The Voice Squad

views updated

The Voice Squad

Reeling in the Out-of-Control Voice

Psychologically, the larger the audience, the lower the moral mass resistance to suggestion.

"Reasons Supporting Preamble of Production Code of 1930"

The transition to sound in American cinema set off a struggle to control and contain the social effects of the talkies. Audiences, the media, censors, and the film industry's internal custodians were disturbed by the changes they were seeing and hearing. The new and unregulated utterances coming from the screen stirred up a simmering debate over what screen actors should say and how they should say it, over who should control the end-users' access to films, and who should monitor the movies' implicit values. During the 1920s seven states and several major cities had established boards of censorship to regulate films shown within their jurisdiction, and in 1930 legislation was pending to establish others. These agencies professed to safeguard citizens from the movies' possibly hazardous moral environment. Local boards of review also provided a bully pulpit from which the local clergy, uplifters, and police vented their opinions. Besides these officially sanctioned outlets, informal influences such as newspaper editorialists, writers in mass-circulation magazines, fan magazines, and, to a limited extent, trade journals took aim at film content and claimed both to sway and to reflect public opinion. Although the efforts of censors and the rhetoric of the popular press may at first seem to be unrelated or antagonistic, these groups had a common goal of defining and restraining the power of film to affect the attitudes and behavior of viewers. Insisting on issues of quality, propriety, decency, and taste was a strategy for channeling the new film-making into acceptable forms. And sound was the catalyst. Censors, both formal and informal, may have intended to preserve the public good or the art of cinema, but both these agendas were also heavily marked by issues of class and culture.

Criticism and censorship both tried to control the voice but were inherently different. Unlike censorship, public commentary had no statutory right to change films. Public discourse does, however, represent considerable economic influence. A critical anomaly results: public reaction, if it has any effect, influences unmade not current films. Unlike a theatrical performance, which may be revised or fine-tuned, the response of the film audience and critics can have little effect on an individual film. In this sense, films are like novels, which are not normally revised after publication. But unlike novels, movies had a finite, usually very short, shelf life in the days before videocassettes. Massive public approval could occasionally result in a holdover at the theater, but disruptions of the exhibition schedule had to be justified by exceptional box-office performance. Sometimes a studio recalled a film after preview screenings for repairs, fine-tuning, or a major overhaul. But once a title was released, the film usually circulated unrevised to fulfill the producers' booking contracts. Since Hollywood had few quantifiable means for receiving feedback from large masses, producers relied on gross receipts as the best measure of a film's popularity. Favorable critical response and the volume of fan mail sent by the actors were usually regarded as secondary indicators. Certainly a rave or pan by Robert Sherwood or Mordaunt Hall might cause a noticeable shift in attendance, but in general the correlation between critics' reviews and box-office receipts was weak.

Producers tried to predispose customers to attend their shows. Prevue trailers enticed moviegoers with snippets of a story and glimpses of stars. Press agents and publicity offices supplied stills, press books, serializations, and newspaper copy. They arranged star appearances and interviews and set up press screenings. Feature promotions, such as comic-strip tie-ins or Sunday supplement photo sections, were available as free filler. Criticism, especially at the level of the local reviewer, was often based on prompts found in the studio's press kit. Sometimes studio executives got involved. At Paramount in particular, directors and managers often went public. Editorial pieces (that is, not explicit publicity for their studio) by Jesse L. Lasky, Cecil B. DeMille, and William deMille blurred the boundaries between producer commentary and public commentary.

Censorship boards, however, were empowered to change or to deny a license to show a film. The majority of movies were routinely passed in toto. New York State censors under James Wingate, for instance, viewed 2,543 subjects from 1 July 1928 through 30 June 1929 and rejected eight of them. This good rate of passage, as Lea Jacobs has shown, reflects the MPPDA's pre-release negotiations with the censors and the studios' willingness to accommodate them. Censors' cuts imposed additional expenses if they deemed it necessary to tamper with a film. The advent of sound greatly elevated the stakes for studios. An offending movie might have to be resynchronized or even partly reshot to secure a release in New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Chicago.

Of the many debates circulating around the film industry, the struggle for control over the voice was the most inclusive. Arguments ranged over two broad areas: shaping the form of the voice according to preconceived ideals, and restricting the content of language in order to protect the welfare of the listener.

Reeling in the Out-of-Control Voice

Everyone is a film critic, and this seems to always have been the case. But the attitudes among popular authors in mass-circulation publications toward the proper application of the voice underwent change as sound became established. The issues commentators confronted were not the economic realignment of the film industry, the changing international status of Hollywood production, or other trade-press concerns. Rather, they wanted to know how the new technology would change the existing movie institution. Were the filmmakers trying to fix something that was not broken? Who would determine the use, style, and social responsibilities of the speaking voice in film? Though many-faceted, the arguments progressed through distinct areas of emphasis. First was the "quality" phase, which presumed that the voice was an entity separate from the actor's body and could be molded to an ideal vocal standard derived from the legitimate stage. Then there was a reaction favoring "naturalism." The stage voice was deemed to be stilted and too artificial for the movies. Intimacy and a "natural" voice were substituted as ideals. Then came a compromise "hybrid" phase. Critics championed actors who spoke with clear diction, as onstage, but with the everyday spontaneity, ease, and colloquialism of American (not British) English. These efforts to come to grips with speech correlate roughly with the critical attitude toward the sound track from 1927 through 1931, changing from an enhancement of the picture to sound and image integrated as the modulated sound track.

Quality, Class, and "Brains"

The national excitement about electrically reproducing the voice over the radio created speculation about linking speech and images. De Forest Phonofilm showed that it was feasible that talking pictures and something like television might soon be a reality. Well before the 1926 Vitaphone premiere, the desirability of adding speech to film was already being debated in the popular press. A typical enthusiast in 1922 gave a rationale for the inevitable combination of theatrical dialogue and cinema (via radio, he thought) to replace the missing acoustic dimension:

Man is a friendly animal and loves to hear his own voice, and for that reason the motion picture, wonderful as it is, has never been able to replace the spoken play. The rarest value of good acting is in oral expression…. The sound of sobbing from the darkness, for example, stirs us more than any mere physical action. Sarah Bernhardt, speaking from the darkness of a deserted battlefield, thrills us with her voice, though we cannot understand the language she speaks.

Think of the powers of the voice combined with the powers of the motion picture! Is there any limit to its possibilities? (Butler, "Radio to Make Movies Talk," p. 673)

But others were pessimistic about the voice's recordability and wondered whether it was proper for speech to be part of the cinema experience at all. Writing in 1924 on "The Human Voice Divine," an author who identified himself as a "high-brow gentleman" argued that speech was the soul of drama, including the movies. He confessed that when he went to films, he missed hearing the voice of "Doug," and was confident that Dr. de Forest's machine would soon reproduce it. But he also foresaw a problem. Modern American speech had already degenerated, and talking films would degrade it further. "The spoken word," he claimed, "is what suffers the taint of mediocrity; or even, in the 'silent drama,' the ignominy of sheer obliteration. What wonder that we degenerate into monosyllabic grunts! Our priceless inheritance, the thing which might save us most surely from bestial oblivion, we have sold for a mess of machinery."1

George Jean Nathan, the outspoken conservative theater critic for the American Mercury, similarly felt that the talkies condemned film to the domain of the "booboisie." After viewing the first program of Vitaphone shorts, he predicted that sound would backfire:

Aside from its commercial value in certain short-reel subjects, such as an opera-singer doing her bit, or a politician exuding the usual platitudes, or a musician making pretty sounds, it will bring to the motion-picture exactly the thing that the motion-picture should have no use for, to wit, the human voice, and that, further, once it brings it, the motion-picture will have a tough time holding its own even among the boobs who now make it the profitable institution it is. (Quoted in "The Vitaphone—Pro and Con," Literary Digest, 25 September 1926, p. 29)

These arguments center on preserving the voice as the property of a cultural elite and are consistent with the intelligentsia's far-flung attacks on middlebrow values in the 1920s. The addition of sound came just when critics were elevating the silent cinema to "art," and it was difficult for them to conceive how talking was conducive to the kind of filmmaking they revered in The Gold Rush (1925), The Last Laugh (1924), and Sunrise (1927). Other critics had an approach-avoidance conflict with theater. They held it dear as a venue for "modern" ideas expressed in a specific linguistic style and as a metonymy for the highbrow culture to which cinema should aspire. But many also cherished film as an autonomous art with its own rules and attributes, such as dynamism, the ability to compress time and space, to alternate long-shots and close-ups, to linger on faces, and so on. These were assumed to be superior to stage techniques. Thus, some critics hated speaking films because the voice pulled the movie away from something essentially "filmic" and modern, and toward old-fashioned theatricality. But many other commentators thought that the stage was superior to cinema and that perhaps the talkies could benefit from film's new theatricality. Nathan and those like him regarded theater as a bastion of vocal correctness. He saw the "formerly mute" cinema encroaching on the prerogative of the educated class to define and enjoy film on its own terms.

As the transition to sound got under way, movie actors were revealed to possess a heretofore unnoticed flaw: they lacked both intelligence and the ability to speak proper English. Many writers felt that the latter was symptomatic of the former. One concerned critic noted that the change to sound would require the development of entirely new techniques, in part because "the stars of the screen do not know how to speak and the scenarists do not know how to write dialogue."2 Surprisingly, some of this criticism of actors' voices emanated from the film industry itself. William Fox said in 1927, "Many of the present players who may still be popular [in five years] will have to take courses in elocution, and we will then be able to look at and listen to a motion picture without a subtitle or a spoken title." David Sarnoff of RCA also thought that film actors would have to be taught to speak, insisting that "at present no one would want to listen to the sort of speech they use."3 These executives' comments are enlightening because of the prejudices they embody. Deriding the intelligence of actors was an old custom, of course. What was new was the implication that current film stars who did not speak could not speak. Their voices were inadequate. It is ironic that Fox and Sarnoff, both first-generation immigrants, should belittle the diction of movie stars. Their potshots at actors' voices suggest that, perhaps symptomatically among the film moguls, they expected the talkies to disseminate an ideal of cultural homogenization and assimilation through quality speech.

One motif in criticisms of the voice was the distinction between the silent film's emphasis on the body and the talkies' accent on the mind. Ideals of athleticism, beauty, and "it" (sex appeal) no longer sufficed in the sound film. Now the articulate would supersede the beautiful and sensuous—but dull and vocally benighted. Actors' speech signified their intelligence. Film executives at one of their conferences heard Dr. Frank Vizetelly, the editor of Funk and Wagnall's Dictionary, say unequivocally that speech correlated with "mental efficiency." Even a passable voice was useless if not guided by "brains." Frederick Lonsdale predicted that "the Hollywood beauty actors and actresses … will soon be as dead as the third and fourth rate touring companies whom the talking films will supplant."4 The critic Waldo Walker ventured, "[It] may mean that the old type of actor, the man and woman with complete histrionic ability, will enter the new field in larger numbers, and that the 'doll-faced' and 'sheik' types of movie stars who lack ability and training to act speaking parts may disappear." The arts critic Seldes also forecast this "serious displacement of moving picture favorites" based on physical prowess or appearance. "Probably a more intelligent type of player will be required and the young woman who looks well [sic] in a close-up or a young man who expresses 'it' by jumping over six-foot fences, will receive less fan mail than those whose voices register warmly and clearly and who learn the new technic of acting which the talking film requires." Elocution teachers were needed "so that moderately intelligent words will be at least moderately intelligible in the new films." He noted that "intelligent people now in the moving pictures," including Chaplin and King Vidor, were extraordinarily dubious of the new medium.5 Robert Sherwood also prioritized intelligence as a survival trait forced on Hollywood by the talkies:

What matters infinitely more than the tonal quality of the star's voice, or the perfection of his or her articulation, is the nature of the star's cerebral functions. For every one representative of the Beverly Hills nobility who will be sent to the guillotine in the near future because of faulty diction, there will be a dozen who are decapitated because they lack the capacity to memorize three or four sentences at a time and to retain them for as long as ten minutes. (R. E. Sherwood, "Renaissance in Hollywood," American Mercury, April 1929, p. 432)

Edwin Hullinger professed, "There is nothing that reveals shallowness of the soul as quickly as the voice. Sheer, undisguised shallowness tires an audience quickly. And a voice cannot be tampered with, retouched or covered over by means of clever studio lighting. At last the movies may be compelled to 'go in for brains.'"6 Another commentator described the new acting expectations:

In the older order of things the candidate for screen honors had virtually no chance of success unless he or she had "it." … Sound has changed all that. "It" has been supplanted by personality. The fanciful has given way to the real. The public can no longer be fooled and so droves of heavy lovers and impassioned ladies of the premicrophone days are drifting back to the overalls of the filling station and the apron of the cafeteria. They were like strutting peacocks; beautiful to gaze upon, terrible to hear. (Maurice L. Ahern, "Hollywood Horizons," Commonweal, 21 May 1930, p. 72)

If the silent film actor's voice was wrong for the talkies, what was right? The legitimate stage—distinct from vaudeville and its ethnic vernacular—was problematic for those who defended the autonomy of cinema art, but it was one readily available model for quality talking performance. The widespread view was that silent players were not suited to bear this cultural responsibility. Nathan protested that movie actors' voices would always be inferior to those of their New York and London stage counterparts: "To expect a pantomimist, talented though he be, to be the possessor of a vocal organ capable of expressing all the shadings of dramatic speech is surely expecting a lot." Robert Sisk wrote, "What chance has a cinema favorite, formerly skilled in the mixing of chocolate syrup with carbonated water, of speaking lines as an actor should? Such work, obviously, will take skilled performers, and they will have to come from the stage."7 William deMille, who divided his directing between New York and Hollywood, perceptively noted that spectators had been "imagining" screen stars' absent voices. Hearing their actual voices was apt to disappoint them. These regional, uncultured voices often were inappropriate for the sophisticated roles demanded by the theatrical material of the new cinema. "Many delightful young women," deMille believed,

lose all their charm the moment their voices are heard; stalwart "he-men" may shed their virility with the first sentence they speak; the rolling Western "r" gives the lie to an otherwise excellent "society" characterization, and uncultured enunciation destroys the illusion created by beauty. In very few cases does the voice of a screen idol satisfy "fans" who, for years, have been imagining it. (William deMille, "The Screen Speaks," Scribner's, April 1929, p. 369)

The columnist Rob Wagner developed this line of thought. Stage stars, he argued, are physically real people in a real world, while screen stars have a dreamlike or phantasmagorical quality. "Only so long as they maintain this dream quality does the adulation continue. The moment they come to life, either in a personal appearance or in the speakies, they are instantly reduced to the common denominator of every other pretty little girl."8 The vitriolic Nathan scoffed at the public's naive attribution of an imaginary voice to a star's face, making veiled references to Bow, Pickford, and Garbo:

George Jean Nathan, "The Pictorial Phonograph," American Mercury, July 1929, p. 7">

The yokel who once imagined that the Mlle. X., were she to whisper to him "I love you," would sound like a melted mandolin, now hears his goddess speak like a gum-chewing shopgirl. The worshiper of the Mlle. Y.'s seductive girlishness now beholds her, in the grim, hard light of the talkies, to be a middle-aged woman with the voice of a middle-aged woman. The farmhand who once dreamed of the Mlle. Z. as an exotic and mysterious dose of cantharides will now see her simply as a fat immigrant with deradenoncus and over-developed laryngeal muscles assisting in the negotiation of pidgin-English. Valentino died in time. Think what would have happened to his flock of women admirers if the unsparing lighting of the talkies had betrayed his imminent baldness and the movietone his bootblack voice. (George Jean Nathan, "The Pictorial Phonograph," American Mercury, July 1929, p. 7)

The speech which movie stars allegedly could not enunciate was a unique dialect probably not heard on any street. In a revealing interview, Conrad Nagel discussed how it had taken years of training and mentorship to banish his "defective" Iowa-bred speech. "I had a terrible struggle to shake my mid-western twang, and developed a series of exercises for my tongue and lips that I practiced diligently, all for the purpose of breaking my drawl, and also to place my voice correctly."9 His achievement was to be able to speak sophisticated parts in the standard language of the stage. This consisted of clipped speech with "pear-shaped" vowels and sharp consonants. Forensic aficionados found their ideal in the Movietone footage of George Bernard Shaw. "We have heard his voice," the editors of Literary Digest proclaimed, "and are tempted to nominate him as a model for all the Better English Clubs in existence. This exhibition seems to settle once for all the claim that the best English comes from Dublin, for the delicious Irish overtone adds a music to his perfect enunciation." A speech professor corroborated the implication that standard English was British English: "Among those familiar with modern speech pedagogy there will be, I believe, general agreement as to English phonetics being the simplest and best means to this end [good diction]. It is, of course, the basis of speech training in many of the largest universities and colleges." The American readership was also informed that British commentators were appalled by U.S. regional accents and bad grammar. The British press launched salvos against the "corrupting influences of 'American English.'"10

On the stage, there may have been a practical explanation for this enunciative speaking style: it helped actors project their voices so that their lines would be intelligible in the farthest rows of the theater. But there was also an ideological aspect to the preference for this style. Genteel American theater critics favored the English accent typical of London's West End theaters over "common" American English because it connoted class and culture. This mannered speaking style can be heard by listening to Norma Shearer in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929) and Ruth Chatterton in Madame X (1929). Under the direction of MGM's Sidney Franklin, one of the studio's "society" directors, and Lionel Barrymore of Broadway's "royal family" of theater, these characteristic stage voices transposed pristinely to the sound track. (One may also hear Margaret Dumont and John Barrymore parody the "quality" voice in her Marx Brothers movies and his Twentieth Century [1934]). The enunciative style seemed to many critics to be destined for the technical characteristics of the talkies, for which lines supposedly had to be intoned slowly to minimize electrical distortion. Lasky emphasized the positive social effects of transposing stage speech onto the screen. "I look for better English and clearer enunciation as the result of dialogue films. If all of our popular feminine stars let their hair grow long, they could end the bobbed hair vogue in short order. Slip-shod speech modes can be influenced in the same manner."11 Cecil B. DeMille predicted that sound films would have a leveling effect on the language: "The talkies have drawn toward uniformity the most ununiform and diverse tongue the world has ever known. There are scores of dialects of English, some of them very harsh and bad. There are one or two methods of speaking. It is towards a happy medium of speech that the studios of Hollywood are aiming."12

British actors—Boris Karloff, Ronald Colman, Victor McLaglen, Reginald Denny, and Basil Rathbone, notably—acquired an instant aura of sophistication. For native actors who did not have formal stage experience, the new filmmaking was presumed to require a vocal upgrade, precipitating anxiety about "elocution." Dorothy Manners reported that "all the girls" (i.e., actresses) are "having their voices cultivated," as though this were a passive process like having one's nails done.13

Led by Paramount, MGM, and Fox, the studios established vocal training departments and forced actors to "improve" their voices. Fans read about the dreaded studio voice culture expert and the sound-recording technician. According to Mayme Ober Peak, "He tells the director just how maybe May McAvoy spoke too high in the middle of that sentence about her lover, or Emil Jannings gave a grunt that sounded like a blast of dynamite. Once, Chester Conklin in Varsity (1928) registered an admonition for caution in a hoarse whisper to Mary Brian that rocked the stage when it came through the amplifier!"14

Nervous studios recorded hundreds of voice tests, short films made with actors reciting passages at varying distances from the microphone in order to rank their talking and singing abilities. Paramount's efforts to educate its voice pupils took the form of on-thejob training:

The big studios have always had kindergartens for the kids in charge of certificated teachers furnished by the board of education but paid for by the companies. Now they are adding voice culture and English courses for their stock players under long-time contracts. At most studios the young star receives her instructions in the school-room and then makes her tests in the laboratory, but on the Paramount lot I found a unique stunt of combining the lessons and tests in one operation. I happened into the studio bungalow of little Mary Brian,15 and there sat that bright-eyed young lady declaiming into a microphone with apparently nobody to hear her. I soon learned the answer. After doing her exercise she picked up the telephone and listened inquisitively. "This saves both time and embarrassment," she explained as she hung up the receiver. "Professor Bluett and Mr. Pomeroy, head of the technical department, both heard me over in the laboratory, and while Professor Bluett corrected my English Mr. Pomeroy listened to my recording tests." (Rob Wagner, "Photo Static," Collier's, 23 February 1929, p. 28)

MGM claimed to be making the largest commitment to elocution, building a two-story building for the teachers and engaging the University of Southern California to test and repair "weak spots" in voices. Weakness in the voice was almost always a female trait. Their travails when they faced the technology of the recording microphone was said to be physiological:

Most of their [the USC experts'] effort will be concentrated on the feminine player. "Women, more than men," states one of the professors, "will be forced to [take] intensive and scientific training for talking pictures, because of a simple scientific fact. The voice of a man is naturally heavier, vibrating at between 100 and 300 vibrations a second, while woman's goes up to around 500 to 700. At this vibration the sibilant sounds, such as the 'S,' 'Z,' the hard 'O,' 'X,' and 'P' become hisses or blasts, as they are vibrated at a higher speed than the balance of the vocal sounds." That is why, he explains, "few soprano singers have succeeded in making successful phonograph records." (Mayme Ober Peak, quoted in Literary Digest, 20 October 1928, pp. 60, 62)

Nevertheless, because the voice could be isolated and trained, there was optimism that this limitation could be overcome by hard work and the application of science. Several studios resorted to newfangled devices for quantifying vocal properties in an effort to sidestep subjective judgment. Universal's electronic "syllable sleuth" was something called the "telegraphone." Professor Verne Knudsen brought his USC "voice detector" machine to MGM. He was "prepared to eradicate the ordinary flaws found in diction and enunciation. Players can watch the recording of their own voices and study how to eliminate the 'kinks' in the voice."16 William deMille recounted—possibly tongue-in-cheek—an anecdote that illustrates the extent of actors' anxiety as they sought to teach themselves to speak:

Gone are the shoutings, the music, the noises of electric lights, the hum of the cameras, and the tense directions through megaphones. Instead, a silent group of actors awaits a silent signal upon a silent stage. Between "shots" groups of quiet-voiced players bring forth dictionaries and discuss meanings of words and their pronunciation. The responsibility of the spoken word, hailed with joy by veterans from the stage, is a heavy burden to some of those actors whose whole professional career has been silent. (William deMille, "The Screen Speaks," Scribner's, April 1929, p. 368)

New aspirants and established actors rushed to vocal coaches in 1928 to "train" their voices. Journalists emphasized the great personal discipline and labor required to alter the voice. Dr. Vizetelly was quoted giving actors this advice: "If your lips would keep from slips, five things observe with care. Of whom you speak, to whom you speak, the manner, when and where." Even Mary Pickford claimed to be nervous about her first voice test. She told an interviewer that she "will never, never, never make a speakie." But in 1929 she flip-flopped and told another interviewer that she welcomed the talkies and was preparing to take advantage of them. She reflected the producers' hedging strategy of preserving "silent" technique: "There will be plenty of experts concentrating on the talking feature. But we mustn't forget what we already have." Gloria Swanson's singing

in The Trespasser was achieved, Collier's magazine confided, with the aid of fourteen voice lessons. Wagner wrote about one star, a "lisping film-favorite," whom he overheard "repeating over and over again, 'The Leith police dismisseth us.'" Phyllis Haver, Leatrice Joy, and Janet Gaynor were taking lessons. Mary Philbin, perhaps anticipating international stardom, was studying German.17

Several universities instituted elocution lessons for aspiring movie actors. Readers also learned that experts, such as those lampooned in Singin' in the Rain ("Moses supposes his toeses are roses"), promised clients a fast break into the talkies but provided only disappointment. Young people had always been lured to Los Angeles by movie scams, and sound provided a golden opportunity for con artists. The Vitaphone director Bryan Foy tried to discourage young women from coming to Hollywood and signing up for voice instruction: "Elocution lessons won't do a lot of these little girls much good. They lose in naturalness as much as they gain in clearness and enunciation." Fly-by-night voice teachers, according to Hullinger, had replaced acting schools as Hollywood's "chief pest, fetching double and quadruple their former rates." Wagner remarked on the many voice culturists who were promoting themselves in newspaper ads. But he may have inadvertently encouraged neophytes when he observed that even the best voices could flop when recorded or broadcast, while the voices of untrained extras and veteran silent actors sometimes ran away with scenes.18

Many took for granted that the British-accented speech of the New York stage would become the norm for movies, but there were a few dissenters. Perceval Reniers, for one, pointed out that, despite some excellent legitimate voices—Otis Skinner, Walter Hampden, Margaret Anglin—"for the rest our stage is overrun with misguided young women who are imitating either Mrs. Fiske or Ethel Barrymore and with young men the source of whose inspiration I have yet to discover. It seems to lie somewhere between John Barrymore of The Fortune Hunter and George Cohan of Broadway Jones." Similarly, Frank Wilstach (publicity director for the Hays Office) observed that theater patrons "do not go there to listen to an actor or actress hypnotized by the melody of his or her vocal cords. If this were the case, there would be schools of elocution on every corner." Many of the most popular and renowned actors of the past had in fact been tainted by bad enunciation. He doubted that few legendary thespians or currently successful Broadway actors could pass an elocution test.

An alternative vocal performance model for the talkies was the language heard on radio. There, too, like the out-of-control voices coming from the movie screen, one could hear a panoply of speaking styles derived from different classes and regions. In the case of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, these voices came from the same person. His own speaking voice was the refined New York stage. The playboy dummy Charlie McCarthy spoke in jazzy slang. Mortimer Snerd, the yokel dummy, spoke like the hick he was. Radio was also a medium for disseminating middlebrow gentility. "Cultured" commentators who spoke in educated voices, including Joseph Henry Jackson, the Yale professor William Lyon Phelps, and, especially, Alexander Woollcott, presented literati and social critics on radio in "living room conversation" formats. Woollcott's Town Crier program interspersed banter with personalities with book and theater reviews.19 Producers of motion pictures must have been interested in trying to attract some of this "sophisticated" clientele to their highbrow stage and operatic adaptations.

The elocution vogue reveals a specific anxiety about the voice. It was the standard of speech and language that was the issue, not some innate acoustic property. Otherwise, ameliorating the voice would be impossible. The supposition that the voice can be isolated and altered suggests that it was something extra, apart from the personality or physical being of the actor. Like the sound track, which was at the time conceived of as a supplement to the silent film, the actor's voice was being treated as a separate commodity. The debate over who controlled the disembodied film voice had repercussions in the realm of labor, increasing the executives' anxiety about actors. The producers quickly appended riders to the Standard Agreement that legally recognized the separation of the voice from the body and established their right to exploit it. The actor's vocal capability was then marketed as a separate entity in advertising campaigns like "Lon Chaney Talks" and "Garbo Talks," where the speaking star was a selling point.

The "quality" voice sounded better as an ideal than it did on the screen. The enunciative style proved to be very unpopular with general audiences. Critics began pointing out that the delivery which might have been suitable for the theater was inappropriate for the intimacy and closed space of the cinematic medium-shot. By 1929 the call for film voices to emulate stage voices had been silenced.

The Natural Voice

By late 1929, elocution had become a Hollywood joke:

An actress would enter a restaurant, order a cup of coffee and wonder where she could find someone to teach her how to order a cup of coffee in a restaurant scene on the screen. Even the fact that the waiter brought her the cup of coffee she had ordered did not make her conscious of the fact that without training she had managed to get the coffee, which, after all, is the main idea behind the order, either on or off the screen. No matter what degree of artistic perfection she achieved in uttering the order, the sum total of the returns it would bring her would be one cup of coffee, and she got that without even one lesson in elocution. (Welford Beaton, "High-Hatting Little Brother,"Saturday Evening Post, 24 May 1930, p. 62)

Again, failure to adapt to the demands of sound is attributed to the actor's stupidity; she is not smart enough to realize that her way of speaking is already satisfactory. As the transition to all-talking films unfolded, there was a corresponding shift in the press's emphasis from enunciative speaking to what was called naturalism. Rather than promoting stage diction, popular writing more frequently ridiculed it as Hollywood's folly. The year 1929, according to Welford Beaton, marked the peak of "the screen's capitulation to the stage." He argued that Hollywood wanted to turn out "the kind of entertainment the country wants, but its ambition always had been to produce something of which Broadway approved." The resulting middlebrow concoction was unsatisfactory in both respects. Belatedly, the industry was realizing that stage actors "are equipped but little more to make a motion picture than they are to perform an operation for appendicitis or to fill a tooth."20 According to Foy, "Sound is going to be a great thing for good character actors, who can talk their parts naturally as well as play them."21 Richard Watts also came out in favor of the natural voice:

It became noticeable that the only triumphs in the new medium were those registered by child actors [i.e., Davey Lee], who were unconscious of the microphone, Negro performers [i.e., Stepin Fetchit], who weren't interested in the technique of acting, and such experienced stage and screen players as Lionel Barrymore. No member of these groups was interested in elocution. All of them were natural before the microphone and, as a result, gave performances possessing a quality that talking pictures had not previously provided. (Richard Watts, Jr., "All Talking," Theatre Arts Monthly, September 1929, p. 709)

Unusual voices and accents, which had been condemned in 1928 as unpleasant and expendable, were welcomed as distinctive if they matched the speaker's character. Fans were even appreciating players like Joe Fusio, "the talkies' first stutterer." Significantly, few of these commentators suggested that Hollywood's notion of stage diction was outdated or misguided. They largely ignored the trend in progressive drama of using everyday language and realistic situations, such as in the plays of Elmer Rice (Street Scene). For most critics, the stage meant traditional fare and the mass-audience appeal of Broadway's big theaters. An exceptional spokesperson for the talkies was John Meehan, a playwright, stage director, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter (The DivorcÉe [1930]). He came out against long rehearsals in movie acting. Though necessary for multi-camera cinematography, rehearsals tended to destroy spontaneity. Meehan pointed out that "acting as such, has been out in the theater for a long time and one of our most difficult problems in the theater was in keeping the players from acting. In talking pictures we can eliminate this difficulty very easily by limiting rehearsals. … Dialogue must be snappy and crisp. There is little need for long speeches in talking pictures." Jesse Lasky also distinguished between the speaking style of modern theater and the melodramatic tradition: "The old declamatory style is a hindrance rather than a help to today's actor. In the literature of the stage as elsewhere the demand is for the natural, for the truth of life, for fidelity to character and situation. I ask our actors to be natural, speak naturally. … None of our artists has been instructed to go in for voice culture." This last statement, as Wagner's interview with Mary Brian showed, obviously was not true; Paramount had joined the other studios in the elocution craze. But evidently it was deemed necessary to cover up the now-discredited practice of voice culture in order to promulgate the illusion of "natural" speech.22

The definition of naturalism included a proper match between voice, the actor's appearance, and the social milieu of the fiction. A case in point is the attack on Chester Morris in The Case of Sergeant Grischa (1930) by Variety: "To give a peasant who confesses he can neither read nor write, dialog that would fit a Belasco society drama was giving this picture a kick in the slats before the rest of the works are thrown in."23 Wesley Stout wrote, "Nor is elocution an asset, and as for voice culture—well, the most ludicrous sound effects recorded to date have been, not the 'dese' and 'dose' of Tenth Avenue ancestry, but the phony English accents of several ladies who spoke the language serviceably until they had their voices lifted." Watts announced: "The vogue of the elocution teachers faded dismally as soon as it was discovered that either complete naturalism or technical precision gave certain stage players their feeling of ease. It became obvious that an absence of self-consciousness was the only thing to make players forget the terror of the microphone and enter into the more serious matter of characterization."24

The Marx Brothers, perhaps more than any other stars, persuaded critics that voice training was futile. Even articulate commentators like Sherwood strained to describe the brothers' linguistic appeal. His characterization of it as a "beautiful madness" anticipates the surrealists' love of these comedians' chatter:

The weird quality of [the four Marx Brothers'] spoken humor is precisely right for the movies. It is an insult to speak of it as "wise-cracking," for that suggests the glib, trite patter of Broadway. The Marx boys exalt their worst puns with a beautiful madness—the same form of madness that was in "Alice in Wonderland" and Shoulder Arms. Perhaps the greatest proof of this is that very few of the Marxian gags can be quoted and still sound funny. … Up to now, [the actors] have been seriously burdened with opening choruses, singing juveniles, love interest and other irrelevancies. They don't need plots—particularly such inordinately complicated plots as those which packed the librettos of The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. They certainly don't need musical numbers, other than those that they happen to provide for themselves. All that the Marxes do need is elbow room. (Robert E. Sher-wood, Film Daily, 28 September 1930, p. 8)

This was the lesson for Seldes: "Everyone else I have heard from the screen enunciates painfully, to carry out the director's illusion that speech is unnatural to human beings; Groucho and Chico chatter along." Seldes was surprised that he liked the Marx Brothers so much in The Cocoanuts. He had not anticipated that Groucho's famous high-speed vaudeville ranting would record well, yet it was almost flawless. Harpo's performance, however, was not successful. His muteness seemed unreal, and in his close-ups he seemed to be pleading to talk. Unlike Seldes and other mainstream critics who were disturbed by Harpo Marx's screen silence, Beatrice Wilson argued that Harpo "will be perfectly at home, and the screen should be the more fitting medium for his genius."25

Alexander Bakshy, the editor of The Nation whose partisanship for the talkies developed slowly, conceded in 1929 that "the popularity of the talkies is not wholly a craze for novelty. Their success is much more due to the warmth and intimacy which has been given the picture by the human voice and which is so unmistakably missing in the silent picture as this comes from Hollywood." By 1932 he was convinced that the stage voice had no place on the screen: "No representation of life in a talking picture can ever be convincing so long as it carries the hall-mark of the stage battle of words. Even the socalled 'natural' stage dialogue is too inflated to appear natural on the screen."26

These writers, rather than treating the voice as disembodied, malleable, and a surplus commodity, were calling for acting which did not sound like acting. Though they praised performers whose voices were unique (even star quality), they insisted that actors' idiosyncrasies, accents, and vocal mannerisms had to be subordinated to the standard of creating believable fictional characters. Even as these critics were emphasizing authenticity as a criterion of film excellence, directors were integrating sound effects, music, and dialogue with the film image and reducing the sound track's intrusiveness.

The Hybrid Voice

After debating for about two years, the critics seemed to lose interest in the search for the perfect voice. Vocal style had to be intelligible and intelligent, fit the character and dramatic situation, and, most important, convey a sense of illusionistic "presence." Audiences wished to experience performers as individualized characters or stars, not as theatrical personae. Simultaneous with the channeling of recording techniques toward the modulated sound track, the public and critics were formulating a new rhetoric of vocal performance that emphasized moderation. The actor's skill at different kinds of expression in many registers became crucially important. The ideal screen style integrated the best of stage and movie acting styles. William deMille explained the reciprocity of what we can call the hybrid voice:

In many cases the stage actor who doesn't know picture technic is no better off than the screen actor of no vocal experience; except that it is frequently easier for the stage actor to learn screen technic than for the screen actor to develop a voice which he doesn't possess. … At the present time the ideal actor for talking pictures seems to be the stage actor with screen experience. (deMille, "The Screen Speaks," p. 368)

Lasky, speaking of the "new order" imposed by the talkies, recognized that neither the stage actor's voice nor that of the screen actor was by itself sufficient for the sound cinema:

The star system—that is, the system of featuring some popular star on even terms with the picture itself—will prevail in this new order of things. New faces will be seen, as a matter of course; we are always on the alert for new personalities; but the star of the legitimate stage will not supplant the silent headliners merely because of their voices. The talking pictures will present new problems to both schools of acting. The movie player will have to learn something of the other's art and the stage star will have much to learn from the film-wise actor. (Jesse L. Lasky, "Hearing Things in the Dark," Collier's, May 1929, p. 48)

Unlike the quality voice, the hybrid style revived the ideal of photogenic beauty. Lasky told Film Daily, "Some stage players will have sensational success in the new field but by no means will the stage player supplant the screen artist because of the peculiar demands of the new form of expression. Beauty is still an important part of screen entertainment. A melodious voice will never take the place of physical beauty; it can add to it, but can never supplant it." For the consumer, nothing was to detract from the direct enjoyment of an actor's personality. Ideally, his or her speech would be unobtrusive or, if it did stand out—for example, by exhibiting an accent—it would be pleasant. Beaton wrote in 1930, "In not one instance did a stage player become prominent on the screen … until he had substituted screen technic for stage technic, and until he had climbed his way up slowly in the new art."27


A sad story ran in the trades. Fox had brought seven beauty contest winners from foreign countries to Hollywood. Because of their inability to master English, their contracts would not be renewed and they were being sent back to their native lands. This was but one anecdote illustrating a brief mini-crisis about the status of international speakers. A popular writer described these actors as "immediate and spectacular victims" and predicted that soon they would be reduced to playing comic relief and French maids. "So excellent an actor as Emil Jannings will be salvaged by plying him in such old Warfield roles as The Music Master or original stories that can exploit his German English." Contract players who were reported to be studying English included: Olga Baclanova, Paul Lukas, Ramón Novarro, Karl Dane, Nils Asther, Renée Adorée, Raquel Torres, Greta Garbo, Dolores Del Rio, Vilma Banky, Lili Damita, and Mona Rico. Lasky defended his Paramount employees, stating that everyone on the payroll spoke good English. He had specifically instructed Chevalier and Jannings not to lose their accents because American and British actors who could play foreign parts with the proper dialect were difficult to find. (His reasoning still reflects the older view of the voice as a detachable surplus value.) The Paramount production head B. P. Schulberg expressed his support for Baclanova and Jannings. The trades confirmed that dialects were not being banished: Garbo had been cast for Anna Christie, and Jean Hersholt's Danish-English and Maurice Chevalier's thick French voices had proven to be charming, not alarming.28

No producer was more sensitive to the dialect problem than Samuel Goldwyn (who himself, because of his accent and malapropisms, sported one of Hollywood's most infamous voices). His leading man Ronald Colman spoke beautiful British English. Vilma Banky, his leading lady, was another matter. In 1925 Goldwyn had brought her from Budapest to Hollywood to make her a big star—and he did. She and Colman competed with Garbo and Gilbert as screen lovers, but the intertitles gave no hint that she spoke barely a word of English.

Bulldog Drummond, Colman's talking debut as an English detective, was a hit when released in May 1929. Critics agreed that his soft-spoken, lightly accented voice was perfect. The New York American predicted, "The thousands of feminine fans who have adored this silent man are going to go simply crazy about him now that he is speaking his piece. Colman has that which is known as a personality voice. It is much more colorful than his appearance or his acting, so with this new asset added to his visible attractions, Ronald Colman is in the talkies as long as he wants to stay in." But Simon Rowson, an important industry representative from London, watched Bulldog Drummond in New York and witnessed the dismay of women fans in the audience. "They could not conceal the disappointment they experienced at the discovery that he spoke a different language from their own!"29

Vilma Banky's first sound vehicle was a romantic comedy called This Is Heaven. AS with Colman, Goldwyn chose to highlight, not hide, his star's accent. He cast her as an immigrant short-order cook at a pancake restaurant who falls for a millionaire disguised as a chauffeur. Though the film was basically finished in January 1929 and included three talking sequences, Goldwyn could not decide whether her dialogue was acceptable or not. While he vacillated, the trade press and gossip columnists had a field day disparaging Banky's allegedly incomprehensible speaking voice. Film Daily reported in February,

Talking sequences of This Is Heaven are back in the picture, setting at rest a controversy of some proportions here at the studios. Samuel Goldwyn eliminated the dialogue because he felt the picture did not need it. This brought kicks from some exhibitors, coupled with gentle kidding from some locals, who thought Miss Banky's voice would not register. Accordingly, Goldwyn accepted the challenge and the picture is to go out with dialogue. A screening here satisfied the producer that Miss Banky's voice records well, her accent even seeming light for the part of an immigrant girl. (Film Daily, 7 February 1929, p. 9)

When Goldwyn finally premiered the film in New York, Kann wrote, "Just why Sam Goldwyn experienced cold shivers before deciding whether Vilma should talk or not, we fail to see. Miss Banky has a lovely voice and an accent that is positively entrancing. … The gorgeous Vilma will smite you all over again with her foreign English."30

But when This Is Heaven opened nationally in May, reviewers compared the film unfavorably to Bulldog Drummond. Several picked on her heavy accent. Of course, it did not help the film that, by mid-1929, part-talking sound tracks were passé. In the final tally, Goldwyn lost $200,000. Banky's career was nearly over, and Goldwyn, the story goes, tried to deduct $50 from her $5,000-a-week salary to pay for the voice lessons.31

Then there was the problem encountered when American actors were supposed to be speaking the native language of their characters. The New York stage convention was for everyone to speak English regardless of the fictional language. This had also been the norm in silent film intertitles. But talkie adaptations using the same convention were criticized as unnatural. Kann chided the unintentional linguistic humor in Innocents of Paris: "And those gendarmes with their New Yorkese lingo! There'll probably be an official protest about it." Probably referring to Marianne, Jerome Beatty wrote, "The unrealistic scene is one in which a French peasant speaks to a German. In the picture, as in the play, both talk in perfect English." He asked rhetorically, "What can be done in situations like that?"32 Lubitsch poked fun at this convention in The Love Parade. A courtier asks the Count (Chevalier), who is supposed to be a "Sylvanian," how he got his French accent. (Of course, the other Sylvanian speaks perfect stage English.) The Count replies by beginning to tell a raunchy farmer's daughter-type joke about a doctor's wife, but we cannot follow it because there is a cut to a long-shot with the conversation shown from the other side of glass doors. Then cutting back to the interior shot, the Count gives the punch line, "When I woke up I had lost my cold, but I had thees terreeble French accent."

By the time of All Quiet on the Western Front, in which the characters are German, the actors spoke their normal English and generated few if any complaints about the lack of an accent. Indeed, the accent crisis evaporated as quickly as it had materialized after audiences began hearing their film favorites speaking. Colman, Chevalier, Garbo, and the others showed that voice differentiation by an accent was a plus—if it contributed to the integrated vocal performance style, or what the press was calling the "personality voice." Whether critics actually had any impact on what was coming out of the screen cannot be known with assurance. But certainly the voices of the new vocal stars were anything but conventional. The most memorable actors' unique speech was consonant with the classical cinema's emphasis on individualized characters. Gary Coopers flat monotone, Robinson's growl, Cagney's nasalisms, Eugene Pallette's raspy basso profundo, Garbo's sultry guttural, Betty's "boop-boop-a-doop," Mae West's invitations to tussle—they defied all prescriptive categorization. These voices could never really be controlled. The debate turned away from how the movies talked to what they were saying.


While sound studios claimed to be bringing the best of Broadway to the nation, motion picture detractors pointed out that they brought undesirable elements too. Raymond Moley of the Hays Office wrote:

Execrable girl-and-music shows, heretofore seen only by the out-of-towner on an occasional trip to New York, were being brought by the talkies to every hamlet. The frenzied filming of Broadway plays without regard for the fact that a motion picture, whether talking or silent, is certainly not a play from the point of view of either art or prudence, brought the clink of highball glasses, the squeal of bedsprings, the crackle of fast conversation to a thousand Main Streets. (Raymond Moley, The Hays Office [New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945], p. 65)

This account, a little hysterical, captures the impression made by the talkies on those guardians of social norms who feared the movies' influence. This was the downside of film as a "democratic" art; it had the potential of spreading the opposite of the quality voice. Public watchdogs were bolstered by the Supreme Courts declaration in Mutual Film Corporation v. Ohio Industrial Commission that motion pictures were "capable of evil, having power for it." The 1915 ruling had legalized prior censorship of motion pictures and empowered state and local boards to ban them. One reason the Hays Office existed was to fend off efforts to further regulate film content. The "fast conversation" of the talkies gave those who wished to subdue cinema's social power a highly visible (and audible) excuse to rally around the banner of morality.

In September 1929, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America discussed the threat of intensified censorship at its national conference. The upshot was See and Hear, a "textbook or community handbook," nominally authored by Will Hays, extolling the social virtues of the sound film. One might not guess from a cursory reading of the little book that the movie czar's puff piece was an image-building response to a critical situation. Hays sings the praises of the producers' good deeds, which range from filming "surgical operations by the masters, in colors," to sending movies to leper colonies in the Canal Zone. When he describes "the Formula," referring to the procedure of acquiring "recent books and plays that deal in themes and situations and topics which in previous years were discussed only in whispers," his message about censorship is unmistakable:

The method, which is of course thoroughly legal and which has proved efficient, is not censorship in any sense of the word. No censorship could have brought about the results which have been attained. At the same time, the formula does not, by any possible interpretation, limit the production of vital or artistic pictures. Any method which did that would fail absolutely. (Will Hays, See and Hear: A Brief History of Motion Pictures and the Development of Sound [New York: MPPDA, 1929], p. 29)

But many people were claiming that it was the Formula, a policy in effect since 1924, and the 1927 list of "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" which had failed. The latest drive was by Senator Smith Brookhart of Iowa, a confirmed movie-hater. His bill's chief proponents were women's organizations and Protestant laymen, led by William Sheafe Chase. For years Chase had testified in favor of various bills that would have mandated national censorship. Film Daily's opinion of his latest crusade was openly hostile: "Rev. Canon William Sheafe Chase, generally regarded an arch foe of pictures, and world's long distance champion mudslinger, is at it again, this time circularizing members of Congress with a reprint from Harrison's Reports, in which that publication pans alleged filth in West of Zanzibar and points to that picture as an argument in favor of passage of the Brookhart bill."33

While censorship was always annoying to the industry, the addition of sound transformed the issue into a financial one. Trouble began as early as 1926, when Chicago required scenes to be cut from four reels of Don Juan. Warner Bros. re-scored and rerecorded the discs for those sections, about forty minutes of film. Frank Woodhull, head of the Motion Picture Theater Owners, clearly viewed the matter as one concerning money, not morals: "[Censorship] must be stopped if the public is to be properly served with synchronized film. It surely is apparent to a mind not in the least mechanically inclined, that to delete parts of scenes would destroy the accompanying melodies and in many instances force the tremendous expenditure of remaking the entire picture."34

In 1928 censorship boards started taking a close look at, and a listen to, the talkies. Preparing to join in the battle, Hays set up an office in Los Angeles maintained by "Colonel" Jason Joy and a staff of a half-dozen assistants. Joy's assignment was to help the industry respond to union demands, to review scripts to head off possible trouble, and to form liaisons with women's groups, social reformers, and others in positions of power who might need to be convinced that the MPPDA's self-censorship was already vigilant enough.35

Even before all the studios had signed with ERPI, censors were anticipating the coming of sound and securing their jurisdiction over it. In May 1928, James Wingate, director of the New York state board, requested $5,000 from the legislature to purchase sound equipment for checking dialogue. Glorious Betsy was the first film to run in New York accompanied by a trailer announcing that the talking part had been passed by censors. Beginning with The Lights of New York, producers were required to present synopses and transcripts of the dialogue to the board. Following that lead, Maryland, Virginia, and most of the other state boards also began censoring sound tracks.36

One of the most influential boards was Ohio's, since many midwestern states relied on its judgment. The board asked the state's attorney general to empower it to pass on film dialogue. He complied in July 1928, giving it the right to censor sound films "with the same privileges as with 'Ordinary picture films.'" (The presumption was that sound was an extraordinary addition to the "ordinary" entity.) Rather than conform, Fox schemed to embarrass the board by refusing to submit a Movietone newsreel showing Herbert Hoover accepting the Republican presidential nomination. Would Ohio ban Hoover? Imagine the headlines. The board did not take the bait and, indeed, proved itself to be as clever as Fox. It passed the film without screening it, declaring that its "special nature" made it an exceptional case. Edwin Hullinger was heartened by the industry's resistance. He saw Hollywood "girding itself for a struggle against the censor-ship which it alone, among our agencies of expression, has been called upon to endure." He maintained that, "in moving picture headquarters in New York, no secret is made of the fact that the industry is only waiting for a favorable opening to launch a general offensive against the institution of censorship wherever it exists and to carry its case before the American people."37 Hullinger's sources were Lewis Innerarity, representing Pathé Exchange, Carl Milliken, former governor of Maine and now secretary of the MPPDA, and Harry Warner, in his capacity as president of Vitaphone. Warner took the unusual slant that censorship "creates a tyranny of one generation over another generation the members of which possess an entirely different set of standards." His remarks were remarkably frank.

My grandmother would have thought herself eternally damned if she did the things my wife and children do today without a second thought; and young people are openly discussing subjects that could never be mentioned in mixed society a score of years back. The everyday chatter of our modern youth would make our grandparents' hair stand on end. Everybody except the censors knows this—knows that America is throwing off the prudery of the past…. An examination of the personal background of the incumbent film reviewers [i.e., the censors] would tell its own story. A generation that has lived its life is trying to regulate the amusements of a world with which it is no longer in spiritual harmony. Naturally there is friction.

He added a personal note:

When I was five years old, my parents left Poland to escape the suffocation of a rigid censorship which forbade free speech. My family had large property holdings; my father came to America for spiritual rather than economic reasons. And today I find myself obliged to struggle against an attempt to create in America another censorship slightly different in character but equally as rigid, in its way, as the one my parents thought they were leaving behind forever! (Quoted in Edwin Hullinger, "Free Speech for Talkies?," North American Review, July 1929, p. 742)

Although this statement has the fragrance of a press agent's melting-pot fantasy, the executive's declaration puts a fine point on the debate over censorship as a mixture of economics and democratic principles. Warner cast the conflict as a family metaphor not unlike the theme of the tyranny of the older generation in and The Jazz Singer First Auto. Warner's sentiments about the censors being out of touch with film audiences were echoed by a New Republic claim that civic leaders were usually appointed to boards as figureheads or window dressing, but the actual work was done by "sub-censors." These were "young girls, or well meaning elderly ladies with political pull, or men so incompetent that they are willing to accept small pay."38

Flaunting its strength, the Ohio censors ordered substantial cuts in The Wild Party. But the Paramount exchange resisted by substituting black leader for the censored picture track and letting the sound on disc continue. Clara Bow kept talking while the screen went blank. Things became tricky in Boston, where "there are some lines that can be spoken on week days that are entirely improper on Sunday. Which makes it necessary to have Sunday cues and week-day cues for the operators."39 Censorship previously had been invisible, but with the addition of the sound track, its interruption of the flow of the story was joltingly apparent. Audiences and critics were aware that something was being withheld from them.

When the Pennsylvania board announced that it would not approve sound films without reviewing their words, both Fox and Vitaphone vigorously protested. The latter sought an injunction in Philadelphia to prevent having to submit the sound track of Polly Moran (1928) for review, claiming that the state law which established the board mentioned only pictures. The court of common pleas denied the injunction. Fox joined Vitaphone in lodging an appeal, using She's Still My Baby (1928) as a test case. Confusingly, Warners-Vitaphone lost its appeal to Judge Martin, while Fox won its plea to Judge McKevitt. The case was argued in the state supreme court, which affirmed, on 4 February 1929, that censors did indeed have the right to control dialogue in films.40

There were a few victories for producers. In Kansas the attorney general ruled that the state board of review exceeded its authority when it censored dialogue. Pathé secured a temporary restraining order enjoining New York censors from deleting sound portions of Sal Of Singapore (1929). The board had already passed the silent version, but it had appended a special stamp reading, "This license is invalid when the film or any part thereof is used in conjunction with mechanical devices for the reproduction of sound or by the use of persons for the utterance of language." Pathé lawyers claimed that such power gave censors the right to prohibit lectures illustrated with films and therefore abridged freedom of speech. The board eventually won. One area which saw a loosening of censorship after the coming of sound was the newsreel. Fox attorneys argued that constitutional guarantees of press freedom extended to news reportage in films. In 1929 the governor of Pennsylvania signed a bill exempting newsreels from censorship, and most other states followed suit.41

The Supreme Court had sanctioned controlling motion pictures, so there seemed to be little recourse. Meanwhile, constraints against novels and theater had been for the most part removed. Hollywood wanted to annex this sophisticated market for the talkies. Also, the critical pressure to adopt the "natural" voice colloquialized film dialogue in pursuit of everyday language. Hullinger set the tone for a lively debate: "The question still remains, why should the movies and talkies be subjected to a supervision that magazines, playwrights and comic strip artists escape?" New York Mayor Jimmy Walker observed: "We have censorship of motion pictures in six [sic] states. Are we to conclude from this that damnation is running rampant in the other forty-two states where there is no censorship? And even with censorship I can't find that humanity, that society, has materially changed in this country of ours." President Campbell of the University of Chicago told a meeting of the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America that censorship was "un-American in principle and resented by the majority of our population." Dr. Joseph L. Holmes, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, attacked government censorship at the 1930 National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Conference. The democratic solution, he proclaimed, resided in "a social control, expressed in a community demand for the best in motion pictures recreationally and educationally."42 Yet Seldes, regarded as a liberal social commentator, endorsed cautious controls:

I think it desirable that the opponents of the censor should bear always in mind the peculiar circumstances of the moving picture, instead of assuming that the movie resembles in any way a book read in solitude; they should be aware also of the dirty sexual pictures available in secret places in most large cities and be ready to answer when asked whether they want these pictures publicly shown. It seems to me that as soon as the opponents of the censor-ship have a positive plan, they can do something to undermine the censor's authority, and not before. (Gilbert Seldes, An Hour with the Movies and the Talkies [Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1929], p. 115)

Though most debate centered on First Amendment issues, there were other arguments about the economic effects of censorship. Hullinger, for instance, pointed out (quoting statistics in all likelihood furnished by Hays) that one-third of the American film audience resided in areas controlled by state or municipal censors. Even George Jean Nathan produced a curious economically oriented argument. He suggested that higher standards of dialogue censorship would be bad for movie business because of a double standard pertaining to visual and audio censorship. Suggestive poses had become tolerated, but saucy dialogue was unacceptable. He maintained that

Clara Bow is currently allowed to display her anatomy for the incalescence of sailors, to the great profit of the Messrs. Zukor and Lasky, but the moment Clara opens her mouth and says, "Come on, boys, get a load of this!" the censors will hop on her and the Messrs. Zukor and Lasky will be out money….

The silent movies, with very few exceptions in the last three or four years, have prospered most greatly from the display of sex garbage. The talkies, without this sex garbage, after their novelty has worn off, will have a difficult time of it. The statistics show clearly that the movie public, save for an occasional airplane or seltzer-syphon picture, wants to spend its money on stories dealing with fornication either contemplated or achieved….

For a while … that public will get a kick from hearing its favorite dummies speak, but it will not be long before it will yearn again for the days when, censorship or no censorship, it could work itself up over the French post-card insinuations of Hungarian, Mexican and Scandinavian houris stretched out languorously on sofas, of Brooklyn and Flatbush ex-stenographers coyly showing their backsides and of side-burned former counterjumpers lighting the incense in their louvered bachelor apartments and licking their chops over the imminent prospect of bolting the door on one of the Talmadges. (George Jean Nathan, "The Living Corpse," American Mercury, September 1929, p. 505)

His argument is that dialogue is more censorable, so the talkies would be less overtly sexual than the silents were, and therefore derive fewer profits from the prurient desires of the lowbrow consumer. Other critics felt that censorship actually increased the sleaziness of movies. The Nation pointed out this hypocrisy, editorializing that "censorship has succeeded only in removing from the films every trace of intelligence, while it has left them dripping with every variety of implied sensuality."43

On the New York stage, four-letter words were increasingly heard, comedy was ribald, drama was "adult," and revues featured topless showgirls. As wired movie houses became more abundant in every region and in smaller towns by mid-1929, different standards of what constituted acceptable material inevitably became a problem. Joseph Jackson, who wrote The Singing Fool and The Terror, said, "Audiences who have been fed on the raw beef of What Price Glory? and other such frank stage plays will hardly keep a straight face if they hear a top sergeant declare: 'My Goodness, I've never been so shocked in all my life.'"44 Sherwood concurred that it was inappropriate and unrealistic to use soft language in films of war like All Quiet on the Western Front, or in prison pictures like The Big House. He also savored the capricious nature of movie censorship:

One of the many odd things about the movie business is that whereas you can have films entitled Hell's Angels, Hell's Heroes, Hell Harbor or Hell's Island, you cannot permit a character on the screen to use the word "hell." In communities where censorship laws exist the prohibitions against profanity in all its forms are strict and definite and the celluloid merchants are bound to respect them. (Film Daily, 26 August 1930, p. 5)

Many others, however, especially in the educational community, maintained that films harmed children. "In my judgment," said E. A. Ross, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, "children under ten years of age should not be allowed to attend the movies except those shown under the auspices of schools, churches or other agencies dedicated to the promotion of child welfare. The ordinary commercial film is intended for a general audience and cannot possibly be expected to take into account the mentality of children under ten. Such children are likely to obtain the most twisted and unreal idea of life from following the ordinary commercial film." Professor Patty S. Hill, Teachers College, New York, agreed: "Personally I have always urged parents not to build up in young children a taste for movies in the early days of child life. At this period he lives in a theater of his own making. He is the actor, his playmates are fellowactors." A judge of the New York City Children's Court, Franklin Chase Hoyt, cited the medical basis for suspecting the movies' deleterious effects: "I entertain grave doubts as to the advisability of permitting young children to be subjected frequently to the constant eye-strain of the movies at a time in life when this delicate organ is in its plastic period of formation. Nor is the foul air or the nervous tension the right sort of hygienic diet to prescribe for a ten-year-old child." These concerns echo the research programs sponsored by the Payne Fund then under way. Sound was conjectured to be a threat to public health and safety.45

While it consistently editorialized against "external" censorship, Film Daily, speaking for exhibitors, also objected to the content of some films, feeling that the studios went too far. It was the local manager who took the brunt of angry parents' and civic groups' anger. On The Wild Party, for instance, Jack Alicoate commented, "The scenes are far too wild in spots for nice young girls and boys to absorb." Von Steinberg's direction of Thunderbolt (1929) was praised, but the death-house sequence was "hardly in good taste." Alicoate cautioned exhibitors to watch Applause first before playing it. "One of the lines regarding a couple of chorus girls and the Catholic Church must come out immediately." In retrospect, most of these opinions seem quaint. This example from Hot Shots (1929) illustrated a scene which was too risqué: "A boy and a girl hesitatingly approach the marriage license bureau. They enter and the clerk asks how old they are. Then a few lines about the necessity of parental consent. Whereupon the boy turns and says: 'Who do you think that guy is over there with the shotgun?'"46

Alicoate presented the exhibitors' view in an editorial entitled "The Public Must Be Catered To":

All this theoretical talk of reformers about what to give them [movie customers] in the way of production and story fare is so much sliced liver-pudding. If this great international industry is to continue as a dominant force in the worlds activity and progress it must continue to give its millions of patrons what they demand in the way of story material and what the ever changing demands of thought, demeanor and morals warrant.

There were limits, though: "Modernism is not smut…. Our thought rather is that the progressive and modern ideas of our younger thinkers must be considered if we are not to let the parade pass us by. Public demand cannot be sidetracked." Alicoate presented an analogy with the movies' hypothetical feminine audience: "If the dear ladies wish to wear their hair long and their skirts short no power on earth can stop them. So with picture story material. Keep a finger on the public pulse. The answer is manifest. Give the dear old public what it wants and ninety-nine percent of the home folks will be satisfied." He concluded with this advice for the exhibitor:

When you are next approached by the self-esteemed local censor and told how much good he or she is doing by cutting the very heart and life out of fine, splendid pictures, ask point blank if his or her morals have, up to this time, been impaired by seeing so many salacious pictures in the raw, and if not, why not. (Film Daily, 24 March 1930, pp. 1-2)

The Hays Office found itself in the impossible situation of trying to appease groups with diametrically opposed notions of how film sound should be controlled. Producers wanted to score with mature adults in big cities, young audiences, flappers, and "jazz babies" keen to hear their own argot on the screen. The intelligentsia wanted films to have the intellectual dialogue and linguistic freedom of the stage. Moralists, religious leaders, and protectors of women and children wanted movies to reflect the Ten Commandments and small-town virtues. Meanwhile, Hays still assumed that movies were made for a homogeneous audience consisting of "the family." Yet it was clear from the reactions to sound that the cinema audience was heterogeneous, composed of many different groups with incompatible standards. In the same screening, a risqué gag might amuse some and embarrass others. Getting pressure from all sides, Hays decided to bolster Hollywood's audible morality.

The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930

Will Hays appealed to his associations members in January 1929 to avoid censorship by making clean films. He said, "Coincident with the full realization of the fact that the motion picture industry must resist the attempt in some places to censor speech from the screen is the renewed determination on the part of the industry to make certain that its pictures are of such quality that no reasonable person can claim any need for censorship." At the time, the industry's guidelines for self-control took the form of the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls," a list of proscribed words and situations written by a committee chaired by MGM's Irving Thalberg. The spirit of the text was ignored by Hollywood, not the least flagrantly by MGM. In A Woman Of Affairs (1928), for example, "director Clarence Brown … cunningly dodged the censor stuff by treating the many-lover episodes as a series of photos with captions taken from a newspapers files."47 Reviewers regularly characterized current films as licentious. Hot For Paris (1929), from the Fox studio, one of the consistent providers of this type of material, was described by the New York Daily Mirror: "The comedy is very frank. The dialogue is very stag…. But it's still an hilarious comedy, particularly for the men." Hall said it was "a rowdy, raw affair."48 With the prospect of sound unleashing a torrent of expletives, cuss words, and naughty jokes, such as could be heard on the New York stage, Hays moved to forestall a trend that could become a linguistic lightning rod attracting more serious reforms.

Another impetus for changing the self-regulatory protocol was economic. Fox's takeover of Loew's had triggered the Justice Department's investigation of the industry's monopolistic practices. The October 1929 Crash made the industry skittish about any threat to the box office. There was a general need to get the house in order. The industry's dependence on stable financing and debt management meant that shareholders, banks, and investment houses wanted assurance that the product would circulate freely and that cash flow would be regular. Censorship not only threatened this stability but generated wasteful re-shooting, re-recording, and re-editing. Nearly a year before the Production Code was adopted, Lasky had urged replacing the hodgepodge of local censors with a system whereby scenarios would be submitted to a central agency and approved in advance, "before the story is filmed and before the music accompaniment has been engraved on the discs."49

A production code was drafted by another committee chaired by Thalberg, but this time it had a strong dose of Catholic conscience. The genesis of the 1930 Code has been traced to a surprising coalition of industry, religious, and banking interests. Early in 1929, Martin Quigley, the publisher of Exhibitor's Herald-World, complained to Hays that Hollywood was not suppressing adult content unless forced to do so. He was primarily concerned about the salacious advertising featuring suggestive poses and hints of female nudity that he was obliged to run in his trade paper. (The same ads ran in other periodicals.) Fox's ads featuring bare-breasted chorus girls may have been the specific ones which offended Quigley, a devout Catholic. Hays approached Father Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit priest at St. Louis University. A traditionalist and an enemy of "modernism" in contemporary life, Lord had written numerous pamphlets about religion and the movies and had been Cecil B. DeMille's religious adviser on King of Kings. (George Bernard Shaw, whose plays and philosophy he abhorred, was Lord's bête noire.) Lord was in consultation with George Cardinal Mundelein of the Chicago archdiocese, who already had been discussing movie morality with Hays, Jason Joy, and C. C. Pettijohn of the MPPDA. Mundelein approved of Lord's draft of a new production code containing theological justifications for moral content and suggested another powerful ally—Harold Stuart, of Halsey, Stuart and Company. He was the Chicago banker who then was fighting to reorganize William Fox's empire. He had strong personal and business connections to Mundelein as a friend and a creditor, and a demonstrated antipathy to Fox. The cardinal passed the draft of the code to Stuart, who in turn lobbied Zukor to get it okayed by Hays.

In February 1930, Lord made a presentation to an assembly of film industry executives. There were major differences between Quigley and Lord's draft and Thalberg's draft. The producers insisted on the freedom to adapt best-selling "frank" novels. Thalberg, Jack Warner, B. P. Schulberg, and Sol Wurtzel of Fox "argued that the advent of sound brought a wider, not a more restrictive, latitude in subject matter to the movies. With the addition of screen dialogue, they held, actors and actresses could 'speak delicately and exactly' on sensitive subjects that could not be portrayed in silent films." Yet the producers accepted the Code the next day, "without a whimper."50 Gregory Black, wondering why the industry would adopt restrictions so clearly against its interests, offers two explanations. The Code would enable Will Hays to extend his influence over the Los Angeles studios; and accepting the Code made sense from the economic angle. Besides, producers had no intention of following its literal mandates (some of which were practically impossible to interpret anyway). According to Stephen Vaughn, the producers retreated, but they had not surrendered. "They still argued that they be allowed greater freedom in choosing subjects for stories…. They pledged themselves to make 'a sincere effort' to 'clean up' characterizations that might violate public taste. But the primary concern for the producers remained the box office. If a picture 'does not please its audiences,' they explained, 'it is a failure.'"51

Timely pressure on the producers came in March 1930 when Representative Hudson introduced a bill that would have made the motion picture industry a public utility and forced studios to pay the salaries of federal regulators. Hays's counsel Pettijohn denounced it as "so socialistic and radical as to constitute a dangerous threat to all branches of the industry." While Hudson's bill had little chance of passage—his 1928 version had failed—it was symptomatic of the type of assault the producers feared. The MPPDA adopted the Motion Picture Production Code on 31 March 1930. Soon after-ward, President Frank Woods endorsed it on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.52

The final version drafted by Jason Joy (following Lord and Quigley) was a compromise document in which theological idealism mingled uncomfortably with producers' pragmatism. Our chief interest is in how the accepted draft responded to the struggle to control dialogue content.

The preamble to the Code acknowledged that sound was a motivating factor: "During the rapid transition from silent to talking pictures they [motion picture producers] realized the necessity and the opportunity of subscribing to a Code to govern the production of talking pictures and of reacknowledging this responsibility." The section that forbade obscenity was one sentence: "Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden." However, the section banning profanity included a Rabelaisian list of taboo utterances:

Alley cat (applied to a woman); bat (applied to a woman); broad (applied to a woman); Bronx cheer (the sound); chippie; cocotte; God, Lord, Jesus, Christ (unless used reverently); cripes; fanny; fairy (in a vulgar sense); finger (the); fire, cries of; Gawd; goose (in a vulgar sense); "hold your hat" or "hats"; hot (applied to a woman); "in your hat"; louse; lousy; Madam (relating to prostitution); nance; nerts; nuts (except when meaning crazy); pansy; razzberry [sic] (the sound); slut (applied to a woman); S.O.B.; son-of-a; tart; toilet gags; torn cat (applied to a man); traveling salesman and farmer's daughter jokes; whore; damn, hell (excepting when the use of said last two words shall be essential and required for portrayal, in proper historical context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact or folklore, or for the presentation in proper literary context of a Biblical, or other religious quotation, or a quotation from a literary work provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste). (MPPDA, "A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures," 1930, reprinted in Garth Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art [Boston: Little, Brown, 1976], pp. 468-470)

There was also a list of specific racial epithets which, though neither profane nor banned, were "obviously offensive to the patrons of motion pictures in the United States and more particularly to the patrons of motion pictures in foreign countries." Enumerating the banned words gave screenwriters and in-house censors their "Don'ts" list, which they could use to determine whether a film was clean.

The film moralists' demands were represented by general imperatives. The philosophical rationale was contained in a separate declaration, "Reasons Supporting Preamble of Code." Recent commentators have claimed that Hays suppressed this statement until it served his purpose to release it in 1934, in order to hide the pervasive Catholic influence on the Code. The author of "Reasons," who is assumed to have been primarily Father Lord with advice from Quigley, observes that "this art of the motion picture, combining as it does the two fundamental appeals of looking at a picture and listening to a story, at once reached every class of society." This view is consistent with the notion that film sound was separate from the visuals. There is an implication that these two "appeals" are unsophisticated activities, since the lower as well as upper classes may participate. The author of "Reasons" also justified restraining film's freedom in comparison to that accorded the novel and the newspaper because its audience was more diverse.53

Black argues that "there was a fundamental misunderstanding" between Lord, Quigley and the Catholics on one side, and the producers and Hays on the other. Contrarily, it is also possible to read the code as a victory for both sides; each left the conference thinking it had pulled a fast one on the other. For instance, Hays (or his ghostwriter) went public in Ladies' Home Journal in July 1930 and used the Code to reassure readers that the industry was responding to the new moral problems precipitated by the sound picture. "The work of reflecting social and community values in the production of motion-picture entertainment," he wrote, "has constantly progressed." It was the "constructive criticism" of women's clubs and similar groups that had impressed the producers with the desirability of revising the Code. "Sound brought new dramatists, new artists and new dramatic material to the motion-picture industry, and it was found necessary to formulate additional and new principles of self-regulation which would guide the making of silent, synchronized and talking motion pictures."54 While he congratulated the women on their moral victory, a glance at many films from the 1930-1934 period shows that the Production Code was flagrantly ignored. Among the biggest offenders were sly sex comedies like Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight (1932), and Wheeler and Woolsey's lewdness is legendary. Horror films like Dracula (1931) and crime films, including City Streets (1931), The Secret Six (1931), Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), appalled. Women used language to express sexual knowledge—and most shockingly, desire. There were "kept woman" films like Back Street (1932). Hedonist Mae West's saucy dialogue in her Paramount comedies Night After Night (1932—"Goodness had nothing to do with it"), She Done Him Wrong (1933), and I'm No Angel (1933—"Beulah, peel me a grape") stunned censors. Dietrich's eroticism in The Blue Angel and Morocco raised eyebrows in many venues but sailed by the MPPDA watchdogs. Screenwriters grew adept at combining sexuality with platitudes and retribution. The moralists wanted cinema to be "twentieth-century morality plays that illustrated proper behavior to the masses." Richard Maltby suggests that the Code can be read as a sign of how far producers were out of touch with their consumers. "Like other Hollywood conventions, the Production Code was one of several substitutes for detailed audience research…. In its practical application, the Code was the mechanism by which this multiplicity of viewing positions was achieved."55

Self-censorship was a misnomer for what the Hays Office did. Jacobs has suggested that the "enforcement" of the Code was mainly a publicity ploy, that regulation was very unsystematic, and that negotiation still occurred case by case. If there was a potential problem, as with Possessed (1931), the studio might "forget" to submit the script for MPPDA review. Two genres in particular were problematic: the "fallen woman" story, with its suggestion of adultery and ungoverned female sexuality, and the gangster story, with its ambivalent idealization of Capone-like anti-heroes. These genres burgeoned inspite of the Code because the MPPDA allowed hypocritical redemptive endings. Evading the Code and detecting the run-around became a game for studios and viewers "in the know."56

MPPDA reviewers passed on scripts before viewing films, so the procedure made it easy to stay pure in word but to sin in deed. In Morocco's first scene, Gary Cooper is silently gesturing to a prostitute. His commander catches him and demands, "What are you doing with those fingers?" Cooper drawls, "Nothin'—yet." Though considerably tamed from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's stage play, The Front Page (1931) still contains its share of double entendres. A report comes into the newsroom that a Swedish masseuse has been arrested on the complaint of a lot of angry wives. She's treating their husbands with electricity "at a dollar a time." Half the stock exchange is at the police station offering to post bail. The producer Howard Hughes also defied the banned word list ("nerts"). In Public Enemy, the gangster Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) is singing at the piano: "Mrs. Jones, big and fat, slipped on the ice and broke her——." At this point he is interrupted by an offscreen whistle. Since nothing has been uttered, the spectator is free to complete the rhyme. Two possibilities would be hat and cat, but both were on the taboo list because they were slang for genitalia and prostitute. A more likely possibility would be the obscene slang twat, which would be narratively appropriate in the lowlife beer-joint setting and consistent with the "natural" speech of such characters. In either case, the profanity has been artfully constructed to exist in the mind of the viewer-auditor, not in the censorable script or on the sound track.57

The frank "realistic" speech of the protagonists in Public Enemy was both a novelty effect and a scary evocation of the characters' antisocial menace. Ironically, the Hays Office's intervention appears to have been instrumental in defining one of the eternally memorable mobster voices. Moralists had denounced Doorway to Hell (1930) because the gangster star, Lew Ayres, was too charming and sympathetic. According to Robert Sklar, Hays wrote to Warners questioning whether "a young man of fine features" was right for such a role. Underlying Hays's criticism is an assumption that gangsters should be portrayed as ethnic stereotypes, not as WASPs. In the meantime, Edward Woods, a "juvenile" character actor, had been cast for the role of Tom Powers in Public Enemy. Heeding Hays's suggestion, Darryl F. Zanuck reassigned the Tom Powers role to the actor who had played Ayres's sidekick in the earlier film, James Cagney. Instantly, Cagney's punk hero and his tough Irish-inflected speech captivated the country—and appalled censors.58

How effective were the standards and strictures of the press and the censors against the talkies? The question is still open. Rather than self-censorship, negotiated self-restraint might be a more accurate description of the Hays Office's work. As Mick Eaton put it, "The establishment of the Hays Code ensured the industry's freedom from outside censorship by either state or federal governments. Similarly, the establishment of the code ensured that the studios acquired a stranglehold over the outlets for distribution throughout the states. The cinema became a much safer investment than, say, the press or radio."59

There is no question that the Code, as accepted and interpreted, was designed to promote Christianity and enforced to benefit the industry. The producers and exhibitors supported the Code in theory and probably did not really mind self-censorship in practice because the institution potentially could spare them the onus of deciding whether each title was marketable. The need for exchanges to alter prints for different communities was alleviated. Thus, indirectly, the Code accelerated the standardization of the sound film. But since there was little respect for the Code among censors, self-regulation was not completely successful in eliminating costly editing. Numbered Men, a First National prison film released in June 1930, for example, was so "drastically cut by the [New York] censors at the preview that [the] print had to be sent back to the Coast for some refilming and re-recording."60

There was also the problem of the independents. Without power to enforce its bans, the Hays Office could be ignored by any promoter who could find a house willing to show his film. This was the case with White Cargo (1929), a British "white slavery" exploitation film. American studios had shied away from filming the story since the novel from which it was adapted had been banned by Hays according to the Formula. This action benefited MPPDA members because each producer knew that no other would compete by producing this "hot" property. When the RKO theater chain started negotiating to show the film, Hays stepped in to block the screening of the foreign interloper. He did not succeed. The promoter, Harold Auten, rented the George M. Cohan Theater, charged $2 admission, and sold the film nationally through states' rights. Audiences saw White Cargo and numerous other exploitation films—but not at theaters controlled by MPPDA affiliates.61 "Sex hygiene" movies like Her Unborn Child (1929), exotic films like Ingagi (1930), and nudist films made the rounds of what Film Daily called "junk" houses. Frequently these were silent films of foreign origin, revitalized by adding narration and sound effects. One exception was Elysia, one of the most famous nudist features. It was produced and directed in 1933 by none other than Bryan Foy.62

The Production Code was unsatisfying to just about everyone. Hollywood did not "reform." It still saw its mission as giving the audience what it wanted. If that was to hear heart-rending cries, violent shouts, or lewd remarks, the studios were ready to provide them. If the Code could supply a framework wherein the industry could pay lip service to God-fearing morality, stave off outside intervention, satisfy its creditors that it was stable and legitimate, while continuing to make films that attracted large urban crowds, so much the better. As the trade papers, exhibitors, and influential producers like Thalberg and Zukor agreed, there was a consensus that Hollywood should observe limits. But they argued that if the box office favored sex, violence, and "fast" talk, studios had to compete to supply the demand. And in the years 1930-1933, films like these provided the industry with a few financial bright spots and audiences with thrills and diversion in an otherwise bleak era. Meanwhile, the guardians of society's values and the nascent Catholic Legion of Decency looked on in frustration and contemplated future remedies.

Despite the rhetoric of uplift from Hollywood concerning its mission of improving the nation's language and morality, what really counted was reaching out to and holding larger audiences. When the studios turned to the stage for fresh story material, new voices, and an existing pattern for speaking—the enunciative style—they no doubt envisioned a quick patch for the problem of what to do about sound. Theater was a reservoir of vocal talent and stories with proven merit. It also served the rhetorical purpose of enabling the moguls to wrap themselves in class and culture and to spread proper English to the "hamlets." But their quest for refinement encountered inherent differences between Broadway and the movies. The New York stage was characterized by highly conventional vocal style, and few social controls over vocal content. In Hollywood, on the contrary, there were no existing conventions for the movie voice, but numerous social strictures controlled the content of vocal expression.

The 1928-1929 tendency to dissociate the voice from the actor's body allowed competition among various groups for jurisdiction over the voice as a commodity: producers who contracted for it; actors who articulated it; critics who wanted to limit its range and restrict its use according to class and ethnicity; and censors who feared its potential for religious, social, and class disruption. The box-office popularity of "bad" voices, the general willingness to tolerate seemingly antisocial subjects, and the spread of vulgar language were genuinely disturbing to the gatekeepers of decency. Profound distrust of the actual filmgoing public and its "mass psychology" pervades the "Reasons Supporting the Code." The mandarins distrusted their constituents. Joseph Breen, who would become the chief industry censor in 1934, described the motion picture audience as "youngsters between 16 and 26…, most of them nit-wits, dolts and imbeciles."63

By 1931 the critics were no longer assuming a distinction between the speaker and his or her vocals; voice had become desegregated into "personality," part of the actor's distinctive identity. Also, the provenance of a story (whether an original screenplay or adapted from a play or novel) did not really matter as long as it was a good one. As for morality, there is scant evidence that most people regarded the movies as any more deleterious than amusements like miniature golf, or that they wanted the government to prescribe entertainment for them. Censorship did not have strong grassroots support. Most municipalities did not control access to films. Numerous legislative bills strengthening censorship were regularly introduced during this period, but all failed to pass.

Because of lack of enforcement and the MPPDA's lack of jurisdiction over exhibition (especially by independents), audiences seldom were completely denied the right to see questionable films. "Sensational" subjects often attracted crowds to theaters. For example, the powerful Chicago board practiced giving "pink slips" (admission restricted to adults only) to controversial movies. The Balaban and Katz theaters reported that The Letter (1929) and Careers (1929) did land-office business under this "restriction." Critics pointed out—and producers surely took note—that more people were seeing these films than would have normally, and that the censors were providing great free publicity.64

The struggle to control the voice through proactive influence and external constraints failed, at least until enforcement of the Code was stepped up in 1934. By then, sound films had long become the norm, and the moralists shifted their attention from dialogue to "situations," such as adultery. Until then, Hollywood filmmakers' creativity was not seriously stifled. The movie fans looked neither to the artful use of the voice nor to whether it embodied Christian rectitude. For most of them, the stars continued to be the object of secular worship, selected according to idiosyncratic and largely unpredictable criteria. Their voices became just another ingredient added to the star mix.

Just when the end of the Jazz Age was witnessing a perceived loosening of morals and an expansion of artistic license in literature and theater, the film studios were applying their new talking capacity to themes from best-selling novels, subjects from mature plays, and language which was commonplace in conversation at home, in the workplace, and in intimate situations but unheard and unheard-of in public. Limiting speech and expression in entertainment for the public good, particularly when it is a product of unfamiliar new technology, remains controversial to this day as we debate television ratings and expression on the Internet. Then as now, the controversy centers on the question of whether language reflects harmful dystopic tendencies in society—or causes them.

About this article

The Voice Squad

Updated About content Print Article