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The Times (19/Dec/1930) - Sound and dialogue films: recent experiments

(c) The Times (19/Dec/1930)




It is now over two years since the sound film made its first assault upon the public ear and removed any possibility of its silent partner achieving perfection and permanence. During that time astonishing technical progress has been made and the world won to new modes of entertainment. Yet the victories of the "talkie," or of the film with synchronized accompaniment, leave no certainty that the new form is being put to its proper use. The indiscriminate fusion of sound and movement has produced a bastard form of art that belongs neither to the visual nor the audible method. This, the predominant type of sound film, applying by literal methods the tonal image to the visual, has had no difficulty in covering, as with cloths of gold, the whole field of cinema production. The more experienced architecture of the silent picture, never quite resolved in practice but containing all the elements of an individual art form, has been handed over in unrelated fragments to the new. We meet again the familiar plots and performances, but with perhaps a greater sense of style, a closer approach to literary methods, and with the stage more gravely plundered of its store than by all the effronteries of silence. The sound film, selling its harlequinade of song, dance, and catastrophe to the world, has decreed the ephemeral style of entertainment for years to come, but offers no clue to any deeper design. By some it is held that the true line of development lies in the synchronized cartoon invented by Mr. Walt Disney for his Mickey Mouse fantasies ; by others that the work of the German director, G. W. Pabst, points the way; by others, again, that the theory of "combined melodies" sot forth by V. I. Pudovkin is the legitimate mode of attack. Each adds something of value to the form which the sound film is achieving for itself, but leaves the completed design unresolved.

Early in its career the producers of the sound film became uneasy at the limitations imposed upon it, and feared that, unless some compensating virtue of action could be discovered, the very life of the motion picture would be imperilled. Efforts were made to meet the difficulty. The Virginian, an excellent chronicle of physical action, with others of the kind, was an attempt to reach a freer equilibrium between speech and movement by reducing the amount of dialogue and increasing the amount of action. In this it succeeded, but the intimacy of speech has tempted directors to make use of indoor rather than outdoor sets, that their ideas may receive greater clarity and persuasiveness. The general tendency is clearly backward and in the direction of pure cinematography. Drawing-room comedy and films of stage life, such as Charming Sinners or Romance, indicate continued effort towards freedom, the sets being so planned as to give a wider passage of action to the characters. The resolution of this conflict was well displayed in The Great Gabbo, an American production, ill-shapen indeed, but the first to effect a counterpoint arrangement of sight and sound. This dalliance with fundamentals was not for long, but was followed by many striking technical refinements, as, for example, the grading of sound with the position of the characters on the screen, the use of "travelling shots," marching with the action, the impressionistic treatment of sound, as in Blackmail, the dovetailing of individual with collective tones, and the use of a musical symbol, as in The White Hell of Pitz Palu, where the dripping of ice and the sounds of nature had their equivalents in the synchronized score.

These devices, while bringing an increased subtlety of representation and greater richness altogether, told nothing of the broader tendencies which the industry was pursuing. As in the days of silent production, the successes of drama and literature still dominated the market. In America the comedies of Mr. Somerset-Maugham, Mr. Frederick Lonsdale, and other established authors were "photographed" almost word for word, to be followed in England by a cycle of borrowed entertainments in a corresponding fashion. French Leave, On Approval, Canaries Sometimes Sing, and Almost a Honeymoon are examples of the static or literary convention in British film production, succeeding so long as there is drama and wit in the writing, but fatal to any true conception of cinematic art.

Mr. Alfred Hitchcock in Murder and Mr. E. A. Dupont in Cape Forlorn (yet to be seen) have striven towards an elasticity of movement which responds more faithfully to the genuine cinema idiom. In Murder Mr. Hitchcock shows great ingenuity in the grouping and isolation of his sounds and a visual adroitness which constantly evades the obstacle of dialogue though it cannot altogether escape it. Murder is a good example of a conflict of material with justice on both sides. One of the most fruitful examples of sound manipulation comes from Germany, where G. W. Pabst, director of The Joyless Street and The Loves of Jeanne Ney, has produced a war film. Westfront, 1918, based on Johannsen's Vier aus der Infanlrie. Pabst has evolved a synthesis of sound and pictorial imagery in which cinematic values alone determine the treatment. Of dialogue there is the barest use. The audience does not depend on the actual hearing of the words, but on the power of suggestion to convey them. In one of the scenes a picture of crowded action at the front is followed by a complete "black-out" of the screen with sound alone taking charge of the action. Hints of a similar technique have appeared in many films, and in M. Rene Clair's Sous les Toils de Paris, which chiefly expresses itself in pantomime but uses sound and dialogue as a dramatic reinforcement, we have an example of the new technique used legitimately, as the master, not the slave, of its material.

While the bounds of the commercial film, then, are fixed, the film of creative design is steadily repudiating the whole scale of tonal values. That alone which the visual element cannot portray will be offered, on severe terms, to its vocal collaborator. In this difficult partnership lies the true destiny of the sound-visual film, refusing at once all literal accents, borrowed tumults, disobedient theatre forms, and renewing itself in unrestricted flight. In the screen drama now developing no parade of classical figures need appear, strutting in disembodied eloquence amid the shadows. Hamlet, Macbeth, Sir Anthony Absolute are not of the tradition, though we may perhaps grant a nod to Queen Mab. The cinema returns, like Mercury, to assume whatever shape it please, on feet as swift, with tricks as hazardous. But as no movement can exist in the objective world without significance, and this not always understood, we shall expect some added strokes of wonder from the film's power of speech to explain and heighten the drama before us, and as a sign, only, that sound, the servant of action, is in attendance.