Sunday, March 29, 2009

Don Juan

TCM's Silent Sunday Night feature, airing just after midnight ET tonight (late Sunday evening in the rest of the country) is the technologically significant Don Juan.

There's nothing significant in terms of plot; it's a fairly standard romance in which the famous Latin lover (played here by John Barrymore) goes to Italy, spurns Lucrezia Borgia, and falls in love with Mary Astor, causing the Borgias to try to railroad Don Juan and imprison him, leading to the climax....

What's important about Don Juan is that it was the first feature film released using the Vitaphone process of synchronizing sound. In theory, the process could be used to synchronize talking, although Don Juan doesn't have any spoken dialogue -- just a movie score and some sound effects. It wasn't until 15 months later that The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with spoken dialogue, hit theaters. But that doesn't mean Vitaphone wasn't trying to put speech on the silver screen. Indeed, when Don Juan was released, it was accompanied by a series of shorts, most of which were musical in nature. Some were instrumentals; others featured some singing as well. However, perhaps the most interesting was one in which Will Hays, the head of the Production Code office at that time, speaks and introduces the idea of talking pictures.

That having been said, though, it's not as though this was the first short with synchronized speech. Vitaphone was one of several processes in use at the time. Most of the processes were trying to convert sound into a "soundtrack" that could be printed on the film, as in Theodore Case's Movietone system, which I've mentioned previously, in conjunction with one of Case's shorts, Gus Visser and His Singing Duck. Vitaphone, however, put the sound on a disc that played on a special record player synchronized with the movie projector, which produced better sound at the expense of making synchronization more difficult. Eventually, formats putting the sound on the film as a separate track won out, with even Vitaphone converting to sound-on-film.

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