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Voting Dry and Drinking Wet

sound silent film pictures

Sound epitomized what businessmen hate most: uncertainty. William deMille declared, “We are face to face with a marvelous opportunity or tremendous catastrophe.”’ Harry Carr wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “What impresses me about the talkies is that no one knows what they are all about. Are they to be stage plays plastered onto a screen with all the stage dialogue? Or are they to be motion pictures with an occasional out-burst into conversation? Or just a slamming door or the moo of a cow or the tick of a clock for punctuation?” 2 Sound transformed more than one mogul into a hypocrite. Producers, in order to reassure lovers of silent films, actors, unions, and small-town and foreign exhibitors, said publicly that the conversion would be gradual and controlled, and that there would always be silent movies.

Cecil B. DeMille equivocated, saying, “Talking pictures are here to stay, but they will not replace entirely the silent pictures. Two years from now I would not hazard a guess as to which will be the more popular.” 3 Even William LeBaron of RKO, whose company made only talking films, did not think that sound would replace silents. Rather, sound film would “strengthen” them, presumably by reinforcing their silent values (perhaps in the hybrid part-talkie form). 4 Mordaunt Hall, in the New York Times , summed up the consensus: “It is by no means expected that the giving of a voice to the animated shadow figures will supplant silent film stories.” 5

Opponents of talkies within the industry were plentiful. Joseph Schenck of United Artists expressed the industry’s cant: “Talking pictures will never displace the silent drama from its supremacy, or affect the appeal of motion pictures with synchronized music and special sound effects.” United Artists would “use the sound device on those pictures to which sound is adaptable.” 6 The director Sam Taylor was explicit: “The talking picture is not a rival of the silent picture…. The silent screen play of today is too big and fine a medium of dramatic expression to fear its destruction.” 7 Fred Niblo, the admired MGM director, sounded his own warning, advising against tinkering with the silent film just because the talker was drawing a huge clientele. Among other things, he disliked the acoustic properties of film sound: “A good voice in a talking picture will be a canned voice, nevertheless.” 8

Lillian Gish was fearful that the cinemas past would be forgotten. “Whatever the public may feel about movies as they used to be before the sound innovations,” she insisted,

in the silent movies we achieved certain beautiful things. I mean that there were moments of beauty in pantomime and beauty in photography. Much of what we did was poor, but if the silent movies had had more time to develop, we might have made a really great and individual art in them. For myself, I still cling to the thought of creating those moments of beauty in pantomime. ( Film Daily , 29 September 1929, p. 10)

While the silent cinema had achieved artistic status in its own right, the German theater producer and film director Max Reinhardt contended that sound film was a doomed stepchild to theater: “Talking pictures, bringing to the screen stage plays, almost in their entirety, with dialogue, tend to make this independent art a subsidiary of the theater and really make it only a substitute for the theater instead of an art in itself. Talking pictures, in their relationship to the stage, seem to me like reproductions of paintings.” 9 Soviet   filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein, recently hired and then fired by Paramount, offered an uncompromising critique of the soundtrack: “I consider the so-called ‘all-talkie,’ the film with conversation from beginning to end, nothing but rotten trash. The sound part of the American and German films is a luxury, an element that has just happened to be added to them, but which has nothing to do with the films themselves.” 10

Pat Powers, even while extolling the virtues of his Cinephone system, concluded, “The reaction to one hundred per cent talking pictures is problematical. Talking throughout the entire picture has a tendency to retard the action and it will probably be only a matter of time before the public will discard the novelty (as boresome) for something more enduring.” 11 Many representatives felt, as did Herbert Brenon, one of the most popular directors, that adding voices to sound films doomed them. His argument, which was put forth time and again during the transition period, was that cinema had its own artistic essence. Applying literary or theatrical techniques would corrupt it. He maintained that “the production of motion pictures is a distinct art, having a basic formula—the presentation of stories in the form of pictures that move.” Words, “whether injected in subtitles or in the rather metallic synchronization of the talking machine, are an anachronism and…the attempt to imitate the vocal exposition of the stage is a straddle of two horses at once, with the inevitable fall between them a foregone conclusion.” Sound was a violation of the “purity” of the silent film because “the ideal picture is one that tells its story in a complete visual manner.” Aside from its intrusion into a visual world, Brenon also hated the acoustic quality of the voice, which invariably reminded the viewer of the apparatus behind the screen. He identified this as “the impossibility of excluding a consciousness of the machine in any reproduction of the human voice.” In case his theoretical objections were insufficient, Brenon also advanced an “efficiency” argument: “[A] situation on the silent screen can be convincingly registered in two minutes while the ‘talking film’ would take approximately six times as long.” 12

The decision to go to sound was made in the upper echelons of the Hollywood organizations. Many middle-rank managers and directors went along hesitantly. Monta Bell, at Paramount, is a good example of the prevailing notion that talking and film were antithetical, and that sound had to be administered in small doses:

[Its] value lies in its discriminate usage …but I am afraid that our producers are rushing forward sheep-like and embracing “sound” as the panacea for all their ills…. Pictures give us a medium whereby we could put intimate stories in big theaters—the closeup allowing us to make our characters intimate. But not so with sound…. Basically, I believe it to be wrong for dia logues. Our writers will become lazy. It will be so easy to sit two characters down and let them talk instead of devising ingenious means for getting over points with pictorial action as we do now…. For effects and occasional high spot speeches, yes. For entire pictures—well as far as I am concerned, silence is golden. ( Film Daily , 15 July 1928, p. 4)

Surprisingly, two weeks later Bell was appointed supervisor of all sound production at Paramount’s Long Island facility. A year later, in a remarkable interview, the fan magazine columnist Herbert Cruikshank caught one of the most vociferous tallde-haters in the industry in this sublimely awkward inconsistency. Bell remained outspoken about the sound film’s lack of merit. Yet, in the fall of 1929, he probably oversaw more talking film production than anyone else. When pressed, he defended his hypocrisy by distinguishing between his opinion and his work, prompting Cruikshank to conclude, “Of course, this is a personal—a very personal—opinion. Akin to those of the gentlemen who vote dry and drink wet.” 13 Cruikshank’s sly analogy between the national duplicity of Prohibition and the corporate attitude toward sound in Hollywood was apropos. Bell’s attitude was emblematic of the industry’s two-faced pronouncements. Kann presciently saw through the studios’ rhetoric: “The industry unquestionably is concentrating the full force of its efforts on sound. Arguments to the contrary are not supported by the facts. This is, of course, a reflection of public demand and, if so, as we have no doubt it is, the conclusion is that the big money will continue to be found in sound films.” 14 As producer-actor Gloria Swanson put it, “It’s all very well to talk of art and artistic ideals. We all have artistic ideals to some extent. But when you think of the millions and millions that are tied up in motion picture productions, you must remember that there’s got to be a return on that money.” 15

The major producers responded to this mixed prospectus for sound by means of the classic strategy for managing multiple risks: hedging. If it is impossible to guess whether scenario A, B, or C will play out, cover them all. This practice narrowed the odds of being shut out of competition, but it also lowered potential rewards. Hedging wastes some resources to save others; the perfect hedge produces neither a net gain nor a loss. Translated into practical terms, this meant that the safest route for producers would be to convert to sound as quickly as possible to satisfy public demand for talkies, while perpetuating existing (that is, silent) patterns of production.

The producers hedged in at least three ways: they redid successful films from the past as sound movies; they instituted dual-release policies, that is, they continued to make silent films (then silent versions of sound films); and they released films which combined silent technique and style with moments of dialogue, creating a new film form—the part-talkie.

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