Monday, July 13, 2009

The Early Sound Era: An Introduction

Back sometime around Easter, I guess it was, when I was first ac- quainting myself with the films of the Silent Era, I happen to catch both the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ and the 1959 remake starring Charlton Heston, which happened to be on cable around the same time. Being versions of the same book, you would expect the movies to have similarities—the former has a heavier emphasis on the political underpinnings of the first Jewish-Roman war, the latter focuses more on Judah Ben-Hur's various relationships, but they both feature the same characters, plot progression and action scenes—but I wasn't quite prepared to discover that both feature nearly identical versions of the most famous scene in the movie, the chariot race. Similar to the point that if William Wyler didn't consciously set out to copy Fred Niblo's version, I'd be amazed.

And yet to my mind, there's no comparison between the two scenes: the 1959 version is head and shoulders better than the earlier version.

What was the diff- erence? It's not the latter's use of color film stock, nor its use of 70 mm wide- screen. I've seen enough movies in my life to know that with rare exceptions (Lawrence of Arabia, for example), I prefer black-and-white film and the intimacy of the 1:1.33 frame ratio to the distraction of color and the often-cluttered canvas of widescreen. And it's certainly not the actors. Charlton Heston was an underrated performer who made a lot of good movies, but he wasn't clearly any better than Ramon Novarro, one of the best actors of the Silent Era. So what was the difference?

It was the sound.

The thundering hooves, the cracking whips, the frenzied roar of the crowd, rising and falling with the emphasis of the scene, like instruments played by the tightest live band you've ever seen, all working together to draw you in, make your adrenaline flow, building to its apex as Judah and his rival duel head-to-head, dropping off almost to silence as Messala struggles crushed and broken on the arena sand. The individual shots in the two movies are virtually the same, the blur of chariots and hooves, the flash of whips, the cheering of the crowd; it's the use of sound (the work of Oscar-winner Franklin Milton) that makes the latter version the greatest action sequence ever filmed. The silent version has many of the same camera angles and sets it's good, but the emotions watching it don't build in the same visceral way, and when it's over, you know you've seen only the second best chariot race in movie history.

Sound editing is a little understood or appreciated art—least of all by me. You may recall that it was the notion of having to pick an alternate Oscar winner for sound editing this year that prompted this blog in the first place. But in the course of cycling through well over a hundred silent movies, and developing a true affection for them, I think I now, too, have a better idea of the role sound plays in a movie and maybe, too, how that sound arrives on the screen, not as something passively picked up by pointing a microphone at the actors and recording whatever the mic happens to hear but by constructing—as carefully and consciously as anyone else working on the movie—a symphony of sounds that plays on your intellect and emotions as surely as the work of the actor or the director.

Thomas Edison experimented with uniting film and sound as early as 1894, inventing what he called the Kinetoscope, which combined a phonograph record, a loop of film and a drive belt that moved the two together, all housed in a viewing cabinet (basically a penny peep show but with movies of mundane scenes such as a man sneezing or a couple dancing). The technology was fraught with problems—brittle film, inexperienced operators—and Edison abandoned sound movies by 1915.

Research shifted to putting sound on film itself . Lee De Forest proved to be the primary innovator in the field and by 1922 he had developed both a technique for imprinting sound waves on film in the form of variable shades of gray lines, and what he called the Audion tube, which amplified the sound so that more than a few people could hear it.

De Forest premiered various sound shorts in April 1923 and later filmed Franklin Roosevelt placing Al Smith's name in nomination at the 1924 Democratic convention. De Forest though had a falling out with some of his colleagues who took the work to Hollywood where the studios perfected variations on this sound system, including Fox's Movietone, Warner Brothers' Vitaphone and RCA Phonophone.

Musical scores and sound effects began appearing in movies by 1925, but it was the premiere of The Jazz Singer on October 6, 1927 at Warner Brothers' theater in New York City that turned sound from a novelty into a necessity.

If there was any other technological breakthrough that had a bigger impact on the history of movies (other than the ability to project a film image onto a screen itself), I can't think of it off hand. Critics and directors were divided over the value of the new technology, but the public embraced it wholeheartedly and whether or not studios quite knew how best to use sound—most at first simply shoehorned a couple of musical numbers into otherwise silent movies—sound was clearly the future.

Compare the public's acceptance of—indeed, insistence upon—sound in movies with the public's indifference to 3-D. Hollywood first introduced what we think of as 3-D in 1952 (various processes have been around since 1922) in the now-forgotten movie, Bwana Devil. 3-D's inventor, M.L. Gunzberg, heralded the technology as the next big thing, and studios still produce a 3-D movie out every now and then, touting every refinement as the breakthrough that will win the hearts of the movie-going public. But after more than fifty years of tinkering with it, the movie audiences still find it a novelty, more annoying than necessary.

By contrast, people were irrevocably hooked on sound about halfway through Al Jolson's first song. The fact is, sound so fundamentally alters the movie-watching experience that, as I've said before, it's an entirely different medium.

Which is not to say the transition to sound went smoothly.

Early sound recording equipment was cumbersome and prevented directors from moving the camera fluidly and actors from moving naturally outside the narrow range of the microphone. By 1929, the invention of the boom mic, which allowed actors a broader range of movement, and "blimps"—protective covers that masked a camera's noise—helped alleviate the problem somewhat. But it hadn't taken long to learn bad habits and coupled with the loss of the Silent Era's best directors (Murnau died, Keaton locked himself into a bad deal at MGM, Chaplin retreated into his own little world), the look of movies suddenly became static and stagy. It took Orson Welles in 1941 to come along rediscovered what a previous generation of directors had taken for granted.

Other losses were more fundamental to the nature of the new medium which added a layer of realism that could never exist in a silent movie. As Imogen Sara Smith in her essay "Sinner's Holiday: An Ode To The Pre-Code" points out, "With the change to talkies, the silent era's swashbuckling heroes, Great Lovers, ringleted sweethearts and carefree flappers suddenly seemed antiquated. Sound punctured fantasy and brought movies down to earth and up to date: never again would they soar to the heights of romance they had reached in silence."

To that list, I would add the horror genre as one that sound changed forever. In the Silent Era, horror depended not, as Roger Ebert put it, on the shock of the hand reaching in suddenly from off-screen but on the emotion of dread, the dread of "all of the things we worry about at 3 in the morning—cancer, war, disease, madness," with no banter to relieve the tension, no ridiculous dialogue to ruin the mood. Horror movies in the Silent Era had the quality of a nightmare, for in our nightmares as in silent movies, no one can hear you scream.

Finally, the advent of sound not only changed movies, it changed the movie business as well.

I think most of us who know anything about the history of movies, or at least have seen Singin' in the Rain, know that many a silent career foundered with the introduction of sound. Olga Baclanova had a heavy accent that relegated her to small "exotic" roles when she found work at all. John Gilbert, who had a fine English stage actor's voice, could have made the leap to sound if Louis B. Mayer had taken care with the transition rather than saddling him with inferior scripts. And Paramount producer B.P. Schulberg treated Clara Bow so cavalierly, giving her a total of two weeks to prepare for her first sound picture, that she eventually cracked up and left Hollywood altogether.

What I didn't realize until I began researching the transition to sound was that the studios often had a vested interest in seeing their silent stars fail.

Silent film legend turned film historian, Louise Brooks has written that bankers, having financed the construction of sound-equipped movie theaters to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, muscled their way onto the boards of studios to ensure a return on their investment. Hollywood quickly changed from a wide-open town willing to try anything to a tightly-run old boys' network characterized by reactionary politics and a focus on the bottom line.

By destroying the careers of some of the more expensive talent, saddling them with lousy movies and publicizing the resulting failures, they were able to cut costs and send a message to the next wave of talent just breaking into pictures. Thus, for example, Louis B. Mayer at MGM quietly trashed Lillian Gish in the press and then dumped her $400,000 a year salary as soon as one of her movies failed to make money at the box office. Meanwhile, Greta Garbo, at less than a tenth of the salary and with a work visa under the studio's control, became the new studio cash cow.

On the other hand, while Mayer's vision was cruel, at least you could say he had one. The aforementioned B.P. Schulberg helped bankrupt Paramount in no small part because he viewed movies as disposable commodities and actors as interchangeable widgets. The ticket-buying public wasn't as gullible as he assumed. The producers who succeeded were those who could balance the ruthless demands of the new bottom line with the exacting needs of art.

In any event, silent movies were out, sound was in. Many of the greats from the old era—Keaton, Lloyd, Gilbert, Bow, Gish—never recovered and I for one will miss writing about their movies. But without sound, there would have been no Groucho Marx, no Preston Sturges, no Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. On the horizon were a new crop of actors, James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, and after they arrived, the movies as we know them would never be the same.

Note: I had planned to spend the rest of the week coasting with photos of stars from the Early Sound Era and then announcing the Katie Award nominees for 1929-30 sometime this coming weekend. But out of respect for the larger-than-life talent (and grousing) of faithful reader Douglas Fairbanks, I'm going to write essays about some of the Katie winners from 1919-1927—starting with Fairbanks and then moving on to focus on those performers and directors I haven't covered before, say, Gloria Swanson, Anna May Wong, Sergei Eisenstein and the movie Metropolis. We'll see. I do have a life, you know.

Okay, okay, I admit it—I don't have a life. But I do have responsibilities ...


Douglas Fairbanks said...

I'm going to write essays about some of the Katie winners from 1919-1927—starting with Fairbanks and then moving on to focus on those performers and directors I haven't covered before, say, Gloria Swanson, Anna May Wong, Sergei Eisenstein and the movie Metropolis. We'll see. I do have a life, you know.

I am in the life/responsibility-fixing business.

You can stop after the Fairbanks essay.

If Gloria Swanson gives you any lip, I'll threaten to reveal the incident with the cane, custard, and Cuban. She'll stifle.

[PS Actually, Gloria remains one of my heroes. We didn't get along particularly well, but I respect her enormously. She had bigger balls than Chaney and Gilbert combined.]

Mister Parker said...

I have undisclosed (at this time) reasons to believe that I will eventually write essays about Anna May Wong and the movie Metropolis anyway. So I may chop down my ambitions to only Fairbanks, Swanson and Eisenstein.

In any event, there will be at least six entries in the series "Stars Of The Early Sound Era," starting with today's Jean Harlow. Tomorrow: James Cagney.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

This is freaking amazing stuff, Myth. Honestly the first time i can ever remember consciously paying attention to movie sound in any context other than music was while watching Master & Commander, when I thought, "Oh, so that's what a wooden sailing ship sounded like."

So I'm what you might call if you were being polite a little late to the movie sound game, & so sure appreciate the history. The ruthlessness of Hollywood never ceases to surprise as well -- though I'm old enough to know better, I seldom do.

Mythical Monkey said...

I admit I had never thought about sound either, except maybe once when I read that all the overlapping dialogue in His Girl Friday had to be mixed on the spot as it was being recorded -- I have this vision of some sound guy playing a mixing board like a musical instrument, bringing up one microphone, dialing down another, while Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy all yammer at each other.

Seeing the two Ben-Hurs nearly back-to-back was strictly a coincidence but it was a real eye-opener. Or ear-opener, as the case may be ...

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