville program, the UCLA selection includes a variety of comics, some of whom have lost their humor and some, like Jack Born and Elmer Lawrence, known as the Country Gentlemen, who remain amusing to this day. There’s also the chance to see vaudevillian Harry Fox, who gave his name to the fox trot; witness the film debut of Jimmy Conlin, later a key member of Preston Sturges’ stock company; and to see some brief playlets, one of which, “Poor Aubrey,” was written by George Kelly, Grace Kelly’s playwright uncle.

As much as anything else, however, these Vitaphone shorts offer an unprecedented window into the past, a chance to directly experience what entertained people 80 years ago and even earlier. According to research Gitt has done, Frank Whitman, a.k.a. “That Surprising Fiddler,” was doing the act we see on film, playing the violin with a playing card, a bottle and a matchstick, as far back as 1900. That is time machine stuff for sure.

Taken as a whole, these shorts also provide a remarkable example of inside-the-box thinking. The reason they existed at all is that the executives at Warners thought that what audiences in smaller theatrical markets wanted was a chance to have the same experience as audiences in big cities such as New York.

In those major metropolises, live vaudeville acts preceded the silent feature, and these shorts enabled those same acts to open programs everywhere in the country. Hard as it is to believe, the notion that audiences might want the talking and singing that characterized these shorts to be part of actual features did not immediately cross anyone’s mind.

Then “The Jazz Singer,” which was also a sound-on-disc production, hit the screens, and everything changed. Audiences were charmed by the force of Jolson’s personality and by the new development of spontaneous talking erupting right in the middle of the film. They clamored for more, and the era of sound began.

One of the great ironies of “The Jazz Singer’s” success, it turns out, is that much of what Jolson said and did in that film he’d done earlier, in a Vitaphone short. Though it’s sadly not on Saturday’s program, that short has played at UCLA before and its story is a fascinating one.

Wearing his trademark blackface, Jolson sings three songs, says his trademark “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” several times (a year before he used it in “The Jazz Singer”) and in general is more relaxed than in his later, more famous appearance.

Once “The Jazz Singer” became a sensation, Warner Bros. shrewdly withdrew and destroyed all copies of the earlier, livelier short. Or so it was thought until the Library of Congress found a copy in a mislabeled can.

Just as difficult to locate was the Vitaphone disc that had the soundtrack. Only one could be found, and it had been broken into four pieces and awkwardly glued back together. A record collector in the Pacific Northwest spent months dissolving the glue and refitting the pieces together. Then Gitt transferred the contents to tape with the help of a tilted turntable and strategic blowing on the tone arm.

Now that’s dedication.