The role of songs in motion-picture theater programs was both transformed and revitalized by the advent of sound. During the early silent era, audience singalongs to illustrated song slides had been a mainstay of exhibition practice, dwindling around 1913/1914 as a result of programming changes wrought by feature films. With the advent of sound, however, song returned once more, albeit now primarily in the form of recorded short-subject performances to be watched and listened to, not for audience participation.
Operatic song was a first port of call – if only briefly – in keeping with ideals of cultural uplift with which sound technology was initially associated. For its debut program on August 6, 1926, for example, Vitaphone included a short of Giovanni Martinelli singing the aria from I Pagliacci, and would go on to produce some sixty-five opera shorts between 1926 and 1932. Overall, though, the trend was weighted more toward popular songs, for which short-subject rendition could serve the additional promotional goal of “song plugging” – a not insignificant consideration given the consolidation of motion-picture, radio, and music industries that occurred during this period.
Song short subjects were additionally important in securing regional appeal outside the nation’s major cities, particularly so for smaller, independent producers/distributors. Cases in point are Educational’s Song Hit Stories and Song and Comedy Hits lines, produced by Al Christie at Educational’s Eastern Service Studios in Astoria. The most enduring and consistently popular of Educational’s musical series (lasting from the 1933 to 1938), the Song Hit Stories and Song and Comedy Hits were song-filled sketches running the gamut of musical idioms, but with a particular emphasis on the vernacular styles of hillbilly and country music.
It deserves to be added, finally, that audience singalongs were not entirely absent in the sound era: in 1929, the Fleischer brothers relaunched their “follow-the-bouncing-ball” Song Car-Tunes singalong series (originally 1924-1927) under the new title, Paramount Screen Songs, which ran until 1938.