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The Well-Tempered Sound Track, 1930–1931 - Mass or Class?

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In 1930 regular customers began attending movies less frequently and spending less money. The motion picture industry cut back on production budgets, furloughed workers, and sold theaters, all the while trying to keep America’s alleged movie habit alive. The talkies had lost their allure as a technological novelty and a harbinger of scientific progress. The films of the 1930-1931 season had to succeed or fail on factors other than their use of sound.

The new filmmaking was very different. Sounds were being consolidated into the unostentatious presence which the critics had been espousing for a year or so. There was even a tendency to indulge in what producers were calling “silent” technique, though no one—except Charlie Chaplin, and even he only briefly—thought that real silent filmmaking would return. Filmmakers had the technical capacity to emphasize or diminish the sound at their disposal. It could be brought in or out, up or down, made “expressive” or “inaudible,” as desired. Voices and effects could be “synthetic,” the term used for dubbing and adding sounds in post-production. Music could well up and fade back to underscore action and mood. The new modulated sound track constructed a heterogeneous sensory environment, but one always dominated and unified by the voice.

The technicians’ increasing control of signal-to-noise in recording and playback was driven, in large measure, by a desire to improve the comprehension of human speech. Quieter recording media and directional mikes could amplify the voice above the internal noise of the thermionic system and isolate it from the unwanted sounds of the environment. The moviegoer could hear language, even softly spoken, without straining. Fans favored those actors with distinctive voices who spoke in a wide-ranging natural style and yet could soften their articulation for a more intimate effect. The boys on the lam in PUBLIC ENEMY (dir. William Wellman, 1931) can argue stridently or whisper conspiratorially and still be understood.

As ever, acoustic presence continued to be foregrounded, but was used blatantly only in comedy scenes. So when the heroes slip on a wet street in FIFTY MILLION FRENCHMAN (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1930) a funny note on a slide whistle can accompany them. The romantic leads in THE LOTTERY BRIDE (dir. Paul Stein, 1930) still break into an unprovoked, unintegrated love song, which may be enjoyed for its own sake. “It is a pictorial contribution that causes one to wish that the performers would sing more and talk considerably less,” conceded the Times’ Mordaunt Hall. He was still impressed by sound as punctuation in MOBY DICK (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1930): “When one hears the man in the main top shouting ‘Thar she blows!’ it creates a thrill such as the screen is seldom capable of affording.” 1 At the same time, but with no sense of self-contradiction, Hall espoused integrating sound as “inaudible” support for the image. The modulated sound track should only call attention to itself in a few circumscribed situations. For example, Dorothy Arzners ANYBODY’S WOMAN (1930) used a clever device to highlight sound. An electric fan “blows” a conversation across a hotel courtyard. Hall was not impressed. “This more or less ingenious notion can be accepted in an early episode, but when it crops up again in the climactic sequence the result is emphatically disappointing.” For the Times critic, this overly assertive use of sound was old-fashioned. His review of GOOD NEWS (dir. Nick Grinde, 1930) reacted specifically against the formerly impressive aesthetic of superabundance: “With sudden flaring into moonstruck ballads, ‘hotcha-cha’ dance numbers and all manner of contrivances short of a balloon ascension, the story is unfolded of a college hero who has flunked in astronomy.” Even Jolsons charisma failed to redeem BIG BOY (dir. Alan Crosland, 1930) because “the ancient ideas throughout the tale scarcely atone for Mr. Jolson’s gift of melody.” THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY (dir. George Cukor and Cyril Gardner, 1930) exemplified Hall’s insistence on sound not distracting from story development. “It moves along with such sureness and rapidity that it seems over all too soon…. It is evident that any extraneous dilly dallying with cinematic stunts would have interrupted the narrative.” Hall attributed the film’s snappy story to the original Kaufman and Ferber play, but for creating the brisk screenplay—"possibly the fastest example of film work"—he praised the directors and writers, Herman Mankiewicz and Gertrude Purcell. He mused:

It causes one to reflect on the difference between this current offering, which incidentally was produced at Paramount’s Astoria studio, and those that were put out two years ago. Here the leading rôles are performed by experienced players [Ina Claire and Fredric March], with the consequence that there is never any hesitation in their lines and their voices are admirably recorded, so well that one can’t help thinking now and again of the vast progress made in the technical end of this relatively new form of entertainment. (Hall, New York Times , 23 December 1930)

Hall contrasted this film to the first talkies: “It is a film without the slightest sign of the old technique.”

Trying to describe the specific effects of sound, Hall occasionally used the terms “sound close-up” and “sound intrusion” to describe acoustic events which stood out from the normal level of the sound track. The first term suggests an analogy to the silent-movie inserted close-up image; the second acknowledges that such effects are artificial additions to the “normal” acoustic environment. When these effects were properly orchestrated, the result could be superior to the silent film. In the review of MOBY DICK , Hall adamantly maintained that the talkie was better than the 1927 version (THE SEA BEAST ) precisely because it was “enhanced by a variety of sounds and the power of speech.”

The movies of 1930-1931 show the effects of Hollywood’s efforts to operate under tighter fiscal controls and stabilization. There were fewer releases as well as less emphasis on blockbusters and big spectacles. The musical genre breathed its last gasp (until its revival with Busby Berkeley’s extravaganzas for Warners in 1933), while studios tested the gangster and Western. The comedies of this period have in common their performers’ idiosyncratic voices and delivery styles, as well as the much-appreciated zany anarchism of their plots. These films attracted viewers the way pratfalls and chases did a decade earlier. Audiences seemed to be fascinated by the likes of El Brendel, the comedian with the corny Swedish accent in JUST IMAGINE (dir. David Butler, 1930), in which he plays a “sleeper” who is killed by lightning in 1930 and revived in 1980, and in THE BIG TRAIL (dir. Raoul Walsh, 1930), in which he is a henpecked immigrant settler. Moran and Mack dazzled white audiences with their “Black Crow” dialects. Stepin Fetchit drawled. Ole Olsen convulsed himself with shrill giggling. Eddie Cantor sang and joked with a Jewish inflection. Ed Wynn’s high-pitched nuttiness in FOLLOW THE LEADER (dir., 1930) was contagious. (Hall thought that “his gags could never be pictured to such advantage in a silent film.”) Chevalier oozed Gallic charm in PLAYBOY OF PARIS (dir. Norman Taurog, 1930). Will Rogers’s southwestern vowels were welcome. Charlotte Greenwood distinguished herself “with her ear-splitting voice and thrashing movements …, her steady stream of slang and wisecracks.” These comics’ vaudeville roots were clearly showing. Their voices were their living onstage, and the talkies gave them a national audience.

More subtly, melodramas and romances benefited from the ability of the camera to move in close to hear a sad crack in the voice or billets-doux spoken by lovers. Marlene Dietrich, in MOROCCO (dir. Josef von Stemberg, 1930), enthralls the listener with her world-weary throatiness, as when she tells Gary Cooper, “There’s a foreign legion of women too, but we have no uniform, no medals, no flags. But we are brave.”

Mass or Class?

The ideal of the modulated sound track did not develop in an economic vacuum. The Depression reached Hollywood by way of the box office in the fall, at the beginning of the 1930-1931 exhibition season. Hollywood, having no inclination to take unnecessary risks, joined other industries in reorganizing for the uncertain economic environment. In line with other aspects of production, sound had to be used as efficiently and predictably as possible, and thus producers needed to disseminate standard practices and conform to conventional styles. The directors and technicians who turned out routine weekly releases, Hollywood’s bread and butter, quickly absorbed sound production as another workaday task.

The use of theatrical material was discredited by critics. In Jack Alicoate’s opinion,that a new writing technique must be cut and tailored to fit the sound screen is universally recognized…. In the present situation the re-vamping of the old silents into talker come-backs will help for a while but it’s simply taking the easiest way. Lifting material bodily from the legitimate stage and transplanting it on the talkative celluloid will do only in spots. Probably more than fifty per cent of stage material, both past and present, is utterly unfit for screen use. (Film Daily , 10 March 1930, p. 1)

Thornton Delehanty wrote in the New York Evening Post ,

The terrible examples of screen plays which have derived from the stage are those in which the content has been lifted bodily from one medium to the other. That was what happened with practically all of the earlier talkies, and it is why so many discerning people threw up their hands in horror when sound supplanted silence in the motion picture realm. Even today, when definite advances have been made toward a distinct talking picture technique, it is seldom that a stage play successfully survives the transcription to the talking screen. (Quoted in Film Daily , 11 March 1930, p. 6)

Gilbert Seldes, writing in the Evening Graphic , was instrumental in popularizing the notion that filmmakers must adapt sound to an ideal cinematic essence: “If the talkies stop emphasizing dialogue and go in for conversation; if they discard their feeble idea of keeping speakers in view; if they learn to use speech and other sound as active parts in a great harmony, of which the moving picture is another part, then they will begin to make a new art of themselves.” Seldes’s notion a “great harmony” provides as good a definition as any of the modulated sound track.

There was a perception among critics (whether true or not would require a statistical survey) that fewer plays and more novels and magazine stories were being adapted. (The “original screenplay” was still a rarity.) “The connecting link between screen and fiction was strengthened during 1931,” concluded Film Daily . “Reading tastes coincided with the public’s taste for motion pictures as is shown by the fact that some 150 books, ranging from the classics to best-sellers of today, had been filmed.” Now that the sound film had become almost universal, Alicoate warned producers of the risk of being overintellectual:

Each [literary source was] an artistic success and each, apparently, something the great ninety per cent did not care particularly to see. The motion picture industry and its army of dependents cannot exist or carry on to the tune of raving critics or the approval of a decidedly intellectual minority. Its definite duty is to provide the great ninety per cent with the type of screen entertainment it prefers. [That] catering to a hundred million is naturally a leveling experience, is obviously rather clearly defined. Until the public, generally, respond to the subtle and more intellectual aspect of screen writing, direction and production, the process of reincarnating the motion picture to the point of intelligentsia-complex, must, of economic and financial necessity, be at least temporarily held in abeyance. In other words, the public evidently prefers to laugh and be amused, and not to have to think. (Film Daily , 19 March 1931, pp. 1, 2)

Contradicting commentators like Alicoate, the public had also cultivated a dislike for comics and musicals. The trade critic Gillette aptly observed in “Another Theory Gets a Jolt” that, despite the cry from theater managers that the public wanted laughter, only three of the thirteen top-grossing films in the 1930-1931 season were comedies.Social problem and gangster films performed unexpectedly well, a fact which did not go unnoticed by moralists.

Whether cinema did or should appeal to an elite or to a mass audience had always been a fundamental question of cinema. The Laemmles of Universal were characteristically blunt. Carl Senior reacted to a Sherwood column which supported the Hays Offices call for cleaned-up films and ads: “You favor advertising with the ‘highest esthetic appeal,’” retorted Laemmle. “You might get by with that if you were running a theater for esthetes, Mr. Sherwood, but I hope for your sake you never experiment with it elsewhere, unless you are backed by a bank roll which can weather a permanent business depression.” Carl Junior could not have said it more plainly: “Forget art…. Our mission is to furnish entertainment, not to educate the public or foster propaganda. Stick to the proven essential of show business—make pictures for the vast inarticulate public—stop trying to please the arty and articulate critics. The mob who made the film industry possible and prosperous always will be your best customers.” The flip-flop in attitude by the producer of the urbane KING OF JAZZ and Remarque’s prestigious ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is amazing. Universal, smitten by a negative cash flow, was henceforth staking its fortune on Bela Lugosi’s vampire and, soon, Boris Karloff’s monster. This conception of the movie audience as a lower-class mob might explain the moguls’ and exhibitors’ tendency to restrain experimentation and to standardize sound. With the industry in depression, there would be little incentive to adapt properties which appealed to an elite audience or to indulge in risky ventures like unorthodox audio techniques.

The short life span of the virtual Broadway concept in feature production suggests that literal transposition from stage to film was never a viable style. The industry’s efforts over the previous years had been channeled into creating a sound track which would enhance the film with dialogue without reveling in its technological origins. Hollywood had developed sound into an all-purpose mechanism. The same equipment and technicians could record and construct a sound track for screwball comedies, melodramas, or musicals. Hollywood had mastered the technical challenge of sound and was prepared to give audiences traditional movies with stories, not overt theatrical presentations such as vaudeville acts, opera selections, or upper-class melodrama. Though films would never again be silent, the production process was once again routine. And going to the movies was fundamentally the same experience it had been a few years before sound.

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