I think for most people, the history of the sound era in movies begins on October 6, 1927, with the premiere of The Jazz Singer—and certainly that's when sound captured the fancy of the paying public and changed the nature of film (and the film industry) forever.
But the fact is, inventors began trying to combine sound with moving pictures almost from the beginning. William K.L. Dickson, for example, working in Thomas Edison's laboratories, made a short sound film as early as 1894, and shortly thereafter, Edison produced and marketed what he called the kinetophone, one of his peepshows in a box with a set of headphones connected to a rubber tube. (It was a commercial flop—the $400 asking price was too steep an investment to make back one nickel at a time, and anyway, audiences preferred to see their movies in a theater.)
The problems with combining sound and film proved to be legion. Sound could be recorded on the film itself (as it is now), but developing an amplifier so that a theater audience could hear the result took decades to iron out. And the alternate method of recording the sound on vinyl came with its own problems—once the record was scratched or the film broken, synching up the sound to the image was virtually hopeless.
Still, filmmakers persisted.
Among those who worked on the problem was Alice Guy, who is generally credited with being the first woman director in movie history.
You remember Alice Guy (pronounced a-LEES ghee), don't you? She began her film career as a secretary at Gaumont studios in Paris, began writing screenplays because she had access to a typewriter, and began directing movies because she had access to a camera. Her early work was, frankly, derivative, although the same could be said of every early director—homage, plagiarism and outright copyright infringement was the order of the day in the 19th century—but she quickly developed a style of her own, with La vie du Christ, a 1906 feature film about the birth, life and death of Christ, being her best work.
Between 1902 and 1906, Guy conducted her own experiments with synchronized sound films using Gaumont's "chronophone" technology, directing over a hundred short sound films starring popular singers of the day.
The films were popular with Parisian audiences, but the technology wasn't well-suited to recording spoken dialogue. It would take another twenty years for such men as Lee De Forest to resolve the remaining issues and turn sound films into a commercially-viable medium.
In 1907, Guy married Herbert Blaché, moved to America and eventually founded her own studio, Solax, in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Successful at first, the company eventually foundered as the bulk of the film industry fled to the west coast to escape censorship and the interference of east coast investors.
"My youth, my lack of experience, my sex all conspired against me," she later said.
In 1953, France awarded her the Legion of Honour. She died in 1968 at the age of 94.
(If you're interested in seeing more of Alice Guy's films, Chris Giddens of The Giddy is spending the month of April looking back at her work.)
Oh, and as for my choice for best picture, Rescued by Rover was film's first "animal as hero" movie, with, in this case, a dog saving a kidnapped infant. The story set the pattern for similar movies starring Rin Tin Tin and Lassie—"What's that girl? Timmy fell down the well?"—and popularized the name "Rover" for dogs.
winner: Rescued by Rover (prod. Cecil M. Hepworth)
nominees: Le diable noir a.k.a. The Black Imp (prod. Georges Méliès); The Night Before Christmas (prod. Edison Manufacturing Company); Panorama from Times Building, New York (prod. American Mutoscope & Biograph)
winner: Alice Guy (various synchronized sound experiments)
nominees: Lewin Fitzhamon and Cecil M. Hepworth (Rescued by Rover); Georges Méliès (various short films); Edwin S. Porter (The Night Before Christmas)