The Deforest Phonofilm and Vaudeville

A brief tribute today to inventor Lee de Forest (1873-1961).

De Forest is probably best known and most widely celebrated for his most significant invention, the Audion, a particular sort of vacuum tube, in 1906. (In shorthand you could say “he invented the vacuum tube”, but the world of invention is always more complicated than that.) The Audion amplified electronic signals, making possible long distance telephone and the practical commercial development of broadcast radio and television, and numerous other things. But here in our little show biz cul de sac we frequently have cause to celebrate one of his notable failures.

We are of course talking about the DeForest Phonofilm, De Forest’s cinematic sync sound system, which was introduced in 1923, thus predating Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone by four years. As we wrote here the Phonofilms were not as widely distributed as the Vitaphones, but since they were earlier they are often more highly prized by entertainment historians for the rare early glimpses of famous performers which they provide. Not all of the films survive, but among the notable vaudeville and other theatrical stars who made Phonofilms were: Eddie Cantor, Weber and Fields, Phil Baker, Ben Bernie, Sissle and Blake, DeWolf Hopper, Al Shean (with Carson and Shean), Raymond HitchcockChic Sale, George Jessel, William Frawley, Gloria Swanson, Elsa LanchesterMolly Picon, Borrah Minevich, Anna Pavlova, Wilkie Bard and Jack Pearl, Eva Puck and Sammy White, Albert Whelan, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Roy Smeck, Binnie Barnes, Al Herman, Monroe SilverGeorge Mozart, Geraldine Farrar, Brooke Johns, Morton Downey, Billie Bennett, Fannie Ward, Robb Wilton, Billy Merson, George Robey, Marie Lloyd Jr, Sybil Thorndike, Charles Paton, and Frank McGlynn (as Abraham Lincoln), and many others whom we’ll be adding to Travalanche in time. Phonofilm also captured other notables like George Bernard Shaw, and politicos like Calvin Coolidge, Al Smith, and FDR. And they made numerous Fleischer cartoons.

Phonofilm was rapidly superseded by systems like Vitaphone, Fox Movietone and RCA Photophone (used by RKO), and was out of the picture (ha!) by the ’30s. But we are grateful for what it bequeathed. For more on Lee De Forest see the swell official website here. 

To learn more about vaudeville, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on early film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube. And stay tuned for my next book Vaudeville in Your Living Room: A Century of Radio and TV Variety, coming November 2023.