Saturday, June 26, 2021

HOLLYWOOD'S GOLDEN YEARS, CONTINUED


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1925 was another major landmark in the Golden Age of Hollywood when the first movie with sound effects and music, called 'Don Juan', was made by Warner Brothers starring John Barrymore and Mary Astor.

Don Juan was the first feature-length film to utilize the Vitaphone sound-on-disc sound system with a synchronized musical score and sound effects, though it has no spoken dialogue. The film is inspired by Lord Byron's 1821 epic poem of the same name.

Don Juan stars John Barrymore as the hand-kissing womanizer. The film has the most kisses in film history, with Barrymore kissing (all together) Mary Astor and Estelle Taylor 127 times. Don Juan plants 191 kisses on various females during the course of the film, an average of one every 53 seconds.

Although this was the first feature film with a Vitaphone soundtrack (therefore being the first film with a completely synchronized soundtrack), it is not the first sound film. The first sound film can be dated back to 1895; the process was re-discovered and improved by a French company (using a gramophone) in 1910. In 1913 Thomas A. Edison announced that all the problems of sound films were solved, and showed what he called "the first sound film." As in the earlier efforts, Nursery Favourites (1913) had a gramophone that appeared to synchronize with the film. There was one problem: the film was projected at the wrong speed, and the soundtrack was slowed down inadvertently. This problem happened all too often, and a frustrated Edison abandoned his process.

In 1921 D.W. Griffith employed various experts to film a sound introduction for his film Dream Street (1921), which still exists, and the performance went off without a hitch. Griffith soon stopped using sound because he thought it was financial suicide, stating, "Only 5% of the world speaks English, so why should I lose 95% of my audience?"

By 1925 sound had arrived in the form of radio, and it was inevitable that film would follow. Movie studios tried various innovations to keep audiences coming (Technicolor, wide screen, etc.). Warner Brothers, then a lesser film company, bought the old Brooklyn-based Vitagraph Studios and its all-important network of 34 film exchanges (the film distribution network vital to each studio) in 1925 and laid out plans to become a dominant force in the film industry. Sam Warner, one of the four Warner brothers, felt the future was in sound and convinced his skeptical older brother Harry M. Warner (the money man) to throw their lot in with Western Electric's 16" disc-based recording system, forming the Vitaphone Corp. on April 20, 1926, as 70% stockholders.

The Vitaphone process solved the synchronization problem electromechanically, corresponding the projection speed with the recorded disc by utilizing the same motor for both devices. While cumbersome in both recording (editing was impossible) and playback (discs were fragile), Vitaphone represented the peak of technological innovation, albeit briefly.

Don Juan, the first Warner Bros. feature to utilize the Vitaphone process, debuted in a gala premiere on August 6, 1926,

Warner's The Jazz Singer (1927) would become a monster hit 13 months later, solidly proving the public's interest in sound.

However, there were several sound systems then in development and none were interchangeable; the major studios like MGM and Paramount adopted a wait-and-see attitude that persisted well into 1929. The most practical, Fox's Movietone (sound on film) system, eventually won out and Warners abandoned recorded discs in 1930 but kept the Vitaphone trademark before the public well into the 1940s.

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Which is a segue to an item about John Barrymore that has previously appeared in Bytes and is worth another airing . . .

The story of Errol Flynn and the corpse of John Barrymore has been denied as true by some, maintained to be true by others including Errol Flynn and Raoul Walsh. The following account of that story is from the website "13th Floor" at:

John Barrymore

Raoul Walsh
The eyepatch covers up his lost eye, the result of a car crash.

Errol Flynn
It’s one of the oddest and creepiest tales to emerge from the decadence of old Hollywood and key players in celebrity grave robbing have gone on the record to confirm the gruesome tale of a corpse partying after its time on Earth was long done.

Silent movie legend John Barrymore who starred in the 1920 version of JEKYLL & HYDE was a hard drinking boisterous prankster who survived the transition from silent to talkies. He was the eldest of a famous family of thespians including Lionel and Ethel Barrymore and his granddaughter is Drew Barrymore.

Barrymore was drinking buddies with a bunch of Tinsel Town boozers including ROBIN HOOD swashbuckling lothario Errol Flynn, W. C. Fields, and director Raoul Walsh – among other such notables. They called themselves the Bundy Drive Gang and specialized in irreverent high-brow carousing – intellectual boozehounds that delighted in pranking one another. They made Sinatra’s Rat Pack seem a bunch of choirboys when it came to excessive boozing and whoring.

One long standing account of their escapades was Flynn’s involvement in the post-mortem adventures of longtime pal John Barrymore’s corpse. Bereft over the death of their ringleader in all times debauched, Barrymore’s pals lifted “The Great Profile” from the mortuary and took the corpse into to Flynn’s house for a macabre “farewell party” which may very well have been the inspiration for the 1980s flick WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S.

In his memoir MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS, Flynn recalled the horrifying tale. When his mentor and drinking buddy Barrymore died suddenly from pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver on May 29, 1942, Flynn was so overcome with loss and grief he dove head first into an uncontrollable bender, drowning his sorrows at LA’s famed Cock and Bull Bar with THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON director Raoul Walsh.

While Flynn was still chug-a-lugging, Walsh excused himself, saying he was too upset to continue the wake and slipped out. Walsh hopped in his car and paid a quick visit to the Pierce Brothers mortuary which was where the late Barrymore lay in state. After a bankroll exchanged hands, Walsh bribed the parlor director, retrieved the departed, dumped him in the car and drove back to Flynn’s mansion. Walsh awoke Fynn’s groggy butler to help bring the stiff inside.

“Mr. Barrymore’s drunk – so lend me a hand,” he recalled, telling the groggy butler. “I think he’s dead,” the butler snapped.

“You’ve seen him like this before,” Walsh insisted, “So help lend me a hand.

“All right – but he looks dead to me!'”

Walsh and the butler dragged Barrymore inside, carefully positioning the cadaver on Flynn’s expansive couch – looking for all the world as if he were simply passed-out.

Walsh ordered the butler to get the SVENGALI star some coffee to sober him up. The sight of a passed out Barrymore on the couch was nothing new to Flynn’s butler so off he went.

After draining the bar dry at the Cock and Bull, a highly intoxicated Flynn wobbly staggered home. At first, Flynn didn’t notice anything unusual when he entered.

“He sat down in his favourite chair and was talking about something or other, when the butler came back in saying ‘Here’s Mr. Barrymore’s coffee,'” Walsh recalled.

“And with that, Flynn saw Jack and ran out of the house screaming. He hid behind a bush in the yard, yelling, “Get him out of here! You are going to get us all of us put in San Quentin!’

“Well, I took Jack back to the funeral home and the mortician asked me where I’d taken him” Walsh recalled. I said "We went to Errol Flynn’s."

“You did?! he said. ‘Why, if I’d have known you were going to take him up there, I would have put a better suit on him!'”

Yet, according to an official Barrymore biographer, there was only one visitor to the funeral parlour, a well-known prostitute “who knelt and prayed and continued on her way in silence.” Gene Fowler, a member of the Bundy Drive Gang claimed he and his son were the only ones who stood vigil with Barrymore’s corpse with nary a drunken movie director nor painted lady in sight.
In Richard Schickel’s 1973 documentary THE MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES, Walsh went on the record again, confirming Errol Flynn’s account of the body snatch heist and practical joke.
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