When the Thomas Edison Company set out to make its sound films in 1913, preservation wasn’t necessarily what they were going for. However, what survives of the Kinetophone films allows the viewer of today a very special window into the past.
The system was complicated, at times fussy, and required multiple operators to make it work in theaters. The Kinetophone films were only made and exhibited for a year, and a small fraction of them survive. Out of the 200 films made, 8 have been digitally restored by the Library of Congress and the Thomas Edison National Historical Museum. They now sound better than they ever did to audiences in 1913, and are in way better synch. Some of the films exist in camera negative form and look amazing.
Most importantly, the acoustic recording techniques used that existed about 10 years before microphones were in use necessitated a performance technique that was second nature to the actors in the films. It was one that didn’t need to be adjusted for performance in the Kinetophone films. And it was one that wasn’t usually used in regular cylinder recordings.
For recordings made for commercial sale, the performers gathered around the recording horn, and could stand or be positioned in an ideal spot for pickup and reproduction. For the Kinetophone films, the cylinder recorder and recording horn had to be out of camera range. A pulley mechanism was devised that allowed the recording machine to move back and forth to follow the actors as they moved about the set.
But it still had to remain out of view of the camera, and therefore several feet away from the performers. Between the limitations of the acoustic recording horn’s ability to record sound on the wax cylinder and the distance the actors were from the horn, they needed to do the one thing Vitaphone actors and anyone using microphones 10 years later didn’t need to do with their voices.
They had to perform at full volume, just as they would in a theater. The restored Kinetophone films may appear primitive and have cinematic and technological shortcomings, their storytelling simple and theatrical because of the single six-minute take that each film was. But when you watch each of the eight films, you’re seeing the same thing performance-wise that audiences in a vaudeville theater were seeing.
My DVD label Undercrank Productions released The Kinetophone: A Fact! A Reality! in 2018, in association with the Library of Congress. The disc has been selected as a finalist in the Cinema Ritrovato DVD Awards for 2019. The awards ceremony will be held June 28th. The DVD is available on Amazon (in the US and internationally) and on several other online retailers such as the TCM Shop, Deep Discount, Critics’ Choice, and more.