A New Era in Electrical Entertainment

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A New Era in Electrical Entertainment

2 Electric Affinities
3 Virtual Broadway, Virtual Orchestra: De Forest and Vitaphone
4 Fox-Case, Movietone, and the Talking Newsreel
5 Enticing the Audience: Warner Bros. and Vitaphone
6 Battle of the Giants: ERPI and RCA Consolidate Sound
7 The Big Hedge: Hollywood's Defensive Strategies
8 Boom to Bust
9 Labor Troubles
10 Inaudible Technology
11 Exhibition: Talkies Change the Bijou

We wonder—is this the only business in the world that needlessly burns electric lights in broad daylight?

Maurice Kann, 1928

There are no simple technologies. Even the tools and materials used to make inventions are themselves objects and processes with histories. Peter Wollen, for instance, has observed that film and sound editing were transformed by the seemingly insignificant introduction of Scotch brand transparent tape.1 Now tape editing has replaced the cement film splicer. The "sound apparatus" embraced by Hollywood in the late 1920s was not a simple machine, but a many-faceted assortment of equipment and applications, not all of which worked in harmony.2 To refine the point a bit more: none of the competing sound systems in the 1920s was simply an autonomous device (like a newly invented lens). Rather, theatrical sound was a new configuration of many existing electrical applications, most of which had not been developed for use in Hollywood movies at all.

Furthermore, the function of this equipment was not controlled by a course set by any one individual, inventor, or corporation but was competed for by those with vested interests and the financial clout to assert themselves. Consumers had been exposed to efforts to make the movies "talk" for several years before The Jazz Singer (1927) and had rejected them because they did not work. The experiments had failed to create the illusion of naturalism which the exhibitors had promised. Synchronization between word and image was not maintained, the sound was unpleasant, and the content of the recorded material was uninteresting. At the same time, consumers seemed willing to believe that the talkies might work. This belief was encouraged by publicity which, capitalizing on past achievements of science, promoted talking pictures as "a new era in entertainment." Nearly all popular accounts of the new sound systems of the 1920s emphasized their global connection to technology, not the details of their material sub-structure. For instance, the modern alloys used in microphone construction and Eastman's improvements in film emulsion were extremely important in improving motion picture sound. Yet these contributions were seldom mentioned in popular texts about sound, nor were they promoted by movie studios. In contrast, authors constantly emphasized the talking cinema's connection, often dubious, to electrically derived technologies. There was a reason for this.

By the time of the commercially successful releases by Warner Bros. (Vitaphone) and Fox (Movietone), the fundamental developments had been in place in the laboratories of inventors, university professors, and electrical conglomerates for several years. Manufacturers had to "sell" talking cinema, not only to movie producers, whose executives for the most part were loathe to change, but also to consumers, whose tastes and moviegoing habits were notoriously unpredictable. For these groups, there was one common meeting ground: the talkies made sense when they were considered as a new form of electrical entertainment. Warner Bros.' director, Roy Del Ruth, looked to cinema's scientific origins as the promise of vast technological change: "The talking device … marks another step forward in modern science and its perfection is the most marvelous accomplishment since the discovery of electricity by Benjamin Franklin. … Its value to posterity will prove more far-reaching to civilization than the perfection of aeronautics, I dare say."3 MGM's general manager, Louis B. Mayer, loquaciously, though characteristically inscrutably, agreed that the future belonged to science—and therefore to sound: "Electrical science, new advances in the technique of screen drama and screen literature and discoveries that have opened the way for the screen to appeal to two of the human senses, as heretofore only one, have enfolded for the future strides so enormous that to contemplate them is almost staggering to the imagination."4

We do not know specifically what motivated early audiences to go to the talkies. In general, we do not know what they thought about the movies, science, or any other subject. One definition of private life is that it is precisely that part of people's thought and routine behavior that is not open to public scrutiny. It is evident, though, that a spirited battle surrounded the introduction of sound cinema and attempted to align the technology with existing properties controlled by large electric corporations. Prospective audiences were bombarded with competing claims about the origins of the talkies. But in fact, the electric companies had an easy task because the public formed its own impression about the nature of the new motion picture entertainment. Science was often considered progressive in the 1920s, and anything associated with electricity tended to generate awe and respect, as it combined intellectual complexity, the promise of a better future, and the risk of mishandling. The talkies were readily plugged into this popularly constructed circuit that connected new developments in transportation (electric trains and elevators), communication (telephone and radio), and labor-saving and leisure-time appliances (the phonograph). Like other electrical technologies, the sound film was on the cusp of modernity. More specifically, it was the newest application of electrical science, thermionics, which was proffered to explain the "origins" of the talkies and to create an aura of modernity and inevitability. This was the name for the far-flung applications based on the vacuum tube, which include the modern sound cinema.

The corporations which vied to control the rights to thermionic devices did so on two fronts. Behind the scenes, their work took the form of labyrinthine litigation, negotiation, and old-fashioned back-stabbing. Up front, they waged a public relations war to link the popular comprehension of these products to other technological domains that were less disputed. The aggressiveness with which the phone company and the radio cartel fought for the bragging rights to the talkies implies an actively selective public. As consumers of "popular science," people had their own ideas about technology.

The diverse blend of technologies from which the talkies profited were not destined to come together as cinema sound but were the product of the strong "pull" of electric companies vying for control of public opinion. The popular press, however, found it more compelling to dramatize the talkies as continuing scientific progress and the avatar of a new millennium.

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