Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Achievements In The Use Of Sound: 1927-1931

Okay, I admit defeat. As I've mentioned more than once, I've been working on an essay about achievements in the use of sound in movies to date (1927-1931), catching up on technical and artistic breakthroughs after the work of early pioneers such as Thomas Edison and Lee De Forest led to the premiere of The Jazz Singer on October 6, 1927.

I planned to write about people like two-time Oscar winner George Groves, the sound technician who recorded The Jazz Singer; and Douglas Shearer, the brother of actress Norma Shearer, hired by Irving Thalberg out of pure nepotism, who turned out to be a sound editing genius and went on to win fourteen Oscars, many of them for technical innovations Hollywood still uses to this day. And I wanted to write about directors such as Rouben Mamoulian and René Clair who were bright enough to work around the limitations of early sound recording technology to give us movies as fluid as anything the silent era had ever produced.

And I'm 1500 words into this essay and you know what? It's boring. And I'm bored with it. And I have to figure that if I'm bored, there's no way you won't be bored. And besides, there are Katies to be awarded, with the nominees for supporting actress waiting eagerly in the wings. And Katie-Bar-The-Door is coming home early today and I still have to run to the grocery store, walk the dog again and bake a chess pie.

So let's just concede defeat and move on.

But rather than flush all that hard work down the intertube, I'm serving up the leftovers in the form of bullets (or big dots if bullets sound threatening) and here are some pictures to go with them.

● Vitaphone, Warner Brothers' system for pressing sound onto 16-inch discs, was not the first technique for synchronizing sound and film but it was the first practical technology to do so, generating a sound loud enough for an audience to hear and with a higher fidelity than sound-on-film technologies could produce.

● Contrary to popular belief, the first feature-length film using the Vitaphone process was not The Jazz Singer but a John Barrymore movie, Don Juan, released on August 6, 1926. Don Juan, however, included only a recorded score and sound effects and the film was not enough of a hit to make back the costs of using the Vitaphone process. Only the persistence of producer Adolph Zukor convinced the Warner brothers—Harry and Sam—to make another feature-length sound film.

● The technology used to record The Jazz Singer was so primitive, no sound editing was possible. Al Jolson's songs were recorded and mixed as he performed them and what you saw was what you got. Except for a couple of spontaneous ad-libs—including the immortal line "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!" spoken by Al Jolson as a bridge between "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face" and "Toot Toot Tootsie"—there's no spoken dialogue in the movie. Technician George Groves is credited with recording the sound. In his career, Groves received eight Oscar nominations, winning twice, an incredible number considering he only worked on twenty movies.

Ironically, despite the enormous success of The Jazz Singer, the Vitaphone disc technology itself proved to be too uneconomical for large-scale use. The studio had to distribute a separate disc with each copy of the movie and each theater needed an operator skilled enough to synch the recording with the film, driving up costs. In addition, because assembling and editing a Vitaphone picture was not just a simple matter of cutting and splicing film, but also of mixing and pressing new recordings, directors and film editors found the technology difficult to use. In 1932, Warner Brothers gave up on the Vitaphone process and transferring the recordings, as had other studios before it, to optical tracks that were laid over the edge of the film negative.

● MGM's The Broadway Melody, billed as the first "all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing" musical, was the top grossing movie of 1929 as well as the first sound picture to win the Academy Award for best picture, and further cemented sound's commercial future.
Douglas Shearer out of necessity invented the concept of the "playback"—pre-recording a song that performers would then dance and lip-synch to—when the choreography on a huge dance number that had already been performed and recorded was deemed unsuitable. Rather than bring the orchestra back to the sound stage, Shearer figured out how to reuse the sound from the previous take, and the cast performed the dance number with its new choreography to a playback of the song. This technique became the industry standard for decades. Shearer wound up working on more than nine hundred movies in his career, was nominated for twenty-one Oscars, won seven and was awarded an additional seven Oscars for technical, scientific and engineering achievements.

● King Vidor's Hallelujah!, the 1929 musical with an all-black cast, for the first time effectively mixed sound recorded on location and sound dubbed in the studio.

● Although Hollywood produced a lot of forgettable movies in the early sound era, a handful of artists saw the possibilities in sound and used it in a way that changed the course of movie history. Rouben Mamoulian, a director of Broadway theater productions, and René Clair, a young French director then known for a handful of experimental films, managed to make movies characterized by fluid camera work despite the bulky, restrictive nature of sound recording equipment.

● Mamoulian's Applause took the camera into the streets of New York (and under them, into the subway), and unlike other sound films released that year, took care to capture the sounds of the city rather than shut them out, giving the movie, which is otherwise dated and melodramatic, a documentary feel.

● Lewis Milestone used sound masterfully in All Quiet On The Western Front. The off-camera sounds of the war—incessant shelling, machine gun fire and particularly the gasping sounds of a French soldier as he dies—deepened the audience's emotional investment in the story.

● René Clair with Le Million was the first to use sound and sound effects in a non- realistic way to comment on the action—for example, as the characters fight over a jacket containing a winning lottery ticket, instead of recording the sound of the actors fighting, Clair used the sounds of a rugby match, the crowd roaring, the players grunting, the referee's whistle blowing, to comment on the absurd nature of the action. It's a commonplace joke now, so often used ever since, our ears don't hear it. But it was a startling innovative at the time.

● Just as important is when Clair doesn't use sound at all. Some conversations—the unimportant or entirely predictable—are not overheard, merely observed. The effect underscores to what degree how much of what we say in any given day is merely rote and the silence in Le Million is as effective a joke as the funny sound effects.

That's it. That's all I've got.
Oh, I did track down John Lennon's quote from the 1971 Rolling Stone interviews that somehow seemed pertinent to a discussion of how an artist sees potential where a non-artist sees only problems: "I'm an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I'll bring you something out of it." Rouben Mamoulian, Lewis Milestone, René Clair, and in different ways, George Groves and Douglas Shearer, were artists bringing something new and innovative out of a technology others saw as only a nuisance or a novelty.

My hat's off to them.


mister muleboy said...

Hmmmmmmmmmmmm - maybe you should get bored and declare victory more often.

Good stuff, Sugartits!

Mythical Monkey said...

Speaking of sugar, here's that recipe for chess pie:


4 ounces butter
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon cornmeal

Melt butter; blend with sugars. Add eggs and other ingredients and stir until blended. Do not beat. Bake in unbaked pie shell for one hour at 350°.

Eat while watching a classic movie of the early sound era. Wait a couple of hours. Repeat.

Katie said...

Yummy pie!

l'il jimmy watson said...

so, is "Stephanie Parker" Uncle Tom's fine bride?

Mythical Monkey said...

There are two Stephanie Parkers, actually. Stephanie Parker of the Plain Chicken recipe blog is my niece. Stephanie Parker of the Home Selling Team is brother Uncle Tom's wife. Fortunately, they don't look anything alike and they live 800 miles apart, otherwise this could get confusing.

Both very fine people though.

Uncle Tom said...

I like the picture of "Help" - I've only seen it (or at least heard it in the other room) everyday since 9/9/09 - the day Beatles Rock Band and the newly remastered CD's came out and Savannah (six year old daughter) became a Beatles fan.

At least it isn't 'Elmo Saves Grouchland' or 'Thomas and the Magic Railroad' (or whatever its called) so I'm not complaining.

Maybe Savannah could submit an essay when you get to the 1960's movies - of course it'll be in crayon and half the letters might be backwards but I'm certain she'll capture the spirit of the movie.

Mythical Monkey said...

Are you kidding? By the time I get to the 1960s, Savannah will be in college!

But she's welcome to write about the Beatles anytime ...

mister muleboy said...

9/9/09 - the day Beatles Rock Band and the newly remastered CD's came out and Savannah (six year old daughter) became a Beatles fan.

What took her so long??!?

You know, for a smart guy, you're really letting down the team here. . . .

Uncle Tom said...

Well if it helps, she was thoroughly indoctrinated into the ways of the Who at age three. She liked Boris the Spider, not the Itsy Bitsy Spider.

On the other hand, I asked her recently "who's your favorite person in the whole wide world?" I expected Mommy or Daddy of course. Her answer? George Harrison. Didn't see that one coming.

mister muleboy said...

On the other hand, I asked her recently "who's your favorite person in the whole wide world?" I expected Mommy or Daddy of course. Her answer? George Harrison. Didn't see that one coming.

All things must pass.

mister muleboy said...

My daughters learned My Wife at an early age.

Although they've never heard the song. . . .