The Great Ninety Per Cent

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"The Great Ninety Per Cent"

The Dilemma of Democracy
Critical Attacks and Apologies

If one can lay a charge against Hollywood it will be not that it does not know how to produce art, but that it knows almost as little about how to make good, satisfying bilge.

Alexander Bakshy, 1929

What's the matter?" asks Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain. The head of the studio has stormed onto the set, halted production, and sent everyone home. "The Jazz Singer, that's what's the matter," the boss bellows. "It's a sensation." A spinning (fictitious) Variety headline confirms his prediction: "Revolution in Hollywood." But our examination of the transition to sound between 1926 and 1931 shows that there was neither a chaotic upheaval nor, at the other extreme, a carefully executed changeover. The transition to sound was more like an experiment that produced unexpected results. Indeed, it seems that at no point during its development from 1926 to about 1931 did sound behave as Hollywood hoped and expected it would. Before 1928 no one anticipated that all-sound production would mean the end of silents. Even in 1929 some executives thought that silent film exhibition would continue and that dual versions would be around for a long time. It was felt that switching to sound would strengthen Hollywood's hand when dealing with independent exhibitors and foreign competition. For a while film people believed that the talkies would bring new sophisticated audiences to movie theaters by bringing highbrow culture to the screen, all the while continuing to appeal to the "masses." Sound production would be more profitable because expensive location shooting would be cut back and close-up dialogue shots would increase, resulting in smaller casts and cheaper sets. Relatively cheap Broadway talent would replace expensive Hollywood stars when the latter's lack of theatrical skills became apparent. Audiences would reject stars who spoke in uncultured, non-American voices.

None of this happened. One function of the "revolution" scenario was to provide a usable retelling of the incidents, omitting the complicated parts about capitalization, expansion, competition, and the complex stylistic maneuvering that had modified cinema practice. The revolution story also saved Hollywood's face by diverting attention from the industry's failure to appreciate audiences' initial appetite for sound films, followed by the studios' inability to anticipate the public's changing expectations about how to utilize the new technology.

Hollywood constructed for itself a history of sound in the classical mode: the silents were a state of equilibrium; sound rocked it; then balance was restored. The First National director William Seiter gave a typical account in which he posited sound as a disturbance:

In the beginning, most of the picture-makers got off on the wrong foot. "Talking pictures" became the rage, and in most cases we had nothing but talk, talk, talk. The industry went batty on the subject of dialogue, just as it did later on the subject of music. There was no dividing line, no balance. In the mad struggle to master the new medium, the motion picture was forgotten. The picture ceased to move, and after the theatre audiences became accustomed to the thrill of hearing sound, they too ceased to move—into the theatres.

Audiences became fed up with watching and listening to actors who did little but exchange interminable lines. Even the cleverest wise-cracks began to pall on jaded nerves. Theatre business began to slump. (William A. Seiter, "Motion Pictures Must Move," Cinematographic Annual 1931, pp. 263–64)

But now, in 1931, Seiter felt that the sound madness had been checked by the harmonious compromise achieved between action and talking. Gangster pictures and Westerns were popular because they gave fans "action and action plus." Seiter's examples were Little Caesar, Public Enemy, The Star Witness, and Cimarron. "In common with most directors, I have always held that we must never forget we are primarily making motion pictures. That action must have an equal place in pictures with brilliant dialogue and acting. Now that we seem to have hit upon the happy medium the picture industry ought to go places during the coming season."1 Singin' in the Rain replays this Hollywood view of the ontogeny of the sound film as first stopping then restoring motion. Don (Gene Kelly) is a stuntman in the days of the action-packed silent film. When sound enters the picture, his career stalls in the turgid talkies. Then he finds his true calling in the musical genre. His original knockabout silent-film athleticism has been creatively redirected into energetic (and photogenic) dancing, and the movies have been restored to a steady state.

As ERPI's Knox looked back on the recent transition, his view was more consistent with what has emerged during our survey. He told of two years filled with experiments and errors:

Silent pictures were fitted with recorded musical accompaniments. Simple stage dramas were tried on the new machine. Stars of the silent screen tried out their voices. The period might properly be characterized as one of trial, caution and conservative progress. No one knew for sure the machine, the type of picture or the audience reaction. An outdoor picture or two shook off some of the beliefs that only a sound proof stage would do. A musical comedy added color and life. The advances of 1929, so close behind us, were in reality startling in their value. (H. G. Knox, "The Ancestry of Sound Recording,"Cinematographic Annual 1930, pp. 288–89)

His statement captures the ad hoc, tentative nature of the industry's approach to sound. A problem with the equilibrium model of historical change is that not everyone agreed that the late silent film represented a golden age. Gilbert Seldes, in the pages of the New Republic and Harper's, had routinely dismissed many silent movies as artistic failures. To him, most films were escapist mediocrities punctuated by flashes of artistic brilliance. One reason for introducing the presentation act, he maintained, was "to conceal from the movie going public the perfectly obvious fact that the movies themselves were not worth seeing." Sound only compounded the problem. "It is an instrument of enormous capacities in the hands of people who seem totally incapable of finding out to what use it should be put." Seldes confessed that the talkies induced in him "mingled emotions." It is useful to follow the internal struggle of one of the most intelligent observers of the movies as he wrestled with his warring opinions.

In "The Movies Commit Suicide" (1928), Seldes came out in favor of sound, but only after some rather tortured logic.2 Those who had always hated the movies—he seemed to have George Jean Nathan in mind—believed that film was losing its only virtue, silence. Horrified purists and aesthetes argued that "the problem[s] of each art should be solved in the medium of that art, without calling in alien effects." Seldes parked himself firmly in the purist category by pointing out that the new form of the talking picture "needed above everything else to discover its own appropriate materials and to develop in accordance with its own capacities, cutting itself off as far as possible from the two forms of entertainment to which it is related by machinery: the stage and the silent movie." So Seldes expected, in 1928, that the talkies would add a new branch to established cinema. He praised Murnau's The Last Laugh, with its sweeping camera work and silent story told without intertitles, as "the first picture which completely and exclusively expressed itself in cinematic terms. It fully exploited the technic of the camera and used for its effects only such things as the camera could legitimately record."3 Like so many film commentators of the era, Seldes exalted motion (of the photographed subject and of the camera) as the defining characteristic of film art. Unlike most American critics, though, he attacked films which purported to be "the most accurate transcription of reality":

The moving picture, itself an instrument which transposes reality and is capable of recording everything fantastic, has not been used by imaginative men. Speech adds another element of realism and weighs down the balance in favor of the movies' weakness. At the same time, the moment a character begins to speak from the screen his bodily unreality becomes marked—at least until one becomes accustomed to it. (Gilbert Seldes, "The Movies Commit Suicide," Harper's, November 1928, p. 710)

While he ridiculed the part-talkie, he also predicted that it might be possible for a director to benefit from an intrusion of dialogue "wherever [he] was willing to confess that he had to go outside of his own medium to express his ideas completely." He doubted this would happen, however, because "this would mean putting the art of the movie above the finances of the moving-picture industry—a sacrifice easily made by critics and never by producers." Because the sound film was developing as a separate form of entertainment, here was, at last, the virtue of the talkies: "The moving picture is committing suicide, but at the same time is achieving salvation." The sound film would absorb the bad elements of film and theater, leaving the silent film as an improved "art" form which would be practiced by "foreigners and amateurs, able to appreciate its values." Thus, Seldes predicted that sound would differentiate cinema according to the discrimination and class of ordinary and elite consumers. Concluding with the "salvation" theme, he drew a parallel between photography and painting and sound and silent film: "The camera made realism in painting unnecessary. The silent picture, in the same way, may be relieved of all obligation to record the actual and give itself up to fantasy and imagination."4

Not only did some doubt that the silents were an unqualified art form, but not everyone thought that sound was a regression to primitive stasis. Some directors accepted the talkies as a distinct improvement. In 1929, even before the camera had been "liberated" from its glass booth, the rhetorical emphasis was on cinematic motion: "Where a break in the ordinary [silent] film to allow for a close-up has been the modus operandi," Rouben Mamoulian explained, "I now guide my lens along a straight and continuous line, without breaks in continuity, without needless explanatory speeches and also sans the printed subtitle."5 Robert Florey agreed that dialogue had actually made films more mobile:

Speech has multiplied the movability of motion pictures a hundredfold. Whereas in the old, silent days it was possible to do only one thing at a time, now it is possible to do two. Then it was impossible to speak and move at the same time. The printed title could not be injected into too much action. How all that is changed. The camera has complete freedom to roam where it will, while the dialogue is maintained steadily throughout all necessary movement. (Film Daily, 4 August 1929, p. 7)

Considering the later reputation of the early talkies as motionless, Florey's final speculation would become ironic: "So great is the difference that we shall presently look back to the old silent picture and regard it as a comparatively stationary affair."6

It was not so much that silents were unbalanced and then restored by sound, but that the potentially disruptive components of early talking-film production were discontinued or transformed into a new style. Filmmakers, both of their own volition and at the urging of critics, stopped foregrounding sound for its own sake. Hollywood's flamboyant celebration of acoustic effects in 1928–1929—as in Applause and The Cocoanuts—was gradually replaced by the "inaudible" tendency and the modulated sound track. Frank Capra forthrightly explained the rationale for effacing technique:

Frank Capra, "The Cinematographer's Place in the Motion Picture Industry," Cinematographic Annual 1931, p. 14">

A good cinematographer lights his picture so the audience does not realize it has been lighted; gets over the proper effect without the audience realizing he has done it. In other words, an audience should never realize that a director has directed the picture or that a cinematographer has photographed it. That is why "directorial touches" and photographic "splurges" should be kept out of a picture. They detract from the story. Excellence in direction is reached when the audience never thinks of the directors work…. The minute the audience becomes conscious of the "machinery" of a picture, they forget the story. (Frank Capra, "The Cinematographer's Place in the Motion Picture Industry," Cinematographic Annual 1931, p. 14)

Extending this logic, the sound engineer would succeed at his mission if his intervention and "splurges" went unnoticed. The modulated sound track joined other expressive elements of filmmaking as part of the organic unity of the classical ensemble. Everyone in Hollywood worked mightily to produce the illusion of a regained equilibrium, but why did the industry take this direction rather than continue to glorify the acoustic properties of the talkies?

One explanation might be that the industry always responded to technological change by trying to deemphasize it. New practices, whether in editing, camera movement, color, acting, or anything else which could call attention to itself, had to be subordinated to telling a good story. Innovations (Technicolor, camera cranes, zoom lenses) were stylistically foregrounded, then subdued as a matter of course. Meanwhile, critics would hail the new techniques, then later call for hiding them. This familiar pattern was evoked to rationalize the industry's response to sound.


But what of the view from the balcony? Did popular reactions exert pressure on studios to modify the direction into which they took sound? We have seen that the talkies were accepted on terms quite different from what Hollywood proposed. The "gee whiz" excitement surrounding movie applications of thermionic, telephonic, and radiophonic technology dissipated quickly. Neither the telephone nor the radio companies won the battle for the "mind share" of the talking-film consumer. By 1930 it had become apparent that the sound film would not be a radically new entertainment form. Hollywood's promised movie bridge between Broadway and Main Street had not been built, primarily because the provincials decided they were not very interested in the type of culture that the studios brought to town. A separate sound cinema which would complement, not replace, silent production withered when consumers rushed to all-talking productions. Genres and stars flitted in and out of popularity as motion picture attendance soared to new record highs in 1929–1930. The mass audience and the popular press, though by no means univocal, tested the models which Hollywood proposed. Many experiments—notably films which used dialogue intermittently, or synchronous sound effects only, and films which "canned" theater—were dismissed. (There were exceptions: newsreels, cartoons, and travel and exploitation films with sound became permanent fixtures in the movie house.) The public seemed to like best the familiar movie forms (often with stories left over from the silent days) which Hollywood had reconfigured with sound. Most talking-picture stars had already appeared in silents. This conservative trend was validated by the millions of filmgoers who returned to the talkies week after week as long as they could afford it.

The urgent need to reprocess new technology into old forms was partly due to the lack of real knowledge about film attenders. The most elusive aspect of assessing audienceship was ascertaining the consumer's preferences, the holy grail for purveyors of popular culture. People are attracted both to novelty and to sameness. In the movies this seeming paradox translates into genres (new stories in old forms) and fan culture (familiar stars in new roles, or a dynamic new performer who brings freshness to a well-known role or genre). The box office and fan magazines confirmed that, on the subject of sound, the public was not certain what it wanted. Fans relied on Hollywood to provide new movies, while the studios were trying to anticipate consumer tastes. Consequently, cyclical production and public response evolved into a circular pas de deux. As John Seitz put it, "Public demand is not expressed audibly. The producer must guess at what the public wants and endeavor to supply it. If the public reacts favorably he has guessed correctly."7 Hollywood guessed. Audiences came or stayed away (influenced by their previous visits). From this outcome, the next educated forecast was made. The inherent instability and riskiness of this model worked to keep Hollywood stable by encouraging studios to repeat past successes, and to keep it changing by admitting fresh new ideas into the system.

The Dilemma of Democracy

The early promoters of the sound film extolled virtual Broadway as a way for ordinary people to appreciate fine music and renowned performing artists. Jack Alicoate, Film Daily's publisher, had beamed in April 1928 that

we can see a complete, extravagant musical movie comedy, à la Ziegfeld. Not the reincarnation of a successful show but [one] conceived and written expressly for the screen. Music by Berlin or Gershwin, book by Bolton or Nichols, lyrics by a Buddy De Sylva…. In this we will have the wedding of the two great amusement arts, the stage and screen, taking the best from each and giving the public a ten dollar attraction at one dollar prices. (Film Daily, 25 April 1928, p. 1)

When the "wedding" of Broadway and movies at popular prices was not consummated, Film Daily's editor Maurice Kann8 cynically reminded the industry of its promise to bring sound to nonmetropolitan regions:

We remember there was much ado about the tone which this new agency [the talkies] would add to the institution of the motion picture by bringing to the small towns the great artists of the opera and of the stage. The roughened souls of the rustics and the rugged exteriors of the provincials were to be softened and calmed with lovely arias and beautiful symphonies carried to them from the world's musical storehouses…. What a mockery time has made of those verbal bouquets! For it is a singularly ironic truth that those very exhibitors and their public for whom sound was dubbed a direct gift from heaven have been unable to get within hailing distance of St. Peter." (Film Daily, 14 December 1928, p. 1)

Kann was speaking, of course, on behalf of silent exhibitors who wanted a piece of the talking-picture bonanza, but he was also implicitly criticizing the sound film for failing to democratize high-tone music, drama, and literature. The concept that cinema should be the bearer of egalitarian culture, however, competed with the idea that the market was an uneducated multitude incapable of comprehending fine performances. The industry was out of touch with the level of its audience. Film Daily's review of Robert Benchley's The Treasurer's Report (1928) zeroed in on the difficult question of which audiences liked films of that type. Benchley was one of the Algonquin Round Table group of writers who were well known to readers of the New Yorker. The trade journal questioned whether Benchley's sly verbal humor would demonstrate mass appeal and described his ten-minute monologue as "a high class comedy skit that is gaited for the better class houses. The comedy is so fine in spots and is put over so quietly that in some pop [popular] houses it may fail to garner all the laughs."9 Similarly, it was felt that Shaw's "disciples will be moved to rousing cheers over the screen of George Bernard with Movietone," but that "the mob won't get him or his stuff."10 Kann singled out William C. deMille's The Idle Rich (1929) as a case of misdirected audience address:

A perfect example of a stage play that doesn't belong on the screen. The legit theater audiences could enjoy it as a stage offering, for it kidded the great middle White Collar class and showed them up as a bunch of nincompoops. But when you stop to figure that the big proportion of film audiences is this same White Collar class, and that they have to sit for an hour and see themselves unmercifully torn to shreds, you begin to wonder who in Hollywood decided this was good box-office material. It jus ain't. (Film Daily, 23 June 1929, p. 13)

The belief that Hollywood had overshot the capabilities of its customers also informed Seiter's explanation for the failure of the musical:

We all know now what was wrong. That the motion picture public didn't understand or like musical comedies and operettas presented exactly as they were on the stage. The motion picture public, particularly in the small towns, knew nothing of stage traditions. No wonder they couldn't understand why a singer should suddenly burst into song in the middle of a scene, for no reason at all. When we get around to producing musical stories logically, then musical pictures will regain their popularity. (Seiter, "Motion Pictures Must Move," p. 264)

Alexander Bakshy, on the contrary, suspected that popularity of the sound film would dumb-down the intellectual content of the movies and alienate the remaining intelligent film viewers:

[The talking pictures] mechanical nature makes it particularly suitable for industrial production. This does not imply that the part played by the mechanical and industrial factors in its origin disqualifies it as a medium of art. But it does unfortunately mean that because of these two factors it lends itself readily to commercial exploitation with the resultant moronisation of content. (Alexander Bakshy, "The Movie Scene," Theatre Arts Monthly, February 1929, p. 99)

In an effort to determine whether Broadway material, "serious" stage plays, and "heavy" novels were too elite, Alicoate went on a tour of small-town theaters. The result was a warning about regional tastes. He advised Hollywood and New York executives to ascertain the crowd's common denominator: "To a typical New Yorker it is hard to see beyond the Palisades, yet here lies that great ninety per cent, the backbone of this great country." He judged "that regardless of the modern and universal trend of progressive thought, what they'll take in the valley of bright lights won't always go in the small places," and "some gags that won't go over the pit on Broadway are good for big laughs and likewise certain sophisticated bits are entirely lost on small town minds."11 Alicoate's journey from his Manhattan office to the hinterlands (we don't know how far he ventured) also led him to meditate on the effects of adapting too much serious drama. He wondered, "Are pictures becoming too high-brow for our great ninety per cent?"

Here is a fair question, occasionally brought up, regarding the present swing toward too much sorrow and tragedy in pictures and too many so-called intellectual or high-brow productions…. The talkers have opened the way to universal presentation of the great tragedy masterpieces of the world. A certain percentage of paying theater guests will rave over them of course. Many more, with a flare for the unusual, will be satisfied, but, it is our modest and fleeting guess that the great majority of the picture-loving public will take them only when seasoned with a proper proportion of legitimate laughs. (Film Daily, 31 March 1930, p. 1)

These opinions reveal that the trade valued New York entertainment as an ideal but doubted whether the rest of the country was discerning enough to appreciate it. Here is a tangible instance of trade pressure being applied to Hollywood to keep film democratic in its appeal and middlebrow in its content. Speaking for exhibitors, Film Daily was contributing to the leveling of the movies to sustain the interest of the largest possible audience.

The producers wanted very much to give filmgoers what "ninety per cent" of them desired (although Lasky and Thalberg and Zanuck also saw the public relations value of the "prestige picture"). The market that Hollywood imagined for most of its product was thought by many to be the same young women who purchased fan magazines. This assumption guided genre production. According to Seldes, melodramas and sentimental stories, Hollywood's routine fare, were women's pictures which did not appeal to male customers. But the new sound film, he maintained, changed the constitution of the mass audience by attracting males to action and gangster films:

Men found the movies feminized and the great change came when Mr. Cagney in Public Enemy was being annoyed by Mae Clarke and rudely ground half a grapefruit into her face. From that time on it became common form for the tough guys of the picture to kick and slap their women around on the slightest provocation and roars of delight rose from the throats of men who had up to that time found nothing satisfactory in pictures except the newsreel and Mickey Mouse. (Gilbert Seldes, Movies for the Millions [London: B. T. Batsford, 1937], p. 51)

It is likely that the "cycles" of Hollywood early sound production (trial films, musicals, society dramas, social realist, then gangster films) were efforts to resonate with more diversified audiences—first aficionados of plays and music (not very successfully), and then men. By the time more reliable audience measurement techniques came into use in the late 1930s, it turned out that film attendees were more heterogeneous than the moguls had imagined: proportionally fewer young women, more children and males, and a more diverse socioeconomic mix. Had the film companies' assessments of their audience in the late 1920s been wrong, or had the studios really succeeded in finding films which attracted the male viewers they were aiming for? In any case, the sound gangster film seems to exemplify the industry's willingness to tailor entertainment values (in this case, misogynist pleasure) to the perceived desires of its target mass audience.

Critical Attacks and Apologies

The introduction of sound provided a few writers with the incentive to analyze films' formal properties. The canonical examples are all European, and Rudolf Arnheim is the best known. As a young critic of film and culture working in Berlin, he developed a sustained and coherent position about the new sound film. The talkies, he argued, could never be art because they mechanically reproduced reality. For example, the silent film image could be perceived either as flat or as having depth. But when a director added "real sounds,"

University of Wisconsin Press, 1997], p. 30">

the visual picture suddenly becomes three-dimensional and tangible. The acoustics perfect the illusion to such an extent that it becomes complete, and thus a theatrical space: the sound turns the film screen into a spatial stage! Now, a major and particular appeal of film lies in the fact that a film scene consists of the competition between division of the picture and movement within an area, and three-dimensional body and movement in space. Sound film does away with this aesthetically important double game almost entirely. (Rudolf Arnheim, "Sound Film [1928]," Film Essays and Criticism [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997], p. 30)

He professed that aesthetic form was distinguished by the transformation of reality, therefore film's apparent limitations (lack of color, flatness of the image, etc.) defined it as art. Restoring any of these lacks—for instance, sound—diminished the cinema's artistic status by taking it closer to other forms, such as theater, and toward realism. Such "improvements" might have made motion pictures a better reproducer of the world, but they also generated "radical aesthetic impoverishment."12 It is apparent that Arnheim's position was very close to the one Seldes was elaborating a hemisphere away. The difference was that the German theorist was delineating a formal aesthetics of cinema art, while the American journalist was concerned with justifying film's distinction from theater and making it comprehensible to his readers.13

European commentators (at least those who are readily available to English-language readers), including Béla Balázs, Sergei Eisenstein, the early René Clair, Alberto Cavalcanti, and Basil Wright, emphasized that film must use sound a synchronously. The Russians published a famous manifesto declaring that "only the contrapuntal use of sound vis à vis the visual fragment of montage will open up new possibilities for the development and perfection of montage. The first experiments in sound must aim at a sharp discord with the visual images."14 Eisenstein in particular saw the image and the sound track as locked in eternal conflict, and he theorized that film derived artistry from polyphony (as in musical counterpoint) and synesthesia (using one sense to stimulate another) rather than from simply exploiting the mechanism's ability to replicate sounds.15 Less rigorous versions of these ideas were widespread. Clair wrote in 1929 that

if imitation of real noises seems limited and disappointing, it is possible that an interpretation of noises may have more of a future in it. Sound cartoons, using "real" noises, seem to point to interesting possibilities. Unless new sound effects are soon discovered and judiciously employed, it is to be feared that the champions of the sound film may be heading for a disappointment. We shall find ourselves left with the "hundred per cent talkie" … and that is not a very exhilarating prospect. (René Clair, "The Art of Sound," in Richard Dyer MacCann, ed., Film: A Montage of Theories [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1966], p. 40)

These filmmakers and critics opposed the Hollywood practice of constructing "bourgeois " naturalism and reproducing theatrical dialogue. Like Jean Epstein, they called for cinematography which used sound nonmimetically: "To hear everything that a perfect human ear hears is merely apprentice work for the microphone," wrote Epstein. "Now, we want to hear what the ear doesn't hear, just as through the cinema we see what eludes the eye."16 Elizabeth Weis and John Belton comment that these detractors of the talkies were not hostile to sound per se, but to speech: "Actual language posed a threat to a figurative language that had evolved to a state of near-perfection during the silent era. The various approaches taken toward dialogue in this period reflect early attempts to disarm, undermine, or banish it entirely from the screen."17 For many, Walt Disney's animated cartoons, in which, it was believed, sound and picture competed dynamically for the viewer's attention, were the ideal models of how movie sound should be used.18

This European attitude that cinema should express and interpret rather than copy "real" sounds, and divulge its trickery while so doing, were seldom expressed by American critics. (Even Seldes criticized the nonillusionism of films like The Terror) In sharp contrast to the Europeans, several writers argued for precisely the kind of effacement of sound which Hollywood directors were trying to achieve. Welford Beaton, in the Film Spectator, was an early advocate of the talkies. In his review of The Jazz Singer (which he caught during its second run at the Criterion in 1928, not at its initial Warners' Theatre booking), he took issue with those critics who favored fast-paced montage and close-ups. Beaton complained that Crosland's editing in the nondialogue portions of the film was too accelerated, and that his excessive use of close-ups fragmented space. "When Jolson returns [home] he embraces his mother, and the embrace is shown in a large close-up which effectually blots out the home and gives us only the two heads. Such treatment destroys the spirit of the scene, as so many close-ups do. The scene should have been presented in a medium shot which preserved as much of the home as its frame would have permitted." While watching Hallelujah!, Beaton was entranced by the singing of the spirituals. Editing them "causes too many abrupt terminations to entertaining musical numbers."19 The critic felt uncomfortable with film practices which separated performance from its spatial and temporal continuum.

Alexander Bakshy (an editor at The Nation and a Maxim Gorky scholar) felt that the talkies, though imperfect, were still an "original form of drama" (significantly, not an improvement on the silent film). Sound enhanced character. His examples were The Singing Fool and My Man: "The fact… that they succeed in conveying their appeal to the audience is vastly significant. Lacking as they are in color and depth, they still capture something of the personality of the artist. No doubt Al Jolson and Fannie Brice are more intimately felt and radiate more genuine warmth when one sees them on the stage. At the same time even on the screen they are unmistakably their peculiar and likable selves." Unlike Arnheim's formal position vis-à-vis film art, Bakshy was arguing that sound film succeeded as a new form of drama because the voice transmitted personality. It Did not follow, however, that Hollywood would use sound for the straight recording of stage plays. Bakshy pointed out that cinema had not done so in the silents; why should sound change things? Like the Europeans, he felt that sound should be used expressively, but in contradistinction, he specifically praised speech's potential:

Dialogue can be concentrated—reduced to a number of essential statements—as effectively as action, just as it is done now in the dialogue titles of silent pictures. Then, the talking picture will also develop the specifically cinematic method of "close up." It will be able to focus an individual utterance, and at the same time put out of focus all the other voices—a procedure unquestionably in advance of the method of the "realistic" stage which, in order that certain characters may be heard, enforces a most unrealistic silence among all the other characters. And such being its technique, the spoken drama of the screen will obviously and inevitably develop into something original and non-stagy—something that will be instinct with the dynamic spirit of the movies. (Alexander Bakshy, "The 'Talkies,'" The Nation, 2 February 1929, pp. 236-37)

Bakshy stressed the power of character-driven cinema in his review of the opening scene of Clair's Sous les toits de Paris:

The length of the song, the dulness of the music, and the solemnity of the singing would have been enough to condemn this scene for any Hollywood talkie. But here comes the miracle of art. By introducing a slight action, so slight that it is almost entirely confined to an exchange of glances between the peddler and a prowling pickpocket, the artist sets off the vital force. Instantly the characters become intensely alive, the singing acquires the quality of suspense, and the whole scene begins to sparkle with humor and to throb with the pulse of human life. By vivifying touches such as this, one scene after another is transformed into a palpitating reality. (Alexander Bakshy, "Sous les toits de Paris," The Nation, 7 January 1931)

Similarly, for Le Million, Bakshy counterintuitively praised Clair's individualized characters in a believable environment. His justification was that, "though his characters' behavior is at times so grotesquely fantastic, it never appears incongruous with their surroundings, or inconsistent with their normal actions." He recognized that Le Million was the antithesis of the Hollywood musical. "Instead of making singing and dancing more natural, more in accord with the daily life of his characters, he makes the daily life of his characters more unnatural, more in accord with stage singing and dancing." This accurate imitation of an unnatural situation, Bakshy argued, was a clever reversal but a limited solution. The only way to really solve the problem of introducing singing into a film "is to discover a cinematic form that would make dancing and singing spring as freely from the nature of the screen entertainment as they spring from the nature of the stage performance."20 In other words, he was calling for something like the motivated plot of the American backstage musical comedy to integrate music, dance and dialogue. Bakshy repudiated the Seldes-Arnheim position:

For it has been laid down by our aestheticians that in copying the stage the talking picture would lose all claim to be regarded as a medium of art. Though why should it? A perfect copy is obviously as good as the original, and it is absurd to claim that no reproduction can be perfect. Besides, in the case of the talking picture, one does not so much copy an original stage production as imitate the stage form—which, if a sin, is certainly not a cardinal one. (Bakshy, "The 'Talkies,'" p. 236)

Seldes's influential book The Movies Come from America abandoned the position that art was a deformation of reality in favor of a more moderate view. In the same year in which Arnheim was writing his anti-sound diatribe, "A New Laocoön," Seldes defended the movies. But he nevertheless insisted that the cinematic essence lay, not in narrative (by implication conveyed in dialogue), but in capturing moving reality:

People go to the moving picture to-day for precisely the same reason that they went nearly forty years ago. They went then because the moving picture moves. The only reservation that has to be made is this: if the moving picture had not learned how to tell a story, it might have vanished except in the form of the newsreel and the historical record. But this does not mean that the story is the essence of the moving picture; the essence is still the way the story is told, which is by movement, and this remains just as true to-day as it was in the time of the silent pictures. (Gilbert Seldes, Movies for the Millions [London: B. T. Batsford, 1937], p. 9)

As he had hoped in "The Movies Commit Suicide," Seldes still believed that dialogue was not to be shunned but to be cultivated. It had not, however, achieved the status of a separate high art: "No one has yet found a method of speech which is as appropriate to the moving picture as blank verse is to heroic drama or recitative to opera."21

Thus, the European and American sound debate (although the word may be misleading) had different emphases. Domestic writers tended to emphasize the affective power of film to promote identification and empathy. Though they castigated the Hollywood establishment as philistines, in fact the critics shared many ideals about the use of sound, including the modulated sound track with its balance of "essences," which included speech. The bottom line was that democratic distribution, clarity of exposition, and intelligibility were more prized than adherence to formal ideals. Some American critics—Nathan, for example—never accepted sound. But for Beaton, Bakshy, and Seldes, the talkies redeemed a silent cinema which had been foundering in repetition and complacency and was limited, not artistically elevated, by its lack of sound.

One opinion, promoted in Singin' in the Rain and still held by many, is that sound caused a complete break with Hollywood's past. The opposite, less widely held view (argued in this book) is that sound definitely changed cinema, but not across the board, and not as a radical overthrow of film convention. Technologically, adapting to sound called for rethinking the relationship between the constructed space of the silent film image and the very different acoustic space (called theatrical by Arnheim and others) of the sound film. For a while, camera placement was sound-driven, in contrast to its placement in silent films to create a visual rhythm through editing and change of scale and to emphasize point of view and facial expression. The availability of synchronous dialogue revealed how often these visual practices in silent cinema were actually substitutes for audible language. Sound anchored the indirectness and ambiguity inherent in the silent system, bringing down the illusion of an imaginary or psychological space (especially in a part-talkie) with a thud. Quickly, though, technicians and directors eliminated such incongruities, with critics coaching from the sidelines. Film styles were adjusted or created to maximize Hollywood's traditional narrative-centered, psychologically motivated practices.

As a business, the talkies transformed the motion picture industry, but the extent to which this change was directly attributable to the introduction of sound is not clear. The tumult of the times—wild speculation and merger mania, the Fox debacle, the market crash and the Depression, the realignment of the industry—understandably contributed to the impression of chaos and revolution. In fact, the national economy, not the talkies, was the more plausible explanation for the major changes in Hollywood. For example, investing huge amounts of capital to convert studios and theaters overextended most of the major producers. But had not the Depression intervened, these expenditures in all likelihood would have been amortized ahead of schedule because the talkies were more popular than anyone anticipated.

Socially, sound actually had little overall impact on cinema-going. There was a spike in attendance during the novelty phase, then the business resumed its normal unpredictable up-and-down ways. Foreign movies left general distribution and became "art" films. Musicals went bust. But how many of these developments were attributable to popular sentiment against sound? Certainly there were superficial changes. Attendance behaviors were modified, the market realigned somewhat (perhaps attracting more men and upper-middle-class viewers), many theaters closed (again, because of the economy …), but in the long run, the social experience of going to the movies was remarkably unaffected by the transition to sound. (And, in 1933, the musical came back with new vigor.)

Perhaps the most important revelation of our study of American cinema's transition to sound is that sound might have started a revolution. If producers had followed through on their original intentions, sound films might have become something like music videos or televised plays (for example, the 1960s Playhouse 90-type series). Production practice in Hollywood could have been divided into what amounted to highand middlebrow units. Different types of films could have been aimed at specific regions, demographic categories, or ethnic groups. As had happened with vaudeville and the legitimate stage, there could have evolved separate theater circuits showing various genres with proven local appeal based on class and income. (There was a movie business precedent in the way silent Westerns had been distributed to rural towns). For a brief moment in 1929-1930, there was a glimpse of the possibility that sound might make American film more responsive to its melting-pot constituents. But audiences rejected these tentative initiatives; then the Depression slammed anything that did not contribute to the bottom line, ending the budding concept of the sound film as a multivocal entertainment aimed at narrow audiences. The most revolutionary aspect of sound, suggested by the European theorist-filmmakers (usually before they had access to sound equipment of their own), was that the sound track should take off as a separate art form and interact with, rather than underlie, the pictorial component. This idea never stood a chance in the United States because it went against the grain of Hollywood production and popular criticism.

American audiences and critics also did their part to bring into line the divergent tendencies of the talkies. The disjunctive properties of sound which so intrigued the European theorists were roundly criticized when they appeared in Hollywood (even in "experimental" short subjects). The box office did not reward efforts to break out of established routines (as in Hallelujah! and Applause), and anything found to be jarring or disconcerting tended to be greeted with jeers or laughter, not interest or appreciation.

Apparently to everyone's relief (except perhaps a few experimental avant-garde filmmakers), the sound "revolution" fizzled out without making any elemental changes in film styles or moviegoing patterns. The industry learned how to use the technology effectively to turn out the "bilge" (Bakshy) to which audiences were accustomed and which they gladly patronized. Both before and after the coming of synchronous recorded music and dialogue, audiences appreciated humor, drama, action, spectacle, good stories, and appealing stars. They also liked novelty, which the talkies supplied for a while. But when the thrill of the "New Era of Entertainment" had subsided, there remained the voice's psychological depth and unique capacity to define character, music's ability to sustain mood and underscore action, and acoustic verisimilitude creating an imaginary environment. These qualities were consistent with the film industry's aims and audience expectations at the turn of the 1930s, and remain so now. American cinema might possibly be art, but first and foremost it is mass entertainment.

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The Great Ninety Per Cent

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