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A film that exemplifies the direction in which Hollywood was taking sound is Josef von Sternberg’s MOROCCO , starring Adolph Menjou, Gary Cooper, and Paramount’s German discovery, Marlene Dietrich. Tom Brown (Cooper) is trying to forget a woman by the usual means, a stint in the French Foreign Legion. He meets Amy Jolly (Dietrich), who is also ailing from a broken heart and has renounced men altogether. She is starting her new life as (apparently) a lesbian chanteuse in a seedy nightclub. Brown catches her eye, though, and inevitably restores her to heterosexual man-worship. In the final scene, she kicks off her high heels to trek across the Sahara behind Brown’s platoon. (The film leaves room for doubt as to whether this is the right choice.)

Technically, the track is rather noisy. The splices are clearly audible because they were not altogether successfully blooped. This defect, however, enables us to hear how the different effects and music tracks were assembled. There is plenty of vocal foregrounding, exploiting the accents of the principals. (Amy Jolly is supposed to be French.) Vocal background sound occurs throughout, but especially in the nightclub scenes where conversations murmur behind the exchanges between Menjou and Dietrich. The film is punctuated by sound close-ups, sometimes associated with a gratuitous inserted source image (castanets, a flapping flag) and sometimes just added for acoustic “color” (the foghorn, the howling desert wind). Rising and falling sound levels indicate approaching or receding troops on the march. Sternberg’s use of sound is perhaps analogous to his stocking every scene with ubiquitous palm-leaf fans. These acoustic atmospheric effects evoke a multi-sensory experience of the existential and erotic swelter of Morocco.

But the film is also notable for its pronounced lack of talking in key scenes. At the opening, when Brown is setting up a date with an Arab girl (a prostitute), they communicate by glances and finger gestures. At movies end, Brown and Jolly stare long and longingly at each other. There are no words during the entire final scene, only the rising metaphoric wind and the fading sound of a marching drum, which continues past the Paramount “The End” logo. Arthur Carew of the Los Angeles Express understood the significance of Stemberg’s approach: “We must use dialogue sparingly, only when lines definitely highlight the character or point up the situation. Fortunately recent developments which have produced The Blue Angel, Morocco, Outward Bound and other cinematic gems are leading the way into a better understanding of our future needs.”


The musical turned around to sting Warners with big losses for BIG BOY , the Jolson vehicle, and VIENNESE NIGHTS , the last of the grand talkie operettas. (Both were directed by Crosland in 1930.) Zanuck, whose studio was the most committed to the now-unpopular stage-based musical, had a strong incentive to shift production to what he called “topical” subjects. He found his ideal in a novel by W. R. Burnett, the source for LITTLE CAESAR (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1930). The story was transparently based on the sensational exploits of Al Capone. “Raw meat stuff reel after reel.” The ambitious sound track established the ambience of the gangsters’ milieu. Edward G. Robinson’s gravellyvoiced performance fascinated audiences and critics. But his snarling argot was something never before heard in the movies: “Yer yella, ya dirty …,” and, “Yeah, I’ll park it. I don’t need no cannon to take care of guys like you.” Dialogue is used to implicate the eavesdropping movie viewer in the narrative, as when Big Boy (Sydney Blackmer) says conspiratorially, “Listen, Rico. I’m gonna talk to you, but you’re not gonna hear a word I say, see? This is inside dope.” Rico (Robinson) pays close attention—and so do we. In the famous opening scene, we see a dark gas station off in the distance. Shots ring out, a cash register chings, and a door slams to depict the robbery without showing it. As Sam introduces Rico to the mob, LeRoy interpolates footage shot silent with a mobile camera, flitting from face to face. The same technique is used in the tour-de-force New Year’s Eve holdup of the Bronze Peacock nightclub. The sound editors have constructed a track with several planes. Crowd noises continue as Rico bursts into the lobby (filmed silent). In a series of rapidly edited views (only two to ten seconds each, joined by dissolves), Rico executes the heist. The only dialogue is a close-up of Rico barking out, “Stay where you are,” just before he shoots the crime commissioner (dubbed gunshots). Outside, the sound track blends into the street noise of the city. Hall scored LITTLE CAESAR high on its story and acting: “The production is ordinary and would rank as just one more gangster film but for two things. One is the excellence of Mr. Burnett’s credible and compact story. The other is Edward G. Robinson’s wonderfully effective performance.”The actor’s voice became the icon of tragic gang leaders.

The Warner “realist” cycle was under way. SINNER’S HOLIDAY (dir. John Adolfi, 1930), a squalid story of carnival life, gave the contract player James Cagney an important role. He confesses to a murder in the last scene and is led away to his execution, his voice aching with high-strung emotions. DOORWAY TO HELL (dir. Archie Mayo, 1930) starred Lew Ayres and Cagney in a supporting part. Hall appreciated the evocation of criminal atmosphere: “a plausible screen version of the underworld which will bring the flavor of familiar things to a public that has watched with growing alarm the reckless activities of gangland.” Zanuck promoted Cagney over Edward Woods to play the lead in PUBLIC ENEMY . The new star’s bravura performance included individualizing mannerisms—a sly wink, a soft punch on the chin with the fist—as well as a voice that ranges from sweetness with his lover to shrill vulgarity (to the waiter in a speakeasy concerning a couple of drunks: “Send those two smack-offs home to their mothers”). The director, William Wellman, utilized the relatively portable Vitaphone recording gear to open up his story with exterior shooting (using the Warner/First National backlot street sets and the main street of Burbank to stand in for Chicago’s Michigan Avenue). These exteriors appear to have been filmed with a single camera, but multi-camera cinematography was used liberally on the soundstages. The scene in which Mike (Donald Cook) confronts his brother, Tom Powers (Cagney), about his life of crime is noteworthy. The action takes place in Mike’s bedroom in the space of about eight feet. Yet apparently five cameras were recording simultaneously: one for a frontal long-shot, one for a frontal medium-shot, one for an oblique medium-shot from the right, and two for over-the-shoulder shot—reverse shot close-ups during the tensest moment of the argument. In addition, the frontal camera tracks in close, pulls back during the confrontation, then pans and tilts to follow Cagney as he kicks the door. This use of multiple cameras has little in common with multi-camera recording of the superabundance of a big stage number; the technique instead is used to micro-analyze the dramatic scene into its component visual parts. In addition to providing the editor with “easy” match-action cuts, the multi-camera cinematography preserves the spontaneous intensity of the performance. Meanwhile, the sound track keeps running uncut and the recording level is unchanged   throughout. Elsewhere there is some acoustic spotting, for example, using the staccato sound of an unloading coal truck to camouflage the rival gang’s machine-gun attack. But for the most part, the effects are used to create mood and dramatic unity. There is no theme song, in the sense of an encapsulated performance; rather, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” emerges as a leitmotif at key moments during the film. We hear an ominous version under the main titles, a honky-tonk piano rendition, and finally, the tune playing on a phonograph record in the Powers’ parlor. It symbolically hits the final groove just as Tom’s mutilated body crashes over the threshold. The horror of Tom’s death is emphasized by the banality of “Bubbles.” The public loved the film and idolized Cagney, despite (or because of) the scenes in which he impulsively shoots a racehorse because it killed his boss and when he crams a grapefruit into his lover’s face. Robert Sherwood picked up on the misogyny which runs throughout these early gangster biopics:

Cagney’s ascent to eminence during the past year has been astounding, unaccountable. He is the type who, according to all the laws and traditions, should be a competent small part player, but never a star…. Cagney is the first one whose appeal is based on a sock in the jaw delivered either to the man he hates or to the woman he loves (preferably the latter). Every time Cagney clenches his little fist, the audience begins to squeal with delight, and when he lands it with audible impact upon the fair countenance of Mae Clarke or Joan Blondell or Loretta Young, or whoever the unlucky girl may be, the audience’s enthusiasm is unbounded. “Hit ’er again, Jimmy!” they shout in their atavistic glee. What’s the reason for this? Is it possibly a manifestation of wish-fulfillment? Have the film fans been nourishing a secret desire to bust the noses of their favorite cuties? (Film Daily , 7 March 1932, p. 9)


Another new performer with a quirky voice would prove to be among the most important male dramatic stars to emerge during this period—but not immediately. Film Daily found it somewhat remarkable that Fox had chosen for a principal role in Raoul Walsh’s The Oregon Trail an actor whose only experience had been in bits, extra work, and assisting in the Fox prop shop. Marion Michael “Duke” Morrison became John Wayne, and the film became THE BIG TRAIL , released in October 1930. (The paper found the musical score to be even more remarkable: “Strange to say, the film won’t have any theme song.”) Winfield Sheehan was enthusiastic about the neophyte actor with the honey voice and was “laying out big plans for a smashing meller with all the trimmings called No FAVORS ASKED , to star John Wayne who has done big things in THE BIG TRAIL .” The actor signed a long-term contract in August." The story shows Breck Coleman (Wayne) and Red Flack (Tyrone Power) locked in a bitter struggle for control of the wagon train (rather like what was happening in the Fox home office). Recorded sound overlays are used extensively to create atmosphere. A distant figure sawing logs, for example, is accompanied by sounds of her work. Most of the camp scenes have the sound of dogs barking—though not coming from any visible canines. Orchestral music is used much like that in silent films. When Coleman is telling Indian stories to the children, ersatz Native American music plays. A homey tune plays as he says good-bye to his girlfriend, Ruth (Marguerite Churchill). Sometimes the balance between the planes of sound effects is not good. On the steamboat landing, for instance, the actors can scarcely be heard through the layers of din. Hall complained that occasionally the voices did not come from the mouths of the players. (This dislocation was probably induced by the widescreen Grandeur image.) There is vocal foregrounding as Zeke (Tully Marshall) impersonates various animal calls, and Brendel speaks in his caricatural Swede dialect.


The studio produced one of the last full-fledged operettas in December 1930. Lawrence Tibbett costarred with Grace Moore, also from the Metropolitan, in a film adaptation of NEW MOON (dir. Jack Conway). (Moore’s previous solo film, A LADY’S MORALS 1930, was a musical biopic about Jenny Lind that had flopped.) They sing Oscar Hammerstein II and Sigmund Romberg’s original score, sometimes motivated by the plot, but sometimes not.

THE BISHOP MURDER CASE (dir. Nick Grinde, 1930) was an amusing low-budget film which explored the acoustic possibilities of the detective genre. Solving the murder mystery hinges on discovering the source of a scream heard in the first scene. As Philo Vance, Basil Rathbone uses his mellifluous voice to establish his character’s Sherlockian command of any crime scene (although microphone placement problems sometimes make his speech fade in and out—this film was recorded by Donald (or Frank) MacKenzie, not Douglas Shearer). Prerecorded offscreen sounds help establish a dramatic space: creaking doors, footsteps, sirens, typewriter keys, a ticking clock. The plot is conceived to maximize sound clues for establishing the serial killer’s method of operation (leaving nursery rhyme clues). A radio broadcast informs us when midnight arrives. Finally, like the trial films, this one indulges in a long spoken explanation of the criminal’s motives and the details of the detective’s reasoning.

Cecil B. DeMille’s second film for MGM was his flamboyantly campy MADAM SATAN (1930), which can perhaps be described as Ship of Fools set on a dirigible—with show   tunes. A highlight is the “electrical ballet”: the guests dress as spark plugs and other symbols of electricity. A reporter visiting the soundstage recalled the experience:

Only the property man’s catalogue could describe in detail what was there. Only a colorist of the Dada school could convey an impression of it. It would have made a combination of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, a sunset over Vesuvius, Broadway at night, and the Quat’z Arts Ball seem pale and repressed. It was supposed to be a fancy dress party on board the Zeppelin…. At the height of the festivities the Zeppelin was to break to bits, and somehow you hardly blamed it. (Mildred Adams, Woman’s Journal , June 1930, p. 16)

The climactic zeppelin crash, with all the principal characters getting their just desserts as they parachute into various symbolically appropriate landing spots, gave DeMille a chance to enhance his spectacle with booming sound effects. But Edwin Schallert wrote in the Los Angeles Times , “The superabundance of sound palls, and leaves one weary.”

WAY FOR A SAILOR (dir. Sam Wood, 1930) was a “weak number lacking punch and with little woman appeal. [John] Gilbert [who was said to have collaborated on the writing and direction] miscast, and entire production ordinary.” Film Daily’s scorching continued:

It is hard to figure out just why they took the trouble to produce this one. It is one of the weakest productions on the entire M-G-M schedule. The story is pretty sordid, detailing the routine life of sailors on a merchant ship. The lives of three sailor buddies, Gilbert, Wallace Beery and Jim Tully, are high-spotted Page 368  in trips to various foreign ports. Then arrived in London, we see Gilbert’s love affair with a girl whom he finally induces to marry him. He has taken some money the sailors gave him to buy a concertina, and with it gets himself a suit and pays the wedding bill. Business of the sailors punishing him for his deception, while the girl beats it on learning he is still a sailor although he told her he had become a civilian. And so on and so on, a flat tale with no appeal to the femmes. (Film Daily , 14 December 1930, p. 11)

Hall was kinder, allowing that Gilbert was a little better than in REDEMPTION , but only partly successful in delivering his British accent.

Vidor directed a somber A Western, BILLY THE KID (1930), with John Mack Brown. The film has background music motivated by the Western setting and a theme song. Billy’s rendition of “The Cattle Rustler’s Song” is integrated into the narrative by foretelling the ending (“I know that in the Great Beyond we’ll sing heigh-ho”). Gunshots and painful screams shocked viewers with the sounds of violence (“more reports of firearms are heard here than in any other film,” observed Hall). But these are contrasted with scenes of cowboys singing around a piano, a domestic image that suggests the carving out of a home on the wild frontier. Narrative information is conveyed through eavesdropping, as when Billy (Brown) overhears the plot to kill his boss, Tunston (Wyndham Standing). The tune from a music box is used in ironic counterpoint to a crackling fire as Billy flees a burning building. The sound of sizzling bacon is spotted when Pat Garrett (Wallace Beery) fries a batch to entice the hungry Billy from his cave hideout. Slight continuity errors between shots within scenes reveal that Vidor did not consistently use multi-camera shooting—if he used it at all—perhaps because the film was released in both standard 35-mm and Realife versions. Hall thought that “the views on the wide screen are so compelling that when one goes to see a picture on an ordinary sized screen the standard image looks absurdly small.”

Marie Dressier won an Academy Award for her performance in MIN AND BILL . George Hill, as he had done in THE BIG HOUSE , brought the camera in close for melodramatic intensity. Dressler’s face graphically registers Min’s warring emotions when she says farewell to her adopted daughter Nancy (Dorothy Jordan), who is leaving the shabby wharf to marry the scion of a wealthy Boston clan. Unknown to the daughter, Min has just shot Nancys biological mother (Marjorie Rambeau) to prevent her from revealing her lower-class origins. There is noticeably less foregrounding of sound effects than in Hill’s previous work. Instead, natural sounds suggest an audible bouquet of the seedy waterfront just offscreen. Sound also constructs screen space with architectural precision, inviting the viewer to infer an imaginary relationship between the sets. In the boardinghouse barroom, an unseen piano is heard. As Min goes upstairs to her room, the piano sound fades to an intermediate level when she is in the hall outside her door, then to a barely audible level when she enters her room. (The changes were evidently done by mixing a prerecorded track in post-production.) When Bill (Wallace Beery) peeps through her keyhole from outside, the piano reverts back to the louder “hall tone.” It resumes its nearly inaudible level when he enters her room, diminishes, then disappears, ignored by all but the most acoustically attentive listeners.

The gin-soaked voices of Dressier, Beery, and Rambeau are crucial in establishing their plebeian social status. Nancy’s transformation from low-class gamine to prep-school graduate worthy of a high-society marriage is conveyed by costume, by bearing, and especially by the change in Jordan’s voice, which goes from common to cultured.


Radio Pictures’ initial box-office success quickly dissipated. DIXIANA (dir. Luther Reed, 1930) cost a fortune but was unpopular with critics and lost money. Ambitious pre-production plans for a stereoscopic, all-Technicolor extravaganza were greatly scaled back, but it remained a lavish production. Bebe Daniels is Dixiana, a singer and juggler in a New Orleans circus in the 1840s. She is courted by Carl Van Horn, the son of a Pennsylvania Dutch family which has inherited a great plantation. Dixiana leaves Carl, played by the Metropolitan Opera star Everett Marshall, to save his honor when his stepmother will not allow a déclassée actress in her house. The comedy duo Wheeler and Woolsey provide mild slapstick, including a running gag about picking up some cigars and getting a kick in the pants. The technical difficulties Reed had with sound in RIO RITA have been brought under control, but in DIXIANA there is much less creative experimentation. Some songs are encapsulated performances, as when Dixiana sings from the music-hall stage. Others develop spontaneously operetta-style in duets with Carl. Hall, who may have been contradicting his ongoing campaign for better integrated musicals, but who always liked a good song, wrote of Marshall, “His singing is a distinct asset to this production, so much so that one wishes there was more of it and less of the some-what futile attempt at a story.” Bill “Bojangles” Robinson also dances an encapsulated tap routine, his only appearance in the film. New York audiences responded to it with applause.

DANGER LIGHTS (dir. George B. Seitz, 1930) contains its share of foregrounded sound effects to capture the auditory environment of its rail-yard setting. The film premiered in the Spoor-Berggren Natural Vision widescreen format, with sound on a separate track, but in most cities the film played in the normal 35-mm Photophone format. Train whistles, a rock slide, and the acoustic spectacle of a tug-of-war between two locomotives thrilled the listener. Its sound-recording engineer, Carl Dreher, designed many scenes to showcase his new parabolic microphone. Nevertheless, in the scenes shot on location in the train yard, the loud background noises frequently occlude the characters’ speech. Elsewhere, ambitious and more successful attempts are made to isolate characters’ dialogue as they move around the set, as in the bar scene. By holding the parabolic mike on a character and not following him as he left the picture—for example, in Doyle’s shower scene—an effect of acoustic depth was created. Several times the camera (and sound) reframes by tracking into a close two-shot.

RKO’s monumental Western C\IMARRON , adapted from Edna Ferber’s novel and directed by Wesley Ruggles, is a sprawling story inspired by the settling of what became Oklahoma. The saga highlights the heroism of Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), a newspaper editor and family man who is not above shooting a bad guy in church. The film is a good example of the successfully modulated sound track: gunfights, stampedes, and land rushes are wildly raucous; the printing press operator has a comic stutter; and the intimate moments between Dix and Irene Dunne are punctuated with long silences. It was voted best picture by the Academy for 1931.


The case of Universal, though unique, is instructive. Having ventured into the pricey domain of “quality” production, the studio executives retreated to familiar genres when the financial risk increased. The Laemmles knew from experience that the public  wanted to be scared by Gothic thrillers. THE CAT CREEPS (1930), directed by PHANTOM’S Rupert Julian, was a talking remake of THE CAT AND THE CANARY (dir. Paul Leni, 1927). It was nondescript.DRACULA (dir. Tod Browning, 1931) was, on the contrary, a big hit. It, too, was a quasi-remake, heavily influenced by Murnau’s classic NOSFERATU (1922). The sound track is rich in ambient effects (including the Count’s “children of the night”) that conjure a creepy atmosphere (analogous to Mumau’s stock-footage inserts of weird nocturnal creatures). “As the scenes flash by,” smiled Hall, “there are all sorts of queer noises, such as the cries of wolves and the hooting of owls, not to say anything of the screams of Dracula’s feminine victims, who are found with twin red marks on their white throats.” Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi’s liquid, if sepulchral, voice had just the right mixture of seduction and Transylvanian chill.


CHARLEY’S AUNT (dir. Al Christie, 1930) was a remake of the Christie brothers’ 1925 production. It was canned theater, preserving the three-walled set which provided plenty of doors and windows for entrances and exits. It used sound to foreground the “Oxford” accents of the characters and their student slang. Charlie Ruggles steals the show with his unique vocalization full of stutters and verbal double takes and, of course, his falsetto when dressed in drag as the aunt from Brazil, “where the nuts come from.”


It was still Goldwyn and Schenck who powered United Artists. Samuel Goldwyn’s 1929 partnership with Flo Ziegfeld paid off. Goldwyn had agreed to back Ziegfeld’s next productions, including WHOOPEE ! and Simple Simon (starring Ed Wynn), in exchange for the film rights. In the plot—or more accurately, the excuse—for Eddie Cantor’s musical mishaps in WHOOPEE ! (dir. Thornton Freeland, 1930), he is a hypochondriac, Henry Williams, who goes west for his health. He resists the attentions of Miss Custer (Ethel Shutta), his passionate nurse, but seems to have more of an eye for Wanenis, the half-Native American who is in love with Sally, who is eloping with Henry to avoid marrying Sheriff Bob Wells, who is after Henry for … get the picture? After disguising himself in blackface and passing as a Jewish Indian, Henry somewhat reluctantly proposes to Nurse Custer. He looks into the camera and signs off with his tag line, “That’s all there is.” “The film is completely Technicolor, is gorgeously costumed and alluringly musical. There is no attempt at realism,” said Film Daily approvingly, referring to the stylized Art Deco-influenced southwestern sets, flamboyant clothes, and Busby Berkeley dance routines, complete with his overhead “kaleidoscope” shots of dancers. The climax is a procession of showgirls mounted on horseback wearing increasingly outrageous headdresses—and not much else. Cantor exudes high spirits and cracks gratuitous Jewish injokes (“I could never be an aviator—” [rolls eyes] “Can’t eat sandwiches”). In “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” he kids his rivals in the talkies:

My baby don’t care for Lawrence Tibbetts [ sic ],
She’d rather have me to kibitz.
Chuck Rogers is not her style,
Or even Chevalier’s smiles.

Scott Berg has observed that WHOOPEE ! is significant as a direct transposition of Ziegfeld revue to the screen, “one of the most telling fossils of that extinct genre—with all its nonsensical convolutions of plot, unexplained comedic star turns, and burstings into song.” Contemporary urban audiences evidently liked those aspects and liked Cantor too; the film grossed $2.6 million. However, the production cost diminished Goldwyn’s profits. The film failed in smaller and regional markets, prompting Goldwyn to rethink how he marketed Cantor nationally. W HOOPEE ! is also an example of a film which used sound simply as a means of recording music and voice, while scarcely calling attention to itself as a means of expression.

Douglas Fairbanks announced he was remaking THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920) as a talkie—he never did. He did, however, take over REACHING FOR THE MOON (dir. Edmund Goulding, 1931), an Irving Berlin project costarring Bebe Daniels. He completed it and previewed it as a musical with five of Berlins songs. But the genre was considered to be such box-office poison that he recut the film and released it with only one musical interlude. “It’s a suave, 1930 model Doug Fairbanks who frolics through this clever piece of entertainment, set against a lavish background of Wall Street, Park Ave. and a modernistic ocean liner,” said Film Daily appreciatively. “The dialogue is swift and sophisticated.”

Mary Pickford’s Kiki (dir. Sam Taylor, 1931), unfortunately, was a flop: “Mary Pickford seems miscast in hoydenish and very artificial role that lacks conviction,” observed Page 373  Film Daily . Again, accents were a problem. “Miss Pickford manages a French accent surprisingly well for the most part, though she lapses from dialect often enough to hurt any illusion she hoped to create along that line,” said Hall. 38 She made one more talkie in 1933, then retired from the screen.

Lewis Milestone directed THE FRONT PAGE (1931), adapted from the hit comedy play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Howard Hughes’s Caddo Productions produced it for distribution through United Artists. Though eclipsed today by Hawks’s remake HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), the original version is really an extraordinarily fast-paced and lively film. In many ways it is the antithesis of the stereotypical early sound movie. Milestone’s camera roams the sets on its prototype Bell and Howell Rotoambulator, a three-wheeled dolly capable of tight turns. The scene in which Walter Bums (Adolphe Menjou) descends to the shipping area of his plant was shot on location in a real newspaper building using artificial lighting. As he strolled, the camera whisked along on tracks, panning to keep him framed. Meanwhile, location sound recording captured the roar of the machinery and shouts of the workers. For the most part, the construction of the film went back to silent technique—single-camera, multiple-take cinematography and fast editing. The scenes in the newspaper office, in particular, use shots of only a couple seconds’ duration to build up a frenetic atmosphere. The reporters’ wisecracks, punctuated by ringing telephones and the gratuitous noise of one of them plucking a banjo, show the chaos of their professional lives.

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