Sound: The Re-Making of the Film Industry

        When the film industry first began, it was hardly anything that would be noticed today. The images were grainy and hard to distinguish. They were also plain old black and white. The absence of color made many early movies hard to envision and a bit boring. Likewise, the absence of sound was a harsh reality of early movies. Not only was there no talking between the characters of the movies, but also there was not even the accompaniment of music. The most important invention in the history of the cinema after its initial invention was the invention of the sound-on-film processes that make the cinema what they are today.

        Between the mid-twenties to mid-thirties, the film industry became revolutionized by two remarkable features being added to films, sound and color. Thomas Edison invented two great machines to be used to mix sound with picture in films, the Cinephonograph and the Kinetophone. In these early days it was still very hard to synchronize the sounds with what was going on in the picture. The sound still had to be played back separately on a phonograph; it was not actually a part of the film. Also it was hard to very hard to make the sound loud enough for large groups of people to hear. The theaters were not equipped with the same quality of speakers then as theaters are today. The most difficult problem was that the standard playing cylinder in a phonograph could only record about four minutes of sound. Since the movies of the day were already much longer than that (the original version of Greed was over nine hours long), the problem of how to enlarge the capacity of sound-recording became a very important issue. The theaters could hire performers or pianists to perform along with the films, but this was costly.

        In 1919, a miracle of film history happened when three Germans, Josef Engl, Joseph Massole, and Hans Vogt, invented the Tri-Ergon process. This was the first system that would record sound photographically on the film with the movies. Meanwhile, in 1923, Dr. Lee de Forest was perfecting one of his own inventions, the audion tube, to expand the reaches of sound. It became an essential part of any sound system that needed to be amplified. In 1922, de Forest founded his company, De Forest Phonofilm Company. The company produced short sound films that within a few years were playing in about thirty-four theaters throughout the country. However, he never achieved commercial success.

        It was William Fox, the owner of Fox Film Corporation, who made the other film companies sit up and pay attention to "talkies." Fox had acquired the American rights to the Tri-Ergon system and also an American sound-on-film system. With these two systems he formed Fox Movietone. The company produced shorts of famous people such as the president and Charles Lindbergh speaking at events. This sent the theater audiences into raves because many of them had never seen these people in person or heard them speak so clearly. It was like having them right in front of the audience talking directly to the people. The other film companies of the day realized that the y too would have to start producing pictures in sound to keep up with the competition.

        Now with sound, movies seemed to become more real to people. Not only could audiences see the stars of their dreams, but they could now also hear their voices. The sounds of birds chirping in the background, while a starlet talks with her lover, was sweet to the viewers' ears. Humor and deep emotions could be portrayed in subtler and also deeper ways because now the audience could not only see the actors but also hear the subtle changes in their tones of voice. It not only made the pictures themselves better but it also forced the actors to become better at their trade.

Stephanie Utley

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