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The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television (1955) - The Coming of Sound to the Screen




The Coming of Sound to the Screen

KENNETH MACGOWAN, a former producer of plays and films, is a member of the staff of the Department of Theater Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an editor of the Quarterly. This article is part of a forthcoming book, The Film of Yesterday and Tomorrow.

WHEN LEE DE FOREST invented the audion amplifier in 1906, he fathered something besides the radio. That other thing was the talking picture. De Forest's vacuum tube provided the basic means for making an actor's voice loud enough to reach the last row of a 3,000-seat theater; indeed, now it increases the intensity of a sound more than a thousand times.

Talkies Sixty Years Ago

In a crude form, the talking picture is as old as the silent. As early as 1887, Edison began work on wedding the screen to the mechanical phonograph. In 1894 and for a short time afterward, some of his Kinetoscopes had earphones to give peep-show patrons sounds as well as pictures. Two years later, Charles Pathe and Oskar Messter tried fruitlessly to combine motion pictures with a German talking machine. Between 1896 and 1900, half a dozen French inventors and showmen – including Melies – succeeded better in linking phonograph records with movies, and gave private and public showings. The talking pictures of three of these men – Berthon, Dussaud, and Jaubert – attracted the attention of a French steamship company, and were made a feature of its display at the Paris Exposition of 1900. At the same time Clement Maurice opened the Phono-Cinema-Theatre, a movie house devoted entirely to talkies. There, the distinguished players Coquelin and Rejane acted dialogue scenes from famous plays. The English comedian Little Tich sang and danced, and there were many vocal numbers. Sarah Bernhardt appeared in the duel at the end of Hamlet, but the audience may have heard only footfalls and the clash of rapiers provided by noisemakers behind the screen. The Paris fair had yet a third show of talkies, this one at the Theatre de la Grande Roue. Here, Henri Joly presented an original comedy Lolotte. Instead of confining his films entirely to songs, music-hall turns, and scenes from plays, this inventor became the first screen writer for talking pictures.

The Failings of the Phonograph

From French accounts, these shows were none too popular. Yet, for fifteen years, inventors in Europe and America went on trying to link the screen image with dialogue from a crude form of phonograph. Leon Gaumont showed quite a number of films in Paris as well as a few in New York in 1913. In 1908, Edison brought out his Cameraphone, and by 1914 he had made and shown more than a dozen talkies. When his studio burned down, he gave up the unequal struggle.

The failure of all these attempts was due to several things. The recording mechanism was too insensitive. Except in a close shot, it couldn't be placed near enough to the actors to get a good volume. So, sometimes the voices were recorded first; and then the acting was photographed to a "play back" from a phonograph – a method now used for all musical numbers. Even when the image and the voices were correctly recorded on film and record, it was extremely difficult to keep the two "in sync" at a showing. Ropes and pulleys and electrical connections, as well as ingenious signals to the projectionist to speed up his hand-driven machine, didn't solve the problem satisfactorily. Worse still, the early phonographs behind the screen couldn't get enough volume out of the mechanical vibrations of needle and diaphragm.

Other and cruder efforts were made to supply dialogue and the sounds of nature. Enterprising exhibitors put actors behind the screen to speak the lines of the characters. They installed machines from which an operator could draw as many as fifty different sounds; these ranged from the cry of a baby and the bark of a dog to the noise of escaping steam and the wind and thunder of a storm.

Talkies via the Phonograph Again – Briefly

When sound at last came from Hollywood in 1926, it came on a phonograph record. Just as Edison mistakenly concentrated on the cylinder instead of the disc for his talking machine, the first producers of modern talkies began by using the disc instead of a photographic sound track. Since sound on film was available – indeed it was soon to replace the phonograph record – it may seem extraordinary that the first studio to adopt sound used the older method. This was partly because projectors were no longer hand-driven, and they could now be synchronized accurately with the turntable of the phonograph. Then, too, through electronic means, records were better made than they had been; and their sounds could be greatly amplified through powerful loud speakers of high quality. Finally, we must remember that sound on film was slow in developing. It was hardly achieved by 1920. And up till 1925 or 1926, a voice on a phonograph record was far clearer than a voice on film. In 1922, a technician who heard one of de Forest's film recordings found it "barely understandable"; and de Forest himself wrote, "I well remember the grim satisfaction I felt when, for the first time in reproducing a photographic record of my voice, I was able to determine whether or not it was being run backwards!" A year later he said of another recording – in accents of triumph – "one can understand every word the first time through."

Pioneers of Sound on Film

The story of the recording and the reproducing of sound on film is involved with very difficult concepts and with the development of very intricate scientific processes. It is, in fact, even more complicated than the history of the invention of the silent motion picture. The chief problem was the turning of sound into pulsating light and, of light into sound again. Along the way, sound became electricity, and electricity became sound.

The first experiments go back more than seventy-five years. In 1878 – only a year after Edison had perfected his talking machine – Professor Alexander W. Blake of Brown University described how he attached a mirror to the diaphram of a phonograph and then recorded photographically the vibrations of a beam of light reflected from the mirror. By 1880, Alexander Bell was sending his voice on light and was using the sensitive metal selenium to turn it into electric impulses. At the same time, another American Charles E. Fitts used selenium to reproduce sound patterns photographed on a band of paper. More than two dozen inventors, here and in Europe, worked on the numerous problems of sound via light before the recording and reproducing of sound on film began to take definite shape in 1918. Here is a list of the most important men and the dates when they filed their patents:

1886, the team of A. G. Bell, S. A. Bell, and S. Tainter, who recorded light from sound through a fine slit. 1887, C. J. Hohenstein, who put sound on film by a method later used by General Electric. 1900, J. Poliakoff, who used positive film images with a photoelectric cell. 90ol, Ernst Ruhmer, whose Photographophon is described as "something like the sound camera of today." 1906, Eugene A. Lauste – formerly with Edison, the Lathams, and Rector – one of whose contributions was later developed by RCA. 1913, E. E. Ries, whose patent proved almost basic but took ten years to get through the Patent Office.

20th-Century Scientists Work on Sound

After de Forest's invention of the vacuum tube in 1906, more than ten years passed before he and his fellow technicians began to close in on the problem of sound on film. It was a decade later when Hollywood began to think of making pictures.

The end of World War I set some scientists free to work in the area of entertainment. Three Germans, three Americans, and a number of men employed by three big manufacturers of radio and electrical equipment in the United States led the field. The Germans worked together as Tri-Ergon. Of the three Americans, de Forest sometimes worked by himself and sometimes in loose association with Theodore W. Case and his partner Earl I. Sponable. The chief manufacturing companies that developed sound on film were General Electric, the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and Western Electric. Bell and Western Electric coppered the deal by playing both films and records.

De Forest Brings Talkies to New York in 1923

The association between de Forest and Case-Sponable was a curious one. They exchanged information freely while developing their own sound cameras. Between 1923 and 1925, they had an agreement by which de Forest used certain devices of the other two in his Photophone system. I am not belittling the work of de Forest when I say that he gave a great deal of attention to production and exhibition while Case and Sponable made the greatest technical advances.

Edison had hardly got through saying that there was no field for talking pictures when de Forest showed a half-hour program of his films at the Rivoli Theater in New York on April 15, 1923. They started off with a picture in which a man explained the making of movies with sound. (This, remember, was the year when de Forest boasted that he could "understand every word the first time through.") During 1923, he exhibited some twenty-five short subjects. The next year, he recorded speeches by President Coolidge, Senator Robert La Follette, and other notables. More important than these films or the monologues that he made with comedians like Eddie Cantor, George Jessell, and De Wolf Hopper, he produced in 1924 a two-reel comedy Love's Old Sweet Song with Una Merkel. It was the first all-talkie fiction film, unless his sketch with Raymond Hitchcock may have preceded it.

In 1925, in the first theater built especially for talkies, de Forest showed his films at the British Empire Exhibition. By the end of the year, he saw Phonofilm equipment installed in thirty-four American movie houses. But de Forest couldn't gain the ear of Hollywood, and William Fox – who was later to adopt the Case- Sponable system as Movietone – ordered the de Forest projectors out of the six Fox theaters where they had been installed.

The Work of the Radio Manufacturers

Besides de Forest, Case, and Sponable, scientists working for the makers of radio and electrical equipment played an important part in exploring the mysteries of sound for the screen. From the work of all these men came refinements in the use of the oscillating mirror, the photoelectric cell, and the vacuum tube, and also notable developments such as the light-valve, the microphone, and the loud speaker. As early as 1920, Charles A. Hoxie of General Electric demonstrated sound on film in one of its laboratories and, the next year, recorded speeches by President Coolidge and other public figures. In 1923, Western Electric made an animated sound film on the workings of the audion tube, while it was developing the electronic recording of sound on disc. Bell as well as Western Electric achieved good synchronization through an electric motor that drove both projector and phonograph. Electronic recordings and powerful loud speakers made this system reasonably satisfactory, though not so good as sound on film.

Thus, by 1925, the work of de Forest, Case, Sponable, and the manufacturers made the talkies a reality – outside Hollywood. The mute movie and the blind radio had brought forth a child that could talk and be seen.

Sound for Money's Sake

Up till 1926, the film studios felt too prosperous to waste time and money on the gestation and accouchement of this prattling baby. When the Hollywood talkie was born at last, it was under the sign of the dollar – or, perhaps I should say, under the sign of the missing dollar.

The silent screen didn't die of old age. By 1926, its artistic potentialities were far from exhausted, as Russia was beginning to demonstrate. But the commercial film, made to please as many people as possible, began to repeat itself and grow dull. To hold the audience, America's first-run exhibitors added symphony orchestras and vaudeville; and they fused these into what they called "presentations" or "prologs." For an hour, film audiences watched revues with singers, comics, vaudeville acts, elaborate scenery, and a teeming chorus of dancing girls whose mechanical perfection put a millepede to shame. In spite of all this, audiences shrank. And, though audiences shrank, Hollywood producers turned a deaf ear to the sounds that ingenious inventors were offering them – all the Hollywood producers, that is, except the one that was in the worst shape financially. This was Warner Brothers. It was on the edge of bankruptcy, so it had nothing to lose. As things turned out, Warners – and the Hollywoods of both hemispheres – had a world to gain.

At first, Warner Brothers seems to have thought mainly of bringing orchestral scores, musical stars, and short turns, not only to the first-run theaters but also to the smaller houses that couldn't afford them. (As early as 1924, de Forest had recorded Hugo Riesenfeld's musical score of The Covered Wagon and projected it at the Rivoli during the "supper shows" when the regular orchestra was resting.) On August 6, 1926, adopting the Western Electric process under the name of Vitaphone, Warner Brothers presented its first program with electrically recorded sound on discs. The feature was a silent picture Don Juan with John Barrymore, accompanied by a score recorded with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. There were short films in which Mischa Elman played the violin, Martinelli and Marion Talley sang solos, and Negro musicians played banjos. The only talking voice came from a moving picture of Will Hays, czar of the industry, who – with more of vision than most Hollywood men enjoyed – introduced Vitaphone as something that would revolutionize the screen.

Fox Steps in with Case and Sponable

Before William Fox ripped out the de Forest equipment that had somehow wormed its way into a few Fox theaters, the magnate refused to talk to the inventor on a transatlantic crossing. But, a couple of years later, when the film man heard that Warner Brothers had made a contract for Vitaphone, he was willing to listen to a Case-Sponable demonstration. The realistic twitterings of a canary decided him. Before the rival studio showed Don Juan, Fox had agreed to accept the Case-Sponable brand of sound on film and to exploit it under the name of Fox Movietone. This was in the summer of 1926. By the end of October, the Fox-Case Corporation was making tests on a new sound stage in New York. Sponable has amusingly noted that Harry Lauder stopped in the middle of a song and – to make sure the film couldn't be used commercially – announced quite clearly, "This is a test."

A Leisurely Race between Two Studios

Fox was a late starter compared with the Warners. They broke the barrier in August, 1926, with a synchronized score, musicians, and Hays's speech. It was the next January before Fox put his silks on a singing short with the Spanish Raquel Meller. In May, Movietone showed its heels with the first Hollywood short with dialogue – They're Coming After Me, starring the comedian Chic Sale. After that, it was a dingdong race for position. But it was a slow race all the same.

The Warner Brothers were sluggish pioneers. After the debut of Hays, they waited more than a year to put songs and a little dialogue into a long film. Then nine months of gestation went by before they brought forth the first "all-talking" feature. Fox, too, found it slowgoing in the fiction field. It took him two years to move from the Chic Sale short to his first feature-length talkie.

Fox moved faster, however, in the field of the news reel. Case- Sponable's sound on film proved more mobile than Vitaphone's phonograph recording. In the summer of 1927, camera crews recorded the departure of Lindbergh and his welcome back in Washington; they went abroad and interviewed Mussolini. By December, the first weekly issue of Movietone News appeared. Within a year, the output trebled; and in July, 1929, Fox delivered four news reels a week.

The Jazz Singer – "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet"

In spite of earlier demonstrations, it was the Warner Brothers that first amazed and staggered movie-goers with the possibilities of spoken dialogue on the screen. For some reason, the sensational success that de Forest couldn't win with his Phonofilm in 1925, or Fox with Chic Sale in the summer of 1927, Warners achieved when it presented The Jazz Singer on October 24, 1927. Al Jolson's songs were arresting, of course, but the public had already heard singing in one-reelers. It had heard dialogue, too. Yet, when Jolson finished his first song in reel two and said to the guests in a cafe, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet!" the theater audience was electrified. There was a kind of prophecy in this favorite line of his that he had carried over from many a musical show on Broadway. The Jazz Singer had only a little more dialogue, but the success of the film told other producers that they must turn to sound. They were surprisingly slow to react.

The First All-Dialogue Films

After the success of The Jazz Singer – it made a handsome profit even though there were only about 100 theaters equipped with sound projectors – Warner Brothers, Fox, and others hurriedly added talkie sequences to films that were all but finished. The first completely dialogued film, Lights of New York, didn't come from Warner Brothers till July, 1928. Paramount joined the all-talkie procession five months later with Interference. The otherwise enterprising Fox didn't come through until January, 1929, but In Old Arizona had the distinction of being the first talking feature shot out-of-door. The great Griffith, who had made a failure with songs recorded on phonograph discs for Dream Street in 1921, let Lupe Velez sing and dance in Lady of the Pavements (1929). But it was 1930 before he made his first all-talkie in Abraham Lincoln (1930).

In 1928, there had been musical numbers and night-club scenes in The Singing Fool and Lights of New York; and, early the next year, with MGM's Broadway Melody, Hollywood discovered that sound made a new kind of film possible – and very profitable – the musical show. MGM cautiously made a silent version as well as a talkie – quite a feat, I should think. RKO was more confident, toward the end of 1929, when it made an entirely voluble reproduction of the Broadway hit Rio Rita. In 1929, there were 234 different types of sound equipment. Most of these involved discs. Yet, within a short time, three systems of sound-on-film systems had squeezed out all the phonograph records.

In 1930, the Silent Fades Away

For Hollywood, 1929 was the year of decision. In March, Fox gave up producing silent pictures. The others slowly followed. According to listings in the Film Daily Year Book, in the twelve months, Hollywood companies made 335 features with complete dialogue. They turned out only 175 silent films. In between, lay 75 with musical scores and sound effects, and 95 with a mixture of a little dialogue and a lot of subtitles. The number of theaters wired for sound increased more than fifty times between December 31, 1927, and December 31, 1929. Sponable has said that, at the end of 1927, there were only 157 houses equipped for sound and not more than 55 of these could handle sound on film. Two years later, he counted 8,741, and most of them could use both disc and film. There remained some 10,000 theaters – mostly on the small side – that had no sound equipment of any kind. That was why 175 of the 335 all-talking features of 1929 went out in silent versions, too, replete with subtitles. All told, however, there were 505 features with some kind of sound against 175 that could be seen but not heard.

Sound spoke long and loudly in comedy and drama, the Western, the musical show, and the operetta. Even Britain listened. Under some strange misapprehension, the otherwise astute Alfred Hitchcock had shot Blackmail silent; when he heard the belated news from Hollywood, he remade it in sound. Germany saw Tri-Ergon films as early as 1922, but producers didn't go in seriously for talkies until 1929.

By the end of 1930, the screen of America and Europe was full of sound and fury, signifying – what?

(c) The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television (1955)