The Chaotic Era When Hollywood Found Sound

I recently finished Scott Eyman’s book “The Speed of Sound”, a chronicle of how sound transformed Hollywood in the late 1920s. This may all seem very stodgy since talkies have been around now for  close to 90 years… but Eyman makes us understand not only how big a change this was, but how fast it happened. Going through the technical challenges of making movies with sound in the first decades of the 20th century, how innovators competed with each other, and which studios were the first to catch on to this revolution (Fox and Warners), Eyman paints an often vivid portrait of Hollywood in those days. There are times when he loses his way a little as he introduces us to a lot of people and gets bogged down in the technical differences between competing sound systems… but if you’re interested in old Hollywood, it’s a worthwhile read.

The clip above shows Al Jolson singing in The Jazz Singer (1927). It’s been called the first talkie, but here’s a few reservations: There were several earlier films that experimented with sound, but they were clumsy and rejected by audiences. The Jazz Singer was in fact largely silent, but had a few sound scenes that featured new technology and wowed audiences. The film was a smash hit and changed the history of cinema forever. After hearing Jolson sing, audiences would not go back to silents.

The most famous victim of the sound era was John Gilbert. One of the most popular stars of silent films, Gilbert became known as one of the silver screen’s greatest lovers, but his voice didn’t live up to what audiences expected. As you can hear in his speech above, from the film Redemption (1930), there’s nothing wrong with his voice… but it still isn’t what audiences expected, and there were many other examples of stars whose sound performances failed to match the silent version.

In Gilbert’s case, the star’s fortunes also sank due to the inferior quality of his sound pictures (including Redemption), cheesy dialogue that sounded better on title cards than articulated by actors, and the fact that MGM boss Louis B. Mayer hated him (at least according to Eyman) and wouldn’t let him make any good movies.

The transition to sound was difficult, and it has been depicted hilariously in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). In the clip above, the director is going crazy because Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) can’t “talk into the bush”. That’s where the microphone is hidden, and that’s symbolic of the early days of talkies – mikes were stashed inside props and actors had to make sure their voices were caught. At the same time, films became more limited in the way that they had to be shot on a soundstage in order to eliminate noise. Studios were cloistered and padded with mattresses. Cameramen found themselves locked inside boxes because the sound of the cameras was too noisy. Actors learned that they no longer could rely on vocal advice from their directors. Filmmakers discovered that the opinion of professional soundmen mattered more than theirs on set.

Some of the silent-era stars, actors and directors, faded. But others benefited from the new focus on dialogue, especially Broadway talents from the east coast. As King Vidor and F.W. Murnau became icons of the past, the era of George Cukor and Joseph L. Mankiewicz began. 85 years later it looks natural, but it was obviously a huge change at the time, affecting every genre. Comedies may be the most obvious example, as Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers survived the transition, but Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton made their masterpieces in the silent era. If you want some idea of how fast the transition happened, just take a look at Chaplin’s silent Modern Times (1936); made only a few years after the introduction of sound, it was a brilliant, but still quaint, relic.

The most depressing part of the book is how it ends, with art director Laurence Irving recalling how silents were made in an open atmosphere, but sound pictures closed sets. One day, Irving and Douglas Fairbanks, one of the greatest stars of the silent era, visited a soundstage being built for United Artists, the studio Fairbanks created together with Chaplin, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. As they watched the consequences of sound (blankets covering walls, cables and wires all over the floor, microphones), Fairbanks said, “Laurence, the romance of motion picture making ends here”.

Now and then, I love watching a silent picture, especially the comedies. The best ones are examples of an era when filmmakers were one-hundred percent focused on the visual aspect of filmmaking, creating scenes that were pure art. The shoe-eating scene from The Gold Rush (1925) needs no spoken words.

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