Startling Introduction of Sound

         The introduction of sound to cinema was a startling one that had a huge effect on the budding industry. Sound in movies was always the goal. The invention of the Kinetograph was actually commissioned back in 1888 to act as a visual addition to the phonograph. Despite being an expected advancement, the addition of sound shook up the industry and everything in it.

         The first sophisticated sound-on-film system was built in 1919 by three German inventors. They patented the Tri-Ergon process, which converted sound waves into electric impulses that could be recorded photographically onto the sides of film strips. A similar system by an American inventor came out in 1923. This system fixed the problem of amplification, yet Hollywood was not interested. Hollywood executives considered the “talking pictures” to be novelties that were expensive and had no future.

         The first sound system to be taken seriously by the film industry was the Vitaphone by Western Electric. The system was not used to add dialogue to films at first. It was used simply to add synchronized musical accompaniment. The film The Jazz Singer, directed in 1927 by Alan Crossland and starring Al Jolson, had the first spoken words on film, “Wait-a-minute...Wait-a-minute....You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” And the “talkies” were officially born.

         The Fox Film Corporation helped speed up the conversion of film to sound, buying the rights to an American sound-on-film system. Fox introduced the first newsreels with sound. They showed short clips of President Coolidge and of a speech by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

         The first 100% talkie was produced by Warner Brothers in 1928. Despite its short running time and questionable directing, Lights of New York, directed by Byron Foy, was a big hit among moviegoers. The movie’s success sent a message to the industries: the public would no longer be satisfied with silent films. The film industry was almost completely converted to sound by the end of the next year. Most American theaters had also completed the expensive conversion to enable them to show these new films.

         Recording these films was quite a challenge in the beginning. Filters had to be invented to keep unwanted sounds from making it onto the film. The addition of sound also caused problems with editing and camera movement. Actors always had to be within close range of the camera so that their voices would be picked up by the recorders. Editing was difficult, as cutting the film would mess up the continuity of the sound. Even the lighting on sets had to be rethought, since the old lighting left a “buzzing” sound on film. All sounds that were wanted in a scene had to recorded while the scene was being recorded. The film makers had no way of going back and putting it in. Even the simple act of directing the actors became more difficult with the inclusion of sound. Directors could no longer yell out directions during filming.

         Despite these awkward problems, the industry wanted to flaunt their new toy. They chose plots and scripts that would show off the new technology. Many of these included bring hits from the stage onto film with very little adaptation, which was rarely successful. The film industry had a lot to learn before sound became more of an attribute than a detriment.

         The first true sound film we watched in this class was the 1933 Marx Brothers film Duck Soup. It is impossible to imagine this movie without sound. It would definitely not be the success it is today without the use of dialogue. In fact, it is hard to imagine the industry itself being as successful as it is today without the addition of sound. Many moviegoers today are unwilling to see subtitled films because they “don’t want to read.” How would they deal with a silent film?

Kortney Bullock

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