The Big Hedge: Hollywood's Defensive Strategies
7Voting Dry and Drinking Wet
The Big Hedge: Hollywood's Defensive Strategies
Remakes and "Goat Glands"
Talk may help the ballyhoo. It does not enhance the entertainment and is so palpably unnecessary that laymen are apt to sense this even if lacking the trade knowledge to define the flaws.
Variety, 3 April 1929, on the dialogue sequences in The Godless Girl
The "coming of sound" meant different things to the production and exhibition ends of the industry. Although the pace of equipment installation varied considerably with each studio, the main producers had the capability of releasing dialogue films by the end of 1928. The wiring of theaters, however, took longer. The point at which 50 percent of theaters were projecting synchronized sound did not occur until sometime in 1930. This discrepancy meant that for a while Hollywood was faced with the need to supply two sets of prints to silent and sound-equipped cinemas. Such an arrangement may strike us in looking back as wasteful or as a temporary solution until the transition was complete. But this may not be the case. It appears that industry insiders initially thought that Hollywood would make both sound and silent films, that some cinemas might not be converted, and that some films would retain long sections in which dialogue would be given in conventional intertitles. For a while in 1928 and 1929, sound cinema might have branched off and coexisted with traditional filmmaking.
The industry's uniform adoption of Western Electric and/or compatible RCA sound systems and the slackening of competition between those manufacturers eased anxiety about the technology. But it did nothing to answer questions about what went before the camera. Several options presented themselves. Should all films have sound, or only "specials?" What should be the balance in a film between synchronized music and talking? Should silent film be kept alive in case some theaters refused to convert, or in case the talking fad fizzled? Would silent and sound production develop along separate lines, the former staying with certain material, like comedy, while the latter adapted theater and stage musicals? The public statements by producers reveal that they were considering all these options. Meanwhile, they had neither clear-cut answers nor definite plans for sound motion pictures.
Sound epitomized what businessmen hate most: uncertainty. William deMille declared, "We are face to face with a marvelous opportunity or tremendous catastrophe."' Harry Carr wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "What impresses me about the talkies is that no one knows what they are all about. Are they to be stage plays plastered onto a screen with all the stage dialogue? Or are they to be motion pictures with an occasional out-burst into conversation? Or just a slamming door or the moo of a cow or the tick of a clock for punctuation?"2 Sound transformed more than one mogul into a hypocrite. Producers, in order to reassure lovers of silent films, actors, unions, and small-town and foreign exhibitors, said publicly that the conversion would be gradual and controlled, and that there would always be silent movies.
Cecil B. DeMille equivocated, saying, "Talking pictures are here to stay, but they will not replace entirely the silent pictures. Two years from now I would not hazard a guess as to which will be the more popular."3 Even William LeBaron of RKO, whose company made only talking films, did not think that sound would replace silents. Rather, sound film would "strengthen" them, presumably by reinforcing their silent values (perhaps in the hybrid part-talkie form).4 Mordaunt Hall, in the New York Times, summed up the consensus: "It is by no means expected that the giving of a voice to the animated shadow figures will supplant silent film stories."5
Opponents of talkies within the industry were plentiful. Joseph Schenck of United Artists expressed the industry's cant: "Talking pictures will never displace the silent drama from its supremacy, or affect the appeal of motion pictures with synchronized music and special sound effects." United Artists would "use the sound device on those pictures to which sound is adaptable."6 The director Sam Taylor was explicit: "The talking picture is not a rival of the silent picture…. The silent screen play of today is too big and fine a medium of dramatic expression to fear its destruction."7 Fred Niblo, the admired MGM director, sounded his own warning, advising against tinkering with the silent film just because the talker was drawing a huge clientele. Among other things, he disliked the acoustic properties of film sound: "A good voice in a talking picture will be a canned voice, nevertheless."8
Lillian Gish was fearful that the cinemas past would be forgotten. "Whatever the public may feel about movies as they used to be before the sound innovations," she insisted,
in the silent movies we achieved certain beautiful things. I mean that there were moments of beauty in pantomime and beauty in photography. Much of what we did was poor, but if the silent movies had had more time to develop, we might have made a really great and individual art in them. For myself, I still cling to the thought of creating those moments of beauty in pantomime. (Film Daily, 29 September 1929, p. 10)
While the silent cinema had achieved artistic status in its own right, the German theater producer and film director Max Reinhardt contended that sound film was a doomed stepchild to theater: "Talking pictures, bringing to the screen stage plays, almost in their entirety, with dialogue, tend to make this independent art a subsidiary of the theater and really make it only a substitute for the theater instead of an art in itself. Talking pictures, in their relationship to the stage, seem to me like reproductions of paintings."9 Soviet filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein, recently hired and then fired by Paramount, offered an uncompromising critique of the soundtrack: "I consider the so-called 'all-talkie,' the film with conversation from beginning to end, nothing but rotten trash. The sound part of the American and German films is a luxury, an element that has just happened to be added to them, but which has nothing to do with the films themselves."10
Pat Powers, even while extolling the virtues of his Cinephone system, concluded, "The reaction to one hundred per cent talking pictures is problematical. Talking throughout the entire picture has a tendency to retard the action and it will probably be only a matter of time before the public will discard the novelty (as boresome) for something more enduring."11 Many representatives felt, as did Herbert Brenon, one of the most popular directors, that adding voices to sound films doomed them. His argument, which was put forth time and again during the transition period, was that cinema had its own artistic essence. Applying literary or theatrical techniques would corrupt it. He maintained that "the production of motion pictures is a distinct art, having a basic formula—the presentation of stories in the form of pictures that move." Words, "whether injected in subtitles or in the rather metallic synchronization of the talking machine, are an anachronism and…the attempt to imitate the vocal exposition of the stage is a straddle of two horses at once, with the inevitable fall between them a foregone conclusion." Sound was a violation of the "purity" of the silent film because "the ideal picture is one that tells its story in a complete visual manner." Aside from its intrusion into a visual world, Brenon also hated the acoustic quality of the voice, which invariably reminded the viewer of the apparatus behind the screen. He identified this as "the impossibility of excluding a consciousness of the machine in any reproduction of the human voice." In case his theoretical objections were insufficient, Brenon also advanced an "efficiency" argument: "[A] situation on the silent screen can be convincingly registered in two minutes while the 'talking film' would take approximately six times as long."12
The decision to go to sound was made in the upper echelons of the Hollywood organizations. Many middle-rank managers and directors went along hesitantly. Monta Bell, at Paramount, is a good example of the prevailing notion that talking and film were antithetical, and that sound had to be administered in small doses:
[Its] value lies in its discriminate usage …but I am afraid that our producers are rushing forward sheep-like and embracing "sound" as the panacea for all their ills…. Pictures give us a medium whereby we could put intimate stories in big theaters—the closeup allowing us to make our characters intimate. But not so with sound…. Basically, I believe it to be wrong for dia logues. Our writers will become lazy. It will be so easy to sit two characters down and let them talk instead of devising ingenious means for getting over points with pictorial action as we do now…. For effects and occasional high spot speeches, yes. For entire pictures—well as far as I am concerned, silence is golden. (Film Daily, 15 July 1928, p. 4)
Surprisingly, two weeks later Bell was appointed supervisor of all sound production at Paramount's Long Island facility. A year later, in a remarkable interview, the fan magazine columnist Herbert Cruikshank caught one of the most vociferous tallde-haters in the industry in this sublimely awkward inconsistency. Bell remained outspoken about the sound film's lack of merit. Yet, in the fall of 1929, he probably oversaw more talking film production than anyone else. When pressed, he defended his hypocrisy by distinguishing between his opinion and his work, prompting Cruikshank to conclude, "Of course, this is a personal—a very personal—opinion. Akin to those of the gentlemen who vote dry and drink wet."13 Cruikshank's sly analogy between the national duplicity of Prohibition and the corporate attitude toward sound in Hollywood was apropos. Bell's attitude was emblematic of the industry's two-faced pronouncements. Kann presciently saw through the studios' rhetoric: "The industry unquestionably is concentrating the full force of its efforts on sound. Arguments to the contrary are not supported by the facts. This is, of course, a reflection of public demand and, if so, as we have no doubt it is, the conclusion is that the big money will continue to be found in sound films."14 As producer-actor Gloria Swanson put it, "It's all very well to talk of art and artistic ideals. We all have artistic ideals to some extent. But when you think of the millions and millions that are tied up in motion picture productions, you must remember that there's got to be a return on that money."15
The major producers responded to this mixed prospectus for sound by means of the classic strategy for managing multiple risks: hedging. If it is impossible to guess whether scenario A, B, or C will play out, cover them all. This practice narrowed the odds of being shut out of competition, but it also lowered potential rewards. Hedging wastes some resources to save others; the perfect hedge produces neither a net gain nor a loss. Translated into practical terms, this meant that the safest route for producers would be to convert to sound as quickly as possible to satisfy public demand for talkies, while perpetuating existing (that is, silent) patterns of production.
The producers hedged in at least three ways: they redid successful films from the past as sound movies; they instituted dual-release policies, that is, they continued to make silent films (then silent versions of sound films); and they released films which combined silent technique and style with moments of dialogue, creating a new film form—the part-talkie.
One expedient for making a sound film was to recycle former silent box-office hits as newly made talkies. Warner Bros. redid The Green Goddess (1930) and The Gold Diggers (as Gold Diggers of Broadway, 1929). First National's successes The Isle of Lost Ships (1929) was revived as a sound remake. Paramount chose Grounds for Divorce. Redemption (1930) and Anna Christie (1930) raised Irving Thalberg's hope for second-time success at MGM. Universal joined the remake bandwagon with a new version of the studio's all-time top moneymaker, The Phantom of the Opera (1930). For this film, members of the cast of the 1925 original reassembled, including Mary Philbin. Lon Chaney refused to participate because he was holding out for a huge speaking bonus at MGM; it is unlikely that Thalberg would have lent him to Universal anyway. In order to be able to reuse Chaney's performance, the studio interpolated new dialogue footage into the old silent film.16
Often films which had been completed (and sometimes released) as silents were retrofitted with music, sound effects, and perhaps a little post-dubbed dialogue. The majority of 1928 sound films fell into this category; The King of Kings (the nationally distributed version of the 1927 silent), The Godless Girl, and White Shadows in the South Seas are examples. The skeptical press disparagingly referred to these as "goat glands. " This slang term derived from outrageous cures for impotency practiced in the 1920s, including restorative elixirs, tonics, and surgical procedures. It implied that producers were trying to put some new life into their old films. Paul Fejos's Lonesome (1928), for example, had been previously released as a silent film, then reissued with a scene wherein Glenn Tryon and Barbara Kent exchange some banal lines in bland voices about the color of their fantasy dream house. Critics disliked it. As usual, Gilbert Seldes's explanation for the aesthetic failure of goat glands was astute: "Inartistic as they are, these old [silent] pictures have a certain relation between their parts and this relation is completely destroyed when 'appropriate sounds' are applied."17
The statements made by many in Hollywood implied that talkies would eventually coexist with traditional movies. Film Daily's Kann implored producers on behalf of his exhibitor readership not to abandon the silent film: "It must be plugged, sold, exploited, merchandised as never before. It must be saved for the economic welfare of the entire industry."18
Nicholas M. Schenck, president of Loew's and MGM, suggested that sound might be applied according to story needs:
I believe they [silents] will continue to be a very positive factor in motion picture production…. My personal opinion is that the silent film will never be eliminated, since certain stories are naturally suited for silent treatment and must be completely rearranged to serve as dialogue vehicles…. Most of the stars at the M-G-M studio seem to feel that the silent picture will remain for certain types of stories. (20 May 1929, p. 7)
Louis B. Mayer told distributors and exhibitors at the annual sales convention that the studio was going to "make a determined play for silent business." The 1929-1930 MGM season was scheduled to have sixteen silents, forty talkies, and seven synchronized releases.19 MGM's strategy, attributed to Thalberg, was to let the other studios perfect the technology, then enter later to avoid the trial and expense of initial experimentation. Kann thought that such patience would be rewarded:
Reflect for a moment on the upheaval talking pictures caused in this industry during 1928. Time was when the producer who had next season's product finished and on the shelf awaiting release was the fellow who walked away with much of the choice playing time. Last year, this selfsame individual was the one who developed the largest and most headachy of headaches. Such is the course of this business, sensitive as it is to innovations and the ever-changing mind of the public. (Film Daily, 6 January 1929, p. 1)
Paramount had been enthusiastic about sound for at least a year, but no one there foresaw all-talking production. Jesse Lasky believed in 1928 that the sound movie would
travel two different and well-defined roads. There will be the all-dialogue picture, which will utilize the best features of stage and screen technique and which will be radically different from anything we know at present…. The second course of the cinema will concern itself with productions devoid of dialogue, but with their drama heightened by a thoughtful use of the emphasis of sound. (Film Daily, 2 September 1928, p. 6)
He also said that Adolph Zukor was of a similar opinion: "It is obvious that the talking picture has its definite place in the films scheme. But this does not mean that the silent picture is doomed. On the contrary, it will remain the backbone of the industry's commercial security."20 Even in late 1929 Paramount's B. P. Schulberg balked at completely ruling out all silent production: "Sound is going to be our business for a long time. We are not going back to the silent screen ever except for occasional pictures." Sidney Kent, the general manager, echoed the boss: "It is probable that this silent demand will never reach zero, even in this country. There will always be some unwired houses. There may be theater clienteles in certain spots that may actually prefer silent to sound pictures."21 At RKO, all films were shot as talkers. Nevertheless, President Joseph Schnitzer said that the silent picture would continue to be the basic production. Lee Marcus, his studio manager, said that ten of RKO's thirty pictures would have silent versions.
Carl Laemmle, president of Universal Pictures, addressed his customers, many of whom frequented rural theaters that were having difficulty affording to convert to sound. "No picture must stand upon the novelty of sound and dialogue…. All the sound in the world will not take the place of the four cardinal principles of the motion picture, namely, story, direction, action and photography."22 Laemmle advertised his commitment to silents as a sign of support for the small theater by taking an oath that Universal would never stop making the old kind of films. "I am not one of those who believes that talking pictures sound the doom of silent pictures," he said.
If the scenarists and directors in our business rise to the occasion as I thoroughly believe they will, the outlook for silent pictures seems to me an extremely bright and profitable one. The play's the thing, whether it is presented silently or with talk and music. The novelty of pictures which offer talking has now  partly worn off…. This company is going to con tinue to make its pictures both silent and sound. And we are going to do that whether any other producer does it or not. (Film Daily, 20 May 1929, pp. 6-7)
His vice president, R. H. Cochrane, told how this primarily silent policy translated into practice: "Universal pictures are selected first with the idea of making a good silent picture, after which it is tested as to its qualities as a sound picture."23
Even the industry sound leaders, Warners and Fox, continued the dual-release policy. Warners had signed 4,283 silent film accounts for 1928-1929, mostly in towns with populations under 10,000. So it was obligated to provide silent product to these theaters, including trackless prints of talking successes like The Singing Fool. After Winfield Sheehan announced in March 1929 that Fox would make no more silent films, he did an about-face in August and returned the studio to a "dual-dual" policy, that is, silent and talking versions of all films, and disc and optical sound tracks for all talking films.24
These policies were symptomatic of the industry's way of dealing with sound. The public's enthusiasm showed no sign of abating. So it was necessary to increase the proportion of talkie to silent releases to meet exhibitors' demands and the pressure of competition from other studios. Yet significant revenue still came from silent shows. Furthermore, quite a few executives thought that sound was a fad. "Debate over permanency of the talkers continues at the studios," reported Film Daily. "Despite the fact that talkers are rolling up big grosses, there are many who believe that only the novelty is putting them over, with their vogue to pass after it wears off. A year's test, based on box office figures, is needed to settle the argument, they say. Meanwhile, studios are working twenty-four hours a day, turning out talkers."25
The decisive period proved to be when Hollywood was selling the 1929-1930 season to independent exhibitors. Examining the release statistics highlights the change that was taking place. In the final quarter of the 1928-1929 season (that is, the period ending in April 1929), of the 200 films that actually had been released, more than half (114) were silent-only. But at this critical moment, the proportion of proposed releases was very different. The scorecard looked like this: The studios announced 504 films. Less than 10 percent (43) were to be "pure" silents (that is, without sound analogues) compared to more than half in the season just ended. Small independent producers planned most of these. Among the larger studios, only Universal, abiding by Laemmle's promise, announced any silents (with eight). But the transition taking place here was not to the sound film exclusively. The vast majority—360 titles, or 72 percent of the releases—would be dual versions. The number of sound films without silent counterparts proposed for 1929-1930, though greater than before, was still expected to be only about 20 percent of the program. Universal, Pathé, Columbia, United Artists, and First National planned complete silent coverage for their talkies. Of Warners' 35 releases, 30 would have silent versions. Paramount would issue 28 talkers with 13 silent versions. (Interference , for example, which Roy Pomeroy directed as an all-dialogue feature, was made as a silent by Lothar Mendes.) Two-thirds of MGM's 50 releases would have silent covers. Clearly, it would have been against Hollywood's economic interest to junk silent cinema, and the producers had no intention of doing so.
Though it is easy to look back at the heyday of the dual version (roughly 1928 through mid-1930) and see it as a transitional stage, this view is not quite accurate. For a while many in the Hollywood establishment envisioned a permanent state of coexistence in which silent and sound production would reach a state of balanced equilibrium. At the time they signed with ERPI early in 1928, few expected that sound would predominate. It might not even be permanent. Therefore the dual-version policy was to be a diversification to satisfy a specific market demand. It was a new venture, not an interim stage. A year later, however, the talkies were becoming ubiquitous, and Hollywood was changing its mind.
The General Electric engineer Edward Kellogg was unusually frank about his early attitude toward the talkies:
University of California Press, 1967], p. 186">
Many, even of the most enthusiastic advocates of the sound-picture development were not convinced that the chief function of the synchronized sound would be to give speech to the actors in plays. The art of telling stories with pantomime only (with the help of occasional titles) had been so highly developed, that giving the actors voices seemed hardly necessary, although readily possible….
As one who shared in this misjudgment, I would like to suggest to readers that it is difficult today to divest oneself of the benefit of hindsight. At that time, the principal examples of sound pictures we had seen were demonstration films, very interesting to us sound engineers working on the project, but scarcely having entertainment value. None of us had seen a talking motion picture with a good story, and picture and script well designed for the purpose. (Edward W. Kellogg, "History of Sound Motion Pictures," part 2, JSMPTE, July 1955, in Raymond Fielding, ed., A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967], p. 186)
Judging from the surviving films, it is reasonable to think that Kellogg's prejudice against the screen voice was shared by many filmmakers. During 1927-1929 one film form, part-talkies, retained the vaunted narrative techniques and cinematic style of the silent film while also entertaining the curious with the novelty of sound. These movies used synchronized musical accompaniment throughout most of their length, punctuated by occasional dialogue sequences.
Part-talkies had an economic rationale. If the dialogue parts were nonessential, they could be cut out and replaced with explanatory titles to make the silent version serviceable at minimum cost. It now, of course, seems bizarre that silent versions of films like The Jazz Singer, My Man, The Singing Fool, and Show Boat would circulate, but they did and were even somewhat successful. Yet if one conceives of sound as an embellishment to a silent film, then the part-dialogue format makes sense. It would preserve the silent film as an ideal, while exploiting the crowd-pleasing novelty of talking. A good example is MGM's Mysterious Island (1929). Lionel Barrymore explains his submarine project in the first reel but then is not "heard" from again. This was sufficient to bill the film as a Barrymore talker. Similarly, Show Boat, released in July 1929, was originally shot silent. It was distributed with a few reels of dialogue, so it was really a goat gland. Nevertheless, Universal billed it as "100% Talking Singing Dancing Thrilling."26
Viewing these surviving films suggests that dialogue was not applied gratuitously but was used systematically to add interest and excitement to the stories. Many employed speech as a "thrill" to surprise the moviegoer. Warner Bros.' The First Auto (1927) used the voice as an interjection. Like all part-talkies, the film has a carefully synchronized sound track which closely matches the mood and action. Conventional dialogue intertitles convey the "speeches." When the race between the auto and the horse commences, however, something unexpected happens. The starter shouts "Go!" and we hear as well as see him say it. But then "Go!" also appears in an intertitle. The same redundant effect is created later when the father shouts "Bob!" to his son. We are startled to hear his voice in addition to having the word supplied on the traditional title card.
Old San Francisco (1927) saves its vocalizing for the climactic earthquake scene. We hear the rumble and crash as building collapse, the sound of explosions, lip-synched screams, and people shouting "Run!" and "Help!" The Divine Lady (1928-1929) was billed as a part-dialogue film by First National, but it should have been accurately labeled "part-singing" because there is no genuine recorded dialogue. When Emma Hamilton (Corinne Griffith) visits the Vauxhall fair, she surprises the crowd (and the film audience) by breaking into song. Though her singing voice is foregrounded, the film denies her the possibility of a speaking voice, resulting in some fascinating inconsistencies. For example, Griffith is singing loud and clear, but when she entreats the crowd to join her, or later when she sings and performs at the harp for Horatio Nelson (Victor Varconi), her nonsinging speech is conveyed in mute dialogue titles.
Noah's Ark (1929) has several talking sequences. Perhaps to avoid the jolt of the interjected voice, the film introduces talking gradually. For instance, one scene is identified as an "interval" in World War I; it is also an interval of talking in an otherwise synchronized sound film. First we see shots of the inside of the French bistro and hear soldiers singing their drinking song, but the voices do not come from any particular actor. Then an African American soldier who is shooting craps "blows" audibly on his dice. Next comes a scene in which a dancer (Myrna Loy) speaks to Mary (Dolores Costello) and the stage manager claps his hands (showing off Vitaphone's synchrony). We also hear the villain Nickoloff (Noah Beery) speak. His unguenous voice identifies him as a lecherous opportunist. When the speaking parts conclude, the film reverts to its predominantly silent narration, with the essential information presented as titles.
There is no question that, at least at Warner Bros., the part-talking pattern of these films was intentional, despite the huge financial success of the studio's all-talking feature The Lights of New York, released in July 1928. In December 1928, Jack Warner confidently told Variety that he had determined the best acoustic proportion in a film to be 75 percent talking to 25 percent silent.27 The Warner Proportion, as we might call it, shows that talking was still regarded as an "extra added attraction" to be measured out and controlled by producers. The Warner vice president Albert Warner, as late as May 1929, expressed his belief in the future of the part-talkie: "For a long time to come pictures will be produced with part sound, song and music, and part silent."28
Some other examples of part-talkies released in 1928-1929 are: Warner Bros.' The Singing Fool, Glorious Betsy, The Lion and the Mouse, and Tenderloin; MGM'S Alias Jimmy Valentine and Lady of Chance First National's The Barker; Paramount's Beggars of Life and Varsity; UA's Lady of the Pavements; FOX's Mother Knows Best; and Pathé's Shady Lady and Show Folks.29
By and large, reviewers reacted negatively to the fluctuation of synchronized music and talking in films like The Lion and the Mouse. The Evening World said that the film was "both a startling demonstration of the possibilities of talking movies and a horrible example of the things which might happen if this new toy is not kept within complete control. And, as it happens, the horrible example sort of outweighs the other." Hall wrote, "It is … a mistake to have silent sequences and then to hear a character who has been silent suddenly boom forth in speech." He believed that the practice drew attention to "the mechanical phase of the production." The reviewer for the Los Angeles Times wrote, "The alternation of voice and silent sequences results in odd shifts of technique that are a bit difficult to become accustomed to. The long dialogues also cut into the physical action, causing in the ending particularly developments for which there is insufficient foundation."30 This complaint centered on the change in tempo in editing rhythm; "action" and "dialogue" were incompatible. The unexpected shift to communicating plot information verbally rather than visually also upset the L.A. Times reporter. The filmgoer became aware of an intrusion into the narration by the "mechanical" aspect of film sound. Hall singled out the intrusiveness of sound in Give and Take (Universal, 1928): "In the talking passages … there are many spots where the long silences cause one to feel that the people in the story are waiting for the sound wizards to unlock their tongues."31
In another synchronized attempt, Paramount's Loves of an Actress (1928), the silent star Pola Negri fared no better. Critics claimed that the sound track was too loud and the effects too abundant.32 The Times' Hall felt that the film "demonstrates ad absurdum the potentialities of synchronization. The varied noises taking part in the action of the picture range from the squealing effect when a baby is shown crying through sundry barnyard effects early one morning to vocal selections. An orchestra in the pit would have been better."33 Lupe Velez suffered the same merciless critique. Her acting was a bit too bravura in Wolf Song (Paramount, 1929): "Lupe Velez [is] attractive, but sings between her teeth and heaves her chest like a tired acrobat in 'passionate' love scenes. … [She] grabs her mandolin and 'sings' a half dozen times with little provocation. When the film sags, Lupe sings—and the film sags more. Audience laughed at her love making, with chest exercises."34The New York Sun called Paul Leni's The Last Warning (1929) "a curious and rather dull hodgepodge of bad talking sequences and unrelated silent ones." "Too many outbursts of shrieking, merely to prove the effects of the audible screen, to cause any spine chilling," said the Times.35
Kann, after seeing Tenderloin, summed up the perplexity that this use of sound caused for producers, exhibitors, and audiences alike:
Exactly what the place [of spoken lines] is and how important it is to fit into the whole scheme nobody understands at this time, because it is an entirely new medium of dramatic expression insofar as motion pictures are concerned. Are the dramatic sequences to be long? Or are they to be short? How often will they fit into the feature without defeating the illusion, undefinable as it often is, that one gets from silent motion pictures? These are questions of moment. (Film Daily, 18 March 1928, pp. 1, 3)
The case of Tenderloin illustrates that audiences had some limited power to change film content. It was a goat gland, shot silent with four dialogue sequences lasting less than fifteen minutes added later. Kann thought that "the innovation suffered because of the utter banality of the words put into the mouths of the characters." Two days later he took the unusual step of returning to the theater. He reported that, "the second spoken sequence [with Mitchell Lewis] has been cut out. Replaced with Vitaphoned music and the picture is helped. It is still apparent that the injection of dramatic dialogue is a task which the industry will have to familiarize itself [with] before this entirely new element can be mastered."36
Not only was there a critical reaction against the part-talkie, but consumers wanted a clarification of the audio status of films in advertising. Sam Katz, the Publix executive who reported to Paramount, announced that owing to customer demand, all films shown thenceforth would be specifically labeled part-talking, all-talking, or synchronized. He declared, "People expect dialogue in all pictures billed as sound films."37Film Daily saw this trend as the beginning of the end for the part-talkie: "What you can count on for next season [1929-1930] is this: the picture that starts to talk will gab all the way. In betweens are out."38
As was the case with the dual-version policy, the part-dialogue feature might seem like a transitional step. Again, this impression is misleading. These films did not replace silents, nor were they replaced by all-talkies; they were contemporaneous with both formats. It seems likely that the producers of these features conceived of them as autonomous products, not as a stepping-stone toward a more advanced form. This conception is consistent with the underlying assumption that sound was a supplement to the movie, not an integral part of it. Eisenstein's observation that sound "was an element that just happened to be added," like widescreen or Technicolor, was perceptive, as usual.
Because of consumer preferences for all-dialogue films, the part-talkie became rare, then disappeared after 1929. Around 1930 the majors phased out silent versions, satisfied to let Poverty Row independents service the few remaining unwired markets. Thus, the transition to all-talking sound was gradual, neither an overnight revolution nor an inevitability.
Remakes, goat glands, dual versions, and part-talkies were to some extent responses to a specific economic problem. Sound-reproducing equipment was not uniformly installed in theaters. The studios needed to maintain a supply of silents until smaller houses had a chance to be wired. It was expected, and "rational," for the industry to continue to serve competing markets. But these film practices also reflect the inherent conservatism of dominant corporations. They resisted change, but when it was forced upon them by the marketplace (consumers and competitors), they attempted to stay in control by limiting technology. These containment efforts are reflected in film style and aesthetics as films were metered to take advantage of sound, but in "doses."
Producers hedged to maintain their silent film markets while incorporating sound as an added value for audiences in more populated locations. During the vogue of the parttalkie, many in Hollywood envisioned the development of a separate branch of filmmaking practice. Hedging strategies would preserve the traditional silent form, albeit with synchronized music effects. From the producers' vantage point, the development of the talkies could have stopped at the stage of the dual version or the part-talkie. There was no technical reason why silent filmmaking could not have proceeded alongside the talkies, just as executives for a brief period had assumed that it would. Or why the "dramatic" and "pantomime" (talking and silent) parts of films could have remained distinct. The pressure was external, from audiences.
The unique look and feel of the part-talkie reflected the novelty of synchronized recorded sound in 1927-1928. But after about two years traditional Hollywood cinema was reaffirmed. Films like The Broadway Melody, The Cocoanuts, and The Virginian in 1929, and Little Caesar, Whoopee!, and Anna Christie in 1930, demonstrated the viability of sound techniques which were subordinate to the needs of narration and supported star values. These films modified traditional genres, often by partially transposing stage sources. They retained the narrative and stylistic norms which viewers expected of silent film: highly comprehensible linear narratives, character-driven plots, rhythmic editing, and fluid camera work. The use of sound in these later films added a new dimension to the film experience, acoustic verisimilitude. The actors vocal performance takes place within a believable diegetic world. "Natural" sounds, such as background ambience and special effects (foghorns in Min and Bill, mooing cows in The Virginian), create the illusion that dialogue is part of the recorded world, not something artificially added to it. This facilitates the viewer's imaginary participation in the unfolding narrative, psychological investment in the fate of the characters, and feeling of participating in the construction of the story. This aesthetic is different from that of the part-talkie. Those earlier films highlighted sound and played with the possibilities of surprising, even shocking the spectator with it.
The part-talkie, proposed by Hollywood but abandoned when the artistic and entertainment possibilities of the integrated sound film started to be realized, could have taken cinema in a different direction. Sound films might have coexisted with silent production and would have been screened in separate theaters, as Cinerama was in the 1960s and Omnimax and Imax are now. Certain genres, like society dramas, would have been given the sound "treatment," while others, notably slapstick comedy, would have remained "pantomime." This would have been the real revolution, had it occurred.
Of course, the all-dialogue form prevailed. Asked in 1929 for a public statement on the future of the silent film, Adolph Zukor pronounced it "doomed by the advent of sound." He added, "We already know from the reaction of the public that [sound] not only is an immense asset artistically, but also from the box-office standpoint." Eight other industry leaders participating in a trade roundtable said basically the same thing: there was no future for the silent picture in the United States.39 The hedge, which both bought time for Hollywood producers and explored ways of using sound, was over.
Instead, traditional Hollywood standards were retained. Al Lichtman, the vice president and general manager for distribution at United Artists, expressed this sentiment:
From now on it does not matter whether a picture is silent, with sound, all talking, part-talking or singing. It has to entertain the audience by telling a story effectively. …
You can't very well admire electrical apparatus, year after year, when you go to the theater in order to be stirred and entertained. When people become unconscious of the mechanical equipment that reproduces the voice it will be better for the total illusion that must be maintained. (Film Daily, 16 December 1928, p. 11)
Lichtman and many others rejected the treatment of sound as an add-on because it destroyed the illusion of a fictional world in which the spectator could imaginatively enter for a while. The classical "suspension of disbelief was hindered by these intrusive aural moments. Integrated approaches which treated sound and picture as a whole became the new ideal. The director King Vidor proclaimed a vision of a new art which exemplified this attitude toward sound:
It becomes apparent that sound pictures, as we know them, partake less of the artistic qualities which characterize silent pictures. All the pantomimic art which had taken the silent picture twenty years to develop was cast aside in the grand rush and enthusiasm to achieve the spoken word. When a coordination between the two media is accomplished—that is, when sound and pantomime are united to create an impressionistic whole—then we will have a new art which will be neither the stage, nor the silent or talking pictures as we know them today. It will be a painting with photographic quality and yet retaining the impressionistic inspiration of the painting. (Film Daily, 24 February 1930, p. 6)
Vidor's prescription for a film form that would meld image and sound into a unified whole spoke for the "new" approach to sound that prevailed after 1930. In retrospect, the goat glands, dual versions, and part-talkies seem transitional—patches to hold cinema together until it "found its voice." But at the time of their production, they were serious experiments with a new filmmaking practice.