In the wake of the spectacular success of the 1927 Warner Bros. musical The Jazz Singer, sound–that is to say, synchronized sound–became the hottest thing in Hollywood. It wasn’t the first time a soundtrack was produced and recorded to be played along with a film; the year before, Warner’s Vitaphone process had been utilized in producing a music track for the John Barrymore swashbuckler Don Juan (though that movie had no spoken dialogue). But The Jazz Singer sparked something in audiences, and it soon became obvious that the sound revolution was no fad. Al Jolson’s warbling, paired with a most prescient statement about the oncoming revolution, truly promised filmgoers that they “ain’t heard nothing yet.”
And it wasn’t just the live-action filmmakers that were getting in on the growing demand for sound pictures. Animators, too, saw the potential for synchronizing soundtracks to their cartoons. The Fleischer brothers had already begun playing with the idea in their Song Car-Tunes series; starting in 1924, three dozen of these “follow-the-bouncing-ball” sing-alongs were produced, highlighting popular tunes and standards. Initially, these shorts were designed for orchestral accompaniment, but in 1926, the Fleischers began working with inventor Lee De Forest to create recorded soundtracks for the shorts. De Forest’s “Phonofilm” process, which he had developed with the help of another inventor, Theodore Case, allowed for dialogue and music to be recorded directly onto film for the first time. My Old Kentucky Home, released in April of that year, was the first (albeit brief) instance of synchronized dialogue to be used in an animated cartoon, and though subsequent Car-Tunes were dialogue-free, soundtracks were recorded for all of them until the series ended in 1927.
Still, for all that the Car-Tunes were pioneering on a technological level, for the most part, the results were unimpressive, the animation less than inspired. It wasn’t until the premiere of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse-starring vehicle Steamboat Willie (1928) that the full potential of sound cartoons was realized. Willie was an entertaining marvel, one that married dialogue, music, and animation in a beautifully cohesive manner–a truly synchronized cartoon the likes of which had never been seen before.
Or had it?
Before Mickey whistled his jaunty tune aboard the steamboat, there was Paul Terry’s Dinner Time. The cartoon, which first premiered in September 1928, was released to theaters nationwide more than a month before Steamboat Willie made its gala premiere in New York City.
Dinner Time was part of Terry’s series called Aesop’s Fables. These cartoons, promoted as “sugar coated pills of wisdom,” started out as retellings of the traditional fables, complete with moral at the end, but soon Terry began crafting his own tales. He maintained the familiar Aesop trope of populating his stories with animal characters, and eventually incorporated his own popular Farmer Al Falfa character into the series as well. The series was an immediate smash, so much so that Terry’s Fables Studios, established to produce the cartoons, began cranking out one animated short per week to meet audience demand.
Terry’s business partner, producer Amadee J. Van Beuren, was intrigued by the promise of sound, and pushed Terry to explore the new technology to create a sound cartoon. Terry was initially reluctant, but eventually turned to Josiah Zuro, the resident composer and music director for Fables’ distributor, Pathé, to score the cartoon. Zuro used RCA’s Photophone process, which had been used previously in 1927 to create a music-and-sound-effects track to accompany the first Oscar-winning film, Wings, at special screenings in the country’s relatively few sound-equipped theaters.
Despite Terry and Zuro’s best efforts, however, Dinner Time did not make much of a mark. The synchronization of the sound is far from precise, and there is no truly discernible dialogue to showcase the technology. The bulk of the soundtrack is made up of animal noises, human murmurs and grunts, and random sound effects, but even those do not match up convincingly to the action onscreen. Moreover, the innocuous story has little to offer, and the lack of engaging characters makes for an overall weak cartoon. It’s little wonder that Disney’s appealing Mickey soon blew Dinner Time out of the minds of theatergoers.
Still, Dinner Time remains an important cartoon in the annals of animation history because it–not Steamboat Willie–was the first to attempt to bend new technology into something magical, giving audiences the first taste of the sound innovations to come. Building off the work of the Fleischers (who themselves were great admirers of Terry’s work), Fables Studios threw wide the doors to the animated sound revolution. Disney, who screened Dinner Time before recording the soundtrack for Willie, was inspired by Terry’s short, for seeing the results of Terry’s experiment convinced him of the great potential for synchronized sound cartoons (and, considering Disney’s reputation for unbridled hubris, he likely thought–correctly–that he could do it even better than Terry; in fact, upon seeing Dinner Time, Disney reportedly labeled it “one of the rottenest Fables I believe that I ever saw”). Disney undoubtedly went on to solidify the sound cartoon as something profitable and even artistic, but Paul Terry’s efforts clearly set the stage for his rival’s success. And within two short years, sound cartoons would become the norm, not the exception.
Less than a year after the release of Dinner Time, Paul Terry left the studio he had created and formed another, self-named venture, Terrytoons. Though his work never quite challenged the dominance of Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, and the other “big boys” of classic animation, Terry continued producing cartoons well into the 1950s, including such popular series as Heckle and Jeckle and Mighty Mouse.