to The History of American Film: Primary Sources
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,”
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
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
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....
Mordaunt Hall, Review of Don Juan, The New York Times,
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
is Golden,” Aldous Huxley, Golden Book Magazine,
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
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
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
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.