Birth of the "Talkies": The Development of Synchronized Sound for Motion Pictures

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Birth of the "Talkies": The Development of Synchronized Sound for Motion Pictures


The development and institution of synchronized sound brought about a total revolution in the artistic potential of motion pictures, but the history of sound film's development is also a testament to the forces of economics in the film industry.


Films were never truly silent; by 1900, major theaters provided some form of musical accompaniment to motion pictures, whether through scores written for films and played out on large organs, or through the improvised accompaniment of a pianist or other musicians. Attempts were made to bring recorded sound to the film-going experience, but the only available technology were cylinders or discs of recordings, such as were used in the early Edison phonographs. (Thomas Alva Edison's [1847-1931] original phonograph used a tin-foil covered cylinder that was hand-cranked while a needle traced a groove on it.) These had substantial drawbacks in that they could only hold about four minutes of sound, the sound itself was difficult to amplify for a large audience, and synchronization with the action on the screen was almost impossible. Musical accompaniment, then, was limited to special performances in large theaters that could afford to hire live musicians. For these reasons, it was in the economic interest of film producers to find inexpensive ways to bring sound to all films, in the hope that musical accompaniment would increase audience interest in the art form and, subsequently, increase film attendance. While the original intent was to provide synchronized musical accompaniment, it was the potential of synchronized sound systems to play back synchronized speech and dialogue that finally captured the audience's attention.

In 1919 three Germans—Josef Engl, Joseph Masserole, and Hans Vogt—invented the Tri-Egon System, which allowed sound to be recorded directly on film. In this system, a photo-electric cell was used to convert sound waves to electrical impulses, which were then converted to light waves and recorded directly on the strip of film as the soundtrack. A projector equipped with a reader reconverted the light waves to sound for playback, while a special fly-wheel regulated the speed of the playback. This made it possible to have synchronized sound that ran for the entire length of the film.

In America Dr. Lee De Forest (1873-1961) was at work on a synchronized sound system based on the Audion 3-Electrode Amplifier Tube, developed in 1923 to solve the problem of amplification for playback in a large auditorium. By 1924, 34 theaters in the East had been wired for the De Forest system, and another 50 were planned in the United States, Britain, and Canada. De Forest began producing films under the name of the De Forest Phonofilm Company, releasing short one- or two-reel films that featured scenes from musicals and operas, famous vaudeville acts, speeches from celebrities and politicians, pieces performed by famous musicians, and an occasional narrative film. The emphasis, however, was on reproducing music.

Neither of these systems, however, was adopted by a major Hollywood studio because the studios feared that the conversion to sound film would be an extremely expensive undertaking for what was really a fad. The development of the Vitaphone system and its adoption by the fledgling Warner Brothers Studio would, however, force the studios to reconsider both the expense and necessity of converting to synchronized sound, as would the success of the Fox Movietone news.

The Vitaphone system developed by Western Electric and Bell Telephone Laboratories was a sound-on-disc system that Warner Brothers intended to use to provide musical accompaniment to films. In 1926 Warner Brothers premiered the system with the screening of the film Don Juan in New York City. By 1927 Warner Brothers had wired 150 theaters across America for sound, a huge capital investment considering it sometimes cost as much as $25,000 a theater to make the conversion. Other studios, again fearing the cost that the conversion to sound would entail, as well as anticipating the loss of revenue from silent films that had already been produced, banded together to resist the move to sound films, or to create a competing sound system of their own.

This was the avenue pursued by the Fox Film Corporation. In 1927 Fox acquired the rights to the Tri-Egon system in America, and had been developing, since 1926, a sound-on-film system with Theodore W. Case and Earl I. Sponable. On January 21, 1927, Fox premiered its system with a series of performances from a Spanish singer. In May of the same year Fox presented another series of shorts, including a performance by the comedian Chic Sale, but it was the program of June 14, 1927, that captured the audience's imagination. During this program, Fox presented the reception of American aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) at the White House, and a speech by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945). The audience response to seeing these celebrities and hearing them speak was so enthusiastic that Fox created the Fox Movietone News, and began to screen three or four newsreels, featuring clips of celebrities or special events, at every Fox theater. Convinced that sound was the wave of the future, Fox president William Fox signed a reciprocal contract with Warner Brothers that allowed for the exchange of equipment and technicians, effectively covering both studios if one system became more popular than the other, or if rival studios attempted to develop a competing system. In this way, their huge financial investment in the future of sound films would be protected.

The breakthrough came with the Warner Brothers film The Jazz Singer (1927), in which the actor Al Jolson (1886-1950) ad-libbed a few lines of synchronized dialogue. The effect was sensational, as audiences heard an actor speak lines for the first time as though they were natural and spontaneous. As a result, The Jazz Singer grossed over $3,000,000 internationally, and the "talkies" were born. In 1928 Warner Brothers produced the first "100% talkie," Lights of New York, and the era of the sound film was fully underway. By 1929 fully three-fourths of all Hollywood films had some form of sound accompaniment, and by 1930 silent films were no longer being produced.


The impact of sound film on the film industry was monumental. First, the very form of films changed, due at first to the difficulties of recording and editing sound film. Because the microphones in use at the time could only pick up nearby sound, and were extremely sensitive within their limited range, actors had to stand very still and very close to the microphone. Camera noise could also be picked up by the microphones, so the cameras and their operators were enclosed within glass booths. Movement of the actors within the frame, and movement of the camera itself, became near impossibilities, so that films once again came to resemble the filmed stage plays that were typical of the early days of motion pictures. Also, because the sound was recorded directly on the film at the time of filming, the film could not be edited after it was shot, except for cuts made during scene transitions. The whole art of editing and montage, developed in America by such directors as D.W. Griffith, and refined to a high art under Soviet directors like Sergei Eisenstien, was simply no longer possible. Additionally, many great silent film stars, such as the German actor Emil Jannings (1887-1950), who had a heavy accent, and John Gilbert, whose voice did not match his screen image, discovered that they could no longer find work in sound films. Because of sound film, acting for film began to concentrate less on the expressiveness of the body or face to carry the meaning of the scene, and to concentrate more on the expressiveness of the voice.

Since sound now seemed to limit the potential of film, instead of expanding it, a major theoretical debate among filmmakers developed. Many felt that sound should be used to record exactly what was seen on the screen, such as dialogue and sound effects relating to the on-screen action—what was referred to as synchronous sound. Others, such as Eisenstein, felt that sound should be used to provide non-related elements that could interact in meaningful ways with the on-screen action, which was referred to as contrapuntal, or asynchronous, sound. This approach would have also freed film from some of the constraints forced upon it by the crude sound technology, but as improvements were made to microphones and camera equipment, many of these constraints were lifted. Finally, in 1929, post-synchronized sound systems were developed that enabled sound to be recorded and synchronized with the film after the film was shot; this allowed for the editing and montage effects that had been impossible with early sound film. Hallelujah, directed by King Vidor in 1929, took full advantage of post-synchronous sound techniques, and is generally regarded as the first film of the full-sound era. In one critical scene, as the film's characters are running through a swamp, the camera moves with them, and rapid cutting takes place as the audience hears the sound of birds, branches breaking, and dialogue, all sounds that were recorded after the scene was shot and were later added to the soundtrack.

The coming of sound film not only impacted the movies as art, but the movies as an industry as well. Despite the high costs associated with the conversion to sound, sound films saved Hollywood from the Great Depression. Throughout the 1920s film attendance began to fall off as audiences discovered new technologies like the radio, and had sound film not been developed and adopted during the short period between 1926 and 1930, many Hollywood studios would have been forced into bankruptcy during the Great Depression, as audiences tired of the limited expressive capabilities of the silent film. Though resisted at first because of economic factors, sound opened up entirely new dimensions in film as art, dimensions that audiences were anxious to explore, and provided Hollywood with an economic base that sustained it through the worst economy in American history.


Further Reading

Cook, David A. The History of Narrative Film. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996.

Crafton, Donald. Talkies: America's Transition to Sound Film, 1926-31 (History of American Cinema 4). Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999.

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Birth of the "Talkies": The Development of Synchronized Sound for Motion Pictures

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