Hearing the Audience
PART 318 The Voice Squad
Hearing the Audience
19 Constructive Criticism: The Fans' Perspective
20 Buying Broadway: The Jazz Singer's Reception
21 "The Great Ninety Per Cent"
We do not create the types of entertainment, we merely present them. People see … a reflection of their own average thoughts and attitudes. If the reflection is much lower or much higher than their own plane they reject it. [People] influence pictures far more than pictures influence people.
Irving Thalberg, remarks before the AMPP, 1930
Talking cinema became the new norm for Hollywood because the great majority of moviegoers accepted, perhaps even demanded, it. The wave of enthusiasm in 1928 and 1929 stimulated studio and theater conversion, and the drop in paid admissions beginning in 1930 underscored the necessity for the industry to consolidate, standardize, and retain the "masses." Parts 1 and 2 demonstrated that, by 1931, sound had reached a technical plateau in the sense that audiences would not be aware of any improvements or breakthroughs for more than a decade. Sound-film style had been nudged by critics toward the ideal of the modulated sound track; restraint and narrative underpinning prevailed—except in expressly demarcated moments, such as comedy effects. Moviegoing as a social practice had assimilated the talkies into the usual routine. The dialogue film had gone from marvel to mundane in about three and a half years.
Part 3 takes a closer look at issues related to what we can call audienceship, that is, the interaction between active, discriminate moviegoers, the film production system, and the external pressures affecting that dynamic. Unlike the notion of spectatorship, which in recent theoretical applications has connoted an idealized and socially or even biologically determined film viewer, audienceship encompasses the widely varied movie attenders thrown together by numerous motives at a particular time in the theater. Film audienceship constitutes a temporally fleeting socioeconomic-aesthetic moment, not a general principle of film viewing. This construction of the variegated audience is particularly apropos of the 1920s and early 1930s, when, as Gilbert Seldes recorded, many people went to "the movies" as much as to any particular film. The location of the theater may have been as much of a determinant as what was showing inside.
Nevertheless, there were many arguments among observers of films and their audiences about the talkies; among the most contentious were the struggle over the definition and control of the voice by popular critics, censors, and the film industry, and the regulation (real or imagined) of performers' lives and careers through stardom and the fan-audience. These chapters investigate how social power was asserted over cinema and how Hollywood tried to contain it; how consumers may (or may not) have acquired their own power as articulate fans; and finally, how moviegoers apparently did not really drop everything to see The Jazz Singer in unprecedented droves, as legend has it.
The coming of movie sound unleashed the voice with unexpectedly strong repercussions. Chapter 18 details the lively struggle to restrict the range of vocal expression. Once again, we have an example of the public rejecting a "first offer" from Hollywood—in this case, another twist on the virtual Broadway theme. The studios tried to set aside some of their production for elite middle-class consumers and felt that casting actors from the legitimate stage in successful theatrical adaptations would raise Hollywood's cultural capital and perhaps annex a new affluent audience. While some commentators felt that exposing the masses to properly spoken English would ameliorate society, film critics and audiences (heard in Hollywood by way of exhibitors, distributors, and fan reactions) rejected stage eloquence as laughable, boring, or just plain incomprehensible. To the dismay of those who thought the movies held out hope to rescue speakers of blighted Americanese, it was the language of the urban milieu (for example, in Street Girl) and of Westerns (as in The Virginian) that tended to be regarded as "natural."
The voice signified more, however, than just a way of speaking; it also denoted class. Who was in charge of the movies anyway? Prior censorship of film was legal and widely practiced. To the moralists, the movies were dangerous to vulnerable elements of society, especially children. Their fear of film as a bearer of social disruption was barely concealed. Sound easily reaffirmed it. Public fascination with stories set in gangland, brothels, waterfronts, and other liminal environments (depicted in "realistic" vocabulary and accents) disconcerted those agencies which had set for themselves the task of policing film content. Hollywood responded by agreeing to regulate itself (a tactic which had served it well in the 1920s and continues to do so in the 1990s). Though it pictured itself as artistically oppressed and lacking First Amendment protection, censorship was a boon as well as a bane for Hollywood producers.
Chapter 19 examines the problematic response to the talkies in the pages of movie fan magazines. Were these truly offering a populist reaction to Hollywood? Or were the readers and letter writers dupes of the "culture industry?" Were the columnists who pledged to articulate the concerns of the movie fan really covert extensions of the studios' publicity tentacles? Did fans affirm or reject the talkies? Here again, one finds controversy within the consensus.
Chapter 20 examines one of the most enduring legends of film culture. Through media and box-office analysis, we see how the status of The Jazz Singer's Broadway premiere in 1927 was amplified by Warner Bros. and a corps of accomplice commentators and critics. The chapter raises questions about the difficulty and value of focusing on audience reception as a historical method. How do we "hear" film audiences of the past?
Chapter 21 presents a few suggestions about sound put forward by film critics of the day and concludes with thoughts on how the transition to sound changed—and did not change—American cinema.