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Introduction: The Uncertainty of Sound

film hollywood talkies

The serious problem of injecting sound into the now silent drama is in the offing. What producers will do in this regard, of course, is an unknown factor.

MAURICE KANN , Film Daily , 2 A PRIL 1928

Silent and Sound cinema. Few demarcations are so sharply drawn, so elegantly opposed, so pristinely binary. In the movies, sound is either off or on. Everyday conversation, reference books, shelving in video stores, college film courses and their textbooks, film rental catalogs, and festivals are organized around this fundamental rift in the history of the medium. Over the years the story of the transition from silence to talking has been retold so many times that it has become a kind of urban legend. Everyone just knows it to be true. The components of the popular retelling of sound always represent it as a dividing line between the Old and New Hollywood. In no small part, this is a matter of rhetorical convention. Sound divides the movies with the assuredness of biblical duality. The emphasis often is on the effects of sound on individual actors—the great lover whose career was wrecked by a squeaky voice. The transition was also inevitable: sound was something that cinema lacked, and sooner or later it would have to be added. Unfortunately, in the process, the Art of the Silent Film was destroyed. So goes the legend.

An exemplary account representing the talkies as a sudden shift was written by the music critic Deems Taylor (remembered as the narrator of Disney’s FANTASIA 1940):

It was in the late summer [of 1927] that the blow fell. A new contraption had been peddled around the studios, a device for producing pictures that talked, by means of a wax recording of the actors’ voices, synchronized with the film projector. But the well-established producers did not fall for any such newfangled nonsense; besides, the cost of wiring all the theaters for sound would be prohibitive. It remained for the comparatively obscure and financially worried Warner Brothers to take a chance on the new process, which they named Vitaphone. They hired Al Jolson, one of the most popular musical stars of the day, selected a maudlin play entitled The Jazz Singer , and went to work…. The Jazz Singer 1927 out to be a box-office gold Page 2  mine that made over two million dollars for the Warners and set them on their feet financially. It made a movie star out of Jolson. But above all, it turned the film industry topsy-turvy and consigned the silent picture to the scrap heap. (Deems Taylor, A Pictorial History of the Movies [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1943], pp. 201-2)

Like so much of the writing about the conversion to sound, Taylor emphasizes its divisiveness. Before THE JAZZ SINGER , sound was only a dream; after the “revolution,” Hollywood was rocked by the hasty conversion to “all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing.” This shattering of the past became the central motif—and the title—of Alexander Walker’s book:

There has been no revolution like it. It passed with such breakneck speed, at such inflationary cost, with such ruthless self-interest, that a whole art form was sundered and consigned to history almost before anyone could count the cost in economic terms or guess the consequences in human ones—and certainly before anyone could keep an adequate record of it. There has never been such a lightning retooling of an entire industry—even wartime emergencies were slower—nor such a wholesale transformation in the shape and acceptance of new forms of mass entertainment…. The shape and especially the sound of cinema movies today was decided during those few years. Not in any cool-headed, rational fashion: but amidst unbelievable confusion, stupidity, accident, ambition and greed. (Alexander Walker, The Shattered Silents: How the Talkies Came to Stay [New York: William Morrow, 1979], p. vii)

A second component of the popular view of the coming of sound centers on the disruption of the lives of the stars. For most people, Hollywood and glamorous movie stars are synonymous. When Hollywood represented the change to sound in the revered musical SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952), directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, it produced a wonderful piece of nostalgic entertainment that, on more than one occasion, has been shown in film history classes as a kind of documentary. In fairness, the film may be slightly more accurate than most Hollywood historical treatments. And rightly so, since its producer, Arthur Freed, had, as they say, “been there, done that.” As a young lyricist, Freed was hired by Irving Thalberg at MGM in 1929. He wrote the words to, among a hundred other songs, “Singin’ in the Rain,” featured in two early musicals. The 1952 production was a cinematic roman à clef layered by the writers Betty Comden and Adolf Green with the patina of romance. Movie star Don (Kelly) reminisces for his fans at the gala premiere of his latest vehicle, THE DANCING CAVALIER . His costar and rumored fiancée, Lina (Jean Hagen), is strangely silent. Through a flashback, we see the “truth” about the matinee idol. He and his partner Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) arrive in Hollywood as vaudevillians and eke out a living playing mood music for the actors filming silent movie scenes. Don eventually becomes a John Gilbert-like screen lover, perpetually cast with the Greta Garbo-like siren Lina. Cosmo becomes head of Monumental Pictures’ music department. In the middle of a filming session, the studio head rushes in to halt the take. THE JAZZ SINGER is a hit; there will be no more silents. Lina, we learn, is not only stupid and vindictive, she has a voice like a chain saw. But she controls the studio’s sound policy because of her all-powerful stardom. Meanwhile, Don Page 3  has fallen in love with Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a showgirl who is everything Lina is not. She is bright, spunky, and independent, has a golden voice, and can she dance! The sneak preview of Monumental’s first all-talkie THE DANCING CAVALIER , is disastrous. The audience hoots at Lina’s diction, laughs at Don’s passionate “I love you, I love you, I love you,” and howls at the technical blunders, especially when the film and its record go out of synchronization. In an inspired all-night skull session (broken up by a song-and-dance number), Don, Cosmo, and Kathy decide to try naturalistic acting, jettison melodrama, and add music and dance. They also invent techniques which would be used in the talkies: voice-doubling and dubbing (Kathy will substitute her voice for Lina’s) and pre-recorded playback. Lina finds out and threatens to block Kathy’s career as a star in her own right, but when Don, Cosmo, and the studio head expose Lina as a fraud at the Chinese Theater, the coast is cleared for Don and Kathy’s costardom in the movies, paralleling their union in private life.

In the best classical manner of the history film or the biopic, the film weaves a tapestry of fact, fantasy, and character development. It creates the illusion that, though the events happening before our eyes are fictional, the underlying factual basis is real. Thus, for the historian of the talkies, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN hovers in the distance as a ghost. It is the return of a repressed idea that the transition to sound was really about the division between Old and New Hollywood. The timing in the 1950s could hardly have been coincidental. The motion picture industry was recovering from a major economic realignment—the 1948 consent decrees which required the studios to divest themselves of the theater holdings they had acquired during the late 1920s. Hollywood was also alarmed by the growing popularity and affordability of television, so what better subject than a film about coping with the threat of new technology? As Hollywood had survived the earlier revolution, analogously, it could weather the onslaught of television. This is the story of sound told the way Hollywood wanted it told—a crisis with a happy ending. Of course, in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN there are no pesky trade unions, no Actors Equity strikes, no mention of William Fox’s ruin, nor of a thousand lawsuits….

The talkies succeeded silents because that’s how nature is. Little seeds grow into oaks. The inevitability of sound as an organic metaphor pervades much popular writing. One of the most striking examples is in the aptly named The Film Finds Its Tongue , which describes how Sam Warner and a technician became fascinated with sound film by way of radio: “They spent hours poring over the mysteries of vacuum tubes, amplifiers, microphones, monitors, loud speakers. They were scrutinizing the embryonic ganglia of the Talkies!” 1 The image connotes an electrical device that will eventually grow into something simulating the human nervous system.

It is difficult to think of a more profound discrepancy between popular and academic discourse on a subject than that which currently exists with regard to movie sound. In the 1970s and 1980s, several historians began emphasizing film as an industrial system whose parts have specific relationships. When changes occur, they are harmonious. Instead of confusion and hotheadedness, analysts, led by Douglas Gomery, evaluated changing Hollywood as a macroeconomic structure and found deliberateness and rationality. The transition was driven by the dominant studios’ need to respond to competition from the outsiders Warners and Fox. Their one-two punch of physical expansion and experimentation with sound threatened to disrupt the major studios’ established oligopoly. The industry responded according to a classic paradigm consisting of three phases. “Invention” covers the development of the synch-sound apparatus up to 1925, when Warner Bros. became interested in exploiting it as Vitaphone. “Innovation” Page 4  includes the period when Vitaphone, Fox, and the “Big Five” studios defined various ways of applying sound. This phase ended in 1928 when the majors decided together to commit themselves to sound. “Diffusion” was the coordinated dissemination of sound domestically and abroad according to mutually beneficial terms dictated by the studios. This phase also included the swift wiring of theaters. Gomery constantly emphasizes the majors’ rational handling of the transition and concludes, “It was a gradual evolution , not a rapid revolution or panic. The majors did not rush into the production of talkies. They preplanned each step…. The changeover…was not chaotic, confused or filled with conjecture. In retrospect it was accomplished with little turmoil and saw all the majors increase , not lose, both profits and power.” 2

One of the lessons from recent research that informs this book is that the boundaries dividing Hollywood “before” and “after” sound were not so clear-cut. In fact, there is no unanticipated landmark event or watershed film which separates the golden age of silents from the modern age of the talkies. The transition was years in the making and in the finishing. While Warner Bros. played a crucial role in innovating sound, other corporations—Western Electric, RCA, De Forest Phonofilm, and Fox Films—were also spearheading the change. The central position of Jolson and THE JAZZ SINGER in Taylor’s retelling is absolutely typical, but the claim that this movie was the genesis of sound cinema cannot withstand scrutiny. And the motion picture industry did not turn topsy-turvy because of the talkies. No studios closed on account of the coming of sound; most increased their profits. Many theaters did go out of business during the time of the changeover, but whether these closures can be ascribed solely to the talkies is doubtful. There were abundant outside economic factors (radio listening and automobile driving are two obvious ones). For those theaters that made the switch, 1929 and 1930 were record-setting years for film attendance. The Depression caused the studios to scale back and theaters to close. But by 1931 sound production had been standardized and projection practice was again routine.

This book emphasizes the longevity—not the suddenness—of the transition to sound. Instead of focusing on one personality, event, studio, or single strand of technological development, I address several interlaced aspects of film production, reception, and, to a lesser extent, distribution. The interpretations espoused by Taylor, Walker, and the “Freed unit” provide a good story, but like so many narratives of film history, they succeed by drastically simplifying and reshaping the subject according to preconceived notions. Competing readings have been sheared off. Making sound violently revolutionary displaces the hidden violence of the historical method that produced the illusion of a clean break with the past.

Like much of our general knowledge about Hollywood, the concept of a dividing line between antediluvian silent cinema and the modern talkies was coscripted by the industry and the media. RCA in particular—but the other manufacturers were complicit, too—advertised its technology as the avatar of a New Era. Sound film was associated with the “coming” (in the Messianic sense) of the next millennium. “It was the dawn of a new era in amusement,” wrote Green about the advent. “In this year, 1929, the talkie is here, and here for the rest of the century.” 3 With an eye already on the end of the 1990s, the promoters of sound represented their devices as a total break with the past, as represented not only by silent movies but by the whole universe of pre-electrical communication.

This book portrays the transition to sound as partly rational and partly confused. In this respect, my argument departs somewhat from the revisionist accounts, which stress he systematic nature of developments in film. (Is there such a thing as “surrevisionism”?) While I do not object to the “big picture” approach, my own research slightly shifts the central issue. Certainly the studios had a strategy for change. They wished to hold their markets, remain competitive, and maximize profits. But the devil was in the details. They also had to reduce risk. It would be more accurate to argue that the studios tried to develop a proactive approach to the transition to sound but more often responded retroactively. They developed a coordinated master plan, then scrambled to contain the disruption of the talkies on an ad hoc basis.

Symptomatic of the newer academic treatment of sound is the rejection of history told as the exploits of business geniuses, or of individual stars, like Jolson. We now see these movers and shakers as cogs in the larger system. More attention is directed to film form and style. David Bordwell’s short but persuasive chapter in The Classical Hollywood Cinema was a linchpin in his and his coauthors’ argument that the sound transition epitomized Hollywood’s limitless resiliency and capacity to absorb technical or economic challenges. Far from disrupting traditional practice, the talkies made it even more entrenched. “By 1933,” Bordwell maintains, “shooting a sound film came to mean shooting a silent film with sound.” 4 Preserving dialogue-film style reined in certain nonclassical tendencies which sound introduced. Techniques were modified to make them more amenable to creating a talking simulacrum of what had been lost. The effort to contain sound was emblematic of the industry’s need for production efficiency and equilibrium and is mirrored in the microcosm of film style. Again, I cannot disagree. Repeatedly, one finds Hollywood technicians conversing about the need to “return to silents” and, after 1930, making rather smug pronouncements that they had more or less accomplished that goal.

One element missing from these approaches is the film audience. A model proposed by Rick Altman includes viewers in the calculus. In his theorizing of early sound, the individual film is not a text but an “event” which he likens to “the pinhole at the center of an hourglass.” 5 The two volumes of the glass represent the work of production and the process of reception. Traffic between the halves is two-way, with reception and production eventually feeding back into each other. This model avoids channeling films into preset textual meanings and analyzing them as lapidary works. Altman writes,

Conceived as a series of events, cinema reveals rather than dissimulates its material existence. From the complexity of its financing and production to the diversity of its exhibition, cinema must be considered in terms of the material resources that it engages. From the standpoint of sound, this is of capital importance, for it removes cinema from the customary, purely visual definition. As a material product, cinema quickly reveals the location and nature of its sound track(s), the technology used to produce them, the apparatus necessary for reproduction, and the physical relationship between loudspeakers, spectators, and their physical surroundings. Such an approach encourages us to move past the imaginary space of the screen to the spaces and sounds with which cinema must compete—the kids in the front rows, the air conditioner hum, the lobby cash register, the competing sound track in the adjacent multiplex theater, passing traffic, and a hundred other sounds that are not part of the text as such, but constitute an important component of cinema’s social materiality. (Rick Altman, ed., Sound Theory/Sound Practice [New York: Routledge, 1992], p. 6)

These manifold conditions of spectatorship would include the audience’s attitudes and preferences. But these were not documented at the time. Of course, there are many people living who recall their first experiences attending sound films. Northeast Historic Film conducted a survey in 1990-1991 and asked, “Do you remember your first sound picture?” and, “What did you think about the change?” THE JAZZ SINGER , SONNY BOY (1929), SEVENTH HEAVEN (1927), and WINGS (1927) were mentioned. (The last two titles were released only with synchronized music.) Though most responses were limited to a word or two, every one of the thirty or so who answered gave the sound film a positive review. They “loved it” and described the change as “great,” “more real,” and “miraculous.” Some of the memories were quite specific, especially concerning the emotions elicited by Jolson’s films (“Strong men cried”). One person recalled the competition among theaters in her small town (“Whoever had sound got the most people”). Another described the experience of seeing and hearing a film in 1928: “The star was Conrad Nagel, and the ‘talking’ was of one partial duration—not for the whole picture. Spooky—hollow sounding voices—larger than life and ghostly! But fascinating.” 6

Oral histories and recollections are valuable testimonies about the impact of sound on specific individuals, but they are necessarily limited by the representative validity of their small sample size, lack of controls, and, of course, subjectivity due to inevitable loss and embroidery as memories become more distant. Any account of the film audience (the plurality and diversity of its components are understood) must be a compromise. Is the materiality of reception an attainable ideal? Or is it always a wild card?

My emphasis in this book is more on end-use than on production. There is, perhaps, one form of documentation, the exhibitors’ trade news, which provides a roundabout clue to how audiences in general received the talkies. Whereas the foremost trade publication, Variety , tried to present a broad view of the entertainment field, its coverage was diversified among theatrical, vaudeville, and film production. Moving Picture World (which had merged with Exhibitor’s Herald), Harrison’s Reports , and Film Daily , however, addressed the concerns of theater managers. The last, a daily newspaper, cultivated links with exhibitors and responded to their concerns. Of course, it paraphrased studio press releases, just as the other trades did, but its editors also spoke up for the interests of its primary readership. Maurice “Red” Kann especially was an impassioned promoter of the sound film, believing it had the potential to bring entertainment to hitherto untapped audiences, and riches to his subscriber-exhibitors. Film Daily’s reviewers gave (allegedly—I have not been able to dispute this) objective reactions to the current films. Unlike other journalists who attended special press previews, the paper made a big deal of going to the movies with “ordinary” folks (though, practically, its reviewers appear to have restricted themselves to the Broadway entertainment district). Unlike Harrison’s Reports , a reviewing service that advised independent managers on the profitability of new releases, Film Daily was an outlet for wide-ranging issues affecting the business, protocol, and politics of showing movies. While its pages do not put us in the audience, they do give us a view of the coming of sound from the perspective of the exhibitor and his or her constituencies.

Audience involvement in film is far from systematic. I picture the industry as engaging with active but unpredictable consumers, trying to divine their entertainment desires. The films of this period are more like tests than texts. Rather than seeing Hollywood as a manufacturer planning for a rational changeover (the way Detroit retooled from one make of auto to the next), I prefer the analogy of the noisy bazaar. Eager customers were shouting for a new item, and the vendors were having difficulty keeping up with demand. The crowd clamored for some articles (for example, the filmed revue) but quickly changed its mind, leaving the supplier overstocked. Other goods (gangster films with charismatic stars) were in short supply. Hollywood, like the canniest and most prosperous merchant in the bazaar, tried to hedge by covering all the positions, anticipating future demand, and trying to satisfy everyone (thus offering a great diversity of films and genres during the transition). It was probably audiences’ tastes that pushed Hollywood, not to establish an alternate style of filmmaking, but to modify traditional silent practices.

Quickly the industry and film styles assimilated sound and settled down. But the way Hollywood achieved its goal of containing sound in 1931 was not at all what had been envisioned in the master plans of 1925-1929. Foremost, the introduction of sound set off or exacerbated various struggles for control over the new technology, film distribution, production and exhibition practice, social control of spoken language, and economic control of labor and the audience. Some of these contests ended definitively; others are still unresolved.

I also stress the effects of the international business depression on the changeover. After 1930 consumers could or would not spend their dwindling resources on the movies the way they did in the twenties. Though the pressure of standardization was always present in Hollywood, it was hard times—that is, lost admission revenue—that definitively forced the industry to limit its diverse, hedging approach to technology. Page 8  Producers abandoned technical experiments (like widescreen and 3-D), adopted industrywide technical norms, concentrated on moneymaking genres, and decided on a uniform foreign distribution strategy. The economic contraction blunted the struggle for control by forcing Hollywood further into noncompetition and product uniformity.

The transition to sound cinema was not the paroxysm which the industry itself and popular writers describe, but it was a complicated and messy business, owing in no small part to the vicissitudes of mass audiences. In this account, I try to preserve the tentativeness and uncertainty of the events, and the complexity of the industrial and cultural relations. In many ways, this history of these struggles for dominance is more engaging than the romantic version in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN . There are tales of brilliant but eccentric inventors, naked corporate avarice, stars ruined and restored, the race against competitors to wire theaters, violent labor strife, international cultural imperialism, the climax of the Crash, and the denouement of the Depression. But there are also a lot of loose ends and unknown factors in this story. At the time when sound was introduced, it was not clear whether it was important or whether it would be permanent. The steps necessary to implement it and what its place in the theater program should be were still open questions.

What you are about to read is organized as discussions of the negotiations and struggles for power over this new technology. I have not structured the book as a strict linear narrative (although chronology has been preserved as much as possible in each discussion for clarity), but as chapters with overlapping temporal frames. The progression, then, is not from one constituent phase of evolution to the next (link to link), but rather from general issues to more specific ones. Part 1 introduces the electrical aura in which film sound was first surrounded. In Part 2, I focus on how producers incorporated sound in particular films during the three release seasons of the transition, from mid-1928 through the spring of 1931. Part 3 examines particular aspects of the popular reception of the talkies. My history, perhaps archly, closes where many accounts of film sound begin—with a case study of THE JAZZ SINGER .

But first, here is a chronology which will provide the temporal context for these discussions.

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about 5 years ago

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