The New Entertainment Vitamin, 1928–1929
12Warner Bros. and First National
The New Entertainment Vitamin, 1928–1929
The talking movie is here to stay.
Jack Alicoate, 25 April 1928
For the dedicated movie fan of 1928, it must have been an exciting and perhaps bewildering year. One heard of the studios' experiments in sound, but unless one lived near a major exhibition market, the talkies were more a rumor than an actuality. The majority of the films making headlines as talkers were playing locally as silents. But all around, theaters were undergoing conversion. When they started showing sound films regularly, moviegoers came to hear what the fuss was about. Like customers looking over new-model cars, audiences wished to learn what differentiated this product from the older one. Producers were eager to put their new prototype through its paces so that fans could see and hear what the sound film could do.
In May 1928, when the major producers signed their ERPI licenses, the next season (which would run from the fall of 1928 through the summer of 1929) was already being sold. What to do about sound? What to do with these films? Blind bidding and block booking had guaranteed security to Hollywood because product was sold before it was made. But sound introduced uncertainty. What if the competition got a head start, leaving one with a supply of unwanted silents? Anxious not to be left behind, the studios announced that a total of two hundred titles for the next season would have sound of some sort. And the sound would have to be flashy, calling attention to the new marvel. This required that everyone, for the first time, give some thought to answering the basic question, What is a sound film? Producers tried out various hedging approaches, including synchronized music and effects, goat glands, and part-talkies. The aim was to make something that could be called a sound film in order to cash in on the widespread curiosity, to buy time in order to explore efficient ways of making talkies, and to ascertain audience preferences. As a result, the 1928-1929 season was extraordinarily diverse and is difficult to categorize. Most of the films of the introductory period, however, show off their status as sound films. There are many kinds of films discussed in this chapter, but almost all of them are distinguished by their "you can't miss this!" approach to sound.
The Warners and First National studios (under the control of Warners since the 1928 Stanley chain acquisition) continued to set the pace for sound production, turning out pictures around the clock. Alexander Korda, a contract director then, recalled that "there was only one sound channel, and this was used during the day-time in Warner Brothers studio, and at night-time by First National."1 Day-to-day production at the studio was becoming increasingly influenced by Darryl F. Zanuck, an outspoken partisan for the talkies. Zanuck had been "supervising" most of the studio's output as well as writing it. He would remain a powerful production chief at the studio until his departure to form Twentieth Century Pictures in 1933.2
Zanuck and Jack Warner recognized that much of their success in sound was attributable to Al Jolson's stardom. On 7 August 1928, Warners signed a contract with the entertainer to make three more pictures. In addition to star perquisites, such as approval of the story, director, and cast, Jolson was also to be paid $225,000 for each film, plus 10 percent of the gross receipts over $1 million for the second and third feature—a highly unusual instance of profit participation for that time.3 The studio launched the 1928-1929 season with a bang: Jolson in The Singing Fool (dir. Lloyd Bacon). The company spared neither expense nor publicity about the expense. It set an advertising budget at $1 million, hired Irving Berlin to write a special song, leased the Winter Garden theater (still a Broadway fixture), and equipped it with a sound projection system. Jolson plugged the film in personal appearances. A "tremendous advance campaign" for the film's theme song, "Sonny Boy," was organized by De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson, the composers and sheet music publishers. (In three months De Sylva sold 500,000 copies of the sheet music and Brunswick sold 375,000 records.)4 On 17 September, Jolson was a guest on Vitaphone Jubilee, a Warner Bros. weekly radio program on CBS. Variety, in cooperation with Warners, published a special twenty-four-page section on the film and the studio.
The plot is as schmaltzy as the singers first film. Jolson plays Al Stone, a singing star who is victimized by Grace, his gold-digging wife (Betty Bronson). She breaks his heart when she takes their son (played by four-year-old Davey Lee) and runs away with a gangster. After wasting a few years as a derelict, Al meets an old friend, Grace (Betty Bronson). She helps him recuperate and inspires his Broadway comeback. Meanwhile, the boy becomes terminally ill. Jolson's bathetic rendition of "Sonny Boy" after his son dies is the topper following six other song hits. Richard Barrios has calculated that Jolson is on-screen for 105 minutes.5
The opening of The Singing Fool at the Winter Garden was brilliant, emotionally powerful, and "cluttered with notables." Maurice Kann observed that "mascara ran freely from carefully and artfully made-up eyes, but the women didn't seem to mind it particularly. Executives and hard-boiled theater operators whose tears are usually of the crocodile variety shed real ones last night." Kann, unlike most reviewers, was impressed by Jolson's acting ability and praised the sections of semi-improvised dialogue: "His two long sequences where the baby [Lee] talks to him and where he replies in conversation and in song are of permanent achievement. So natural, so charming, so simple and withal so touching, these particular stretches of footage are among the most magnificent ever recorded on celluloid."6 Kann declared that the sound revolution was now on. "The word-of-mouth advertising is spreading fast. Maybe you don't think the public catches on in a hurry. If you were in the neighborhood of the Winter Garden yesterday afternoon, all doubt would have been removed."7
Most New York critics rated the film excellent. Of special interest, though, is the intensity with which Jolson's charismatic personality impressed them. Mordaunt Hall of the Times pinpointed the appeal of the film, "not in its transparent narrative, but in Mr. Jolson's inimitable singing. One waits after hearing a selection, hoping for another." Another commentator called the story "familiar hokum" but gushed over Jolson's "sincerity and genuine feeling." Initial reviews set the tone for the general opinion concerning the movie's significance: "The talking picture is practicable, inevitable and, in this case, at least, powerful. The Singing Fool justifies the Vitaphone and all the experiments that have hitherto passed as talking pictures."8 Although The Jazz Singer (dir. Alan Crosland, 1927) has entered the history books as the film that started the sound revolution, it was the one-two punch of The Lights of New York (dir. Bryan Foy) in July and The Singing Fool in September 1928 that proved beyond doubt to producers and exhibitors that a feature sound film with a big star had the potential to make millions. Simultaneously, the popular press, which had showed little interest in talking features after The Jazz Singer, now passionately embraced the concept.
Issues of quality and appropriate material entered critical discussions about sound. Aside from the Jolson vehicles, which were in a class by themselves because of his drawing power, adaptations of previously successful stage plays were controversial. For example, Vitaphone's The Home Towners (dir. Bryan Foy, 1928), adapted from a George M. Cohan play, was lauded by some critics. Others pointed out that the dialogue was good only because it had been transposed from the stage production, and that traditional movie qualities were lacking. "Everything," according to the Graphic, echoing what was becoming a familiar refrain, "has been sacrificed to sound."9 Hall, however, introduced what would grow to be an important motif in his influential criticism of sound, the issue of who was in control:
Having been produced with a sense of restraint and an intelligent conception of the coupling of the cinematic values with the lines, it provided an agreeable entertainment. It has, it is true, mechanical defects, for sometimes the voices were a trifle explosive and on other occasions they were not a little too weak. But it was plain that with experience the players will learn to control their voices, or, perhaps the directors will eventually learn more about the control of sound. (Mordaunt Hall, New York Times, 24 October 1928)
Hall seems to have been disturbed by problems in scale-matching, that is, fitting the spatial presence of the voice to the space in the image of the speaker. This is an early example of what would soon become a call for a modulated sound track that kept all the parts in balance.
With seemingly bottomless resources, Zanuck converted his most elaborate spectacle to date into a part-dialogue film. Noah's Ark (dir. Michael Curtiz), after an arduous summer production schedule marred by setbacks, including the alleged drowning of two extras during filming of the flood scene, premiered in Los Angeles at Grauman's Chinese Theater on 1 November 1928.10 It was Warners' first production to cost more than $1 million to complete. In the primary story set in Paris at the beginning of World War I, Mary (Dolores Costello) falls in love with Travis (George O'Brien). They lose each other during the fighting. Falsely accused of being a German spy, she is on the verge of being shot by a firing squad. Then the long story of Noah begins, with the same principals playing the lead characters. Miriam (Costello) is about to be sacrificed when the Deluge rushes into the temple. Japheth (O'Brien) saves her, and they board the ark. Returning to the modern story, one of the members of the firing squad recognizes her—it's Travis! Mary and Travis learn of the armistice, and they are saved. The dialogue scenes prompted the only exceptions to the otherwise glowing reviews of the spectacle. The Express called them "a trivial adjunct to the silent majesty and magnitude of the major part." The talking sequences, written by Zanuck and directed by Roy Del Ruth, presented Costello speaking in a pleasant enough voice, but in an emotionless, stilted delivery."11
One of the few stars who rivaled Jolson was Fanny Brice, whom Warners arranged to borrow from Florenz Ziegfeld, Broadway's impresario of the Follies revue. My Man (written by Zanuck under the pseudonym Mark Canfield, and directed by Archie Mayo) opened as Warners' big Christmas attraction. As Fannie Brand, Brice plays a working girl in a Broadway costume shop who auditions for a Broadway show produced by Landau (André de Segurola), a promoter modeled on Ziegfeld. The film received only a lukewarm critical response. The main draw—apparently the only draw of this parttalker—was hearing Fanny Brice sing seven of her most popular songs. When the film failed to catch on nationally, critics speculated that too few non-New Yorkers knew who Brice was or why she was supposed to be the "female Jolson." Herbert Goldman also points out that Brice may have been victimized by prevailing sexist attitudes toward female performers. "Fanny was now thirty-seven in a day in which many women were considered too old for leads at thirty."12 Although My Man was not considered a great success, it nonetheless reaped profits.
In fact, most Warners' sound specials performed extraordinarily well at the box office (see appendix 1). The Singing Fool did good business, but nothing came close to Lights of New York, an astounding return on investment in any epoch. Yet the studio seemed slow to pick up the ball on the talking gangster film.
For some of the studio's subsequent efforts at serious melodrama, talking may have done more harm than good. The reviews of On Trial (dir. Archie Mayo, 1928) were bland, and Pauline Frederick's voice was deplored. She plays the wife of a businessman who is accused of murdering his partner and must take the stand and expose the real killer. The Elmer Rice play had been notable for its inclusion of long, narrated flashback sequences, which were duly incorporated into the movie version. Hall blasted the sound quality:
There is quite a good deal of lisping as the players utter their lines and frequently what they say is not spoken with adequate emphasis or thought. There are periods when the speech is slightly muffled, which seems to have been done to avoid explosive phases of the Vitaphone. In quite a number of cases the diction is peculiarly poor. In fact, one concludes toward the end of this offering that it would have been a far more exciting picture had it been presented in silent form. (Hall, New York Times, 15 November 1928)
The unfortunate Caught in the Fog (dir. Howard Bretherton, 1928) was regarded as a "sickly specimen of sound film." May McAvoy again failed to impress the listeners: her "half dozen talking bits just fair." The voices in State Street Sadie (dir. Archie Mayo, 1928) were felt by Hall to be laid on too thick: "So you have crooks that call each other names, laugh and say quite a number of 'Wa-als,' which must be a favorite way for a gangster to begin his interrogation of his underlings."13 These poorly received part-talking crime films might have steered Warners away from following up quickly on the success of its all-talking drama. This was during the regimen of the "Warner Proportion" (only 75 percent talking in each film), so the studio was still playing its hunch that audiences wanted part-talkies.
When Warner Bros. took over control of First National, by far the most important talent acquisition, or so it seemed in 1928, was Colleen Moore. Probably the highest-paid star in Hollywood, she was acclaimed for her lead in the World War I drama Lilac Time (1928).14 It seemed certain that her charisma would grow with the talkies. But Moore came as a package deal, and the other part of the package was John McCormick, her husband and the First National producer in charge of her projects. Aside from personal problems which would lead to divorce (theirs was supposedly the marriage fictionalized in Cukor's What Price Hollywood? ), McCormick misjudged the importance of sound. He scoffed in public at the fad, then blundered in selecting Smiling Irish Eyes (dir. William A. Seiter, 1929) for Moore's vocal debut. Irish girl Moore pines for her actor boyfriend Rory (James Hall) until she saves enough money to join him in New York. But she flies into a jealous rage when she sees him performing at the theater with a female costar and returns to the homeland. Rory joins her and brings the whole clan back to the United States. The story is insipid and the ethnic characterizations so stereotypically insulting that the picture was later banned in Ireland. Worse, at its premiere Moore's talkie received many laughs, "only they weren't intended." The audience faulted "a story that wallowed unpardonably in saccharine through a long array of senile situations that passed out with horse cars."15
First National tried to recover by casting Moore in a "mature" role in the musical melodrama Footlights and Fools (dir. Seiter, 1929). She plays a cabaret performer leading two lives as Betty Murphy, ordinary girl, and as Fifi D'Auray, star of "The Sins of 1930" revue. The notices were less devastating. The Evening Journal said, "Colleen does better work in this one than she has ever done before." But most found her Fifi character's accent unconvincing. An "embarrassing attempt to appear and sound Gallic," reported the Morning Telegraph. Film Daily advised exhibitors, "Though her French accent isn't so hot, she gets over the story to make it click as a good program offering…. It can be sold as something entirely different for Colleen, but don't promise too much."16
Warner Bros. expanded the virtual Broadway concept to feature length in The Desert Song, not released nationally until May 1929. Directed by Del Ruth, it was adapted from a Sigmund Romberg-Oscar Hammerstein II operetta about the romantic exploits of a sheikh hero, the Red Shadow (John Boles) and a naive heroine (Carlotta King).17 Myrna Loy was typecast as a generic Arab vamp. Though the film was essentially complete at the beginning of the year, Barrios argues that Warners' inflexible release schedule delayed the film until audiences were no longer excited about musicals. "The company adhered to its program so rigidly that it often botched the timing on its early talkies by keeping them on the shelf until their allotted time arrived…. It had been pre determined in the fall of 1928 that The Desert Song had a particular slot in the Warner schedule, and there it remained, waiting for its audience while the parade passed by."18Film Daily did not know what to make of the lack of precedent for this first "filmed operetta." It advised baffled exhibitors, "You'll have to decide for yourself on this one."19 Los Angeles gave the experiment mixed reviews. The Vitaphone music was called "tonally perfect" and a "tremendous achievement of recording immense choruses." The New York reviews, on the contrary, were tepid. Although Boles and King were admired, on the whole Desert Song was "a ponderous and generally dull production that has the cash customer fidgeting in his pew for the greater part of the footage" (Telegram).20 While the critics held back, the cash customers, however fidgety, were abundant. The healthy gross receipts helped sustain the operetta craze at Warners.
On with the Show (dir. Crosland) premiered in Los Angeles in May 1929 and was a big hit. Another backstage story, it is memorable for its two dynamic numbers sung by Ethel Waters. Her signature "Am I Blue?" was also the theme song. The story begins with the "Phantom Sweetheart" touring show about to close for lack of revenue before reaching Broadway. The star, Nita (Betty Compson), refuses to finish the performance until she receives her back-pay. Kitty (Sally O'Neil), a hatcheck girl, takes her place and wows the crowd, paving the way for her big break in show business and her romance with the head usher Jimmy (William Bakewell). The musical numbers are mostly encapsulated, like inserted Vitaphone shorts. Crosland did attempt to open up the frontal stage view by inserting shots from the wings, glimpses of stagehands operating the curtain, and so on. Sound is foregrounded in the characters' unusual voices: Snitz Edwards's raspy Brooklynese, the Dorsey Twins' squeaks delivered in unison ("Go sit on a tack"), a dresser jabbering in French. Sound is used for humorous counterpoint when a character onstage recites, "How calm and peaceful the old plantation is at dusk," followed by a raucous shot of the "belles " yelling and fighting backstage. The movie is something of a hybrid genre, combining elements of the musical revue, the romantic comedy, and the whodunit. (In a subplot, the box office is robbed.) Couching of the music inside a narrative, however slightly done in On with the Show, was presciently seen by Kann as the next trend. "It is effective, beautiful and a clear demonstration of what the sound picture of tomorrow will be," he wrote. There were some interesting dissents though: "This film gives you a very excellent idea of a musical comedy—but a rather routine and commonplace one" (Post). On with the Show was photographed in Technicolor, and the papers frequently compared Warners' color innovation to its sound experiment in The Jazz Singer. Hall, however, was impressed neither by the sound nor by Technicolor: "The dialogue, so jarring on one's nerves, sometimes comes from cherrylips on faces in which the lily and the rose seem to be struggling for supremacy."21
Warners timed Say It with Songs (dir. Lloyd Bacon) to premiere on 6 August 1929, Vitaphone's third anniversary. Jolson's appeal in this, his first all-talkie, was still universal. Critics liked young Davey Lee as much as in his previous pairing with Al. Everyone recognized that the story was very similar to The Singing Fool. Joe Lane (Jolson) has to serve time in prison for accidentally killing a man in a jealous rage. Released, he runs away with his son, Little Pal (Lee). The boy is struck by a truck and loses his voice (dramatically ironic for a talkie) and his ability to walk. A doctor will cure him, but only if Little Pal returns to live with Jolson's ex-wife, now married to the doctor. Critics faulted Jolson and Warners for laziness. The story "has many loopholes and unexplained situations which will detract from its appeal," the New York Post commented. "As always plot and common sense are sacrificed when the possibility of producing a few more tears comes into sight."22
In May 1928, Fox announced that all films in the 1928-1929 season would be available with Movietone. Exchanges would receive three versions: silent with intertitles; with synchronized music; and part-dialogue.23 For most Fox feature releases, "sound" still meant the virtual orchestra. Raoul Walsh's The Red Dance (1928) was all synchronized music, save for its theme song, "Angela Mia," sung by André de Segurola. Dolores Del Rio played Tashi, a Russian peasant girl who is swept up in the intrigue and excitement of czarist politics. It ran at the Globe in July along with The Family Picnic, the first two-reel Movietone all-talking comedy. It starred Raymond McKee and Kathleen Key and contained no written titles. Again, this production is comparable to the Vitaphone two-reel playlets (or to The Lights of New York, which was playing concurrently). George Bernard Shaw's famous Movietone News recording also debuted on this program.24
A momentous decision was made in July. The twenty-six films scheduled for the 1928-1929 lineup of Fox silent comedies were canceled, and the completed but unreleased silent two-reelers were junked. Fox explained that silent comedy "had outlived its usefulness." Introducing the two-director system was another important change. The Air Circus, which opened 1 September 1928, was the first Fox part-talking feature, and its production demonstrated the new division of labor. Howard Hawks shared credit with Lewis Seiler, the director of Tom Mix's Westerns who had been hired to do the talking sequences. The dialogue was "staged" by Charles Judels, a film actor and former general stage manager for the Shubert organization.25 Hawks directed the nontalking exterior action scenes.26 Two aspiring aviators, Buddy (David Rollins) and Speed (Arthur Lake), enroll in flying school and vie for the attentions of Sue (Sue Carol). Buddy seems to be at a disadvantage when he discovers he fears heights. However, he triumphs over acrophobia and flies off to save Speed and Sue from certain death when their plane becomes disabled. "The dialogue is quite good most of the time, but it is a little too long," wrote Hall.27
Judels also directed the talking sequences of Mother Knows Best (1928, codirected with John Blystone), a stage-mother story by Edna Ferber transparently based on the life of Elsie Janis. Sally Quail (Madge Bellamy) is the talented daughter whose professional and personal life is dominated by her mother (Louise Dresser). Only after having a nervous breakdown does Sally establish her independence. Fox's advertising emphasized that fans of Ferber's novel could "Hear and See the players talk their parts on Fox Movietone." In fact, the film was only a part-talkie with performances in which the actors showed off their vocal skills. Madge Bellamy, though her voice was weak, was appealingly impish doing her impersonations of Al Jolson in blackface and Harry Lauder. Mother Knows Best received backhanded praise: "Several sequences of Movietone dialogue lift a very good production into something better."28
The first milestone all-talking film program was presented at the Roxy during the week of 15 November 1928. It comprised the newsreel and two Movietone comedies, including John Ford's three-reeler Napoleon's Barrer. This all-dialogue film told the story of a barber who regales a customer with stories of what he would do if he met Napoleon. Needless to say, the customer is Napoleon. Ford later claimed that, against the wishes of the sound crew, he innovated exterior dialogue scenes. Film Daily took note: "Sound effects well handled, talking clear, especially in two outdoor sequences."29 Since the Movietone trucks and the crew to operate them were readily available, and since Fox managers encouraged shooting outdoors, one wonders why Ford would have encountered so much resistance. Hall found himself forgetting "the novelty of audible productions," an important new criterion for judging sound excellence.30
The biggest critical success of early 1929 was Fox's In Old Arizona, the first all-talking Western feature. The project had been interrupted when the director, Raoul Walsh, was injured. While motoring on location, he collided with a jackrabbit, which smashed through the windshield and caused the director to lose an eye. The two-director system paid an unexpected dividend when the codirector, Irving Cummings, stepped in to replace him.31 Warner Baxter gave a winsome performance as the Cisco Kid, for which he would receive an Academy Award. The treacherous Tonia Maria (Dorothy Burgess) sells the Kid out to Sergeant Dunn (Edmund Lowe), but the Kid tricks Dunn into shooting her, and off into the sunset he rides. A catchy De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson theme song ("My Tonia"), natural sounds recorded outdoors, and an engaging story captivated audiences and critics. "The microphone caught everything," bubbled Kann. "When the caballero sings as he rides out of the picture his voice grows fainter as it would in real life. When the cows moo, you hear them and when the stage coach driver cracks his whip, your ears get that, too."32 The lively Western broke the Roxy's weekend record with a gross of $54,000. The Daily News found Edmund Lowe's voice thrilling and Warner Baxter's Mexican accent "simply swell." "The most interesting talking picture yet to be heard in this town," the New York Post declared. Hall's portentous Times comment again emphasized "forgetting" sound as something positive: "Often the story is so well told by the dialogue of the characters that one forgets for the moment the novelty of the Movietone."33
William Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 also used the two-director method. Directed by David Butler and William K. Wells, the film is a collection of musical acts strung together by a gossamer narrative about a plantation heir (John Breeden) who backs a vaudeville revue starring his belle (Lola Lane). Many critics thought Stepin Fetchit's dance number stole the show. Although the AFI catalog cites a Technicolor sequence, the trades announced that it was to be shot in Multicolor, another two-color process, underwritten by Howard Hughes, that was supposed to compete with Technicolor.
Lumsden Hare directed the dialogue (and played Colonel) in The Black Watch (1929), while John Ford directed the action. Victor McLaglen portrayed Captain King of the Black Watch regiment. His mission is to quash a rebellion of "natives" in the Khyber region, eventually made possible through the sacrifice of the Indian girl Yasmani (Myrna Loy). "From a viewpoint of new uses for sound, John Ford's latest directorial effort for Fox reveals brilliantly clever effects in synchronization and photography," wrote the Los Angeles Examiner. But other reviewers sensed a clash of directorial styles, observing that the film's images, sound, and story failed to knit together: "No picture in the brief history of the talkies has approached The Black Watch for the vivid union of the art of photography with that of sound recording. Yet the new film at the Carthay Circle will go down in cinema history as a might-have-been-great production. This is due, chiefly, to John Ford's inability to tie his gorgeous mass scenes into a story" (Los Angeles Herald). Kann agreed. The "incidents don't piece together …, the resultant pattern is ragged."34 In spite of these reviews, the show had a long run on Broadway.
Lucky Star (dir. Frank Borzage, 1929) was released in its part-talking version. It is a melodrama about two war veterans (Charles Farrell and Guinn "Big Boy" Williams) competing for the heart of Janet Gaynor. "Last two reels [of] dialogue, with Farrell and Gaynor voices [were] just fair," said Jack Harrower, Film Daily's regular reviewer.35
After the fire destroyed Paramount's Hollywood soundstages in January 1928, Roy Pomeroy and the engineers relocated to the Paramount Eastern Studios in Astoria to battle numerous technical problems with sound. Burlesque, a drama which was to have been Paramount's first talkie, was postponed repeatedly. Edmund Goulding began shooting it at Astoria, but eventually the project was transferred to Hollywood. At the time, Pomeroy said he was experimenting with recording the sound on a separate film-strip, then transferring it to disc.36Burlesque was eventually released in 1929 as The Dance of Life, codirected by John Cromwell and Edward Sutherland (although Victor Fleming, uncredited, had a hand in it as well).
Paramount was an especially aggressive recruiter of talent from the New York stage. In 1928 B. P. Schulberg signed the directors John Cromwell in May, Robert Milton in June, and William deMille in August. The last was described as "a stage director for fourteen years, and … a dramatist as well as producer." DeMille's cinematic credentials, strangely, were left unmentioned. He was Cecil B.'s older brother and a Hollywood veteran since 1916, having written the script for Why Change Your Wife? (1920) and directed Miss Lulu Bett (1921).
The first released Paramount sound films were hasty goat gland jobs. Warming Up (dir. Fred Newmeyer, 1928) was a baseball story with Richard Dix, shot silent. The production head, Walter Wanger, took the negative to the Victor studios in Camden for post-synchronization. Reviewers were dissatisfied and demanded more dialogue. The Film Daily reviewer stated specifically that talking would have improved Warming Up: "Synchronization … is good with all the familiar sounds of a ball park, but the lack of dialogue is very noticeable."37 Hall, presumably at the same press screening, criticized the synchronization: "The smack of a ball against a bat is heard some time before Lucas has finished winding up." Of the eleven New York reviews, only four liked the ambient sound effects, with the Daily Mirror singling out the "wham of the bats." There were complaints about the abrupt alternation of silent sequences with sound effects. Pomeroy's team had added "wild" (nonsynchronous) dialogue in the crowd scenes (as in Sunrise  and Old San Francisco ), but most reviewers interpreted the experiment as a botched attempt to lip-synch. In a remarkable instance of the media intervening in studio affairs, the World advised that Warming Up ought to be the last such picture until Paramount "can synchronize speech and action in the films with something approaching naturalness and despatch." In another synchronized attempt, Loves of an Actress (dir. Rowland V. Lee, 1928), the silent star Pola Negri fared no better; critics claimed that the sound track was too loud and the effects too abundant.38 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. (Hall, New York Times, 30 July 1928)
Victor Fleming's Wolf Song, similarly, was criticized for its over-the-top acting. Audiences hooted at Lupe Velez's melodramatic performance.39
Roy J. Pomeroy had been the man of the hour at Paramount after Wings began its road-show engagements with striking sound effects in January 1928. He was already justly famous for his photographic parting of the Red Sea in DeMille's The Ten Commandments in 1923. He was also supervising Paramount's radio experiments, chaired the technical committee of the Five-Cornered Committee, installed Western Electric gear at Astoria and thereby learned talking-picture recording techniques firsthand from the ERPI technicians. When Pomeroy returned to Hollywood, he told Lasky that sound was so complicated that only he could direct the studio's talking films. He demanded a raise from $250 to $2,500 a week and was given responsibility for Interference, which was shot in Hollywood. "He knew he had us where he wanted us," Lasky recalled. The studio was playing it safe: its first all-talkie was a remake of an earlier silent version, which in turn was an adaptation of a successful play, and the studio shot a new silent version at the same time. Evelyn Brent played a woman who is accused of murdering her blackmailer, but the real perpetrator is revealed to be her former husband, who was believed to have been killed in the war. West Coast critics liked the film and praised its dialogue, while the ones in New York described it as "dull" and "lethargic." The quality of the recording, however, was frequently commended. Hall wrote, "One even heard a pen scratching its way over the paper as Evelyn Brent wrote a message with her left hand." Refining his idea of what we are calling a modulated sound track, he praised the "auxiliary" sounds as interesting without being "obtrusive." He liked the absence of "shouting or screaming."40 Interference (which opened at the Carthay Circle on 5 November 1928) set off a volley of crime-and-court stories. The trial film genre seemed tailor-made for the talkies because it was set-confined, dialogue-driven, and easily adapted from the abundant theater source material available. Among the movies capitalizing on legal drama were The Bellamy Trial (dir. Monta Bell, 1929), His Captive Woman George Fitzmaurice, 1929), Through Different Eyes (dir. John Blystone, 1929), The Trial of Mary Dugan (dir. Bayard Veillier, 1929), and Madame X (dir. Lionel Barrymore, 1929).
Interference proved to be the swan song for Pomeroy. His brilliant career nosedived. Success seems to have transformed him into the archetypal tyrannical soundman. David O. Selznick, a new hire at Paramount in 1928, recalled the story of Pomeroy's ruin:
When he came back [from Astoria] he was treated as a thing apart. He allowed no one on the sound stage, presumably lest the secret leak out; he relaxed this rule only for short periods. He insisted on handling everything himself, which included the direction of the scene. He was as much qualified to direct as directors were qualified to head the trick department.
It reached the point where one day I told him that we had cast a certain actor in the next sound picture, and he told me curtly that the sooner we executives realized that there would be no casting in sound pictures without his approval, the better off we would be. We were all terrified, particularly we who were not in charge. But after a period of a few months it became apparent that other studios were making sound pictures and maybe there were other gods that could be obtained. [Paramount's general manager B. P.] Schulberg contacted the Western Electric authorities. They sent out their technicians, who had no ambitions whatsoever other than to do a good technical job; and the new king was toppled from his throne. Within a few weeks everyone in the studio knew all they needed to know about sound, and in an amazingly short space of time the transition was made and we were making sound pictures along the same assembly-line methods that were employed for the silent pictures. (David O. Selznick, Memo from David O. Selznick [New York: Viking, 1972], pp. 17-18)
Pomeroy's downfall seems attributable partly to his own hubris, but it seems that he was also emulating the "ERPI-men" in their quest for secrecy and self-aggrandizement. He resigned from Paramount in January 1929. "His desire to direct is said to be the cause of controversy," reported the laconic Film Daily.41
The first feature to be completed at the upgraded Long Island facility was The Letter (1929), adapted from a Somerset Maugham play. It was to be the new look of Paramount Pictures: a prestigious stage property, a leading lady of Broadway (Jeanne Eagels had defined Sadie Thompson in Maugham's Rain), and a cosmopolitan New York director (Jean de Limur). It was mostly talking but had music-only scenes. But neither this film nor its follow-up, Jealousy (dir. de Limur, 1929), did good business. Eagels's career ended tragically after a heroin overdose later in 1929.42
The Cocoanuts initiated full-scale sound feature production at Astoria. The rationale for locating in the East was obvious: the Marx Brothers could shoot the film by day while performing on Broadway in their play Animal Crackers by night. Robert Florey and Joseph Santley (a stage director) codirected, Irving Berlin wrote a song, and Morrie Ryskind prepared the script based on the 1925 Broadway vehicle. As the filming progressed, the musical component was gradually pared away, accentuating the Marx Brothers' verbal burlesque. Later Groucho told of Paramount's resistance to certain carryovers from the stage. An executive objected to Groucho's painted mustache—because it would obviously be "phony"—and to his theatrical asides.
On the stage I frequently stepped out of character and spoke directly to the audience. After the first day's shooting on Cocoanuts, the producer (who has since retired from the movies for the good of the industry) said, "Groucho, you can't step out of character and talk to the audience."
Like all people who are glued to tradition, he was wrong. I spoke to them in every picture I appeared in. (Sometimes they answered back. This I found rather disconcerting.) Nevertheless the movie industry went on just the same, turning out its share of good and bad pictures, and nobody seemed to care whether I stepped out of character. (Groucho Marx, Groucho and Me [New York: Random House, 1959], p. 225)
Groucho may have been referring to Monta Bell, the producer in charge of the Long Island studio. Bell admitted that shooting the Marx Brothers film was a six-month ordeal. Among the problems he cited were: "breaking up of dialogue with more action, the bringing of freer movement into the scenes. This will increase naturalness while it promotes interest. Talking pictures are getting more vigorous and sprightly all the time." He wanted more outdoor scenes and was working to make the soundstage, as he put it, less like a radio broadcasting station. "We learned much from the [Cocoanuts] experiment, and in some ways it represents our most difficult accomplishment."43 Delays and retakes held the film back until June 1929. Supposedly the brothers' rapid-fire delivery—the opposite of the enunciated tones the talkies were supposed to favor—was the reason. Perhaps because critics were uncomfortable with the Marxes' mixing of stage and screen conventions, the reviews were not enthusiastic. Jack Harrower wrote, "This is another case of a musical comedy transferred almost bodily to the screen and motion picture treatment forgotten." Kann, like many others, thought that the play was not a good choice for the screen. "We found it alternately entertaining and wearisome, with a shade or two on the latter." Speaking out strongly for a different approach, he urged more unity between the music and the dialogue. "The impression grows stronger that the proper application of musical comedy to pictures must be a blending of the former with the latter. … Coherence is needed, but coherence is lacking."44
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, the second Paramount all-talkie completed was The Doctor's Secret (1929). It was an adaptation of James Barrie's Half an Hour, a play in which the action literally takes place in thirty minutes. William C. deMille, who had starred in Interference and studiously absorbed Pomeroy's sound techniques, directed the film. It was about twice as long as the play and turned the comedy into a drawing room drama—a big mistake in Film Daily's view. It would have made a nice talking short, but as an all-talking feature it was an "actionless drama, slow and heavy." The voice of the veteran stage actor Ruth Chatterton, however, "is perfect"; moreover, "she screens well, and knows her acting angles."45 This opinion was not shared by all. "Ruth's poise was almost poison in the hinterlands," Lasky wrote. "Those who had never had the opportunity of hearing a cultivated, well-modulated voice thought she was putting on airs. … When our audiences got the first dose of it, they complained bitterly. Our salesmen demanded, 'No more accents. The public don't like accents.'"46
Once the Los Angeles plant was restored, the bulk of Paramount's production was based there in the capable hands of reliable directors like Dorothy Arzner. She was responsible for easing Clara Row into the talkies with The Wild Party (1929). Bow played a coed who spars with, but ends up engaged to, her professor, Fredric March. The sound quality was uneven, but Row's voice was intelligible, and her Brooklyn accent only occasionally detectable.
Paramount rushed its Maurice Chevalier vehicle, Innocents of Paris (dir. Richard Wallace, 1929) into production. The film was one of the studio's top grossers for the year. Chevalier's assertive personality, his endearing Gallicisms, his almost too-French accent, and his signature tune "Louise" made the otherwise ordinary film a one-man tour de force. Chevalier had been making films in France since 1908, so he was totally at ease before the camera.47
The Canary Murder Case (dir. Malcolm St. Clair, 1929) was that rarity, a film with "effective talking sequences." William Powell's voice and acting were singled out. "As an all-talker, it is far more effective than the silent version." As a result of his success, Powell was officially "elevated to stardom" by Paramount.48 The dour voice and deadpan delivery of the character actor Ned Sparks added more vocal interest to the casting.
Film Daily made one of its keenest critical assessments about two young stage players with distinctive speaking styles who were featured in The Hole in the Wall (dir. Robert Florey, 1929). "Claudette Colbert … and Edward G. Robinson … are immense, their voices register beautifully," wrote Harrower.49
Nicholas M. Schenck, upon signing with ERPI, issued a cautious press release:
The application of sound to pictures will unquestionably in its final development help to make the motion picture more than ever the greatest single entertainment force in the world. But it will not be the policy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to rush into print with anticipated elaborate plans for talking pictures. Rather it will be our policy to proceed so that each of our films employing the use of sound may do so with the most intelligent and sympathetic application. (Film Daily, 16 May 1928, p. 1)
As many studio executives did during 1928-1929, Schenck regarded sound as a kind of spice to be sprinkled on judiciously, as needed. Irving Thalberg shared that opinion, and as a result, MGM was the most conservative studio where sound was concerned. It tested the waters in November 1928 with a short subject featuring some stars. Ernest Torrence is supposedly calling from London (on AT&T transatlantic equipment, naturally) to announce the opening of the Empire Theater. George K. Arthur, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and John Gilbert (who keeps gushing "colossal, amazing, and wonderful") take turns at the mike.50
The first announced MGM feature releases were The Trial of Mary Dugan (dir. Bayard Veillier, 1929), an all-talking adaptation of a Broadway hit, and Nize Baby from a Milt Gross comic strip.51 White Shadows in the South Seas was the first actual MGM sound film on Broadway. W. S. Van Dyke shot it in the Marquesas Islands, then Douglas Shearer supervised the pressing of discs at the Victor studio in Camden. It opened at the Astor Theater on Broadway with a track of synchronized music and effects—for example Leo the Lion roaring audibly for the first time—on 31 July 1928.52 Other audio surprises included a pig that emerges from a tent and oinks when a woman swats it with a broom. New York critics were divided, one describing the experience as "for almost the entire length of the picture the rather scraping, tinny sounds of an orchestra rendering a stickily sentimental theme melody" (New York World).53 Hall thought the sound was "average," "bathetic," and "unfortunate." Motion Picture magazine said that the synchronization was not well done and "adds nothing to the merit of the photoplay."54 This reviewer made an exception for the scene in which Monte Blue teaches Raquel Torres how to whistle. Although the sound was post-dubbed, the effect of lip-synch was satisfactory. The scene ends dramatically with the interruption by an offscreen drum. Actually, there are other rather subtle sound effects. When a young diver drowns, we hear dirge-like music overlaid with a sobbing voice. This segues to festive ukulele music. On the screen, Doc (Monte Blue) is shown looking up; then there is a shot of dancing at the saloon (ostensibly the source of the music), then of him tearing his shirt. The changing music reflects his emotional state. Later we hear a gunshot and see a close-up of his slow reaction as he realizes he has been hit. But there are also some jarring anomalies. When the native music-makers strike up their instruments, we hear the sounds of a Western orchestra.
MGM's second sound film was also a goat gland. Alias Jimmy Valentine (dir. Jack Conway, 1928) was made into a sound film after the fact at the Paramount sound laboratory (another good example of how sound encouraged the studios to cooperate). In the last two reels, Lionel Barrymore and William Haines dubbed dialogue over footage shot silent. Hall advised the studio "that they must learn, with regard to sound, that enough is as good as a feast." He thought that the sound effects and dialogue were excessive.55
Norma Shearer was unquestionably the most privileged actor in the talkies. Her hus-band, Irving Thalberg, was head of production and artistic director at MGM and personally in charge of producing her films. Her brother Douglas was the recording engineer. Thus, her three features of 1929 were designed with distinctive MGM panache. Each was an expensive Broadway property which treated "adult" subjects. The trial of Mary Dugan was adapted by Veillier from his play. The extremely cautious Thalberg tested scenes by having them acted out before a live audience in the studio prior to shooting. For Harrower, the technique backfired; he dismissed the film as a too literal recording of the stage presentation. But he lauded the star's vocal talent. "Norma Shearer surpasses herself in name part, with superb voice range and remarkable emotional ability."56 The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (dir. Sidney Franklin) was an English society drama in which Shearer is the unlikely leader of a gang masquerading as aristocratic "swells" in order to steal jewels. Sound is foregrounded early when a heavily accented Cockney servant observes, "Some of those charity singers 'ave 'orrible voices." It was filmed with two cameras in long static takes, except for the final shot, which is a slow track from long-shot to a close-up two-shot of Shearer and her fiancé, Basil Rathbone.
MGM's 1929 breakthrough was The Broadway Melody. Speaking from the stage of the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, the director Harry Beaumont told his audience,
At the present time I believe we have reached a point where an entirely new creation is being perfected—a form of entertainment combining some of the best elements of stage and screen, but distinct from either. I look upon real human interest stories with a natural musical setting as the most fertile field for progress here. … The direction of talking pictures demands much closer attention to detail than the silent film. A sound picture is virtually "made" before its scenes are photographed, for every sequence must be rehearsed until it is perfect before the filming begins. (THe Broadway Melody souvenir program, 1929, Yranski Collection)
Beaumont's casual mention of the hybrid nature of his film zeroed in on a crucial aspect of sound that would influence dozens of subsequent musicals. Integrating the musical setting "naturally" into the story produced the "coherent" musical form which would eventually replace the revue format. (Though some of the musical numbers, including "Wedding of the Painted Doll" and "The Boy Friend," are encapsulated sound shorts, introduced by close-up inserts of the turning pages of the playbill.) Beaumont carefully pointed out that the labor-intensive talking pictures demanded extra rehearsals. Bessie Love's ukulele-playing scene alone took more than three hours to film. The film was a smash and "earned the best gross since The Big Parade , and twice as much as any other film of its season."57
The story of The Broadway Melody follows two sisters (played by Bessie Love and Anita Page) who take their vaudeville act to New York and fall in love with the same man (Charles King). According to Arthur Freed, the studio did not risk casting any big stars in case the film proved to be a flop.58 Written by Edmund Goulding, the film is full of satirical touches, like the names of the Ziegfeld-like producer Francis Zanfield (reminiscent of Darryl Francis Zanuck) and the philandering playboy Jacques Warriner (which sounds on-screen just like "Jack Warner").59 The story for about two-thirds of the film guides the romantic conflict to its inevitable happy ending. The remainder shows the backstage machinations of putting on a show called "The Broadway Melody," featuring a theme song also called "The Broadway Melody." Some of the musical numbers are "overheard" by the viewer, as when the arranger (played by the real composer James Gleason) spontaneously tries out some impromptu ideas on the piano. Uncle Jed, who speaks with a comic stutter, is a typical example of vocal foregrounding.
The Broadway Melody was praised by newspapers and the trades alike. Several picked up on Beaumont's attempt to integrate story and song. The New York Evening Journal said, "Talking and singing help the screen story, and the screen story helps the talking and singing sequences. In other words, it all goes to show what can be done with the new eye-and-ear industry; here is utilized the technique of both stage and screen, combining the good features of each." Film Daily proclaimed, "A picture to shout about." Bessie Love's performance, the lyrics by Arthur Freed, and the music by Nacio Herb Brown would prompt showmen to dust off the "SRO" (standing room only) sign, Kann predicted.60 The Academy bestowed on it the second award for best picture.
As a result of its stunning success, all fifty 1929-1930 titles from MGM were announced as at least part-talking. Symptomatic of the studio's transition from Vitaphone-like shorts to feature musicals was the abandonment of New York production. Nick Grinde, who with great fanfare in the fall had opened MGM's Cosmopolitan studio, was in May 1929 suspending its operation.61 Among the long-awaited sound debuts were Dynamite (1929), Cecil B. DeMille's first all-talkie, and Greta Garbo's first utterance in Anna Christie (dir. Clarence Brown, 1930).62 Garbo feared that her Swedish accent might impair her work in sound and wanted to delay as long as possible. Her silent films, like The Single Standard (dir. John S. Robertson, 1929), were still very successful.
Madame X received a big send-off by Kann. He praised Lionel Barrymore's first effort at direction as superb, "so deft and so expert that the problem of how best to use his abilities becomes knotty." Other critics felt that this melodrama (the fourth screen version) was creaky and that Ruth Chatterton was stiff. The Erpigram chuckled that the maudlin story even made the engineers weep. "They've geared up the sound volume so it can be heard above the splashing of the tears."63
Chaplin was preoccupied with his project City Lights and was on a rampage against the talkies. In November 1928, he could see "little likelihood" of screen pantomime ever becoming secondary to talking pictures. His famous maxim was widely reproduced: "Motion pictures need dialogue as much as Beethoven symphonies need lyrics." Chaplin's reputation as an actor was unassailable, but his opinions apparently were not universally accepted. Wesley Stout called him "the great unreconstructed rebel of Beverly Hills." Although the actor "talks nonsense about pictures in general," Stout conceded that Chaplin's declaration never to speak was justifiable because his art was pantomime. "A resounding kick in the pants never has needed amplification in words."64
Of the original founders, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were the most active UA producers during this season. Both reluctantly accepted sound. Later Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., reported that the partners "had no fear because they had been stage stars first. I don't think they gave it much thought, other than the fact they both appreciated the movies where it was better to be seen and not heard. They thought something was lost when they brought talk into it." In The Iron Mask (dir. Allan Dwan, 1929), his first talking picture, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr, spoke only in a prologue and epilogue, but nevertheless he gave a ringing endorsement of the new trend in filmmaking while attending the Broadway premiere. In March their fans learned that Fairbanks and Pickford would costar for the first time in an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. This was quickly abandoned (perhaps because the hero would have been forty-six and the teenage heroine thirty-six). Instead, their talking double-debut was the somewhat more plausible The Taming of the Shrew (dir. Sam Taylor, 1929). Harrower panned the film as slapstick. "Much of the show looks as if Mack Sennett has revived his pie-tossing days."65
In March 1929, Pickford proclaimed that she would never make another silent film. "The real future of the screen is in talking pictures." Boldly she announced that her next vehicle, Coquette (dir. Sam Taylor, 1929), adapted from George Abbott's stage hit with Helen Hayes, would be released in a talking version only.66 Pickford bobbed her hair and studied southern accents to get the role right. The plot was lurid melodrama for America's sweetheart, climaxed when the heroine's father, having killed her lover, commits suicide in a courtroom scene. Kann commented, "Mary talks for the first time in her long career. Audiences will want to see and hear her primarily, perhaps in order to satisfy their curiosity. … Mary assumes the drawl necessary to the character she plays. She is charming and, while the accent is occasionally overdrawn, most capably does she perform. Her voice is pleasantly modulated and highly effective." The New York critics were generally thumbs-down on Coquette: "The sophisticated Mary Pickford is not as compelling as 'America's Sweetheart'" (Evening World); "not as good as Helen Hayes" (Graphic); "too-heavy southern accent" (Herald Tribune). The World did give the heroine credit: "Miss Pickford is in every way splendidly equipped for the talking films. Her voice, sweet and pleasing and with a certain individual quality which seems to coordinate itself to a marked degree with the visual Mary Pickford whom everybody knows is clearly a practical one."67 Her peers agreed; Pickford won the Oscar for best actress.
D. W. Griffith's waning career waned a little more when Lady of the Pavements (1929) came out. It was a part-talkie, with some singing scenes. Critics liked the energetic star, Lupe Velez, but were indifferent to Griffith's direction. Joseph Schenck previewed the film extensively around the country before its New York premiere in order to forestall the inevitable effects of the bad reviews. Part of the problem was technical. UA's disc pressing was botched, resulting in unintelligible voices. Writing in January 1929, Griffith expressed optimism:
The pictures already made are too slow in dialogue. Imitation of stage techniques will kill the talking picture if it is continued. A new medium for dialogue must be found, and I know it will be found. I believe I know how to do it; and, in another year, I believe I will be able to demonstrate it. We must continue to use motion picture technique—the technique which has made motion pictures what they are today, and add the dialogue. When this is done successfully, you will see the greatest entertainment the world has ever witnessed. But we must preserve the speed, action, swirl, life and tempo of the modern picture today. (quoted in John H. Dorr, "Griffith's Talkies, " Take One 3, no. 8 [November-December 1971]: p. 8)
Thus, Griffith joined those who viewed sound primarily as an "add-on" to enhance the silent feature, not something fundamentally different. There was talk that Griffith was going to remake The Birth of a Nation (1915) in sound using much of the original cast, with dialogue and copious Negro spirituals. This was one of several Griffith ideas firmly rejected by his backer, Schenck. Instead, the filmmaker decided to make a biography of Abraham Lincoln.68
Goldwyn continued his successes with Bulldog Drummond (dir. F. Richard Jones, 1929), Ronald Colman's first talking picture. It was a tremendous hit. Kann raved that the dialogue of the playwright Sidney Howard was sparkling, witty, and never ponderous, and that the star "bridges the gap between silent and sound pictures in one leap and proves here that via the talker medium his drawing power is very considerably enhanced."69 Newspapers also saw something new in the film's fast pace and what they perceived to be its nontheatrical language. The New York Evening Journal observed that the film was a departure from the use of sound as a supplement: "As to the talking, the highest praise one can—and does—offer to the film is that, unlike many other talkies, it neither gives the impression of a stage play being photographed or a movie given the addition of sound." The New York World wrote, "Here at last is an all-talking film which is not all talking. Here is the basic method of pure motion picture augmented … by speech when speech is the only thing that will suffice." Goldwyn also teamed up with Florenz Ziegfeld to produce films based on the impresario's theatrical properties. It was anticipated that these would be recorded as widescreen color films and that Eddie Cantor's Whoopee! would be the first of five coproductions.70
Another success story was Alibi (1929), directed by Roland West, an independent releasing through UA. West also cowrote the screenplay with the veteran writer C. Gardner Sullivan. The surprisingly violent story was regarded as harsh but realistic by critics, and Chester Morris was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a tough ex-convict. In 1929 West returned with The Bat Whispers, another low-budget mystery thriller.
Howard Hughes's Caddo Productions announced in May 1928 that Hell's Angels would be finished in time for a September release by United Artists. Indeed, the film had been nearly completed as a silent with synchronized effects, but Hughes realized that it would be old hat next to the new all-talkers appearing from every studio. He hired the stage director James Whale to film dialogue scenes at Christie's Metropolitan Sound Studios. He scrapped most of the silent footage except for the outstanding flying stunts. New scenes were recorded by deploying "both microphones and cameras in the air by other planes and balloons." The release was put off until November, then until 1929. Even that proved optimistic.71
The Queen Kelly Fiasco
Gloria Swanson was responsible for the most spectacular failure in the UA roster. The Swamp (later retitled Queen Kelly) was announced in July 1928. Joseph Kennedy financed the film through the company he set up on the FBO lot, Gloria Productions. He loaned William LeBaron from FBO/Pathé to produce, and Kennedy and Swanson selected Erich von Stroheim to direct. Stroheim later gave out much incorrect information. The directors friend Herman G. Weinberg wrote in 1937 that after sound came in, Kennedy "opined that the worst talking film would make more at the box-office than the best silent film" and stopped shooting the silent version. Stroheim wrote to his biographer, Peter Noble, that "the showing of Al Jolson's first sound film stopped production."72 Even allowing for mistakenly remembering The Singing Fool as The Jazz Singer, Stroheim's memory is not accurate; shooting did not begin until November 1928, two months after Jolson's second film. Yet RCA's press releases published in the summer of 1928 (which precede The Singing Fool) show that Swanson was specifically recruited by FBO to make a sound film, and that the Queen Kelly project was envisioned from the start as at least part-talking: "Gloria Swanson's next for United Artists will have talking sequences. Voice tests are now being made and the leading man will be chosen with suitable attention to his vocal ability." Further evidence of Swanson's intentions resides in the amendments to United Artist's ERPI license agreement. Item 9 reads:
We [ERPI] understand that you [UA] are obligated by contract to distribute the productions of Gloria Swanson, and that at the present time she is producing her pictures through a company which is not licensed by us to make sound records and that her pictures which you are required by contract to distribute may have sound records accompanying them made by others than our licensees. We have no objection to your distributing her pictures and accompanying sound records so made so long as your existing contract obligations to do so are in force. (John Otterson-Joseph Schenck agreement, 11 May 1928, box 85, United Artists Collection, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research [WCFTR])
When UA mistakenly charged Swanson's company for ERPI fees, her representative wrote back in March 1929, "We cannot recognize any indebtedness to the Electrical Research Products Company because it is our intention to use the Photophone system in connection with the pictures which we shall make in which Miss Swanson appears." Thus, Swanson was the first big star to announce a talking project.73
Work on the script proceeded through 1928, and contrary to Stroheim's account, shooting was halted when he spent extravagantly on retakes and began filming sexually suggestive scenes that could not possibly have been approved by the Hays Office censors. Richard Koszarski doubts Swanson's innocence in these matters, pointing out that the bordello scenes had been identified as such in early scripts. "Only the cumulative effect of von Stroheim's directorial extravagance is left as an explanation."74 But was there another reason? From November 1928 through 17 January 1929, von Stroheim had been shooting the film as just another silent. Kennedy obviously was committed, at least in a gentlemen's agreement with Sarnoff, to produce a film with RCA Photophone. Swanson admitted in her memoir that she and von Stroheim disliked sound.75 One can conjecture that the purpose of the 17 January meeting with Swanson, described by Koszarski as "a discussion of how best to inject sound into the picture," was to relay Kennedy's insistence on incorporating dialogue into Queen Kelly. Kennedy's views were presented by E. B. Derr, his chief of staff. Also present was Edmund Goulding, who had just written The Broadway Melody. The changes made in the script included adding scenes with "synthetic sound," that is, post-synchronized effects and vocal dubbing, as LeBaron was doing with some FBO films. The final straw for von Stroheim has been attributed to his argument with Swanson over a disgusting scene involving tobacco juice. But it is possible that when Kennedy fired him on 21 January, the dispute over sound may have played some part. Soon, Edmund Goulding was hired to shoot talking and singing footage. The picture was still imagined as a 40 percent talkie.
Kennedy arrived in Los Angeles to confer with Swanson during February 1929. They decided to shelve the project and write off the $750,000 that Kennedy had invested. Evidently someone forgot to tell United Artists. An advertisement in Film Daily on 28 February 1929 featured Joseph Schenck boldly pitching sound in the doomed film: "Gloria Swanson, talking and singing in Queen Kelly, vitalizes the drama." Swanson and Goulding convinced Kennedy to finance a new all-talkie to be called The Love Years. It was written and directed quickly by Goulding and released as The Trespasser in October 1929. It became one of Swanson's biggest hits. The fan magazines adored her spunkiness and the fact that she took numerous voice lessons in order to sing the theme song "Love."
The Queen Kelly project, meanwhile, would not die. In March 1929, Benjamin Glazer (an MGM writer and friend of Kennedy's who had collaborated with von Stroheim on The Merry Widow ) wrote a new ending. In April, Swanson, on her own, hired Paul Stein to add "synthetic" dialogue.76 Apparendy Swanson planned to turn her film into a goat gland. The cast reassembled in December 1929—without Stroheim, needless to say—to make some singing inserts in another effort to salvage the movie by reincarnating it as a musical. Richard Boleslawski directed these musical numbers. Film Daily reported that "Queen Kelly, the Gloria Swanson picture shelved some time ago and lately revived for production by Pathé as an operetta, will be released through United Artists. The picture will have color treatment by Pathé's multicolor method." Kennedy thought he had commissioned Franz Lehar, the Austrian composer of The Merry Widow, to devise the music. But Lehar wrote only one song. Goulding, mean-while, wanted nothing further to do with this fiasco. When Kennedy and Swanson tried to pressure him by withholding royalties for the theme song he had written for The Trespasser, he sued them. Kennedy finally walked away from what was now an $800,000 debacle. Swanson, however, continued hiring writers, technicians, and consultants to save the film. In 1931 the editor Viola Lawrence cut together von Stroheim's footage and Gregg Toland shot a new ending. This "final" version had a score but no dialogue, "synthetic" or otherwise.77
Swanson was so tenacious in part because her 1925 United Artists contract prevented her from producing outside the studio until she had completed three "specials." Furthermore, a substantial payment in the form of 166 shares of UA stock had been escrowed pending completion. Early in 1932 Swanson presented her synchronized sound version of Queen Kelly to Schenck and demanded her stock. UA's vice president and general manager in charge of distribution, Al Lichtman, arranged a sneak preview in Stamford, Connecticut, and reported the grim event:
When the main title was first flashed on the screen, the people seemed to settle back expectantly. As the story progressed they became very restless, and later they laughed at many spots that were intended to be serious. All in all, the general reaction was very bad.
I personally interviewed a number of people in the lobby of the theatre and their remarks were all very disparaging. The exhibitor, who is one of our best customers, said he could not possibly show a picture of that kind in his theatre. …
It is my opinion we could not gross sufficient money on the picture in the United States to even justify the cost of prints, and it would do Miss Swanson irreparable damage. Furthermore, I doubt very much if we could get the picture passed by the censor boards in New York, Chicago, Ohio and Pennsylvania, surely not without so many cuts that there would probably be no sense to the film at all with the cuts they would most likely make. (Al Lichtman to Lloyd Wright, Gloria Productions, 10 February 1932, box 151/2, UA Collection, WCFTR)
Joe Schenck wrote to UA's corporate attorney urging that Queen Kelly not be accepted by the company as one of Swanson's mandatory specials. He did not mince words:
It is entirely impossible to release that picture and it would be extremely detrimental to Gloria if the picture was released. We could not even get the price of the prints out of the distribution of the picture. Even in the days of silent pictures, that picture would be a very bad picture. Today, in my opinion, it is terrible. Furthermore, no censorboard would ever pass it. (Schenck to Dennis O'Brien, 29 February 1932, box 151/2, UA Collection, WCFTR)
Swanson released this version (with synchronized music) in Europe in 1932.78 Some of the silent footage found its way into Sunset Boulevard (dir. Billy Wilder, 1950), where it represents the glorious stardom of Swanson's Norma Desmond, watched by her icy butler played by Stroheim—one of the great casting ironies in cinema. When the fictional silent star Desmond visits the Paramount studio, she symbolically pushes an annoying mike on a boom away from her face. Later Norma damns modern films with her immortal line, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." She conveniently ignores the fact that Swanson's Queen Kelly was, from the start, supposed to be a talkie.
In June 1928, Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Man Who Laughs, which already had finished their big-city runs, were scored by Erno Rapee. Sound effects and some dialogue sequences were added. Exchanges were supplied with two sets of prints—regular silent and the goat gland versions.79 It was not until the weekend of 23 June that the studio announced its decision to go into sound production, trumpeting that eighteen of the next season's films would be scored.80 Universal began refurbishing one of its old Fort Lee, New Jersey, stages for sound short subject production.81 Surreptitiously, it has been claimed, the studio also borrowed a Fox Movietone News truck under the pretense of doing some sound tests. Within the space of two weeks the all-talking Melody of Love (dir. A. B. Heath, 1928) and talking sequences for at least three already-shot silents were cobbled together.82
Photoplay quipped that Melody of Love, with Walter Pidgeon, was "valuable because it shows how not to make a talkie."83 Its story was weak. Jack (Pidgeon) lost the use of his arm while serving in France during the war. When he encounters a girl he met over there, Madelon (Mildred Harris), who is now a showgirl in the States, the limb comes back to life and they vow to get married. Despite the film's "lung power," it was not "aided by its audible accompaniment." According to Hall, "a little of this dialogue offering goes a long way." The Daily Mirror mused that it was as if a gang of children playing in the backyard had said, "Let's make a talker."84 Indeed, that's a fair description of the film's production, except that it was shot by grown-ups. The reception of this film shows that the novelty of sound was no longer sufficient to save a bad movie.
Conceiving their films as silents with sound tacked on was an increasingly old-fashioned approach which undoubtedly hurt the talking versions of Universal's pictures. Moreover, Universal's facilities still lagged behind the competition's. It was not until February 1929 that the studio built its first fully equipped sound screening room at Universal City so that sound tracks "might be heard as they would be played."85
One cannot attribute these tight economic policies only to a stingy Carl Laemmle. Universal budgeted $1 million each for Broadway (1929) and The King of Jazz (1930). Nor was there an abhorrence of innovation at the studio. Universal's European directors and cinematographers were known for their expressive effects. Paul Fejos, one of Hollywood's brightest talents, directed Broadway and was chosen for The King OFJazz (although he was eventually replaced by the Follies director John Murray Anderson).86 The German expressionist director Paul Leni had created The Cat AND The Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928) for Universal. The studios halting approach toward sound is more likely traced to Laemmle's conviction that the public's affection for talkies was a brief fling and that one day silence would reign again. His decision to sell off the studio's theaters rather than invest in wiring them for sound and his pledge to always supply silent product showed his deep-seated skepticism about the future of sound.
One of the films sonorized during the bout of unauthorized sound recording was Fejos's Lonesome, the first Universal part-talkie released. When it had run in June 1928 as a silent, the film was a remarkable example of the late-twenties style of actively roaming cinematography (although the trade critics did not like it).87 In its October 1928 talking reincarnation, Kann observed that two of its three dialogue sequences were pretty good, but the third was awful. It is a simple story of a young man (Glenn Tryon) and a girl (Barbara Kent) meeting at Coney Island, then losing each other in the crowd—only to discover at the end that they live in the same apartment building. Fejos's camera flits giddily through the silent scenes in Coney Island but freezes rock-steady in the talking ones, causing an abrupt change in visual style. The dialogue is delivered in flat, amateurish voices which brought down the reviewers' wrath. Kann wrote, "It proves that Universal, in company with other producing companies, has to ferret out a method of handling this new entertainment vitamin" [probably referring to the "goat gland" vitamin].88
Probably because of Carl Laemmle, Sr.'s vacillating position on sound, Universal's producers did not know whether they were in the sound or silent business. One of their most important investments was Show Boat, the screen version of the Ziegfeld hit based on Edna Ferber's best-seller. Universal had purchased the film rights for a record $100,000 before the stage production opened. But Laemmle had not optioned the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II music, because in 1927 he had not contemplated making a sound film. The studio began filming it silent in 1928, but the Broadway show's popularity threw a wrench in the works. Universal was forced to negotiate for limited musical and vocal rights. Under the terms of the deal with Flo Ziegfeld, the picture was banned from New York until at least one week after the close of the play.89
Show Boat (dir. Harry Pollard) was shot, abandoned, and reshot so many times that the production record is like a jigsaw puzzle. Universal, early in 1929, announced a plan to shoot silent and sound footage on alternating days. This press release conflicts with another issued just five days later: "The film, just completed, is to have the dialogue and music portions inserted. These remakes will be taken at the Ziegfeld [theater]." But the Universal executive R. H. Cochrane implied there were already two separate films: "Our leading picture Show Boat was not only bought as a silent one but the silent version was made complete from start to finish. Afterward a sound version was made, including the Ziegfeld hits from his stage show of the same story."90 The film had a dual premiere in Miami and Palm Beach. Miami's opening was disrupted "by [the] disappearance of the operators, with the sound reproducing equipment out of order." Union agitators were blamed.91
Though the original version disappeared soon after its release, it has been recently restored and re-released on laser disc. The 1929 product contained only traces of the original score and would not be considered a musical by most modern viewers. Most of the silent footage was retained, and two talking and singing sequences were added. Only two Kern songs were included in the film. To preserve some contact with the original production, a two-reel (eighteen-minute) prologue was filmed. In it, Carl Laemmle and Flo Ziegfeld make brief remarks. Otis Harlan, who starred in the film, introduces the stage cast members Tess Gardella, Jules Bledsoe, and Helen Morgan singing five numbers from the show. According to the New York Evening Journal, "Bledsoe's rendition of the ["Old Man River"] number is about the most effective yet recorded on the singing screen."92
Show Boat received bad notices when it opened in New York in April 1929. Kann assailed the director, Harry Pollard, in a front-page editorial for letting the film grow to its 12,400-foot length. "Practically every major sequence is drawn out and made unnecessarily repetitious to the point of fatigue." Other reviews described it as a long and "draggy" melodrama. Like all Universal productions, the film was also released in a silent version.93
In 1929, Laemmle made his son Carl, Jr., head of production and there was a marked upturn in ambition and quality. Junior Laemmle, as he was called, started off with a magnificently produced musical extravaganza, Broadway (dir. Fejos). While modern viewers are impressed by the technical virtuosity of Broadway, almost all of the critics of the time compared the film unfavorably to its source, a nightclub melodrama directed by George Abbott with a two-year Broadway run behind it. "A good bit of a bore," groused the Telegram. The Daily Mirror and the World reviewers were among the few who noticed Fejos's gargantuan set and crane-mounted camera work. According to the World, "His treatment of the photography inside the Paradise Cafe is singularly well done. Here his camera seems to float in midair over and about the great, glistening hall, dipping now and again to pick up and emphasize by proximity the individual work of the dancers and singers."94
Universal's other films were not impressing the critics. The 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. And there seemed to be mechanical difficulties: "The sound effects were way off when caught at the Colony on Broadway, and the dialogue sequences were far from impressive."95 This would be Leni's only sound film. He died of an infection shortly after its release.
Powers Cinephone had limited success. The company operated out of the old Paragon Studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. At first Pat Powers contemplated servicing the post-production sound needs of the film industry, synchronizing music to silents, as he had done with The Wedding March (dir. Erich von Stroheim, 1928).96 By mid-June 1928, he was advertising "to apply sound to motion picture negatives either during or after the filming of the picture."97 Powers, like Sarnoff at RCA, called attention to his systems interchangeability with Western Electric equipment. In December he offered a turntable unit so that exhibitors could run Vitaphone discs as well as optical tracks.98 Powers's most illustrious customer was Walt Disney, who contracted for four cartoon sound tracks (see chapter 15).
Other small producers jumped on the sound bandwagon. Sam Sax, president of Gotham Pictures and a leading independent producer, announced the filming of The Girl from the Argentine in Hollywood with RCA Photophone. (Gotham and Bristol-phone would start a joint venture to wire theaters in October 1928.)99
Among Tiffany-Stahls first talkies were Marriage by Contract (1928), directed by James Flood, with Patsy Ruth Miller, and Lucky Boy (1928), directed by Norman Taurog, with George Jessel. Having blown the movie role of a lifetime, he was rather pathetically billed as "The Original 'Jazz Singer.'"
This season of the goat gland must have created an impression of strangeness for moviegoers. In the silent days one had a predictable experience at the movies; during the introduction of sound, as Hollywood undertook different approaches, neither the form nor the content of the show could be reliably anticipated. Audiences must have assumed, along with many producers, that silent films were not endangered by these new talkers. The kind of movies that one saw in 1928—1929 were likely to convince few that a "revolution" was on. This was the year of the "big hedge": some of these films talked, some did not, and some looked just like the slapped-together concoctions they were. Several directors tried on sound in various sizes and shapes, looking for a crowdpleasing fit. Meanwhile, consumers were also exposed to considerable marketing hype about the talkies.
Fundamental questions about the talkies were being posed. Some criticism was directed toward film's relationship to theater, a perennial topic. In a way this issue was a red herring because Hollywood had relied on the stage play as a source of story material for many years. Mordaunt Hall, representatively, worried about the influence of theatricality on dialogue and acting. Would the technical limitations of sound cinematography and the influx of Broadway talent somehow turn cinema into a kind of stage play? These concerns would continue to be articulated over the next few years.
Stars and future stars of sound cinema emerged during this season. Jolson was a crossover from music and radio, but aside from the obvious lure of his singing, his ability to make trite dialogue heart-rending and to extract tears from his audience suggested the talkies' dramatic potential. Other players became known primarily through their film work: Maurice Chevalier, Edward G. Robinson, Stepin Fetchit, Eugene Pallette, and even Warner Baxter, with a hokey Mexican accent, captured attention in part owing to their distinctive vocal styles. To one hearing the talkies for the first time, film must have seemed like a carnival of screen voices. Certainly the chance to experience a Broadway musical or see a famous play locally was appealing, but increasingly it was interesting human speech in "ordinary" films that people came back to hear.
While the studios were highlighting their investment with flamboyant insertions of sound effects, Hall and other journalists were reacting against this approach. Like overly garish Technicolor, they felt, sound should not call attention to itself as a supplement. Accents had to be genuine, as Mary Pickford's and Colleen Moore's were not. Story and picture had to mesh, as they apparently failed to do in The Black Watch. Rather than function as inserted musical interludes, talking and singing worked best when they were part of the fiction, told a story, and established character, as in The Broadway Melody. If dialogue was added to a picture, its usage—unlike the talking sequences of Noah's Ark, Lonesome, and Lucky Star—had to be consistent with the rest of the film. In short, reviewers and trade commentators welcomed sound and preferred talkies to silents. But they threw on the brakes when the studios exaggerated the sound track's presence. Already in 1928-1929, preferences for an integration of sound and image were being expressed by the conservative press, which wanted to preserve the "coherence" (Kann's word) typical of the late-twenties silent film.
Critics were eager to carve out a special place for foregrounded sound. Interesting effects were acceptable if "natural" (unlike the excessive shrieking in The Last Warning). Crazy fake accents and loudmouth talking were acceptable (for some listeners) if confined to Marx Brothers comedies. Acoustic spectacle and flashy musical numbers were appropriate in the genre of the musical. In fact, it might be speculated that the rise of the musical comedy and operetta film during this season and the next was the result of public impatience with Hollywood showing off its sound-film prowess too expressively. While the consensus was that sound should be dispensed gradually in other genres, in the musical, on the contrary, the prevailing attitude was: anything goes.