By Ron Hutchinson

Founder, The Vitaphone Project

The coming of talking pictures after decades of failed attempts really began with Warner Brothers’ release of their silent feature DON JUAN in 1926. This was a silent film starring John Barrymore, completed as such, but then having a synchronized musical score and sound effects added in the new Vitaphone process.  This system was licensed by the studio from Western Electric, whose Bell Laboratories developed it. The system had the film’s soundtrack on a separate 16 inch shellac disk which turned at 33 1/3 rpm.  A single motor on the projector ran both the turntable and the film. There was a precise starting spot for both the needle and the film, so in theory everything stayed in synch.

As a prelude to DON JUAN, Warner Brothers filmed a number of 6-10 minute shorts with operatic and popular stars of the day. These were truly talking pictures in that they were recorded during filming and had synchronized singing and a speaking. Originally, the Warner Brothers, spearheaded by visionary brother Sam, saw Vitaphone as a way to supply full orchestral scores with their silent pictures, thereby allowing theatres to get rid of their own expensive musicians.

But at DON JUAN’s premiere in September 1926, it was the shorts preceding the feature that started the revolution. Audiences had never before heard perfectly synchronized, natural sounding talking pictures before. Previous attempts at sound films, starting with Edison, failed miserably due to faulty synchronization, inability to fill theatres with phonograph horns, and unnatural acoustic recording. Vitaphone solved all those issues.

As the talking picture revolution proceeded in 1927 (fueled by THE JAZZ SINGER), countless Vitaphone sound short subjects, and the addition of talking sequences to otherwise silent features, a number of completed silent remained.  Such was the case with Colleen Moore’s final two silent features, SYNTHETIC SIN and WHY BE GOOD? (both 1929). These two features were filmed during 1928 at the height of the transition from silent to sound pictures.

Beginning with DON JUAN, Warner Brothers announced that all of their features would be released with a synchronized music and sound effects Vitaphone soundtrack,  Theatres not equipped for Vitaphone  would show these films with their own orchestral accompaniments.

Warner Brothers was riding high with the success of Vitaphone, and in September 1928 bought First National Pictures along with all of the star contracts that studio owned.  Colleen Moore was First National’s top star, and so her pictures got the full Vitaphone treatment.

Once SYNTHETIC SIN and WHY BE GOOD? were completed, a print of each film was sent to the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, NJ. There, an original musical accompaniment drawn largely from popular tunes of the day was created to match each scene. Judicious sound effects (like door knocks, horns honking, etc.) were also added. As the musicians watched the film, they played from the original score which was recorded on a 16 inch wax master. Metal stampers from the finished recordings were used to stamp hundreds of Vitaphone disks, one for each reel of the film.

Noteworthy for the Colleen Moore feature disks is that the musical performances are jazzy, toe-tapping and highly reflective of the late 1920’s. This is especially true of the soundtrack for WHY BE GOOD? Jazz historians have identified such legendary musicians as Jimmy Dorsey, Phil Napoleon, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang on the disks.

Until the late 1990s both SYNTHETIC SIN and WHY BE GOOD? were thought to be lost.  There is an extremely high mortality rate for films released during the 1927-29 transition period. A large fire at Warner Brothers in the 1950’s destroyed the then-known prints.

Fast forward to 1994 and New York’s Film Forum. This wonderful venue screens vintage, independent and foreign films to appreciative city audiences. Each year, I present a program of restored Vitaphone short subjects from the 1926-30 period.  These are primarily, vaudeville, music and comedy short subjects, and often represent the only known record of these performers.

Prior to a screening, I updated the audience on latest activities of The Vitaphone Project.  I casually mentioned that I recently acquired all the soundtrack disks for Colleen Moore’s WHY BE GOOD?  I said something to the effect that “unfortunately, this is a lost film.”

Film historian Joe Yranski, who ran the film library at the Donnell Media Center, was a friend of Colleen Moore, and knew more about this film than probably anybody on the planet, yelled out “No it’s not!  I know where it is!”

The full house at Film Forum cheered.

"Synthetic Sin" and "Why Be Good"

Above, two images from Why Be Good. Below, production still of "Synthetic Sin" with William Seiter, director, in chair. All images courtesy Joseph Yranski.
I immediately connected with Joe, and learned the sole known 35mm nitrate prints for both films was in an Italian archive, donated to them decades before by actor Antonio Moreno.

Thus began a decade long effort to negotiate the loan of both SYNTHETIC SIN and WHY BE GOOD? for full restoration and synchronization with their Vitaphone disks. While the entire soundtrack to WHY BE GOOD? survives in my collection, only the disk for the last reel and exit music is known for SYNTHETIC SIN.  Fortunately, a full list of Vitaphone music cues exists and will be used to recreate the soundtrack (possibly by Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks).

Ned Price is Warner Brothers Chief Preservation Officer and the driving force behind the studio’s support of nearly 150 Vitaphone short restorations. Ned personally interceded with the Bologna Archive and negotiated a mutually agreeable arrangement to have both films restored and copies of both finished efforts given to the archive. Work began late in 2012, with the professional transfer of my WHY BE GOOD? disks and the lone disk for SYNTHETIC SIN. 

The restoration effort represents a true partnership between Warner Brothers, UCLA Film and Television Archive, Joe Yranski, and The Vitaphone Project.  Restoration efforts will likely not be completed until 2014, when both films will be screened, for the first time. over 80 years, in 35mm and sound.

When this happens, I fully expect both films to be embraced not only by silent film buffs, but by the wider film community.  Both films were well budgeted, had strong First National art direction with a heavy art deco slant. In the case of WHY BE GOOD?, there is the added attraction of Jean Harlow as a prominent dress extra and a super musical score with top jazz musicians of the period.

So just be patient and know that before too much longer, you’ll again be able to enjoy two “lost” films that are no longer lost.


Ron Hutchinson is Founder of The Vitaphone Project, whose mission is to find the lost 16 inch soundtrack disks for early talkie shorts and features, get them restored with their otherwise mute surviving film elements, and help new generations enjoy the wonderful vaudeville, music and comedy performances these film contain.  Since its founding in 1991, the Project has located over 4000 soundtrack disks worldwide, and has worked with Warner Brothers, UCLA, The Library of Congress, and private collectors, to restore nearly 150 1926-31 shorts and over a dozen features. Nearly 200 Vitaphone shorts are now available on DVD from Warner Archive. Checkout the Project’s website at www.vitaphoneproject.com