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DON JUAN, THE FIRST SYNCHRONISED MUSICAL SOCRE

Don Juan wast the first film to have a synchronised musical score and sound effects, both of which were recorded using the Vitaphone sound film system.

Synchronised sound was a big first step towards the codification and standardisation of sound practices in cinema. Up this this point, accompaniment had been provided by a live orchestra or a piano player, depending on where the film was being shown. This setup was far from ideal, specially as far as distribution went, since there was little control over what music would be played and by whom. It could be a competent orchestra or it could be the local baker or carpenter moonlighting as a pianist and probably under the influence of alcohol.

The major stumbling blocks that had been getting in the way of synchronised sound were ineffective synchronisation, not enough amplification, and poor fidelity. Many attempts had failed and as a result major studios were not keen to make the switch to sound, nor did they think the audiences would be interested.

Warner Bros was a relatively small player in the industry at the time. They wanted to change that and decided to make a bold move with Don Juan. The marketing strategy the brothers adopted was to present the new technology as an opportunity to to make ‘high culture’ more widely available. This was also an attempt to raise the standing of the new medium and thus attract the higher classes, who saw the movies as vulgar and lowbrow.

In the opening night of Don Juan in New York, a short film was played before the film where Will H. Hays, President of the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America, talks about the advantages of the new technology. These are the words he used to sell it as ‘high culture’:

The accompaniment to Don Juan, which was performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, certainly delivered on the promise of ‘high culture’. The move paid off and it changed the course of the history of the medium – audiences loved it and other studios had no option but to convert.