Taming the Talkies, 1929–1930
13Superabundance: Revues and Musicals
Taming the Talkies, 1929–1930
Flirting with Theater
Cinematographers now do everything they did in silent drama days in Hollywood.
John Seitz, Cinematographic Annual 1930
The obvious question to ask John Seitz is, Why was adapting sound filmmaking to "silent" practice considered desirable? This conservative impulse probably did not arise simply from practical considerations; it required skill, resourcefulness, and effort to maintain the appearance that everything was the same. Many stresses inside the industry pushed film toward systematic stability. It is also likely that external forces were at work.
The films of the 1929-1930 season approached sound in seemingly contradictory ways: they exploited it while hiding it. Audiences could still see movies which emphasized the newly discovered screen voice. They could also observe film styles which played down formal expression and novel effects to construct an illusion of unified audiovisual space. Just as the sound engineers were making their technology "inaudible," many filmmakers were subduing their techniques.
The sound film's relationship to theater continued to evolve into one of love-hate. Virtual Broadway in its older form, recording discrete performances, tended to be confined to short subjects. But some producers still regarded big-time musical revues and dramatic hits from the New York stage as movie ideals.
Adapting musicals was a path of little resistance for movie producers. These proven New York successes with recognizable stars and tunes which left you humming must have seemed to producers like a quick road to riches. Now we would call these shows pre-sold packages. A studio could hire a Broadway director and performers, transform the play's book into a screenplay, record the songs, and voilà! The public would beat a path to the door to see this improvement on the virtual Broadway idea. Richard Barrios aptly characterizes the events of mid-1929 as a "musical virus infecting Hollywood."1 Broadway was the center of the entertainment universe, and audiences evidently were keenly interested in seeing what all the fuss was about. Many went to the movie theaters. Apparently, though, not all fans and critics liked what they found there.
In retrospect, we tend to think of all these films as "musicals" and to see their development as an evolutionary progression. But the early sound musical was not a well-defined or homogeneous film form. Barrios posits numerous examples of overlapping subgenres, and Rick Altman has criticized the standard historical account of the musical.2 Far from being linear transitions, these early musicals were pastiches made of separate theatrical traditions—the revue, the operetta, and the musical comedy.
The film revue presents its musical and comedy numbers as discrete performance blocks, often in the form of encapsulated sound segments. The order in which these blocks appear, their length, and even their content are not crucial to the overall development of the film. The roots of this kind of filming were in the theatrical revue, a form which had flourished for about forty years. Martin Rubin has argued that the revue was one of several aggregate entertainment forms which grew out of a nineteenth-century aesthetic of superabundance that provided spectators with more than they could possibly absorb in a single sitting, for example, the three-ring circus. The cinema prolonged the aesthetic of superabundance by overwhelming the viewer with dense spectacle—for example, filling the screen with all-star performers from a Ziegfeld musical in sound and color, as in the closing pageant of parading showgirls in Whoopee! (dir. Thornton Freeland, 1930). In the early-twentieth-century stage revue, a master of ceremonies (W. C. Fields, Josephine Baker, and Maurice Chevalier are Rubin's examples) presents the show and provides coherence. In contrast to the unrelated acts of vaudeville, the revue was organized around a theme or a simple narrative progression. (The format survives vestigially in Las Vegas and touring ice shows.) This stage entertainment had lost much of its popularity when the talkies came along. "By the late 1920s," Rubin argues, "these spectacular revues, although still active, were being viewed as bloated dinosaurs by many critics and sophisticates…. As it had done for the melodrama earlier, the cinema gave a new lease on life to the spectacular production number and to the revue form that nurtured it."3 Good examples are the MGM Metrotone Acts produced in 1929. Each is introduced by a well-known emcee, such as the radio personality Jack Pepper. He speaks directly to the audience, even urging them to applaud after each performance. (Pointing offscreen, Pepper warns, "And I'll be listening, from over here.") Each performance is discrete and opens and closes with a curtain. Or consider the Fox revue Happy Days (dir. Benjamin Stoloff, 1929). Shot in the 70-mm Grandeur process, the filmmakers tried to engorge the big high-resolution screen. "Three-quarters of the footage is devoted to a series of spectacular stage ensembles that are eye-openers in screen pageantry, numbers involving masses of people and bigness of backgrounds," observed Variety.
There is, for instance, a whole minstrel first part, with four tiers of people in the ensemble, numbering a total of eighty-six and all of them screened in proportions that give them individuality. There are several dance ensembles, one of them with a leader and thirty-two girls in intricate maneuvers, and each separate dancing girl visible in what would otherwise be a semi-atmospheric shot. (Variety, 19 February 1930)
The only lack in this display of superabundance was color—which, the commentator assured his readers, was just around the corner.
The operetta was another resurgent nineteenth-century musical form. Big hits like Rose-Marie and The Student Prince, both 1924, and the landmark Show Boat in 1927, were prototypes for the movies' singing spectacles. (One of these, A Connecticut Yankee , was the debut of the young choreographer Busby Berkeley.) These stories told in song were the source of many direct screen adaptations, such as Rio Rita and The Rogue Song. The latter (from Lehar's Gypsy Love), with Lawrence Tibbett, showed the power of the virtual performance as a lure; Variety noted that the volume of the film's sound track eclipsed the star's real voice: "The power is tremendous, and those who go from the Astor to the Metropolitan to hear him are going to be surprised at the difference in volume on the big auditorium hearing. That's what that mike can do."4
Screen musical comedies were often adapted from stage predecessors. The resulting film musicals tried to cover all the entertainment bases. Filled with music and pageantry, they were conveniently symbolized by the slogan "All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing." Spring Is Here (dir. John Francis Dillon, 1930) is a good example of the superabundant musical. It has a narrative that corresponds to the book in a stage show, but it also uses the conventions of the operetta for introducing songs. For instance, in a soliloquy the actor "thinks aloud" with musical accompaniment, and lovers' words segue into song (which expand with the addition of a chorus and dancers).
Genre boundaries were very fluid. Around 1929–1930, it was the rare movie that was not a musical in some sense of the term. Practically every film had a specially composed theme song. (Contrary to received opinion, the theme song written by Dorothy Parker for DeMille's Dynamite  was "How Am I to Know," not the apocryphal "Dynamite, Dynamite, Blow My Sweet One Back to Me.") Most movies, even Westerns like In Old Arizona (dir. Walsh and Cummings, 1929) or flapper melodramas like The Wild Party (dir. Arzner, 1929) had gratuitous songs. The showgirl in Hal Roach's first talkie, Hurdy Gurdy (1929), said it best. "If you can't think of anything to say, just sing." And she does. Producers finding themselves in the same quandary about how to insert their de rigueur musical sessions seem to have heeded her advice. Reviewers singled out films which did not contain music, including The Virginian, Disraeli, and Madame X. Another factor not to be underestimated was radio. All these Hollywood musical formats were influenced by, and competing with, variety show programs on contemporary broadcasts.
Critics during the season of 1929-1930 grew tired of Hollywood's musicals. Their remarks are consistent with declining box-office revenue for these films, suggesting that their sentiments were widely shared. The harshest comments were directed toward films which failed to keep a story flowing. The New York Herald Tribune's review of No, No, Nanette (dir. Clarence Badger, 1929) demanded an integration of music and narrative: "Instead of mixing up the story with the songs, the screen No, No, Nanette insisted on placing the musical numbers at the beginning and end of the picture and on making them fit in with some fantastic plot about the production of a show. Thus, the outdated narrative, deprived of the salvation of song cues, was forced to wander on aimlessly to a tedious conclusion, and all of the frailties of its formula were cruelly exposed." By contrast, Don Carle Gillette, the Film Daily reviewer, found that Monte Carlo (1930) properly mixed song and story: "Ernst Lubitsch has done it again! … It boasts an amusing and touching romance, witty dialogue and racy humor. The songs are comic as well as tuneful, and they don't get in the way because they are part of the plot and help to swing the story along."5 An example is the justifiably famous "Beyond the Blue Horizon" number. As Jeanette MacDonald flees Paris, the tempo of her song is picked up from the chugging of the locomotive. The whistle becomes part of the score. The train hurtles through the South of France, and when it passes peasant grape-pickers in a vineyard, they supply the song's chorus in perfect serendipity. Though humorous, the sequence also provides the essential narrative bridge from one locale to another. Lubitsch's films showed that in an integrated musical, the music could reinforce a strong story and add star interest.
This season was in a state of flux and uncertainty as musical films were defined and refined. But the musicals did not immediately become, contrary to the message of Singin' In the Rain, the permanent archetypes of film genres. Rather, the period was more like a shopping spree in which filmgoers selected then rejected these entertainment options.
Metro's 1929–1930 season was one of extraordinary productivity and sound innovation. Among the studio's most influential films was The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (dir. Charles Reisner and Christy Cabanne [uncredited]), which set off the revue craze immediately after its June premiere. Adoring and curious fans bought tickets to ogle the studio's much-touted constellation of stars, seduced by the promise that their favorites' voices would be heard on the screen, many for the first time. Some two dozen screen personalities (minus MGM's biggest draws, Chaney and Garbo) did a stint before the camera. Each skit was interspersed with wisecracks from the masters of ceremonies, Conrad Nagel and Jack Benny. The souvenir program pitched The Hollywood Revue as technical wizardry and a celebration of virtual Broadway over the real thing:
Concentration of engineering experts on the various problems of vocal and sound reproduction have eliminated minor difficulties associated with the first period of experimentation, while new camera effects and novelties have been introduced in sound, along with Technicolor and the "phantom screen."6
Since musical productions have already proved extremely popular it is likely the production of revues and photoplays with a musical setting may prove one of the most significant phases of the current screen expansion. There are no limits for the future, and most of the handicaps which the stage faces in presenting dramatic spectacles are banished through sound film progress. (The Hollywood Revue souvenir program, 1929, Yranski Collection)
The film is a fascinating museum piece for many reasons—not the least of which is hearing John Gilbert speak in both his stage and "natural" voices (doing Romeo and Juliet in jazz talk and a little pig-Latin). The Hollywood Revue has become an icon of the musical by dint of its featured song, Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed's "Singin' in the Rain." This production number was ambitious but not lavish. The mise-en-scène creates some striking visual displays when the dancers parade across rainbow-shaped risers wearing see-through raincoats.7
Marion Davies's talking debut was in The Hollywood Revue, where she (rather awkwardly) leads a platoon of toy soldiers through some drills in "Tommy Atkins on Parade." But her first talkie was supposed to have been TheFive O'Clock Girl, costarring Charles King and Joel McCrea. William Randolph Hearst was not pleased with his protégée's singing or her mike fright-induced nervousness. Though publicity for the film had already circulated, in January 1929 he prevailed upon Louis B. Mayer to shelve it permanently. Davies's first released talking feature was Marianne (dir. Robert Z. Leonard, 1929) in which she plays a French country girl who entertains some American doughboys. To protect itself this time, MGM shot the whole film first as a silent—a very expensive hedge—then as a talkie with a different supporting cast. Her performance seems natural and unstilted, with no hint of her legendary stuttering.8
The Rogue Song (dir. Lionel Barrymore), a high-profile showcase for the Metropolitan Opera great Lawrence Tibbett, opened in January 1930. Unfortunately, no complete print is known to survive, so his dynamic performance is lost. Although the all-Technicolor picture was proclaimed by the New York Evening World to be "one of the great achievements of the cinema," other reviewers had reservations. The Post columnist felt that it "becomes a little tedious when, after two hours of scenery and costumes, all that emerges is a program of Viennese melodies rendered by Mr. Tibbett, soloist." MGM was aware of this pitfall. The stage operetta was, as the term implies, a little opera, and the songs were sung with operatic seriousness. Laurel and Hardy were cast as flunkies to Tibbett's Russian rogue. (One of their scenes survives.) Though their inclusion might seem incongruous, most operettas (stage and screen) contained foils to the central romantic couple. Not only did they supply comic relief, but their presence may have been calculated to assure the public that the film was not too highbrow. The producers clearly wished to make the form popularly accessible.
Another project, The March of Time, was so botched it was never released. Charles Reisner shot numerous acts around a "vaudeville: old-and-new" theme. Its original title, The Hollywood Revue of 1930, shows its adherence to the stage revue format. However, the studio could not settle on a satisfactory unifying story. For some reason, it was abandoned; perhaps the turning of the tide against musicals killed the film. MGM salvaged some of the ambitious musical numbers for shorts and a 1933 feature, Broadway to Hollywood (dir. Willard Mack).
Possibly in an effort to perk up its musicals, the studio hired one of the highest-paid popular writers of the time, P. G. Wodehouse, author of the best-selling Jeeves series. He was at the height of his writing career, turning out novels, plays, magazine stories, and serials, and was in the limelight as a lyricist after writing "Bill" for Show Boat.9 But whatever his credentials, any screenplay at MGM was committee-written. IT'S A Great Life (dir. Sam Wood, 1930), for example, ended up as another Broadway Melody knockoff starring the Duncan sisters. Wodehouse did not receive a screen credit. A "substantial percentage of the footage is devoted to songs, numbers and comedy business," noted Variety. But it exonerated the film because "plots certainly amount to very little in most musicals, stage or screen."10
After returns on musicals began to fall, the studio rededicated itself to emphasizing star vehicles. MGM's biggest disappointment was in the performance of the former silent comedians under contract. Harry Langdon's one-reeler The Head Guy (prod. Hal Roach, dir. Fred Guiol, 1930) gave the impression that he was "still experimenting to find out his forte in the talking line. In this comedy he is at his best when he confines himself to pantomime." In Langdon's feature See America Thirst (dir. William James Craft, 1930), "there is seldom anything said that is laughable."11 The most unfortunate transition though was Buster Keaton's. Free and Easy (dir. Edward Sedgwick, 1930) was a fascinating failure (although not at the box office, where it did well). Keaton plays a rube who accompanies Elvira (Anita Page), elected Miss Gopher City in a beauty contest, to Hollywood. Elvira finally finds stardom, and so does Buster, as a gaudily madeup clown. One attempt to foreground sound by adapting a silent-comedy sight gag does not really work. Buster attempts to make a farewell speech at the station, but the band drowns him out each time he opens his mouth. Its fanfare also obscures the whistle of the train, which departs without him. There are some interesting behind-the-scenes shots of the MGM soundstages, revealing the studio's new blimped cameras. We see them photographing scenes two cameras at a time, a slimmed-down application of the multi-camera technique. There are detailed shots of the Western Electric mikes and giant loudspeakers onstage for the sound playback during the musical numbers. The film is also chock full of MGM cameos and fan-oriented jokes, for instance, Cecil B. DeMille wondering aloud whether Norma Shearer can sing. (This was probably also a send-up of the musical craze.) There is a long and unfunny bit where the director Fred Niblo tries to coach Buster, who constantly forgets his lines. One wonders whether the writers had Niblo and Lionel Barrymore's work with John Gilbert in mind in one scene. The director Barrymore advises the actor John Miljan, "Just do it exactly as you rehearsed it, and remember, this is really the high spot of the picture. Don't act. Just quiet and intent. This is a triangle domestic business, and the audience has so much of it in their own lives that they're apt to kid it unless you're very convincing."12 The story screeches to a halt near the end as Buster embarks on some encapsulated musical numbers, leading to the "Free and Easy" finale. Some of Keaton's old spark remains, but not enough to distract critics from his strained performance. Film Daily saw a
fair comedy with Buster Keaton getting over the laughs spottily in [a] Hollywood studio setting…. Where he is really supposed to be funny, the laughs fail to materialize. Here he is the king playing in a musical comedy extravaganza, and the stuff falls pretty flat. Buster seems out of his element, for his well known pantomimic ability is sacrificed to the new school of articulate gagging." (Film Daily, 20 April, p. 11)
While the trade reviews were bad enough, the respected critic Robert E. Sherwood published a damning critique:
Buster Keaton, trying to imitate a standard musical comedy clown, is no longer Buster Keaton and no longer funny. It is in the field of comedy that the motion picture has reached its highest peaks of artistry and also of individuality. Indeed, the greatest excuse for its existence has always been the "chase." Not one of the greatest humorists or clowns of the printed page or the stage has ever been so gloriously funny as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton, when viewed in the act of escaping from justice. Why, then, should a member of this mighty trio consider it necessary to wear musical comedy makeup and costumes and sing silly songs for the getting of a laugh? (Film Daily, 14 May 1930, p. 6)
Keaton's Doughboys (dir. Sedgwick, 1930) was a box-office flop as well as a critical disaster. During World War I Buster encounters his old boss, who has become a German lieutenant. Buster naively tries to bring the German troops some sausages from the American side. He walks through his dialogue without much interest. Hall was quick to point out that Keaton's acting "by no means suffers through his voice, which is happily suited to his screen personality."13 The film does exhibit, however, some changes in MGM's sound techniques. Notably, much of the film was shot outdoors with live recording in which background sounds sometimes obscure the dialogue. Although the standard MGM two- and (less frequently) three-camera setups are used in most of the film, some scenes are shot with a single camera using the "silent" multiple-take technique. In a shot-reverse shot sequence with Buster and the sergeant, for example, two edited-together takes had to be used, otherwise the cameras would have been visible. There are some obvious examples of acoustic foregrounding. Buster plays the ukulele and sings "You Were Meant for Me," and his girlfriend Mary speaks in an unintelligible voice because she's chewing gumdrops.
Joan Crawford's "women's pictures" seldom received strong reviews, but they made money. Film Daily, typically, described Our Blushing Brides (dir. Harry Beaumont, 1930) as "another of those pretty screen stories made for the shop-girl vote…. A lot of the film is given up to fashion displays of lingerie, with the girls behind the counter also acting as models—and all for 20 bucks a week."14 Despite this lack of critical enthusiasm, the film ranked among MGM's ten top-grossing films for the year.
Anna Christie (dir. Clarence Brown, 1930), adapted from the Eugene O'Neill play, was a critical and box-office success for MGM, for Marie Dressier, and for Garbo. MGM's biggest star had been pressed into sound against her wishes by Irving Thalberg. The public, however, fanned by the studio's "Garbo Talks!" saturation advertising campaign, eagerly awaited the silent star's first words. Film Daily admitted that "Garbo displays a voice which is somewhat heavy and accented at times, but is mellow and understandable." After its Los Angeles premiere, the Herald, Times, and Examiner all gave Anna Christie rave reviews, and they loved Garbo's speech. "There is no need to worry," the Record reassured its readers. "Garbo's voice is, I think, quite the most distinguished on the talking screen." "La Garbo's accent is nicely edged with a Norse 'yah,' but once the ear gets the pitch it's okay and the spectator is under the spell of her performance."15 Romance (dir. Clarence Brown, 1930), a summer release starring Garbo, was not as successful. Thalberg judged the star's singing voice to be inadequate, but she refused to have close-ups, which would have exposed any voice-doubling. So her character either sings offscreen or a double appears in long-shot. Hall, alluding to the doubling, described her voice as "peculiarly deep-toned" and inconsistent with the "bell-like tones" of her singing. Film Daily found that her enunciation became clearer as the film went on (or did the reviewer's comprehension get better?): "Playing an Italian opera star, [Garbo's] dialogue at times early in the story is somewhat difficult to understand but it steadily improves."16
MGM had another high-profile talking-film holdout, Lon Chaney. Claiming that his contract covered only pantomime services and that the talkies made films inaccessible to deaf people (such as his parents), he demanded a $150,000 bonus (later lowered to $75,000) to speak on film. Louis B. Mayer employed a devious tactic. If the star would not make a talkie, then he would force Chaney to make what would have been MGM's only silent film in 1930. Thalberg intervened, reached a compromise, and Chaney signed a five-picture contract to "remake some of his successes as talkies." For the speaking debut of "The Man with a Thousand Faces," Thalberg selected Chaney's 1925 hit in which the actor played three roles. Chaney developed distinctive dialects for each character and, as a publicity stunt, signed a notarized affidavit swearing that all the voices were his. The Unholy Three (dir. Jack Conway) opened on Broadway in July
1930 and was a smash. Film Daily wrote, "Now the public will get a chance to hear not only Chaney's voice for the first time but also several other voices he impersonates, and he is impressive in all of them…. [The story] is a bigger draw in sound, for so many of the dramatic incidents depend on audible effects, such as the ventriloquist's dummy…. Chaney and his varied speaking voices is the big draw in the billing." Unknown to studio executives and fans, however, Chaney had advanced lung cancer and died of a throat hemorrhage on 26 August 1930.17
MGM experimented with untested genres. The Big House (dir. George W. Hill, 1930), a hard-boiled prison story, was appreciated for its contemporary relevance by Film Daily: "Sensational subject, timely on account of prison disasters still fresh in the public mind, should make it a money-getter in the metropolitan lanes."18 Kent (Robert Montgomery) is a young man guilty of a misdemeanor. Owing to prison overcrowding (message! message!), he must be placed in a cell with the hardened criminals Morgan (Chester Morris) and Butch "Machine Gun" Smith (Wallace Beery). The Big House still packs an emotional punch. The 1930 reviewer predicted—incorrectly—that its downbeat tone would be a box-office liability. "The heavy, depressing theme and its lack of feminine appeal will prove a handicap for the family trade."19 Opportunities for foregrounding sound abound. The inmates sport various accents and speech impediments. Many plot points are communicated by eavesdropping on conversations. The sound of the mess hall is bleak, the machine shop is deafening, and the riot scenes are cacophonous. Solitary confinement, in contrast, was filmed with a long section of complete silence. When Morgan reads a letter to Butch informing him of the death of his mother, the camera (blimped) frames the tight close-up from only a few feet away, resulting in a powerfully intimate moment. In the chapel, the prisoners prepare for their escape while singing the ironic hymn "Open Thy Gates." There are elevator shots and even an astonishing zoom lens point-of-view shot—one of the earliest (if not the first) in a Hollywood movie. The Big House won the Oscar for sound recording. Douglas Shearer's peers evidently appreciated such effects as the stamp of the prisoners' feet keeping time with background music (a variation on the musical technique of synching to playback), the reverberating clang of the closing prison doors, and a surreally incongruous bell ringing in the background as Montgomery's body measurements are recorded for eugenic classification.
A real surprise is Their Own Desire (1930), directed by E. Mason Hopper. The story, which has more action than the star Norma Shearer's earlier verbose melodramas, takes full advantage of the possibilities of Western Electrics new mobile equipment, but unobtrusively. The first section is an exterior scene featuring a tracking shot with Shearer and Lewis Stone chatting on horseback while riding toward the moving truck-mounted camera. Later she and Robert Montgomery get acquainted while splashing in a noisy swimming pool. A dance floor provides the opportunity to demonstrate the camera's new fluidity. A scene in a canoe on a river was recorded, apparently, with the microphone disguised in a hanging tree branch. A conversation begins in the parlor and continues seamlessly as the speakers relocate onto the terrace. All these sound tours de force, which must have tested the ingenuity of Douglas Shearer's recording team, are accomplished with minimal showiness. Variety noted that the film "seems to depend less on actual conversation than the average talker," indicating how dialogue was being nudged into its modulated status.20
MGM was always associated with star quality. But there were exceptions. The Sea Bat (dir. Wesley Ruggles, 1930), starring Raquel Torres, was supposed to be another White Shadows in the South Seas. Instead, this story of a love triangle interrupted by the attack of a giant stingray (hence the title) was described as a "wild meller of South Sea island filled with hooey that brings laughs in wrong places. One of the season's worst…. The hardboileds in the balcony of Loew's New York gave it the haw-haw, which is enough."21 Wisely sticking to MGM's policy of making star vehicles, Nicholas Schenck praised the voices of his biggest names: "We have discovered excellent recording voices not only among the stage veterans, such as Lewis Stone and H. B. Warner, but also among players without stage experience. John Gilbert, Marion Davies, William Haines, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford—all down the line of stars we have found remarkably good voices."22 This assessment turned out to be spectacularly inaccurate about the first three stars mentioned. Haines's voice was judged to be too effeminate for his fans (although one suspects homophobia at work here, since he was one of Hollywood's few openly gay actors). Davies, though a gifted comedienne, never really clicked in sound. John Gilbert, whose famous downward spiral from stardom on account of his bad voice is discussed in chapter 19, bombed with Redemption (dir. Fred Niblo). Gilbert's first talkie, hastily shot in seventeen days, had been shelved in 1929 but was resuscitated in May 1930. By then, the matinee idol had lost forever his patina of stardom.
Fortunately for fans, there were relatively few such embarrassments. In October 1929, Mayer wrote a memo to Thalberg: "M-G-M is still behind the other studios in sound production, but quantity is not important…. What matters is that M-G-M becomes identified with the quality talking picture."23 This public relations policy is clearly reflected in the studios "class" productions. The reputation that MGM enjoyed in the 1930s as the "Tiffany" studio was well deserved. That image was carefully planned and executed inside the colonnaded studio in Culver City. The story flops and star misfires during the transition season show clearly that these strategies usually, but not always, worked.
In order to cultivate an aura of quality (and to compete with MGM), Warners purchased many Broadway properties, including Disraeli. It engaged George Arliss, who had created the Benjamin Disraeli role, to reprise it for the sound cameras. Although the Times felt that the "tonal quality of the voices is capital," several New York reviews dismissed Disraeli (dir. Alfred E. Green, 1929) as "snapshots of the stage play."24Film Daily concurred on the "high grade of sound recording" but, ever-attuned to the popular market, questioned the film's mass appeal and predicted that it would be limited to class houses—"speculative product for the average audience."25 So Long Letty (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1929) was also an effort to film a stage chestnut. The title is a joke on the physique of the long-legged actress Charlotte Greenwood. She had performed the stage version for fourteen years before Warners bought the play.26Variety felt that the plot was stale and the star past her prime. Another Warner Bros. prestige picture was General Crack (dir. Alan Crosland, 1929), John Barrymore's first all-talking feature. Reviewers criticized the lagging story, an Austrian period piece based on a 1928 novel, but adored Barrymore's famous velvet voice. Noting his distractingly tight breeches, they even commented on his sex appeal: "Barrymore is superb and certainly an eyeful for the female customers."27
Warner Bros.' entry into the revue race was The Show of Shows (dir. John G. Adolfi), which opened in November 1929. The Technicolor film was very faithful to the stage revue format. Emcee Frank Fay introduces the individual skits, which open and close behind a curtain. Warners' top stars, including Beatrice Lillie, Louise Fazenda, and Rin Tin Tin, perform brief skits. The overall effect is like a dozen Vitaphone shorts strung together for two hours. Among the high points of the revue are John Barrymore's baroque delivery of Richard Ill's soliloquy from Henry VI and Winnie Lightner's "Singin' in the Bathtub," her parody of "Singin' in the Rain." The emcee and several performers address the camera directly and look down to speak with "Lou" (Louis Silver, the Vitaphone Orchestra leader) as if they were appearing live on the movie house stage. The aesthetic of superabundance reigns; in fact, the "Lady Luck" finale has something of the feel of a three-ring circus. The curtains (festooned with a couple of dangling ladies) part to reveal a set above which hang three enormous chandeliers, each made of half a dozen live women. Showgirls in towering headdresses, acrobats, startlingly aerobic break dancers, and a pageant of barely clad chorines pull the moviegoers attention from one hyperactive focal point to the next.
The musical comedies from Warner Bros. featured the big Technicolor musical Gold Diggers of Broadway (dir. Roy Del Ruth) in October 1929. It grossed more than $2.5 million and was Warners' only true blockbuster of the 1929-1930 season. The film was adapted from the play The Gold Diggers, which Warners had filmed as a silent in 1923. Winnie Lightner belts out songs in her raucous style, and Joe Burke's "Tip-Toe Through the Tulips with Me" became the anthem of parlor ukulele players around the world. The film apparently exists only as a nine-minute fragment, but its story, from an Avery Hopwood play, was the basis for the famous Gold Diggers of 1933. The plot is an integrated backstage musical. Judging from the surviving section, the performances appear motivated by the backstage premise. But the extended tap-dancing finale with a line of dozens of syncopated walking sticks takes us back to the superabundant revue.
For its big Christmas 1929 draw, the studio presented its adaptation of Ziegfeld's musical romance Sally (dir. John Francis Dillon). Warner Bros. constructed inside a Burbank soundstage a faux Long Island mansion complete with an extravagant "'foursided' set, that is, built exactly as in real life with all four sides complete." It required fifteen hundred lights, "the largest number of incandescent lamps ever used in motion pictures." Although the Vitaphone crew consisted of twenty technicians on the set and four in the recording rooms, "a single man, the 'mixer,' sat in his lone sound-proof booth and adjusted the dials that regulated the flow of sound from the many microphones."28 The story concerns a playboy, Blair (Alexander Gray), who casts aside his society fiancée after falling for waitress—chorus girl Sally (Marilyn Miller). The ambience of her pancake-house milieu is established by her friends' native New York accents (though Miller herself "enunciates" in an unlikely slightly English accent). The revue at the Elm Tree Inn on Long Island provides the opportunity to encapsulate some musical numbers, for example, that of the Albertina Rasch Ballet. This film also uses the stage convention of commencing to sing during an intimate conversation. When Blair tries to console Sally about her lack of success in getting a dancing job, he launches into Jerome Kern's "Look for the Silver Lining." Many New York critics did not like what flowed from the screen, praising Marilyn Miller's tap dancing but finding the story boring.
Show Girl in Hollywood (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1930) received lukewarm reviews, but it is of interest now because its story provides a glimpse into the making of a Hollywood revue. There are some revealing shots of the Warners/First National Burbank sound facilities. We see a musical number in production, filmed by several cameras in their "ice boxes." In the story, the lecherous director Frank Buelow (John Miljan) tricks the innocent Dixie Dugan (Alice White) into joining him in Hollywood. Optimistically, she leaves behind her boyfriend Jimmy (Jack Mulhall), a talented but destitute composer who is scraping by writing musicals in New York. She does not get the promised contract from Superb Motion Picture Studios, but the studio head and his yes-men decide they must have Jimmy to write the screen version of his Broadway revue "Rainbow Girl." Misled by Buelow, Dixie almost blows her career until Jimmy, sitting in a camera booth, overhears the cad confessing his treachery over an open Vitaphone mike. The final scene is the premiere of Rainbow Girl—the motion picture—at Warner Bros. theater in Hollywood. The Warner stars Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, Loretta Young, Noah Beery, Sr., and Noah, Jr., make cameo appearances. During the musical
number on the screen, the film cuts freely between the space of the Warner Bros. theater and the film on its screen, conflating the two spaces.
These musical comedies lavished attention on the details of the song and dance sequences, but the stories contained the performances by establishing music as the characters' employment. Operettas like Song of the West, Song of the Flame, Bride of the Regiment, and Golden Dawn (all 1930), because they duplicated the middlebrow appeal of such shows on Broadway, seldom tried to integrate the songs with a believable story. These frivolous plots with the libretti sung in "operatic" voices backed by overpopulated choruses tended to be more successful on stage than on screen. "Seemingly all the weaknesses, without the strength, of stage operettas get transferred to the screen," concluded Variety.29
Under a Texas Moon (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1930) was part Western, part romantic operetta, with a smattering of a story. Don Carlos (Frank Fay) spoils a cattle rustler's operation. It earned a positive review from Film Daily's Gillette: "A swell job has been done on this glorified Western in Technicolor…. Dialogue is ideal, direction is imaginative, outdoor scenes are beautiful, color is among the best to date, and altogether it is an unusually delightful entertainment that should get the money anywhere."30 Although it was not released until April 1930, it had been shot in mid-1929, and was one of Warners' first to have access to the Western Electric Kearny trucks for location sound recording on discs. Thus, the camera could amble along with Don Carlos from one amorous señorita to the next, accompanied by the incessant strumming of the "Under a Texas Moon" theme song.
The Virginian (dir. Victor Fleming) was "distinguished from the average type of cowboy picture because of its important cast and excellent acting…. Action is nearly all in a deliberate, serious vein, with the few comedy touches failing to help much."31 Its somber tone was faithful to Owen Wister's classic Western novel.32 The film begins with titles superimposed over a vast herd of lowing steers. Audiences already knew the story of the drifter without a name (a taciturn Gary Cooper) whose friend Steve (Richard Arlen) is corrupted by the evil rustler Trampas (Walter Huston). They must have waited expectantly to hear the famous exchange:
- "When I want to know anything from you I'll tell you, you longlegged son of a—"
- The Virginian:
- "If you wanna call me that—smile."
Sound was also foregrounded in the hilarious incident of the two buddies mixing up babies at a mass christening. The wails of the "little mavericks" fill the sound track. There was also the Virginian and Steve's quail-like secret whistle. This token of their friendship returns chillingly when a real bird calls out just after Steves hanging. Jesse Lasky claimed optimistically that The Virginian would bring back the genre and attract new mature audiences. The talking Western, he said, will be "designed with a view to the fact that we are now an adult people."33 He followed up with The Texan (1930), directed by John Cromwell, from an O. Henry story, also starring Cooper.
Paramount's foray into virtual Broadway was Glorifying the American Girl (1929), adapted very literally from the Follies of 1929. The film director was Millard Webb, and the revue numbers were directed by John Harkrider. The Ziegfeld stars
Rudy Vallee, Eddie Cantor, and Helen Morgan did their bits. Though expensive, and given a semblance of a backstage melodrama plot, it joined the increasing ranks of musicals panned by the critics. "Nothing … that has not been done in the talkies many times before," said the jaded New York Post. "Its plot fairly reeks with familiarity."34 Paramount on Parade (1930) was a revue filmed by fifteen separate units on both coasts, using eleven directors (Arzner, Lubitsch, Goulding, et al.). Observing what by then had become a convention of the genre, the performers and hosts look into the camera and address the audience as though physically present in the theater. "Can you folks hear me out there?" asks the emcee, Richard "Skeets" Gallagher. In addition to the usual song and dance numbers, there are also encapsulated sketches. Warner Oland, Clive Brook, William Powell, and Eugene Pallette bring together their characters Fu Manchu, Sherlock Holmes, Philo Vance, and Sergeant Heath in a mystery spoof. The film not only highlights their distinctive voices but displays a bold expressionist set. Ruth Chattertons segment is a self-contained playlet with a song and a flashback sequence. Helen Kane does her trademark boop-boop-a-doop routine. Maurice Chevalier is the revue's headline player, singing two numbers and leading the finale. After his rendition of "All I Want Is Just One Girl," nine-year-old Mitzi Green does her impression of the French crooner.35
Chevalier was cast in a custom-made vehicle, The Love Parade (1929), directed by Paramount's star director, Lubitsch, at Astoria. It was Lubitsch's first sound film and the first screen appearance by a newcomer from the stage, Jeanette MacDonald.36 Sparks fly when the willful queen of Sylvania must accept an arranged marriage with Chevalier, an émigré from Paris. Lubitsch mobilized the camera. For example, during the wedding procession, it tracks backward between flanking rows of guards, creating an impression of depth. A specially constructed set enabled the director to supervise two scenes at once. The program discussed Lubitsch's meticulous care: "He rehearsed the major players in The Love Parade for weeks before he permitted a camera to be turned on them." (Of course, with all that multi-camera raw stock rolling, and with technicians hovering about, this was also a cost-effective approach.) The "Lubitsch touch" shows in every scene. Wry double entendre-laced dialogue and offscreen sound fool the audience into expecting risqué situations which never quite develop. With a wink at the censors, The Love Parade was successful indeed, receiving six Academy Award nominations.37 The "touch" reappeared quickly in Monte Carlo, released in August 1930.
Animal Crackers (dir. Victor Heerman) with the four Marx Brothers, also opened on Broadway in August. As with their first film, most of the musical numbers from the comedy were cut, emphasizing the Marxes' screwball banter. Nevertheless, the opening sequences were still firmly in the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition of the comic opera parody. Singing butlers introduce Roscoe W. Chandler (a.k.a. Abie the fish peddler, Louis Morin) and Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho). Groucho's appearance is heralded by his "Hooray for Captain Spaulding (the African Explorer)" theme, and he and the chorus of guests sing "Hello, I Must Be Going." The plot about a stolen painting comes in last place in importance behind Harpo's "silent" physical gags, Chico's ethnic malapropisms, and Groucho's being Groucho ("We took pictures of some native girls, but they weren't developed"). Film Daily's review forgave the lack of plot: "While most of the repartee is nonsense, it gets the laughs and that's what counts."38
Rouben Mamoulian's Applause (1929) repelled some critics on moral grounds. An aging burlesque queen (Helen Morgan) is supporting her daughter (Joan Peers) in a Wisconsin convent, but the girl is oblivious to her mother's occupation. With Zukor's
blessing, but allegedly fighting the Astoria technicians, Mamoulian played with his sound system as though it were a new toy. Several effects had been seen in silent films but were given novel twists with sound. He split the screen, for instance, to show both sides of a phone conversation and liberated the camera by wheeling it around the set during takes. In the burlesque house scenes, he adjusted the level of background sound to create acoustic depth through scale-matching, so the dancing sounds are louder when shown in medium shot than when seen in long shot. This suggests the subjective perception of the burlesque house audience. "Confusing" was Photoplay's verdict. Presumably its "depressing" story, only slightly mitigated by a tacked-on happy ending, affected word-of-mouth advertising. Mamoulian retreated back to the stage.39
Dorothy Arzner tried an interesting use of dialogue in Sarah and Son (1930). Sarah Storm (Ruth Chatterton) is a German immigrant who speaks with a gutteral accent in the early scenes. To signify her rise to opera stardom and her assimilation into "society," her accent gradually becomes cosmopolitan.
Sunny Side Up opened in October 1929. The immensely popular screen lovers Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell made their singing debut in the film and were praised by the New York critics. The director David Butler opened the film with what would become an early-sound cliché, a camera tour of a neighborhood in which urban sounds produce an aleatory "noise symphony." It was claimed that the film grossed $3.5 million for Fox.40
Raoul Walsh's The Cock-eyed World (1929) was a sequel to his 1926 hit What Price Glory? Still working under the two-director system, William K. Wells directed dialogue. Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe reprised their roles as foul-mouthed World War I sergeants. The silent film had been something of a cause célèbre because astute viewers could read the original barracks-level dialogue on the players' lips. A talkie equivalent of this effect was impossible, of course, so the rough language was toned down in the censorable speech of the sequel. Reviewers singled out the sergeants' argument over which one of them had fathered a mutual girlfriend's child. It was vulgar, salacious, and "more ribald than rollicking" (New York Graphic).41 The macho tone was tempered by several songs, including De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson's "You're the Cream in My Coffee."
There had been a well-publicized defection from Fox when F. W. Murnau, the director of Sunrise, quit in May 1929 to join the documentarist Robert Flaherty in a venture, called Color-Art Productions, to make talking pictures in exotic lands. The first project (which became Tabu ) was set in the South Seas.42 Meanwhile, Murnau's Our Daily Bread, begun as a silent for Fox in 1928, was re-edited with new footage and released with sound as City Girl in February 1930.43
Rio Rita premiered 6 October 1929. Radio's entry into the musical extravaganza derby turned out to be the studio's biggest hit. The once-popular silent film player Bebe Daniels starred. She had just made news by buying out her Paramount contract when
that studio refused to test her for sound roles. She threw herself into the part of Rita with verve. Lee de Forest, a relative, would visit her on the set "doing things to the microphone, moving mikes around to better positions and that sort of thing."44
Following the fashion, Rio Rita had two directors. Luther Reed, formerly of Paramount, adapted the Ziegfeld stage show. Russell Mack directed the dialogue scenes. The quest of Rita (Daniels) for Texas Ranger Jimmy Stewart (John Boles) is punctuated by many interjections of operatic duets, dance numbers by a chorus line which pops out of nowhere, and the routines of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, who are Rita and Jimmy's comic foils. Wheeler is an American playboy looking for a Mexican divorce, and Woolsey is his lawyer. The film was an early effort to "open up" the operetta source, that is, to re-stage it in a "natural" setting. Exterior locations were used extensively, with flying insects and a stiff breeze often captured in the takes. Unlike, say, The Desert Song, in which the staginess of the environment contributes to the stylization of the music, the (relatively) authentic-looking outdoor sets of the hacienda and village heighten the contrast when the Rio Rita troupe begins to perform. The music numbers were shot synched to a playback, making some ambitious tracking shots possible. In one, the camera moves into the village market, pans around, and tracks back to re frame the dancers. There is one overhead shot of the dancers forming a geometric pattern on the floor. Elsewhere, background music plays continuously behind the dialogue while a scene in the village dissolves to a later scene in the General's mansion. The continuous music bridges a narrative transition. It must be said, though, that Rio Rita had many technical shortcomings. The dialogue shot outdoors is poorly mixed and frequently drowned out by background sounds and by the chorus. (It improves noticeably when the shooting moves onto a soundstage.) There are discontinuities (jump cuts) mid-scene when the dialogue turns to singing. Once this is masked by an awkward cutaway of the Rangers riding away, but most of the jumps remain. Its roughness notwithstanding, Rio Rita was hugely successful and made the studio a $1 million profit.45
The Wheeler and Woolsey team quickly moved up from the supporting cast to become the studio's biggest talent asset. For their first showcase film, The Cuckoos (dir. Paul Sloane, 1930), RKO was insecure and hired Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (the wrongfully disgraced silent film clown) to direct—uncredited—the comedy scenes.46 Not only was their vaudeville physical comedy and their corny jokes typical, they brought to the talkies their distinctive vocal qualities. Woolsey (the tall one with glasses) had Everett Edward Horton's voice with Groucho's delivery; Wheeler had an unexpectedly high, child-like voice. They went on to make twenty-one films before Woolsey's death in 1938. Variety advised RKO to time their editing better so as not to cut off laughs. Some of the jokes in The Cuckoos were "wholly lost" because the gags followed too quickly.47
The Vagabond Lover (dir. Marshall Nielan, 1929) was a blatant exploitation of RKO's connection to radio. The plot assumes an antagonism between middlebrow jazz and high-class opera. Rudy Vallee impersonates a correspondence-school jazz orchestra leader but is unmasked when he impetuously agrees to perform at a charity ball hosted by Marie Dressier. She confesses to Vallee that she prefers popular music to opera ("Jazz, I just adore jazz. I don't know why. [She shimmies.] It does something to me") and exits singing Fanny Brice's "I'm an Indian." The party sequence is an excuse to encapsulate some acts, including an opera singer's "O Sole Mio" and four "singing orphans." Rudy Vallee's conversational delivery is somewhat halting and monotonous, but the shortcomings of his ordinary speech make his sweet crooning voice all the more surprising in contrast. Not only does RKO showcase one of NBC's biggest stars, there are also two plugs for the network—once when we hear a radio announcer broadcast that Rudy has confessed his masquerade, and again at the charity ball when the NBC logo is prominently displayed on the stage microphone.
Seven Keys to Baldpate (dir. Reginald Barker; dialogue dir. Russell Mack, 1930) came close to the perfect cliché of canned theater. It was a good recording of what George M. Cohan's play must have looked and sounded like onstage, captured with multi-camera filming. During a brief introduction we meet William (Richard Dix), whose friend bets that he cannot complete a novel in one night at the deserted Baldpate Inn. Variety felt that time had run out for this type of filmmaking:
The screen hasn't availed itself of its unlimited scope in this transition [from the stage]. Fully 90% of the action occurs on the country hotel living room set, projecting with more artificiality than clumsy carpentry on the legit boards.
The theme is brought to the film with entrances and exits as numerous and conventional as when producers began feeling their way with dialog…. What was illustrated a year ago is reiterated: that the average stage play cannot practically be transposed to the screen and hope to be anywhere near similarly successful. (Variety, 1 January 1930)
The studio also produced a "realist" adaptation of a best-seller, The Case of Sergeant Grischa (dir. Herbert Brenon, 1930). Critics not only found the story of a Russian peasant
(Chester Morris) who escapes from a German prisoner-of-war camp gloomy but pointed out a mismatch of character and voice. Variety seethed: "After watching this blundering lout with his Park Ave. dialog for about two reels, about the only regret [is that] he was not shot earlier and the picture made into a short."48 It took a beating at the box office.
Carl Laemmle, Sr., justified Universal's reliance on remakes by arguing that there was a shortage of material upon which to base talkie plots. The Phantom of the Opera (1930), part remake and part goat gland, was proof that silent pictures could draw again. But critics saw the film's second success only as a sign of the fans' devotion to its stubbornly mute star. "Chaney steals the show throughout. The lovers, in the dialogue scenes, look rather weak compared with their silent version."49
After "Junior" Laemmle became studio head, the first venture in his bigger-is-better strategy was The King of Jazz (dir. John Murray Anderson, 1930). The white bandleader Paul Whiteman is the "king," so anointed in Walter Lantz's cartoon prologue by caricatured Africans and jungle animals. Basically a music revue with vaudeville blackout sketches interspersed, the film is organized around the theme of the origins of jazz. A narrator tells us, "America is a melting pot of music, where the melodies of all nations are fused into one great new rhythm." Various national dancers (Italians, Spanish, etc.) perform. But no Africans (or African Americans) contributed to this American meltingpot musical form, according to the message of the film. Only one black actor, a child, appears in it. Michael Rogin observes, "By the compensatory cultural logic of the jazz age, Whiteman's music has nothing to do with jazz."50Variety noted a lacuna of a different sort:
If there is one big thing the Whiteman band is identified with besides its leader, Paul, it is George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." The millions who have never heard the great Whiteman band play this biggest of all jazz melodies won't hear it here, either. Mr. Anderson has seen fit to scramble it up with "production." It's all busted to pieces, and, while it's all there, it's not the Whiteman number it would have been had it been played simply straight as a musical composition by the jazzing orchestra that does it so well and as it should have been." (Sime, Variety, 7 May 1930)51
The King of Jazz was a $2 million flop.52
This failure was more than compensated for by Universal's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). The dramatization of Erich Maria Remarque's powerful antiwar novel produced "one of the greatest pictures in the history of films. Lewis Milestone scores a directorial triumph, with his picture sure to set a standard for war productions to attain."53 It is a simple story. Baumer (Lew Ayres) joins the German army with his schoolmates, swept up in the patriotic furor to serve the fatherland in 1914. In one of the many foregrounded sound sequences, the audience gets a lecture on how to identify the different kinds of incoming shells according to the shrieking sounds they make. Agonized screams, shots, explosions, and general cacophony depict acoustically the danger of the battlefield. Three years later, while on leave from the front and shattered by
the horrors of battle, Baumer returns to his old school and denounces war's evils. Later, back in a trench during a lull in the fighting, he reaches out to catch a butterfly and is shot dead by a French sniper. We see a close-up of his hand and hear the offscreen rifle. Softly understated sounds heighten the tragic moment: someone is playing sweet harmonica music as cannons thunder in the distance. The two superimposed sounds thematically connect the themes of war and peace. The earlier noise of battle makes the tranquillity of Baumer's death all the more incongruous.
The Academy gave All Quiet on the Western Front its best picture and best director awards. The Laemmles took the success as an affirmation of the studios change to upscale programming. They acknowledged that the move was in response to an evolving audience:
For a long time we watched the changing trends in the industry and made up our minds that the moment had come for greater specialization in pictures and concentration on fewer, bigger and better productions…. The change comes at a dramatic and psychological moment in the industry's history. No longer is it necessary, in order to supply entertainment to the millions, to spread thin over the whole country. The census now under way has already shown the increasing drift of population to the urban centers. For the first time in America, the mass of people live in communities that are preponderantly urban. This means, in film terms, that the great majority of picturegoers is found no longer in the smaller communities, but in the larger towns and cities. It is for the mass that pictures are, and always have been made; and it is the larger theaters that, more and more, are supplying the demand. It is clear that such a change calls for the production of pictures that will first of all meet the needs of the larger house, because the larger house is meeting, in its turn, the greatest needs of the public. And the logical outcome of the recognition of this fact is specialization in production—the making of bigger, better and fewer pictures. (Film Daily, 16 June 1930, p. 3)
Junior Laemmle's intentions were good and the praise for All Quiet on the Western Front was welcome. But in actuality, Universal still needed the steady returns on traditional fare like Hoot Gibson's Westerns (for example, Trailing Trouble and The Hide-out [both 1930]). Besides, many of the picture palaces targeted by this new urban strategy were beginning to close. The commitment to keep the dwindling small houses supplied with low-revenue silent product was becoming a burden. Despite all the promises, the studio's effort to become a prestige producer was short-lived.54
The progression of sound design in City Lights epitomizes the ambivalence shared by many producers. Though Charles Chaplin's long-lasting antipathy toward the talkies is now legendary, he was not opposed to nondialogue sound. Indeed, much like John Ford, he felt that synchronized music was essential for his films. David Robinsons research shows that Chaplin, almost from the start, had contemplated at least an orchestral sound track for City Lights. And contrary to accepted opinion, Chaplin initially was not absolutely opposed to talking. In the summer of 1928, he was working on drafts of the filmscript and told the press that he had not decided whether the film would have sound effects, a score, or talking.55 By the following spring, Chaplin seems to have made up his mind. He told interviewers from United Press International in March 1929 that he disapproved of talking films and would never make one. He repeated this position—"For me, it would be fatal"—in the fan magazines in May and June.
Chaplin's decision was the result not only of soul-searching but possibly of experiment. It was reported that he had shot as much as ten reels of sound test footage—longer than an average 1920s feature film. This information came out in an unverified Photoplay account:
Charlie Chaplin will not talk in his next picture. There will be no fanfare of pressagentry about this. Charlie has reached his decision in his own quiet way.
For almost a year he has been working on a new picture. Half way through he stopped production and gave his cast and studio staff a vacation. The next day sound technicians moved in with their equipment, and Charlie was not seen in his usual haunts for weeks.
During that time he made over ten thousand feet of talking picture test film, and when he finally emerged from the privacy of his studio, he was still puzzled.
Only a very few close friends have seen and heard the tests, and it is known that they have advised him to stick to the pantomime, in which he has no equal.
Now he is considering a picture in which there is sound and dialogue for the other characters, but in which he will remain silent. (James R. Quirk, "Close-ups and Long-Shots," Photoplay, November 1929, p. 27)
Filming began in December 1929 but was delayed again and again. According to Robinson, the decision to have only synchronized music was not irrevocable until May 1930. Principal photography was concluded in December 1930.56
D. W. Griffith finished his Abraham Lincoln "after thirty-one days of hard work." Jack Alicoate pronounced it "a decided achievement." The Film Daily reviewer praised Walter Huston's portrayal, which he felt created intimacy with the president. Compared to other releases of mid-1930, Griffith's film is slow-paced and the performers drone their lines (attributable, perhaps, to the dialogue director, Harry Stubbs). The story of Lincoln's life is told in episodes illustrating turning points, somewhat reminiscent of the tableau style of narration practiced a quarter-century earlier. Sound, for the most part, is handled conventionally, that is, with a master shot and two cameras recording the medium shots. There are, however, instances of experimental sound foregrounding.57 A prologue depicting the arrival of a slave ship in 1809 (the year of Lincoln's birth) was filmed with a swooping silent camera by the German émigré Karl Struss. The postsynched sound track begins with the work shouts of the men in the hold, blends with an African tom-tom, and climaxes with the splash of a slave's body thrown overboard. Some sequences modify Griffith's silent-editing technique by using audio effects to establish ironic contrasts. Thus, we see parallel scenes of gentlemen arguing about slavery in Boston and in Richmond. But in lieu of their voices, we hear the wail of a gathering storm. Similarly, the Civil War begins with alternating scenes of northern and southern soldiers marching away to the strains of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Dixie," respectively. The message seems to be that only the superficial differences of their uniforms and theme songs set apart the two sides, symbolically justifying Lincoln's pleas for national unity. One can view Griffith's approach to sound as old-fashioned: he was definitely using it as an ostentatious add-on; alternatively, his assertive acoustic symbolism was consonant with the calls for a nonillusionistic, asynchronous use of sound being heard from commentators outside of Hollywood, such as René Clair and Eisenstein.
The newly all-talking Hell's Angels (dir. Howard Hughes, 1930) hit Los Angeles and Broadway with a blitz of ballyhoo. Greta Nissen starred in the silent version (released in Europe), but her Swedish accent cost her the role in the talkie. Her replacement was the platinum-blonde midwestemer Jean Harlow. (Though she plays a British socialite, she has no trace of an English accent.) Hughes went out of the way to high-light the $4 million expense of remaking the film with sound. But sensitive to the prevailing hard times, the program assured movie fans who might be feeling the pinch that "the tremendous cost of Hell's Angels was not the result of waste or inefficiency. The story was well constructed at the outset, but the script called for scenes which were undreamed of before, and were obtainable only by an unprecedented outlay of time and money."58 There were Technicolor sequences and six reels of flight scenes projected in the Magnascope oversized format.
Hughes personally oversaw the installation of a special six-projector system at Grauman's Chinese Theater. There were two banks of three machines each. One ran the picture only. A second interlocked projector ran the normal sound track, and the third ran a supplementary effects track. These sound effects were literally added on, playing over the regular sound track through high-powered amplifiers and a dozen mighty loudspeakers. They blasted the audience with roaring propellers, exploding ammo dumps, and a crashing zeppelin. The second bank of projectors was used for reel changes.59 In New York, anticipating overflow crowds, Hughes staged a dual premiere with simultaneous screenings at the Criterion and Gaiety Theaters. The impresario Sid Grauman orchestrated the publicity and ordered twenty-eight thousand square feet of dazzling electric sign displays for Times Square.
Hell's Angels is the saga of two English brothers, Roy (James Hall) and Monte (Ben Lyon). Roy is brave and enlists when the war breaks out; Monte is a coward who enlists inadvertently at a society ball. Later, after two breathtaking flying sequences, they are captured by Germans. Roy must shoot Monte when his brother is on the verge of revealing military secrets, then is himself executed by a firing squad moments before the Allies arrive. Film Daily advised exhibitors to abandon their usually cautious editorial restraint: "Superlatives which are ordinarily extravagant may be justly used in describing this picture, particularly the sequences made in the air." Newspaper reviewers outdid themselves in inordinate praise. Monroe Lathrop's report in the Los Angeles Express concluded, "The most extraordinary output ever to emerge from the motion picture studios. An achievement in picture drama that will stand for a long time as a model to aim at. A sensational success—it has virile drama linking together its spectacles, and in the variety of its appeal with suspense and humor it is electrifying."60
Frank Capra was Columbia's chief asset in 1929. Besides being able to handle Harry Cohn's legendary crudeness, Capra was a proficient and resourceful director. Lacking its own sound facilities, Columbia rented Christies Metropolitan Sound Studios. Capra recalled, "While many big shots mulled about sound, or tried exorcising it with incantations of 'fad!' 'won't sell!' some sharpie wangled priorities in sound equipment, hung horse blankets on the walls of a 'barn,' and had himself a rental sound stage with customers waiting in line."61 Dialogue scenes for The Younger Generation (1929), a parttalker adapted from a Fanny Hurst story of Jewish immigrant assimilation in New York, and The Donovan Affair (1929), Capra's first all-talkie, were shot at Metropolitan. The latter was a whodunit adapted from a current play. The police inspector Killian (Jack Holt) solves the murder of the playboy Donovan. For once, the butler really did do it.
Columbia's first dialogue film shot at its Gower Street studio was Flight, released in November 1929. Film Daily praised the work of the director and "dialoguer" Capra, who "put into it a lot of audience angles … the good old box office values that always click with the popular crowds"—an early definition of those homespun populist qualities later called "Capra-corn." The film tells the rambling story of Lefty "Wrong Way" Phelps (Ralph Graves), who joined the marines to forget the trauma of having run the wrong way to score the winning touchdown for the opposing college football team. He meets Elinor (Lila Lee), a nurse, at flying school, but his loyalty to his instructor, Panama Williams (Jack Holt), who also loves her, prevents him from showing his affection. He crashes on his solo flight and is demoted to mechanic. Panama takes him to Nicaragua when the navy calls on the fliers to avenge some marines killed there by revolutionaries. Lefty overcomes his fear, performs some stunts in his plane, and convinces Panama that Lefty and Elinor were made for each other. Flight was shot on a low budget, using stock footage of football games, air circuses, and—contrary to what Capra wrote in his autobiography—rear projection for close-ups in the flight scenes.62 Almost all the scenes were shot outdoors and were poorly miked; as a result, the dialogue is often drowned out by background noises. Graves and Holt engage in several scenes of casual repartee which come across as relaxed improvisation. These appear to have been shot using Capra's devious technique of getting around Harry Cohn's prohibition on filming more than one take. The actors would repeat the scene two or more times with the camera running continuously (therefore, one take) until the director was satisfied. Capra foregrounded sound mainly in the aerial scenes with gunshots, bomb explosions, and propeller wash. But once he introduced an innovative nondialogue passage: Lefty is shown squirming in embarrassment as Elinor, offscreen, tells Panama that she loves Lefty. Two scenes contain what surely must have been a first in the talkies: the audience is subjected to the sounds of vomiting when the protagonists get airsick.
In April 1930, Frank Capra scored again with Ladies of Leisure, a story about a wealthy artist (Ralph Graves) trying to reform a gold-digging model (he does). This film introduced Barbara Stanwyck, who, under Capra's attentive direction, quickly became a favorite of movie fans.
When critics noticed them at all, the releases from the independents coping with sound suffered in comparison to their larger-budgeted competitors. Tiffany Pictures' The Lost Zeppelin (dir. Edward Sloman, 1930) is representative. The plot is an effort to meld a society melodrama with an adventure film, while capitalizing on Admiral Byrd's polar expedition. The South Pole explorer Commander Hall (Conway Tearle) agrees to give his wife (Virginia Valli) a divorce on the eve of departing for the hapless polar expedition. She is in love with the Commander's aeronaut partner (Ricardo Cortez). After a crash at the pole, Mrs. Hall realizes that her husband was not so bad after all. He is miraculously rescued, and they are happily reunited.
Technically, the sound recording was primitive. Many scenes on the zeppelin set are accompanied by a constant engine roar on the sound track that is supposed to convey realism but also makes the dialogue unintelligible. Some sequences appear to have been filmed with one camera using the multiple-take method, and others with two cameras. This is evident because the noisy room tone changes with every splice. Critics were not impressed. The New York American said, "The yarn has been woven into a picture ever since Jesse Lasky's barn first housed a clicking camera." According to the Telegram, "The film would have fared better as a silent production because it would not have been burdened with the stilted and unimaginative dialogue it now has." The Times, only slightly more generously, wrote, "It appears to have been fashioned with a view to appealing to boys from eight to ten years of age."63
The 1929-1930 season was one of competing expectations for the sound film. There was no obvious formula for mastering the new medium. Some studios evidently expected a hybridization between Broadway and Hollywood to occur, hence the rush to purchase musical and dramatic properties, their authors and their personnel, lock, stock, and barrel. These purchases required the studios to underwrite actual theatrical production and contract to transpose stage revues and plays to the screen. Though the range of material went from screwball comedy to "adult" topics (for instance, adultery, divorce, prostitution, and alcoholism), there was a definite flight to theatrical quality. Especially during this time when moralists were renewing their attack on Hollywood, presenting filmed versions of serious works by Somerset Maugham and Eugene O'Neill and historical dramas like Disraeli (1929) generated respect and cultural capital (while hinting at some of those works' notoriety).
Bringing famous directors like George Abbott and Mamoulian to Hollywood was intended to take advantage of their name recognition as much as their talents. Theater-associated personnel came as producers, directors, writers (of music and lyrics as well as stories), and, of course, performers. The most notable change in production during this period was the adoption of the two-director system. Films from the studios exploiting their investment in theater tended to be talk-heavy, showing that the new "dialogue directors" were earning their pay. The new practice of introducing outside specialists (preferably from New York) who would properly rehearse actors and coax the best vocal performance from them reflects both the film industry's search for established models and the deeply ingrained notion that talking was something inherently not of cinema and in need of control.
Producers availed themselves of theatrical form in the new films. Unfortunately, the word theatrical as a formal description is vague and almost meaningless. Critics and trade writers seem to have been using it in two ways: attempting to mimic the structure of the Broadway source, and relying on dialogue to tell the story. Our survey shows that there were enormous variations in the "faithfulness" of the adaptations during this period. Films like Glorifying the American Girl (1929) retained the virtual Broadway aesthetic, while Anna Christie (1930) might be thought of as a reconstruction of O'Neill's dramatic situations using some of his lines as inspiration. Such films were faithful if they captured the spirit of the dialogue, emotional "tone," intentions, and message (at least the noncontroversial parts) of the original. Also, if the movie actors delivered their lines in the distinctive style of the stage, that made the film "theatrical" for many commentators.
These tactics—adapting well-known stage source material, augmenting Hollywood personnel with Broadway newcomers, and making movies self-consciously theatrical—were tried out, modified, and sometimes integrated with traditional filmmaking practice during this season. For example, dialogue-free moments of backstage ambience, atmosphere, or the "noise symphony" begins several films from this time. The inspiration for such introductory segments may have come from the stage; Mamoulian's production of Porgy and Elmer Rice's City Streets, for example, began with nondialogue noise scenes (which became the archetype for the opening of Love Me Tonight [dir. Mamoulian, 1932]).64 The eavesdropping we hear in several films from 1929–1930 (and later) had been a typical silent film narration, of course, but it was an element of stage dramaturgy which readily transposed into the talkies.
Reviewers of these films tended to react negatively toward anything which interfered too much with narrative progression, including theatrical lines. For example, The Racketeer (dir. Howard Higgin, 1930) was considered "one of the talkiest talkers to date."Variety reported that it "becomes so immersed in dialog, much of which is superfluous, that it never has time for action."65 Depending too much on talking became associated with excess theatricality.
Incidentally, the studios' importation of New York intellectuals to work on talking-picture dialogue had the unanticipated side effect of injecting politics into Hollywood society. Among the recruited story talent was the novelist Samuel Ornitz, who was employed to write dialogue at Paramount (e.g., The Richest Man in the World , Sins of the Children ). The Marxist playwright John Howard Lawson was hired by MGM and co-wrote dialogue for Dynamite (1929), The Sea Bat (1930), and Our Blushing Brides (1930). Two decades later they would both be among the "Hollywood Ten" witnesses jailed for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.66
The question remains, Where was the pressure coming from to maintain the Hollywood film more or less as it had been without sound? One hypothetical answer might be: from within the industry's rank and file. Filmmakers feared that so-called stage techniques were too confining. John Seitz, claiming to speak for them, argued that theatrical tendencies hindered the motion pictures' novelistic liberty: "The stage, because of certain limitations, the immobility of its settings, the necessary division of a play into acts, is restricted to the one-channel type of story. It cannot achieve the freedom of a novelist who can develop a theme through a principal and many interesting, related channels, all advancing toward a desired culmination."67 Although perhaps on shaky ground aesthetically, Seitz's equation of the cinema's spatial mobility with the novel's liberty, as opposed to the "static" theater, exemplifies a common defense of the movies.
Theater was increasingly seen as an intruder. Established Hollywood craftspeople saw the eventual failure of musicals and canned theater as a vindication of the "old way" of filming. Jack Alicoate wrote this paean to Hollywood's auteurs:
Check over the past eighteen months of hectic production activity and you cannot help but come face to face with one irresistible conclusion. The successful silent director of the days before the coming of sound is the outstanding director of the talkers today. True, we have had an invasion of directors from the legitimate [theater]. A few have made good. Many more have fallen by the wayside. Probably no collective film body has had more to contend with than the director through the coming of sound. Each day brought new changes of system as well as innovations in recording. That he has been able to emerge with flying colors, still in command of the situation is an engaging tribute to the Director, who, after all, is the keystone to the temple of production. (Film Daily, 4 March 1930, p. 1)
Underlying this tribute to the old-time Hollywood director was a conservative view of the unfolding influence of sound on the industry. Alicoate saw the talkies as only a temporary obstacle or disruption, not the revolution that it was formerly believed to be. Theatrical influences had been dissipated. Sound had been assimilated into the Hollywood institution. New dialogue directors (with some notable exceptions, like George Cukor) had been put in their place. The old regime, led by directors like William Wellman, John Ford, Alfred E. Green, and Lubitsch, had "regained" control.
The insistence that sound films conform to traditional styles and subjects probably can also be traced to the box office. Big-budget theatrical transpositions were not bringing in sufficient revenue to support the cost of rights and stars. When models borrowed from the stage proved less successful, filmmakers were able and willing to reinstate their silent practices. Engineers and technicians were ready to accommodate them. There were significant exceptions—Hell's Angels' acoustic pyrotechnics, for instance—but generally by late 1930, Hollywood films showed that producers were responding to the critics' clamor for less foregrounding of sound effects, more narrative integration of dialogue, and less aural overstimulation. But characteristically, they responded late—in the 1930–1931 season—and they overreacted, interpreting the critics' call for less noise as a call for silence.