Theme Month! December 2016: Early Sound Technology, Part-Talkies & the Sound Transition

Hold onto your corset covers, kids, because this silent movie site is going to talk about sound! Nothing so coarse as actual talkies, of course, but all the sound technologies that led up to full-blown talking pictures.

The notion that sound pictures were a completely new invention in the 1920s is a myth. In fact, sound experiments were conducted from the birth of motion pictures all the way to the sound revolution. For example, here is an early sound experiment (1895!) designed for Edison’s kinetophone:

No, your sound isn’t broken. The copy held by the Library of Congress is silent, missing the phonograph record containing the violin music. You see, most early sound technologies relied on separate phonograph records and motion picture footage. This has led to movies with missing records, records with missing movies and partially surviving fragments of both.

We’re going to dive into these fascinating experiments and will be paying special attention to the often-ignored French innovations in this area.

In addition, we will be looking at the compromises made during the sound transition: movies with synchronized scores but no dialogue, movies that were primarily silent but included talking sequences, etc.

And because I know someone will ask, yes, I will indeed be covering Blackmail, both silent and sound versions.

(I will be making heavy use of the Discovering Cinema set from Flicker Alley. It includes a documentary on early sound and multiple films and clips demonstrating the technology. Highly recommended!)

While you’re waiting for new reviews, here are some previous reviews to whet your appetite:

she-goes-to-war-ukulele

She Goes to War: A real curio, this was a part-talkie that was re-released with all its title cards cut and the result is a surreal film punctuated by ukulele solos.

Don Juan: This costume picture was released with a synchronized score that included sound effects as a way for Warner Bros. to show off its new Vitaphone sound system. Well, not really new as it was our old friend, sound on disc.

gold-rush-shoe-hands

The Gold Rush: I compare the 1925 silent original and the 1942 sound reissue with narration. This is a deep dive that includes a detailed comparison of the cuts and an examination of Charlie Chaplin’s changes to the picture.

The Trail of ’98: This Alaskan Gold Rush picture is deadly serious. It features a synchronized score with love songs and everything.

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P.S. For the sake of my sanity, please remember that Singin’ in the Rain is not a documentary and the idea that silent stars with funny voices quit in droves is a myth. Yes, that includes John Gilbert. His voice was fine. And, no, Norma Talmadge and Clara Bow were not done in by Noo Yawk accents.

Dear People Spreading These Myths,

Please stop, you’re embarrassing yourself.

12 Replies to “Theme Month! December 2016: Early Sound Technology, Part-Talkies & the Sound Transition”

  1. Love your reviews!

    Regarding the early Edison sound film experiment: in 1998, Patrick Loughney, curator of Film and Television at the Library of Congress, retrieved the sound cylinder and had it repaired and re-recorded at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound, Lincoln Center, New York. More than a century later, the film and sound were again combined. -David Menefee, President Elect Nitpicker’s Union

    1. Thanks, I have seen the version with sound but I am super conservative as to which YouTube links I include in my posts (eg from the channels of major archives, film distributors and private collectors known to me personally). I try to use the LoC whenever I can because they are doing excellent work and need our support.

  2. Agreed! I always attribute the spreading of the “funny voices” myth to myriad viewings spanning decades of Singing in the Rain. It’s a nice song and dance picture with great turns by Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Gene Kelly et al., but alas, it has very little, if anything, to do with the silent-talkie transition, its supposed subject matter.

    A shame, really. Between Singing in the Rain and The Buster Keaton Story, the 1950s could have really used an accurate, entertaining film about silents/silent-talkie transition. It didn’t get one, not in the States, at least. Something European perhaps, or from the U.K….?

    1. Also, so many sound transition films were locked away in vaults for decades due to pre-Code content. I mean, how can we judge early talkie performances when so few were available for so long? (No longer the case, thank goodness!)

      Hollywood Cavalcade is simplistic in its portrayal of sound but it does treat it as something that rejuvenated careers and not as a cartoonish punchline but I definitely agree, a proper movie about the sound transition has yet to be made.

  3. Everyone who enjoys this page should try and see the film from the UCLA Archive – “A Century of Sound” especially Volume 1, for detail on the slow emergence of synchronization and amplification. There are also a number of A/B comparisons of silent and sound versions of sequences. Volume 2 mostly focuses on the improved methods of recording and goes all the way into the stereo era.

  4. As much as I love “Singin’ in the Rain” (I know, I’m sorry, but it’s Gene Kelly, for crying out loud), I’ve always known that it was an inaccurate portrayal of the era. I look forward to your “sound” series!

  5. All due respect Clara voice was fine to my ear John Gilbert was okay I don’t know what with these rumors with on how many years going oh please

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