In 1919 and 1920, Lee De Forest, inventor of the audion tube, filed his first patents on a sound-on-film process, DeForest Phonofilm, which recorded sound directly onto film as parallel lines. These parallel lines photographically recorded electrical waveforms from a microphone, which were translated back into sound waves when the movie was projected. Some sources say that DeForest improved on the work of Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt — who was granted German patent 309.536 on 28 July 1914 for his sound-on-film work — and on the Tri-Ergon Exchange, patented in 1919 by German inventors Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massole.
The Phonofilm system, which recorded synchronized sound directly onto film, was used to record vaudeville acts, musical numbers, political speeches, and opera singers. The quality of Phonofilm was poor at first, improved somewhat in later years, but was never able to match the fidelity of sound-on-disc systems such as Vitaphone, or later sound-on-film systems such as RCA Photophone or FoxMovietone.
The films of DeForest were short films made primarily as demonstrations to try to interest major studios in Phonofilm. These films are particularly valuable to entertainment historians, as they include recordings of a wide variety of both well-known and less famous American vaudeville and British music hall acts which would otherwise have been forgotten. Some of the films, such as Flying Jenny Airplane, Barking Dog, and a film of DeForest himself explaining the Phonofilm system (all 1922) were experimental films to test the system.
In November 1922, De Forest founded the De Forest Phonofilm Corporation with studios at 314 East 48th Street in New York City, and offices at 220 West 42nd Street in the Candler Building. However, DeForest was unable to interest any of the major Hollywoodmovie studios in his invention.
From October 1921 to September 1922, DeForest lived in Berlin, meeting with the Tri-Ergon developers and investigating other European sound film systems. He announced to the press in April 1922 that he would soon have a workable sound-on-film system.
On 12 March 1923, DeForest presented a demonstration of Phonofilm to the press. On 12 April 1923, DeForest gave a private demonstration of the process to electrical engineers at the Engineering Society Building's Auditorium at 33 West 39th Street in New York City.
On 15 April 1923, DeForest premiered 18 short films made in Phonofilm — including vaudeville acts, musical performers, opera, and ballet — at the Rivoli Theater at 1620 Broadway in New York City. The Rivoli's music director Hugo Riesenfeld co-hosted the presentation. The printed program gave credit to the "DeForest-Case Patents", but according to a letter Theodore Case wrote to DeForest immediately after the event, no credit was given to Case during the presentation itself. Case also expressed his displeasure that the program credited only the "DeForest-Case Patents", as Phonofilm's success was fully due to the work of Case and his Case Research Lab.
DeForest later took his show on the road, pitching Phonofilm directly to the general public at a series of special engagements across the country. The shorts shown at one such demonstration (from an original program at History San Jose, which holds DeForest's papers), exact date unknown but circa 1925, were as follows:
What the Phonofilm Means (Bart Doyle [?])
A Study in Contrasts (comparing sound and silent film segments)
DeForest was forced to show these films in independent theaters such as the Rivoli, since Hollywood movie studios controlled all major U.S. movie theater chains at the time. De Forest's decision to film primarily short films (one reel), not feature films limited the appeal of his process.
All or part of the Paramount Pictures features Bella Donna (premiered 1 April 1923) and The Covered Wagon (premiered 16 March 1923) were filmed with Phonofilm as an experiment. (In the case of The Covered Wagon, Hugo Riesenfeld composed the music for the film.) However, the Phonofilm versions were only shown at the premiere engagements, also at the Rivoli. "Siegfried", the first part of the Fritz Lang film Die Nibelungen (1924) had a Phonofilm soundtrack, but only at the New York City premiere at the Century Theatre on 23 August 1925.
One of the few two-reel films made by DeForest in the Phonofilm process was Love's Old Sweet Song (1923), starring Louis Wolheim, Donald Gallaher, and the 20-year-old Una Merkel. DeForest kept to one-reel films because he was unable to solve the problem of reel changes—and the disruption in sound which would occur—when a projectionist in a movie theater changed reels.
Red Seal Pictures and DeForest Phonofilm filed for bankruptcy in September 1926, and the Fleischers stopped releasing the Song Car-Tune films in Phonofilm shortly thereafter. Alfred Weiss acquired several of the silent Song Car-tunes including "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Tramp-Tram--Tramp, the Boys are Marching" and re-released them independently between 1929 to 1932 with new animation added using what sounds like the Powers Cinephone process.
DeForest also worked with Theodore Case, using Case's patents to make the Phonofilm system workable. However, the two men had a falling out, shortly after DeForest filed suit in June 1923 against Freeman Harrison Owens, another former collaborator of DeForest's. Case later went to movie mogul William Fox of Fox Film Corporation, who bought Case's patents, the American rights to the German Tri-Ergon patents, and the work of Owens to create Fox Movietone.
DeForest's use of Case patents
Case's falling out with DeForest was due to DeForest taking full credit for the work of Case and Earl I. Sponable (1895–1977) at the Case Research Lab in Auburn, New York. To record on film, DeForest tried using a standard light bulb to expose amplified sound onto film. The bulbs quickly burned out, and, even while functioning, never produced a clear recording. To reproduce his nearly inaudible soundtracks, DeForest used a photocell that could not react quickly enough to the varying light coming to it as the soundtrack passed through the sound gate, resulting in an incomplete reproduction of sound from an inadequate recording—a dual failure. DeForest's attempts to record and reproduce sound failed at every turn until he used inventions provided by Case.
Having failed to create a workable sound-on-film system by 1921, DeForest contacted Case to inquire about using a Case Research Lab invention, the Thallofide (thallium oxysulfide) Cell, for reproducing the recorded sound. Case provided DeForest with that major upgrade and later provided him with another Case Research Lab creation, the AEO Light, to use for recording the soundtrack. Due to DeForest's continuing misuse of these inventions, the Case Research Lab proceeded to build its own camera. That camera was used by Case and Sponable to film President Coolidge on 11 August 1924, creating one of the films shown by DeForest and claimed by him to be the product of "his" inventions.
Seeing that DeForest was more concerned with his own fame and recognition than he was with actually creating a workable system of sound film, and because of DeForest's continuing attempts to downplay the contributions of the Case Research Lab in the creation of Phonofilm, Case severed his ties with DeForest in the fall of 1925. On 23 July 1926, William Fox of Fox Film Corporation bought Case's patents.
In 1924, Western Electric had settled on 24 frames per second (90 feet per minute) as the standard film speed for both the sound-on-disc and optical sound systems it was developing. Western Electric's ERPI division dominated the theater hardware market when the sound revolution finally got underway, so its new standard speed was universally adopted by Fox and all the other studios as each began making sound films. (See the Fleischer cartoon Finding His Voice (1929), credited to Mr. W. E. Erpi.) As a consequence, Case's tests and DeForest's early Phonofilms, shot at about 21 frames per second, gave speakers and singers laughably high-pitched "helium voices" if they were run on a standard sound projector. The Library of Congress and other film archives have printed new copies of some early Phonofilms, modifying them by periodically duplicating frames and correspondingly "stretching" the soundtracks to make them compatible with standard projectors and telecine equipment.
Producer Pat Powers attempts takeover of Phonofilm
By 1926, DeForest gave up on trying to exploit the process—at least in the U.S. (see UK section below) -- and his company declared bankruptcy in September 1926. Without access to Case's inventions, DeForest was left with an incomplete system of sound film. Even so, producer Pat Powers invested in what remained of Phonofilm in the spring of 1927. DeForest was in financial difficulty due to his lawsuits against former associates Case and Owens. At this time, DeForest was selling cut-rate sound equipment to second-run movie theaters wanting to convert to sound on the cheap.
In June 1927, Powers made an unsuccessful takeover bid for DeForest's company. In the aftermath, Powers hired former DeForest technician William Garity to produce a cloned version of the Phonofilm system.
Hollywood chooses other sound systems
While shunning Phonofilm, Hollywood studios introduced different systems for talkies. First up was the sound-on-disc process introduced by Warner Brothers as Vitaphone—which used a record disc synchronized with the film for sound. Warner Brothers released the feature film Don Juan starring John Barrymore on 6 August 1926 in Vitaphone, with music and sound effects only.
On 6 October 1927, Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson in Vitaphone. The film is often incorrectly credited as the first talking picture. The Jazz Singer was the first feature film to use synchronized sound for talking sequences rather than just for music and sound effects, and thus launched the talkie era, but DeForest's sound-on-film system was in fact the basis for modern sound movies.
In 1926, the owner of a UK cinema chain, M. B. Schlesinger, acquired the UK rights to Phonofilm. DeForest and Schlesinger filmed short films of British music hall performers such as Marie Lloyd Jr. and Billy Merson—along with famous stage actors such as Sybil Thorndike and Bransby Williams performing excerpts of works by Shakespeare, Shaw, and Dickens—from September 1926 to May 1929. (In July 1925, The Gentleman, a comedy short film excerpt of The 9 to 11 Revue, directed by William J. Elliott in Phonofilm, was the first sound-on-film production made in England.)
On 4 October 1926, Phonofilm made its UK premiere with a program of short films presented at the Empire Cinema in London, including a short film with Sidney Bernstein welcoming Phonofilm to the UK. According to the British Film Institute website, the UK division of DeForest Phonofilm was taken over in August 1928 by British Talking Pictures and its subsidiary, British Sound Film Productions, which was formed in September 1928, it is believed British Talking Pictures acquired DeForests primary assets, including patents and designs for theatre audio equipment.
In March 1929, a feature film The Clue of the New Pin, a part-talkie based on an Edgar Wallace novel, was trade-shown with The Crimson Circle, a German-UK coproduction which was also based on a Wallace novel. Crimson was filmed in DeForest Phonofilm, and Pin was made in British Phototone, a sound-on-disc process using 12-inch phonograph records synchronized with the film. However, the UK divisions of both Phonofilm and British Phototone soon closed.
The last films made in the UK in Phonofilm were released in early 1929, due to competition from Vitaphone, and sound-on-film systems such as Fox Movietone and RCA Photophone. The release of Alfred Hitchcock's sound feature film Blackmail in June 1929, made in RCA Photophone, sealed the fate of Phonofilm in the UK.
Phonofilm in Australia
In June 1925, Phonofilm opened its first Australian office at 129 Bathurst Street in Sydney. On 6 July 1925, the first program of Phonofilms in Australia were shown at the Piccadilly Theatre in Sydney. A program was also shown at the Prince Edward Theatre in November and December 1925.
Unfortunately, Phonofilm had to[why?] close all of its operations in Australia by October 1927, and sold its remaining studio facilities to an Australian company in October 1928.
Phonofilm in Spain
In 1928, Spanish producer Feliciano Manuel Vitores bought the Spanish rights to Phonofilm from DeForest and dubbed it "Fonofilm". He produced four films in the process, Cuando fui león (1928), En confesionario (1928), Va usted en punto con el banco (1928), and El misterio de la Puerta del Sol (1929). The first three were short films directed by Manuel Marín starring Spanish comedian Ramper, and the last was the first sound feature film made in Spain. The feature film was released in Spain by Divina Home Video in 2005, after years of being thought a lost film.
Phonofilm in Latin America
The Maurice Zouary collection at the Library of Congress holds approximately 45 films made in Phonofilm. A DVD produced by Zouary about the history of Phonofilm says that a short film of opera singers performing the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor was made by the "Latin American division" of Phonofilm. No further information is known about this division of Phonofilm. In 1926, DeForest released a short film referred to as Cuban Sound Documentary which included the Cuban national anthem and excerpts from The Merry Widow. However, little else is known of this film or whether other Phonofilms were made in Cuba.
Luella Paikin (1922) early DeForest test film of singer
Lulu (1928) musical short
Luna-cy! (1925) 1922 experimental 3-D film by Frederick Ives and Jacob Leventhal re-released with Phonofilm soundtrack 18 May 1925
Madelon (1927) Camille Gillard in "Madelon", directed by Widgey Newman
Major Issues of the Campaign (1924) compilation of Al Smith, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John W. Davis short Phonofilms taken at the 1924 Democratic National Convention in NYC (see individual entries)
The Man in the Street (1926) short based on Louis N. Parker play, directed by Thomas Bentley, with Wilbur Lenton, John MacAndrews, and Bunty O'Nolan (UK title: Man of Mystery)
Pilbeam and His Band With Specialty Dance by the Misses Tosch (1927) jazzy version of "Ain't She Sweet?" (?Arnold Pilbeam, father of Nova Pilbeam). See Chili Bouchier entry and Mark Griver entry (above) which feature same song.
Pipe Down (1929) comedy short released by Ellbee Pictures
Plastigrams (1924) 1922 experimental 3-D film by Frederick Ives and Jacob Leventhal, re-released with Phonofilm soundtrack on 22 September 1924
Yvette Darnac (1929) radio star Darnac sings Gershwin tune "The Man I Love"
(*) Included in program of Phonofilms at the Rivoli Theater in NYC on 15 April 1923 (**) Fleischer "Song Car-Tunes" series (some titles later re-released by the Fleischers in their "Screen Songs" series, through Paramount Pictures, with new soundtracks recorded in RCA Photophone) (***) Found in a trunk in Windsor, New South Wales, Australia in early 1976, and restored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia