Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Spoken Film

I'm going through the back issues of The New Yorker chronologically, and they've finally gotten to "The Jazz Singer." The magazine's movie critic makes some interesting statements in the October 15, 1927 issue:
With a first-night audience clapping and bellowing with joy at the end of his first picture, at the Warner Theatre, Mr. Al Jolson stepped to the front of the stage with a tear in his eye and said he was glad they liked it. The film was "The Jazz Singer" and probably nobody liked it much... The shouting was about Mr. Jolson and the Vitaphone. I have said a lot of unpleasant things about the Vitaphone, but all my words are eaten.
The Vitaphone was a record carefully synced up with a reel of film; the record and the film played simultaneously, and the sound was amplified and played into the theatre. It was (at the time) the most effective way of syncing film and audio together, but it took two years before Warner Brothers found the right way to apply the process.

One limitation appeared to be that the sound needed to be "dubbed" by the performer, instead of recorded live at the same time as the filming. So it wasn't deemed practical to recall actors to re-speak their lines and try to sync them with the original film recording. Perhaps this was more complicated because the idea of "dialog" in a movie was an extremely loose one; the actors often ad-libbed (or babbled) during the filming, relying on the subtitles to tell the story.

For this reason it was probably considered more practical to only use the Vitaphone when exact synchronization wasn't necessary.

Previously, the film critic for The New Yorker had mentioned those applications for the vitaphone: playing marching music when the soldiers march home on-screen, for instance, or playing the sound of a motorcycle during a slapstick chase scene. But audiences accustomed to silent films found these intrustions noisy and weird.

It took "The Jazz Singer," with its musical interludes, to strike a comfortable balance and open the door to a new concept. And it took Al Jolson to perfectly dub his singing and his dialog into the Vitaphone.
That evening will probably turn out to be an epochal one in the history of the movies, for questions were answered and questions were raised. True, the speaking movie is not so new; but hitherto it has been a novelty without much grip. Now it has shown what it can do... An article in a recent Variety mentions spoken sub-titles, but that will not prove to be enough. In "The Jazz Singer" after the singing, or after a short bit of dialogue, the silent mouthings of the characters seemed flat and silly. A new and fertile field of writing, acting, and directing is in view, with possibilities that can hardly be guessed. Will the spoken film have to aim at two audiences, the metropolitan and the rural, instead of one as now?--and consequently make two separate types of pictures, one for the city people and one for those in the country?
He's correct that audiences would no longer be satisfied with the "flat and silly" silent films, but he's actually wondering if "metropolitan" audiences would remain loyal to silent films and "rural" audiences would demand the spoken film. This says something about either the snobbishness of "metropolitan" audiences...or, more likely, the snobbishness of film critics.


zoe p. said...

Wow. Neat.

Eric Little said...

The snobbishness may have been caused in part by the tendency among some critics to view the movies as an art-form, as opposed to a more democratic means of entertainment.

In "Visions of Light," an excellent documentary on the art and history of cinematography, cameramen even today bemoan the introduction of sound. Directors like F. W. Murnau were bringing the achievements of German expressionism to Hollywood ("Sunrise"), with elaborate optical effects and a wonderful freedom of camera movement. A whole new cinematic language was being created, which was stifled by the introduction of sound--particularly when sound was recorded live on the stage.

Cameras now had to be housed in large "blimps" that resembled more icehouses for ice-fishing. Actors had to speak into microphones concealed in centerpieces. Broadway actors and writers were suddenly in high demand. You don't need members of the Algonquin Round Table to write "Safety Last."

Sorry for the lecture. I just teach this stuff as a hobby, since I'm a rich baby-boomer. ;)

Adam Thornton said...

The more I read it, less certain I am about what the critic meant by those final comments (regarding two types of movies for urban and rural audiences). I don't understand his drift.

Since I wasn't there and I haven't done much research at all into 1920s film culture, I can only go by the weekly New Yorker "Current Cinema" articles. It certainly does seem that "metropolitan" people were embracing expressionism, but there was no shortage of derivative, poorly-written fluff in silent films.

The critic particularly hates "collegiate movies," about all-star football players trying to win the game and get the girl. There was a glut of those films and they were obviously very popular. Heck, I seem to remember them working on a silent version of "Abie's Irish Rose."

Also, every few months the magazine would publish a burlesque on film adaptations: a film company would option a play (eg. "The Green Hat"), and as it went through successive script drafts its name and plot would become more generic and lurid until it was finally "A Woman's Bedroom," about a collegiate football player...

I guess my point is that Hollywood script-writing was already pretty hacky even before sound came into it, and that while expressionism was highly regarded by critics, movies that didn't use that style seemed just fine to the average movie-going public.

But again, this is all based on skim-reading a weekly column in an 80-year-old magazine, NOT by any actual consideration or research! :)

Eric Little said...

Hey--what you're doing IS research. People, like those cinematographers I talked about (and myself), remember the high points of an era--the "Sunrises"--and not the product that Hollywood churned out year after year. (William Wyler was directing silent Westerns at this time, but nobody but a Wyler biographer would try and see them--everyone else is studying his later pics "The Letter" and "Wuthering Heights.")

I can't figure it out either. It can't just be city sophistication vs. rural censorship, because cities with large Catholic populations, like Boston, as you've pointed out, loved to ban certain types of pictures.

I guess near the end of my comment I was remembering the disdain which the Algonquin Round Table held Hollywood until money was wafted under their noses. Herman J. Mankiewicz (co-author of "Citizen Kane") wrote to Ben Hecht in 1926, "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots."

Reading a contemporary source week by week is an excellent means of research.

Now back to correcting papers--thanks for the break!