De Forest Phonofilms: A Reappraisal

Arguably one of the more bizarre outcomes (albeit an indirect one) of Lee de Forest’s foray into movie sound technology, Gus Visser and His Singing Duck was made by his former business associate, Theodore Case, shortly after the two parted company under acrimonious circumstances. Case further refined De Forest’s technology, and this film was made as part of his attempt to sell it to Hollywood. Case succeeded where De Forest failed, the “2.0” Phonofilm system was rebranded as Fox Movietone and the technology established itself in mainstream use for almost three decades. Whether duck molestation had anything to do with that is open to debate!

Title

De Forest Phonofilms: A Reappraisal

Reference

Early Popular Visual Culture, vol. 4, no. 3 (November 2006), pp. 273-284.

Abstract

This article argues that existing research on the film industry’s conversion to sound largely overlooks the contribution of Lee de Forest and the “Phonofilm” system. Informed by research in De Forest’s personal archive, it suggests that to a certain extent, the development and commercial exploitation of De Forest’s technology contradicts one of the principal implicit assumptions made by historians of this period, that when technology became available which fulfilled certain economic and cultural criteria, its widespread adoption quickly and inevitably followed. Rather, it was De Forest’s refusal to conform to established and increasingly dominant business models that ensured Phonofilm’s failure, even if the technology itself was very similar to that used by the major Hollywood studios in the eventual wholesale conversion.

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