Friday, November 09, 2007

The Rise of the Movietone

During the late '20s the Hollywood studios experimented with many different ways of recording sound onto film. Clever inventors had been managing to do this for years, but all of the systems suffered problems: they were too bulky, or too difficult to play in regular theatres, or they wore out too easily or went out of sync too quickly.

"The Jazz Singer" used the Vitaphone system, which involved playing a phonograph record during certain scenes. But the vitaphone records could only be used about ten times, and were certainly not long-players.

Along came Movietone, which actually recorded the sound signal onto the film -- a precursor to what we use today. It seems that the process became a novelty before it matured into usefulness (and the audience grew to accept it). As mentioned in the May 26, 1928 issue of The New Yorker:
Although we hate to say so, there are really two sides to everything. There are two sides to the movietone. The movie people, surprised and delighted to hear sounds coming from their film, seem to be under the delusion that anything that makes a noise is worth reproducing--just as in the old days they believed that anything that moved was worth screening. We agree that it is exciting to actually hear the airplanes which flash before our eyes in a newsreel. Sometimes the singing is pleasant too. We are less enthusiastic about motorcycle races, fire engines, and the interior of radiator factories. As we look back on the old days of noiseless steam shovels and speechless actors, we seem to recall a certain benign satisfaction derived from sitting in the comfortable dark, seeing things without hearing them. We recommend that movie showmen be discriminating with their audible flickerings--just in case we want to take a good nap.

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