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Foreign Affairs - The Yankees Invade, Paramount in Europe,  , The First Paris Agreement

american sound films film

Sound enabled the American film industry to solidify its power as the leading exporter of entertainment. At the end of the 1920s, about two thirds of the world’s 57,341 cinemas were outside the United States and provided Hollywood with substantial distribution revenue. Though one can read again and again that producers were terrified that sound would mean the loss of overseas markets, there is little expression of such terror in the trade journals of the day. Nor do the statistics show any decreases in exports. It is more likely that producers saw the emerging technology as an opportunity to saturate European markets with their product. The challenge, as with all other aspects of sound, was how to channel it in ways that would gather new audiences.

While the studios were converting in 1928, many were not convinced that the talkies would succeed in the domestic market, let alone overseas. So they did not develop a uniform strategy for international exploitation. Fox, for instance, rejected speaking parts in foreign releases as “unfeasible for the present at least.” 1 United Artists’ Joseph Schenck would not consider any international distribution schemes for sound films. He doubted that the talkies would catch on regardless of the export country’s language: “Even in English-speaking countries only certain pictures will permit of spoken lines as an accessory. Even with these there will be only occasional instances of success.” 2 N. L. Manheim, the export manager of Universal, asserted, “I firmly believe that the silent picture will always have an important place on the screens of foreign countries.” Film Daily polled industry executives in 1929, asking, “Does sound mean an end to internationalism in motion pictures?” Most of the responses were long-winded pronouncements about America’s cinematic invincibility. Will Hays’s complete reply was, “The answer is certainly not.” 3 Though terse, it was right on the mark. Exports in 1929 set a new record: 282,215,480 feet (against the old record of 9,000,000 feet in 1919). "A rather engaging answer to the suggestion that the talkers have ruined our foreign film trade, " mused Jack Alicoate. 4 Of course, most of this footage was silent. The slow change to sound in Europe undoubtedly prolonged the production of silent versions of Hollywood talkies. It also gave Americans a chance to make plans which, in principle, would let them tighten their grip on European and Asian commercial film.

U.S. exports had dominated world markets since World War I. At the end of the twenties, before the conversion to sound began, this commanding position showed signs of weakening. Britain successfully imposed a quota in 1927. Germany, France, Italy, and the Scandinavian countries had been trying to form a cartel to resist the Americans, a loosely defined movement called “Film Europe.” American firms’ market share in these Page 419  countries had been decreasing since 1926. The U.S. Department of Commerce responded by strengthening its Motion Picture Division. 5 How would sound affect this possibly shifting balance of trade?

The 1928 Department of Commerce report indicated that Great Britain provided the greatest opportunity for expansion, not only because of the shared language, but because the “advanced popularity” of the movies in Britain ensured the financial worthiness of the conversion. Next in profit potential came Germany, and then, a distant third, France. The Commerce report concluded that because of the lack of European linguistic or economic unity, no single country making films in its own language could compete with Hollywood. 6

Some Americans realized that the talkies could give Hollywood a tremendous advantage. The problem was that linguistic differences were also difficult for the American producers to overcome. How to export sound? Kann gloomily observed, “Here is a difficulty for which they can supply no answer.” 7 The basic issues, which were linked, concerned trade and quota problems, language, cultural, and technical difficulties.

The European film industries were not unsuspecting victims of Hollywood’s aggressive charge. Several European sound systems had been developing apace with American experiments. 8 We have already seen that there might have been a murky exchange of ideas between the Tri-Ergon group and de Forest in 1921-1922. The inventors Vogt, Engl, and Massolle continued to refine their variable-density sound-on-film system. The big studio conglomerate Ufa (Universum-Film AG) purchased an option on it and began trial Tri-Ergon production with Das Leben auf dem Dorfe in 1923, then let the process languish. In France the Gaumont Company had pursued its prewar interest in soundon-disc. Gaumont abandoned this line of research in 1925 and formed a partnership with Electrical Fono-Film of Denmark to exploit the system developed by Petersen and Poulsen. This one recorded the sound optically on a separate strip of film. Meanwhile, the various international branches of De Forest Phonofilm attained limited success. They filmed music-hall entertainments, wired out-of-the-way, independently owned theaters, and eked out very little appreciation for the equipment’s poor quality sound reproduction.

American filmmakers automatically committed themselves to international distribution when they signed with ERPI because the Western Electric subsidiary was already licensing equipment to European and Asian producers and promising American sound movies to exhibitors. In May 1927, ERPI licensed Salabar, a music publisher, to produce short sound films of the musical variety genre in Paris using Western Electric equipment. American-made Vitaphone and Movietone pictures premiered in European capitals in 1928—with the English-spoken parts untranslated. They did “good business, but by no means phenomenal,” the trade journal editor Ernest Fredman observed. But these films renewed interest on the part of European entrepreneurs. In London, Warners had leased the Piccadilly Theatre to play Vitaphone. T HE J AZZ S INGER premiered on 27 September 1928. (It had already played in Europe as a silent.) It was followed by T HE T ERROR (1928), a big hit in the United States that took “an awful slamming” in London. (“So bad that it is almost suicidal,” reported one correspondent.) T HE S INGING F OOL opened at the Regal in the West End and was well received. But the initial talking-picture wave in Britain failed to produce the excitement that had marked the American reception. In January 1929, there still were only eleven Western Electric houses in the British Isles. “Very naturally the situation has been of great interest to British and Continental exhibitors,” wrote Fredman. “But the fact remains that despite Page 420  all the volume of talk one has listened to on this subject there is something akin to almost complete apathy evinced by exhibitors in England.” 9 At RCA, David Sarnoff knew that if sound caught on in the United States, nascent European competition was poised to emerge. Determined to beat both Western Electric and the European studios, he sent J. D. Williams to London in June 1928 to negotiate British RCA Photophone sales.

The first Gaumont-Petersen-Poulsen program of musical shorts was projected in Paris on 6 October 1928. As 1929 began, though, there were only two theaters in Paris playing sound films. In Berlin, Walther Ruttmann made Die Melodie der Welt , a poetic documentary sponsored by the Holland-Amerika steamship line. It was mostly stock travel footage edited with post-synchronized noises and a score by Wolfgang Zeller. 10

Italy’s economy retarded the film industry’s conversion to talking, but the government’s involvement in sound production was direct. “Premier Mussolini has interested himself personally in films as a moulder of national habits.” His Luce organization entered into an exchange agreement with Ufa that would speed up production of Italian sound films." Otherwise, Europe’s changeover to sound crept along.

The only serious challenge to the American sound systems was presented in 1928 by Tobis Klangfilm. Tobis, an acronym for Tonbild Syndikat, was a multinational patent pool based in Berlin that controlled the rights to Tri-Ergon (except for William Fox’s North American license). In October 1928, the Dutch combine Küchenmeister bought a controlling interest. Also in October, the German electrical trust AEG (Allgemeine Elektrizitäts Gesellschaft) consolidated under the name Klangfilm a competing group of patent holders: the Polyphon phonograph company, Telefunken radio, and the electric company Siemens-Halske. As ERPI was wiring theaters briskly in Europe during the spring of 1929, Tobis claimed that Western Electric’s Movietone-Fox-Case-de Forest-derived apparatus infringed on Tri-Ergon. The German rivals dropped their differences and merged to resist the Americans. Tobis Klangfilm flexed its muscles and obtained injunctions to cancel the premiere of THE SINGING FOOL in Berlin. It successfully enjoined ERPI from installing equipment in Germany and the other countries where the Tobis Klangfilm patents were recognized as valid. Outside Germany, Tobis Klangfilm set up facilities for making local-language films. Its most successful venture was establishing, in February 1929, Société Française des Films Sonores Tobis in the former Eclair studios in Epinay (near Paris). Suddenly, the U.S. companies had a powerful challenge to their right to record Europe’s films and wire its theaters.

ERPI’s John Otterson tried to negotiate with the Germans, but Tobis demanded high royalties. With the cooperation of the MPPDA, Hollywood producers retaliated by refusing to release their films in Germany. There was not sufficient unity among the Americans, though, to sustain the boycott. General Electric bought an interest in AEG, which gave RCA Photophone limited access to Tobis’s markets. In London, Hitchcock shot BLACKMAIL (1929) on the RCA system for British International Pictures. In France, Gaumont’s competitor Pathé-Nathan licensed Photophone for five years. Its international success was MON GOSSE DE PÈRE (1930), also made in English as THE PARISIAN , both directed by Jean de Limur and starring the bilingual Adolphe Menjou. 12

Warner Bros. also bought its way into Europe. In April 1930, the company purchased a 20 percent interest in the European patents and licenses of Küchenmeister, thus becoming a partner of Tobis Klangfilm. This was a coup and an insult to Western Electric, which was still blocked by the Germans. With the boycott weakening, the U.S. majors had no choice but to negotiate. Adolph Zukor urged Will Hays to convene a conference to settle affairs.

The Yankees Invade

Will Hays’s cocky attitude was apparent when he insisted that American films played in foreign countries “by invitation”:

The entire world today is in the market for pictures…. Ours is not a for eign invasion at all. Our pictures go abroad by invitation. The people of the world want them, despite the activities of foreign governments to lessen the effectiveness of the American film industry by practically subsidizing indigenous film production. However, by revealing the need for our films abroad, and by proving our sincerity in exhibiting worthwhile foreign productions here, amicable adjustments are being effected in foreign countries, which will lead to happier business relations in all European countries. ( Film Daily , 21 June 1928, p. 3)

By mid-1929, the race was on between ERPI, RCA, and Tobis to wire theaters in Europe and Asia. In the United Kingdom, fifty ERPI technicians were installing equipment around-the-clock. Residents of Warsaw, like fans in many cities, saw and heard Jolson in THE SINGING FOOL in the summer of 1929. 13 American chauvinism was never more apparent than during the initial staking out of international sound markets. Far from believing that the incapacity of non-English-speakers to understand the talkies might upset the applecart, movie showmen, on the contrary, predicted that the talkies would establish English as a universal language. The film industry believed that “ten per cent of foreign audiences understand enough English to comprehend American movies.” 14 William C. deMille told an Academy seminar, “In as much as the introduction of American films into Europe has resulted in Europeans wearing American hats and shoes and almost everything else, so we may be sure that in a couple of generations from now, all Europeans will be speaking English so that they may continue to see and understand American films.” 15 According to Winfield Sheehan, “Talking pictures may in time make the English language known throughout the civilized world.”

There was a foreshadowing of trouble, though. American films were immensely popular at the box office, but the press and intellectuals in other countries resented the American executives’ pushiness. When Jesse Lasky remarked during a 1928 visit to England that there would be no silent pictures in five years, he triggered an angry response in the local papers. According to one, “The British public will never submit to American-made films in which performers speak in the nasal twang of the Yankee.” The British journal Close-Up in particular responded with vituperation against the talkies. French critics formed the “League of Silence” in noisy protest. They argued that “Americans should not imagine that in addition to having to swallow their films we will have to put up with their language or be forced to learn it if we are to understand their new movies.” Even the orchestral music in synchronized prints was not exempt: “The same melody does not appeal to a French and to an American audience.”

The theater and film director Max Reinhardt exemplified the most common response among defenders of film art. Since the teens, motion pictures had been hailed as a kind of visual Esperanto, understandable by all peoples. Now, according to the famous dramatist, “films which are universal in appeal and really international, can only tend to be destroyed as an international art through the addition of the limitation of language.” Throughout Europe, critics and filmmakers, including Rudolf Arnheim, Béla Balázs, René Clair, Abel Gance, Fritz Lang, Eisenstein, and his Russian colleagues, denounced synchronous sound cinema. 18

Turning a deaf ear, Americans quickly devised strategies to extend their sound monopolies. Their statements ring with the rhetoric of cultural imperialism, complete with military terminology. Words like invasion, offensive , and assault appear regularly. When Western Electric wired the Hogaku-za theater in Tokyo, for instance, the press release proclaimed: “ERPI has captured another country!” 19 Japan had utilized the benshi , a live commentator who supplied voices and narration alongside silent films, a practice seemingly incompatible with the showing of talkies. American sound engineers were diverted by the conflict and belittled Asian resistance:

It was amusing during the showing of Redskin 1928 to hear the interpreter trying to raise his voice above the music and effects. It gave the impression of Benshi vs. ERPI…. He was getting rather angry, according to the man ager, who explained one day that if we did not favor him he might start a general strike. There is no organization among the operators here. (J. L. Pickard, “Old and New Meet in Orient as Benshi and Talkies Combine to Entertain Patrons,” Erpigram , 1 September 1929, p. 2)

The benshi did indeed go on strike in 1929. Though Japanese sound production began on a limited basis in 1931, silent movies generally proved to be more resistant to colonization than anticipated; the commentators were a close-knit group of workers with a strong public following and their own union. They kept performing with silent Japanese films well into the 1930s. 20

Nathan D. Golden prefaced his Department of Commerce film export report for 1929 with a description of the “film famine” in European production induced by American talkies: “The advent of sound pictures abroad, the foreign producers inability to produce sound pictures, his fear of producing silent ones, gave to the American producer an open field in the past year in marketing an increased number of silent pictures.” 21 An unusually brazen exposition of the industry’s strategic plan to take over Europe appeared in the Hollywood trade journal Film Mercury . The unnamed executive pressed the economic advantage: “We know already what language is being used in England, in Germany, and in France against the American invasion. And we know as well that those who clamor the loudest have been, and still are, our best clients.” He mapped out the plan:

We are following, after a few cautious steps, a campaign strategy which is very simple; we are buying theaters in the capitals and in the important big cities first; from there we will spread out everywhere. Let’s leave them little respite so that our financiers can quickly force the extermination of what little remains of what used to be called the European film! We won’t permit ourselves, you say, to grab their theater circuits! Aren’t we doing just that right now in London, in Berlin, and in Paris?

The heads of the European film industry moreover hold out their hands to the all powerful American dollar with such greediness that they don’t even see opening before them the grave into which they will soon stumble.

Another part of our plan consists in luring to Hollywood all European artists of any renown. When silent films were king this tactic worked marvelously Page 424  and it should be perfectly suited to the talking film as well. In the theaters of England, Germany, and France will resound national sound tracks made in the U.S.A. What European producer will vie with us when we have captured their greatest actors with our money? ( Film Mercury , March 1930, quoted in Dudley Andrew, “Sound in France: The Origins of a Native School,” Yale French Studies no. 60, 1980, pp. 97-98)

Whatever the cultural risk, Hollywood producers had little economic risk. They were still flush with domestic revenue derived from the talkies. But they were beset with procedural, technical, marketing, and cultural questions. Should they just show American films “straight,” in their original English versions? Would some form of “voice doubling” work—recording alternate-language versions while the English version was being shot? Could they dub Hollywood features into foreign languages? Should different-language versions be produced in Hollywood? In international locales? This option was clouded by aggressive foreign governments intent on protecting their domestic film industries from “invasion.” Germany, Great Britain, Austria, France, Italy, and Hungary had quotas or “contingent” plans which restricted imports or tied American distribution to local production. Anyway, international audiences adored Hollywood stars. Would they pay to see films with native-speaking nonentities?

Paramount in Europe

The studio that made the greatest commitment to multiple-language versions was Paramount. At first, the studio hedged its bets between domestic and foreign production sites. Adolph Zukor announced that twenty foreign-language features would be shot in Hollywood and Astoria. Maurice Chevalier was hired, in part, to exploit his potential for bilingual production. He succeeded admirably. Indeed, these films revived his film career in France. He impressed Parisians in the Astoria-made LA CHANSON DE PARIS (1929) as much as he had Americans in the original version, INNOCENTS OF PARIS (1929). “His previous work for the screen—the silent screen—did him less than justice. In his sound film he is himself, free to give the whole of his art without restriction,” the Times ’ Paris correspondent reported. 49 LE PETITE CAFÉ was a remake of a Max Linder silent film shot in France in 1914. This pet project of Chevalier’s was considered better than the English version, PLAYBOY OF PARIS (1930). LA PARADE D’AMOUR and LA GRANDE MARE exploited Chevalier (in both) and Claudette Colbert (in the latter). These 1930 films were covers of THE LOVE PARADE (1929) and THE BIG POND (1930). Adolphe Menjou and Colbert remade SLIGHTLY SCARLET in French as L’ENIGMATIQUE MONSIEUR PARKES (1930). Reviewing it at New York’s Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse, Hall concluded that “it proves that the only way to make a foreign language picture is to have a native cast or those who are as familiar with the language as Mr. Menjou is with French.” 50 Soon Zukor, Lasky, and Paramount’s international executives surmised that European production was essential for European-language films. (Besides, Paramount would be able to access some of its profits which had been frozen by European governments.)

Jesse Lasky, scouting Paris, outlined how he thought multilingual production would work. Paramount’s story buyers would focus on properties with international appeal. After the picture was shot in Hollywood, it would then be remade abroad with foreign directors and players, using the American film as a blueprint. 51 Zukor announced that ten foreign-language titles would be produced in France by a new subsidiary, Paramount-Continental Films (Société Ciné-Studio-Continental). Robert T. Kane supervised the five stages, originally the property of Gaumont, in Joinville-le-Pont, a village on the eastern outskirts of Paris. Paramount licensed Western Electric equipment for simultaneous production in up to six languages. Zukor wanted to form a joint venture with the other big studios. “Such an agreement,” he said, “would strengthen the American position abroad and result in great economies all-around.” No one signed up with him. 52

From the ten features proposed in February, the planned number of releases by Paramount had swollen to 110 by August 1930. The reason for the shift was simple: Lasky said that the talkies being made by Kane’s unit, nicknamed Babel-on-the-Marne, cost 20 percent less than they would had they been shot in Hollywood. 53 Kane recruited directors with international experience, for example, Jean de Limur. Principal actors came to Joinville from the countries where the films would be shown. Greta Garbo’s brother Sven appeared in NÄR ROSORNA SLÅUT (1930), the Swedish talker made with the same sets and costumes as UNTROUDANS LE MUR , the French version. 54 But all nonspeaking roles went to French actors. While most of Kane’s productions were assemblyline remakes of American films, there were also original productions. The most successful example was MARIUS (1930), an adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s play. The polyglot director Alexander Korda was fresh from a stint at Paramount, First National, and Fox in Hollywood, where he had not distinguished himself. He had, however, become friends with Robert Kane. He captured the authentic Marseilles dialect of Pagnol’s characters by the simple expedient of hiring the original stage cast. “The soundtrack,” in Andrews opinion, “perhaps for the first time in France, made the locale palpable and the story that developed within it as natural as the sun beaming down on the provinces.” 55 But he also shot German and Swedish versions of MARIUS —in the time it normally took to make one film.


The First Paris Agreement

The tide began to turn against the Tobis Klangfilm patent monopoly in May 1930 when Western Electric won a suit that nullified crucial Tri-Ergon Austrian patents. With both sides motivated, an international conference on sound was held in Paris in June and July. Will Hays was the chair. ERPI, RCA, the Tobis Klangfilm interests, and representatives of the affected producers—thirty delegates in all—agreed in principle to establish international marketing boundaries.

This so-called First Paris Agreement, concluded on 22 July 1930, divided the world into German, American, and unrestricted commercial zones where royalty differentials would favor the principal patent groups in each area. German-speaking countries, central Europe (including France and Italy), and Scandinavia were the territory of Tobis; the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and the Soviet Union (if it so chose) would benefit the Americans; and the rest of the world (including the United Kingdom) was to be shared according to agreed-upon proportions (25 percent Tobis and 75 percent American, in the case of the United Kingdom) or remain open for free competition. 69

The First Paris Agreement temporarily suspended the underlying disputes about patents. Some differences were never resolved, and American producers finally did not sign it. (But RCA and ERPI did, so the studios’ signatures were not necessary to implement  the agreement.) There was plenty of territory to go around. According to the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, two-thirds of the world’s theaters were yet to be wired. Canada (with its relatively small number of theaters per capita) led the world in percentage of wired theaters: 70 percent. The United States was 55 percent wired, the United Kingdom was at 47 percent, and the other countries were far behind. By voluntarily limiting power and carving out geographical boundaries, the conglomerates hoped to control what could have been a devastating trade war. The First Paris Agreement ended the stalemate, defined the rules of engagement for the principal players, and, of course, maximized potential profits for the major producers. 70

Despite European corporate and governmental support of native-language production and exhibition, and in the face of guardians of national cultures who lamented “Americanization” and the attendant violation of class, social, and linguistic standards, Hollywood was clearly continuing to dominate the international film trade. (That is, until politically motivated restrictions in Germany and Italy began to take effect.) Though most American audiences were unaware of it, their films had become part of the expanding sphere of the country’s international cultural influence. American movies dispersed regional ways of speaking and glorified Main Street values—while most of the world was listening in.

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