One of the marketing ideas behind Warner Bros.’ move into sound was the idea that sound short subjects could provide cost-cutting substitutes for the live “presentation acts” then popular in big-city movie theaters. Initially these aspirations were pursued on a distinctly highbrow footing. For its initial program of sound-on-disc Vitaphone shorts accompanying Don Juan on August 6, 1926, Warners offered the overture from Wagner’s Tännhauser, tenor Giovanni Martinelli’s aria from I Pagliacci, sopranos Marion Talley and Anna Case performing music by Wagner and Beethoven – with only Roy Smeck’s solo on the Hawaiian guitar offering lighter musical fare. But Warners abruptly shifted gears with its second program (October 7) – which showcased performances by Al Jolson, George Jessel, and the comedy team of Willie and Eugene Howard – inaugurating a policy of “canned” Broadway-style performances that immediately set a new industry standard. As one of the earliest chroniclers of the history of sound film, Fitzhugh Green, explained in his 1929 study The Film Finds Its Tongue: “Audiences manifestly liked the vaudeville shorts better than they did the operatic ones, and Sam [Warner] and the Manhattan crew began making vaudeville acts and dance orchestras in preference to the heavier stuff.”
A majority of the major studios followed Warners’ lead by including series in the Broadway style for their initial sound seasons: MGM, for instance, had its Metro Movietone Acts (featuring “vaudeville stars or teams”), Paramount a series of Paramount Talking Acts (“produced with the cream of screen stars and of Broadway talent combined”), and Fox its Fox Varieties. By the 1930-1931 season, however, the format was in decline, surviving primarily in musical shorts that provided rudimentary narrative motivation for the display of presentation numbers (for instance, MGM’s The Devil’s Cabaret , wherein Satan tries to make Hades a more appealing destination by putting on cabaret acts for its denizens). Warner Bros. itself largely forsook the format it helped pioneer when, in 1931, its short-subject division was reorganized to emphasize more clearly identifiable film series such as the Big “V” Comedies, Looney Tunes cartoons, and E. M. Newman’s Travel Talks.