Friday, January 15, 2010

Rumors of Edison's Kinetophone

"Observations By Our Man About Town" is a column that had been appearing regularly in Moving Picture World since before 1910. The topics of the columns varied considerably, from reviews of theaters (especially in the early years) to trafficking in industry rumors and gossip, as in the excerpt below. This week, "Our Man" spends much of his column on the Edison Kinetophone, which had recently been demonstrated for the press. Surprisingly, "Our Man" thinks the rumors of the imminent distribution of the Kinetophone to be rash speculation: "it is extremely doubtful that the great event will take place in the near future." In fact, the very next issue of the paper will carry an ad from Edison soliciting bids from exhibitors to install the device.

Although poor in pronostication, this excerpt also contains some quotations from industry people that are highly revealing of attitudes toward the talking film.

For years people have been asking why talking motion pictures have not been successfully produced and every once in a while some inventor, including the esteemed wizard of Orange, has come forward with a promise to produce them in the near future. It is claimed now that Mr. Edison has the goods in the form of a machine he calls the kinetophone and this is supplemented by the statement that the apparatus will soon be in operation in about a dozen theaters in New York and Brooklyn. Mr. Edison has been industriously working on the problem of synchronizing sounds and pictures for a long time and those who know him well say that when the talking motion picture becomes a fact he will be the first to launch it; but it is extremely doubtful that the great event will take place in the near future. This is confirmed by a statement credited to Mr. Edison to the effect that “in the next year or two it will be no unusual thing to present an entire play or opera as we now are able to produce a playlet or scenes from the big plays.” This is taken as an intimation that the reporters who witnessed the recent tests are a little enthusiastic over them and that the great inventor must devote more time to the development of the talking motion picture as the public will expect to see it produced.

* * *

One of the most prominent men in the motion picture field when shown the report for Orange said: “It will come, but not for some time. The reports of such successful tests are important now only in so far as they keep the public informed that the strides toward perfection are steady and eventually we will have attained the long desired goal. I think Mr. Edison will be the first in the field with the talking pictures, but I do not look for it within the next year. When it does come it will be preceded by a blare of trumpets that will make the people sit up and take notice. It will completely revolutionize the motion picture industry and eventually make the regular theatrical productions look like ‘has beens.’ The majority of theatrical managers now look upon motion pictures as a competitor that has come to stay and a great many of them have become investors in one or more branches of the business. One of the most prominent and influential managers in New York said the other day that he stood ready to let the pictures into any house he owns where existing contracts would not interfere. He stated frankly that motion pictures are growing steadily in popularity with a class of people who heretofore have been disposed to discount their importance as a factor in the field of entertainments and when the talking motion picture has positively passed the point of theory and become a practical proposition what is now known as the legitimate theatrical field will become almost a discard.”

* * *

“That will be a severe blow to the members of the legitimate profession,” remarked a bystander.

“Not necessarily,” replied the manager. “It will affect just as many, if not more, the people who are now appearing the photoplays. I am inclined to think that they will be displaced in the motion picture studios by the regulars. Yes, I know that nearly all the picture producing companies now engage only professional people. From a pantomimic standpoint scores of people who worked on the stage for years without even attracting passing notice have become great favorites with the patrons of the picture houses. Now, as I understand it, one of the chief aims of the talking motion pictures will be to give the public an opportunity to both see and hear celebrated actors and those rising in the theatrical profession. To this end the perfection of the talking motion pictures must involve the reproduction of the voices so that they will be recognizable. This is second in importance only to the synchronizing of sounds and pictures. Motion picture actors and actresses will then become an entirely different class as compared with what they are to-day. They will be required to speak as well as act. Action will not be the sole test and those making up the supporting company will be obliged to handle their parts consistently with the leads. I fear many now playing in the studios will fall short of the mark and the regulars who have seen the photoplays gradually force them into the studios, or into minor positions on the regular stags, or out of the profession altogether, will find a new field. It is my opinion that the advent of the motion pictures will be a great blessing to them.”

“Observations By Our Man About Town,” Moving Picture World 18 January 1913, 270.