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Back to The History of American Film: Primary Sources

The Introduction of Sound

The introduction of sound into the film industry is a tale filled with myths. According to the traditional Hollywood legend, the financially-strapped Warner Brothers turned to sound in a desperate gamble to save their company. More recently, film historian Douglas Gomery has shown that the coming of sound in fact reflected calculated corporate decisions about the potential profits to be reaped from introducing the new technology. The following primary sources give some sense of the public reaction to the arrival of the talkies.

“Pictures That Talk,” Photoplay, 1924

And now the motion pictures really talk. It has been almost twenty years since Thomas A. Edison first tried to accomplish this, but it has remained for Dr. Lee De Forest to bring the "talkies" to their present stage of advancement.

Mr. Edison's first attempt was made by the simple process of playing stock cylinder records on a phonograph and having the actors sing, or pretend to sing, with the record, while the camera photographed the lip movement. By this method synchronization was impossible. Sometimes the singer would be so far ahead or behind the record that the result would be laughable.

Edison knew this would never do, so he finally invented the "kinetophone." Again, he used the phonograph, but he obtained better results by making the phonograph record at the same time as the motion picture negative. This gave perfect synchronization in the taking of the pictures, but two operators were needed for the projection--one for the film in the booth and the other, back stage, to run the phonograph.

Sometimes the results were good. More often they were not. But, nevertheless, these pictures had quite a vogue and drew great audiences all over the country. Edison was not satisfied, but he never was able to get perfect synchronization, nor was any of the dozen others who tried.

About this time Lee De Forest, then a young electrical engineer in the West, was experimenting with wireless, or radio, as it is now called. Out of this came the "audion," which is now a part of every radio set and which makes broadcasting and receiving possible. Three years ago De Forest became interested in motion pictures and began his experiments to make them talk. He realized that synchronization and audibility were essential. After three years he has worked out his "Phonofilm." He has synchronized the picture and the voice by photographing the sound on the same strip of film with the action and at the same time. Instead of the voice being phonographed, it is radioed from the speaker's lips, by sound waves, to the camera. There these sound waves are converted into light waves and photographed on the left side of the film.

All of this is accomplished with any standard motion picture camera, to which has been added an attachment for photographing sound. The negative thus produced is developed in the usual manner and prints made exactly similar to the prints of any other motion picture.

In projecting the De Forest Phonofilms, an inexpensive attachment is necessary, which fits on any stand projection machine. In this attachment is a tiny incandescent lamp. As the film passes this light, the lines made by the voice become "flickers" or light waves. These light waves are picked up by the infinitesimal wires and converted into sound waves again. Other larger wires take the sound waves into the amplifier, from which they are carried from the projection room by ordinary wires back-stage, amplified again, and thrown on the screen in precise synchronization with the action of the scene....

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Mordaunt Hall, Review of Don Juan, The New York Times, 1926

A marvelous new device known as the vitaphone, which synchronizes sound with motion pictures, stirred a distinguished audience in Warners' Theatre to unusual enthusiasm at his initial presentation last Thursday evening. The natural reproduction of voices, the tonal qualities of musical instruments and the timing of the sound to the movements of the lips of singers and the actions of musicians was almost uncanny....

The future of this new contrivance is boundless, for inhabitants of small and remote places will have the opportunity of listening to and seeing grand opera as it is given in New York, and through the picturing of the vocalists and small grounds and small groups of musicians, or instrumental choirs of orchestras, the vitaphone will give its patrons an excellent idea of a singer's acting and an intelligent conception of the efforts of musicians and their instruments....

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“Silence is Golden,” Aldous Huxley, Golden Book Magazine, 1930

I have just been, for the first time, to see and hear a picture talk. "A little late in the day," my up-to-date readers will remark, with a patronizing and contemptuous smile. "This is 1930; there isn't much news in talkies now. But better late than never."

Better late than never? Ah, no! There, my friends, you're wrong. This is one of those cases where it is most decidedly better never than late, better never than early, better never than on the stroke of time....

The explanation of my firm resolve never, if I can help it, to be reintroduced will be found in the following simple narrative of what I saw and heard in that fetid hall on the Boulevard des Italiens, where the latest and most frightful creation-saving device for the production of standardized amusement had been installed.

We entered the hall halfway through the performance of a series of music-hall turns--not substantial ones, of course, but the two-dimensional images of turns with artificial voices. There were no travel films, nothing in the Natural History line, none of those fascinating Events of the Week--lady mayoresses launching battleships, Japanese eathquakes, hundred-to-one outsiders winning races, revolutionaries on the march in Nicaragua--which are always the greatest and often the sole attractions in the programs of our cinema. Nothing but disembodied entertainers, gesticulating flatly on the screen and making gramophonelike noises as they did so. Some sort of comedian was performing as we entered. But he soon vanished to give place to somebody's celebrated jazz band--not merely audible in all its loud vulgarity of brassy guffaw and caterwauling sentiment, but also visible in a series of apocalyptic closeups of the individual performers. A beneficent Providence has dimmed my powers of sight so that at a distance of more than four or five yards I am blissfully unaware of the full horror of the average human countenance. At the cinema, however, there is no escape. Magnified up to Brobdingnagian proportions, the human countenance smiles its six-foot smiles, opens and shuts its thirty-two-inch eyes, registers soulfulness or grief, libido or whimsicality, with every square centimeter of its several roods of pallid mooniness. Nothing short of total blindness can preserve one from the spectacle. The jazz players were forced upon me; I regarded them with a fascinated horror. It was the first time, I suddenly realized, that I had ever clearly seen a jazz band. The spectacle was positively terrifying.

The performers belonged to two contrasted races. There were the dark and polished young Hebrews, whose souls were in those mournfully sagging, seasickishly undulating melodies of mother love and nostalgia and yammering amorousness and clotted sensuality which have been the characteristically Jewish contributions to modern popular music. And there were the chubby young Nordics, with Aryan faces transformed by the strange plastic forces of the North American environment into the likeness of very large uncooked muffins or the unveiled posteriors of babes. (The more sympathetic Red Indian type of Nordic-American face was completely absent from this particular assemblage of jazz players.) Gigantically enlarged, these personages appeared one after another on the screen, each singing or playing his instrument and at the same time registering the emotions appropriate to the musical circumstances. The spectacle, I repeat, was really terrifying. For the first time, I felt grateful for the defect of vision which had preserved me from an earlier acquaintance with such aspects of modern life. And at the same time I wished that I could become, for the occasion, a little hard of hearing. For if good music has charms to soothe the savage breast, bad music has no less powerful spells for filling the mildest breast with rage, the happiest with horror and disgust. Oh, those mammy songs, those love longings, those loud hilarities; How was it possible that human emotions intrinsically decent could be so ignobly parodied? I felt like a man who, having asked for wine, is offered a brimming bowl of hogwash. And not even fresh hogwash. Rancid hogwash, decaying hogwash. For there was a horrible tang of putrefaction in all that music. Those yearnings for "Mammy of Mine" and "My Baby," for "Dixie" and the "Land Where Skies Are Blue" and "Dreams Come True," for "Granny" and "Tennessee and You"--they were all a necrophily. The Mammy after whom the black young Hebrews and the blond young muffin-faces so retchingly yearned was an ancient Gorgonzola cheese; the Baby of their tremulously gargled desire was a leg of mutton after a month in warm storage; Granny had been dead for weeks; and as for Dixie and Tennessee and Dream Land-- they were odoriferous with the least artificial of manures.

When, after what seemed hours, the jazz band concluded its dreadful performances, I sighed in thankfulness. But the thankfulness was premature. For the film which followed was hardly less distressing. It was the story of the child of a cantor in a synagogue, afflicted, to his father's justifiable fury, with an itch for jazz. This itch, assisted by the cantor's boot, sends him out into the world, where, in due course and thanks to My Baby, his dreams come tree-ue, and he is employed as a jazz singer on the music-hall stage. Promoted from the provinces to Broadway, the jazz singer takes the opportunity to revisit the home of his childhood. But the cantor will have nothing to do with him, absolutely nothing, in spite of his success, in spite, too, of his moving eloquence. "You yourself always taught me," says the son pathetically, "that the voice of music was the voice of God." Vox jazz vox Dei--the truth is new and beautiful. But stern old Poppa's heart refuses to be melted. Even Mammy of Mine is unable to patch up a reconciliation. The singer is reduced to going out once more into the night--and from the night back to his music hall.

The crisis of the drama arrives when, the cantor being mortally sick and unable to fulfil his functions at the synagogue, Mammy of Mine and the Friends of his Childhood implore the young man to come and sing the atonement service in his father's place. Unhappily, this religious function is booked to take place at the same hour as that other act of worship vulgarly known as the First Night. There ensues a terrific struggle, worthy of the pen of a Racine or a Dryden, between love and honor. Love for Mammy of Mine draws the jazz singer toward the synagogue; but love for My Baby draws the cantor's son toward the theater, where she, as principal Star, is serving the deity no less acceptably with her legs and smile than he with his voice. Honor also calls from either side; for honor demands that he should serve the God of his fathers at the synagogue, but it also demands that he should serve the jazz voiced god of his adoption at the theater. Some very eloquent captions appears at this point. With the air of a Seventeenth Century hero, the jazz singer protests that he must put his career before even his love. The nature of the dilemma has changed, it will be seen, since Dryden's day. In the old dramas it was love that had to be sacrificed to painful duty. In the modern instance the sacrifice is at the shrine of what William James called "the Bitch Goddess Success." Love is to be abandoned for the stern pursuit of any sort of newspaper notoriety and dollars.

In the end the singer makes the best of both worlds--satisfies Mammy of Mine and even Poor Poppa by singing at the synagogue and, on the following evening, scored a terrific success at the postponed first night of My Baby's revue. The film concludes with a scene in the theater, with Mammy of Mine in the stalls (Poor Poppa is by this time safely under ground), and the son, with My Baby in the background, warbling down at her the most nauseatingly luscious, the most penetratingly vulgar mammy song that it has ever been my lot to hear. My flesh crept as the loud speaker poured out those sodden words, that greasy, sagging melody. I felt ashamed of myself for listening to such things, for even being a member of the species to which such things are addressed. But I derived a little comfort from the reflection that a species which has allowed all its instincts and emotions to degenerate and putrefy in such a way must be pretty near either its violent conclusion or else its radical transformation and reform.

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