Hollywood's Transition to Sound: 1927-1932

The Jazz Singer poster

"To understand the impact of sound, it should not be forgotten that silent cinema was not silent at all. Silent films have plenty of references to all kinds of sounds; they deliberately put the viewer in the position of a listener. Moreover, these films were presented in a cinema with live music performed by a pianist or an orchestra, and often the musicians would add sound effects to the action on the screen. In Japanese cinemas a voice was added to the images by a lecturer or benshi, who actually dominated the film show with his verbal interpretations." [2]

"There had been previous attempts at sound cinema before The Jazz Singer’s release at the end of 1927, but this film was well-funded and widely released. It was successful and, as a result, American cinemas, followed by those of other countries, started to install speaker systems behind their screens; ten million more cinema tickets were sold in the US immediately after the introduction of this new technology. Many silent film-makers, such as Chaplin, thought that the onset of sound destroyed the mystique of film and delayed using it for as long as possible. Some highly developed national film industries did not invest in sound technology until the mid- to late 1930s." [1]

The Coming Of Sound

Alice Guy-Blaché (1873 – 1968)

"Sound films had been around since before the turn of the century when Alice Guy shot more than one hundred brief films using Gaumont’s Chronophone system, which employed synchronized wax cylinders to record sound using a "Morning Glory" horn, a large acoustical "hearing aid," to capture the voices of the performers. But the Chronophone and similar processes lacked the obvious benefits of electronic amplification.

Gaumont Chronophone System

Lee de Forest, the pioneer inventor who created the vacuum tube, the television picture tube, and the modern optical sound track system that was used in talking pictures for most of the twentieth century, was busily working in his small laboratory to bring synchronized sound to film. De Forest, in fact, was drawing on a series of experiments that dated back to the nineteenth-century work of the American inventor Joseph T. Tykociner, as well as work done by Eugene Lauste, who also conducted early experiments in sound-on-film. In addition, in 1919, three German scientists, Joseph Massole, Josef Engl, and Hans Vogt, created the Tri-Ergon system, which employed a primitive photographic sensor to transform sound into striations of light and dark, creating the prototype for de Forest’s optical sound-track process.

De Forest Phonofilm crew on the grounds of the White House, Washington, D.C., 1924

To publicize his new invention, de Forest created roughly one thousand short films featuring comics, musicians, and vaudeville stars of the era. His invention, which he called Phonofilm, was a modest financial success, but without the backing of a major studio sound-on-film remained a novelty. From 1923 to 1927, the studios all resisted the coming of sound, realizing that it would create profound economic and technological changes. As with the advent of color film and later television, Hollywood was resistant to any changes in the status quo, and for all intents and purposes sound was suppressed by the industry until Warner Bros., in dire financial straits, risked nearly everything they owned on The Jazz Singer in 1927. When that film clicked resoundingly with the public, a new era was born." [3]

The Move to Sound

The Vitaphone system demonstrated by E.B. Craft 1926

"Warners was alone in embracing sound; at the time, all the other major studios considered talking films a fad, and Warners only went ahead with Vitaphone because without some kind of gamble the studio faced almost certain bankruptcy. Sound was seen as a gimmick, not something for everyday use, a fad of which the public would soon grow tired. After all, Vitaphone short sound films had been around since 6 August 1926, when chief censor Will Hays, speaking on film, presented a series of Vitaphone shorts that combined, in Hays’s words, "pictures and music" to create a convincing illusion of reality. The Vitaphone shorts had gone over well with audiences - but a feature? In fact, most of The Jazz Singer is silent, with music and sound effects added later, but in the few, brief sound segments of the film (recorded on separate discs, and then played back in electronic synchronization with the film image, rather than being photographed on the side of the film as striations of light and dark in the de Forest "variable density" optical sound method), Al Jolson captivated audiences with his adlibs, including the famous line, "Wait a minute - wait a minute, I tell you! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!" Almost overnight, silent films were nothing more than a memory. The major studios climbed reluctantly on board and adopted the sound-on-film method as more reliable than the Vitaphone disc process.

The Jazz Singer opening, October 6, 1927

The major battle in the competing sound processes was between de Forest’s sound-on-film and Vitaphone’s sound-on-disc. Warners opted for sound-on-disc for The Jazz Singer and its subsequent talkies, and at first the other studios followed suit. But by 1930, sound-on-film was being used as well, and the need for a standardized system became apparent. Acting with rare unanimity, the studios voted for a sound-on-film process then being touted by Vitaphone, which was largely based on de Forest’s work. Theaters, meanwhile, were still scrambling to make the changeover; by 1931, nearly all the nation’s theaters were wired for sound. The motion picture industry would benefit from the new technology after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, as audiences flocked to theaters to escape the real desperation of their own increasingly uncertain lives.

Lights of New York, the first completely sound film

As a result, intertitles quickly vanished from films, as Broadway actors and writers were imported to Hollywood by the trainload to create "canned drama," or "teacup drama," in which the camera, immobile and positioned inside a soundproof, asbestos-lined booth, simply recorded the action and dialogue in one take. The inventiveness of the silent cinema was instantaneously jettisoned in favor of the "all-talking" film, the first completely sound film being Warners’ Lights of New York (1928), a gangster melodrama indifferently directed by Bryan Foy. But quality, for the moment, didn’t matter. The actors spoke, the dialogue was clearly recorded, and audiences were thrilled. For the moment, it was enough. King Vidor’s first sound film was a musical drama set in the South, Hallelujah! (1929), unusual for the time as the first Hollywood studio film with an all-black cast. Future developments would refine the art of sound recording so that by the mid-1930s, it was flawlessly integrated with the picture, and the camera was liberated once more to smoothly glide across the set as required by the more adventurous among the Hollywood directors. But in embracing the new technology, they could also employ the rich heritage of European cinematographic techniques that were the result of ceaseless experimentation by continental directors from the dawn of cinema onward.

By 1930, ninety million Americans were going to the movies at least once a week, and many families, especially in the larger cities, virtually lived at the movies, watching the same film over and over again in second-run "grind" houses to avoid the cold or to escape the confines of their homes. In the wake of the Crash, many were homeless and jobless, and theaters provided an inexpensive and entertaining way to pass the time indoors. While first run theaters charged top prices and ran a single feature a few times a day, neighbourhood theaters would run two films as a double bill, along with cartoons, travelogues, newsreels, and coming attractions, to create a program running nearly four hours in length, repeated continuously from noon to midnight, or sometimes even twenty-four hours a day. For a populace deprived of the real American dream, the escapist fantasies of the Hollywood dream factory offered some relief from the drudgery of daily existence." [3]

You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet!

The words that changed the movies

"At the end of the 1920s the cinema underwent a revolution. The centre of this revolution was the introduction of synchronized sound dialogue, but it affected other areas as well, leaving very few untouched. It was a revolution that began in America and spread inexorably to the rest of the world, though certain aspects of it had a specific European inflection and some remote corners of the world did not feel the effects of any of it for some time.

All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!: The Broadway Melody (1929)

The revolution can be conveniently dated from 6 October 1927, with the New York premiere of Warner Bros.' The Jazz Singer in which Al Jolson pronounces the immortal line "You ain't heard nothin' yet" with more or less perfect synchronization between his lips in the film and his voice recorded in parallel on a disc. But that was only a beginning. By 1930 the sound-on-disc technology pioneered by Western Electric was replaced by a simpler and more reliable sound-on-film system devised by the rival corporation General Electric. A European consortium led by the German companies Siemens and AEG entered the fray and successfully seized a sizable corner of the growing market for sound equipment. Within a few years thousands of theatres in Europe and America were wired for sound using technology licensed from the powerful patents holders. Only in the Soviet Union and Japan was the conversion to sound slow to take effect.

Sound affected film form and the structure of the industry in equal measure. The old silent comedy was replaced by the wisecracking of Mae West and the Marx Brothers. Playwrights and script-writers assumed a new importance. An entirely new genre, the musical film, came into being. The integration of music on to the sound-track brought massive redundancies among theatre musicians but it also meant that exhibition conditions became standardized since the film was now the same wherever it was shown. Visual styles became cramped by the inflexible new technology. Hollywood suffered a temporary set-back in overseas markets because audiences demanded dialogue in their own language. Since in the early years of sound all dialogue had to be recorded live, the practice grew up of making films in multilingual versions, with different actors, until the institution of dubbing in the mid-1930s made it superfluous.

The main effect of the coming of sound was a consolidation of the studio system, both at the level of production and at that of the overall organization of the industry. Films became an increasingly industrial product, while the boundaries of the industry extended to overlap with the burgeoning music recording business." [3]

The Language Barrier

"The struggle for industrial control alone was enough to rock the foundations of the international film world, but this instability was increased by the language barrier. A silent picture could be exhibited in all countries of the world. A talking picture, however, became the prisoner of its own language. A translation technique did not yet exist and it would take some years before dubbing was developed and generally adopted. Moreover. most pictures were English speaking, and this hurt the self-respect of audiences in non-English-speaking countries, and aroused nationalist feelings. Italy banned talking pictures that used languages other than Italian, and Spain, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary took similar protectionist measures.

The world's first "multilingual" film: the German release

As a result, the international film market, dominated by Hollywood for more than a decade, suddenly began to disintegrate: it split into as many markets as there were languages. At first, these language barriers were bridged with songs; the musical film did not rely on dialogue alone and could be enjoyed all over the world without translation. Since musicals were new and very popular, Hollywood was happy to make them in great quantities for its international clients. However, talking pictures with lots of dialogue posed a real problem. Dialogue jeopardized the concept of Hollywood as the centre of the international film industry. For some time, a decentralization of American film production appeared to be the only answer to the language problem, and in 1930 several American studios began to invest extensively in Europe's film industry. Paramount built a giant studio in Joinville, France, to produce multilingual films: they would shoot the same film in different languages, using the same set and costumes over again. Warner's set out to co-produce a multilingual film in Germany, Die 3 Groschen-Oper (G. W. Pabst. 1930; the French version was called L'Opéra de quat' sous), before securing an important share in Europe's most promising venture in sound film production, Tobis. MGM approached the problem from the opposite end: it invited foreign actors to the USA to play the different language versions in its Hollywood studios. MGM could also employ some of its own stars to this end, as in Anna Christie (1930), in which Greta Garbo, born in Sweden, played a Swedish immigrant who speaks both English and German with a foreign accent. This method of producing multilingual films had been invented and tried out first in Great Britain in 1929 when E. A. Dupont directed Atlantic in English-. German-. and French-speaking versions. but it remained a very expensive solution.

The world's first "multilingual" film: the British release

The future looked gloomy for the American studios in 1929-32, and not only because the economic depression had broken out at the same time. Sound had unleashed forces that undermined Hollywood's international leading role. Exports stagnated not only because of language barriers and patent disputes abroad, but also because Western Electric's policies did not square with Hollywood's.

In 1932 there was a major breakthrough in solving the language problem, when dubbing was introduced as the standard method of translating talking pictures in major languages, while subtitling became the solution for minor language regions. The dubbing technique had taken four years to develop. In 1933 and thereafter the Hollywood companies would recover from the initial set-back, although import quotas and the Depression would still take their toll. By that time, European film-makers had lost their illusions and stopped dreaming. Hollywood could produce its films at home again, and Paramount's Joinville studio was transformed into a huge dubbing centre, the world's biggest ventriloquist." [2]

Problems with the Early Sound

"Technological advances during this period were numerous. The first microphones for recording sound were clumsy and bulky and produced poor sound quality. Technicians insisted that the performers stand next to the microphones for optimal sound quality; this meant that both the camera and the actors stopped moving, resulting in static films that fans and critics alike derisively labeled "teacup drama." [3]

This photograph, taken during the making of a Warner Bros. film, shows the coordination involved in early sound recording. Three large draped boxes house the cameras (bottom), a man holds a long boom over the actors’ heads (far right) and a small orchestra plays.

"From the filmmakers’ point of view, shooting sound was a whole new ball game. Real locations were now difficult to use because as soon as the director shouted "Action!", someone nearby was bound to start digging a road or hammering metal. No one wanted to hear these sounds while the actors were speaking; so directors and producers were forced to return to filming in "black box" studios, which were now called "sound stages".

The image to the right illustrates how problematic this new system was. The scene is a simple one, a couple talk on a park bench. They are placed on the far right of the frame and in front of them are three large wardrobe-shaped boxes. At the beginning of the sound period, cameras had to be housed in such boxes, or "blimps" as they were called, so that their whirring would not be picked up by the microphone. Each container is further muffed by large blankets and, behind the third of these, the "boom operator" stands in a trilby hat. He holds a long pole, a "boom", at the end of which the microphone records the actors’ dialogue. He moves this left and right according to which actor is speaking and must at all times keep it out of shot. Surprisingly, an orchestra to his left performs as the actors speak. It was not until 1933 that music could be added separately to a film’s soundtrack after the editing had taken place. Until then, astonishingly, it had to be recorded simultaneously. Quite a pressing reason for not filming on real streets.

A publicity photo depicting young hopefuls approaching the terrifying mike. Many actors could not make the transition from silent to sound.

In the silent period, multi-camera shooting was used only for big action stunts which could not be easily repeated, so why were these three cameras used to cover this intimate park bench conversation? The answer again relates to sound recording problems. If this scene was first filmed in a wide shot followed by close-ups of the man and the woman, it would be very difficult to edit or match the sound from each shot together. The orchestra and dialogue would have to pace each other to precise fractions of a second – if they failed to do this and the editor cut from a wide shot to a close-up, the sound would jar. The solution was to run three cameras, one filming the wide shot (in this case the centre camera) and further cameras photographing the actors’ close-ups (here one on the right and one on the left in front of the boom operator). The actors would then perform the whole scene in a continuous take to ensure that sound on each camera would match seamlessly." [1]

John Gilbert (1897-1936)

"Most actors in early sound films were recruited from Broadway; for those who did not have a good speaking voice, the parade was over. John Gilbert, one of the most famous stars of silent films, saw his career crumble because his high tenor voice didn’t mesh with the public perception of him as a dashing romantic hero (although rumors persist that his decline was the result of a feud with Louis B. Mayer)." [3]

"Actors’ performances were affected by this new technology. The director could no longer talk to them during a take, as was the norm in silent cinema, and in the first years of sound actors had to talk with unnatural precision to be recorded successfully by the crude sound recording technology. It was not until 1932 in America, and later in other countries, that directional microphones were introduced which could record specifics rather than picking up every sound. Notice, finally, that the couple on the bench are illuminated by just two big studio lights, one on each side of the trio of cameras. In late silent films, close-ups were lit separately and with great care to create attractive facial shadows and moody or romantic backgrounds. But here there is no chance of doing this, because the lighting stands for such set-ups would have to be behind or beside the actors, in the place of the bushes. They would then be clearly visible in the wide shot, which is filmed simultaneously with the close-ups" [1].

"Not surprisingly, directors soon balked at these limitations, and audiences grew tired of films in which dialogue was the sole attraction. The early musicals of Ernst Lubitsch, such as The Love Parade (1929) and Monte Carlo (1930), used extensive post-synchronization to lay in music tracks after the film had been shot silently, allowing the camera to return to its state of mobility." [3]

"The Russian director Rouben Mamoulian went to the West as a student of the great acting guru, Stanislavski. At first Mamoulian directed opera in Paris, London and New York, which quickly confirmed that he had no feel for naturalism. Hired by Paramount on the strength of his inventive theatrical productions, his first film, Applause (1929) pushed the creative boundaries of sound films. The film’s storyline was not innovative – an ageing stage entertainer sacrifices her career for her daughter – but some key scenes made the industry sit up and pay attention. One example contrasts the convent’s hushed atmosphere, which has housed the daughter, with the hubbub of traffic and street sounds of bustling New York as she visits her mother. Mamoulian used sonic contrast to reflect the feelings of the disorientated daughter. In a later example, there is a more daring technical innovation. A wide shot, which encompasses most of the bedroom, shows the mother trying to calm her child’s frayed nerves in a night-time scene. The camera dollies into a two-shot, which frames the mother and child and remains there for a minute of dialogue, before moving into a closer two-shot, followed by two medium close-ups and then into a single close-up of the praying daughter as her mother sings a lullaby. Finally, the camera tracks out again and the father’s shadow falls across the scene.

Rouben Mamoulian on the set of "Applause".

Mamoulian’s sound crew told him the prayer and the lullaby could not be done simultaneously; we could hear one or the other or a combination of the two, but not both clearly. Mamoulian suggested that they use two microphones, one for each actress, run separate wires from them and then combine them in the printing process. The sound men said this would not work. Mamoulian was furious and stormed off the set. The studio boss, Adolph Zukor, ordered the technicians to try Mamoulian’s way, and it worked. A single scene in Applause proved simultaneous sound possible in cinema. New schema were opened up and directors now had to decide whether they wanted audiences to hear one thing or more and if other sounds should derive from the action within the image or from elsewhere. The idea of background noise, sonic landscape, threatening or warning sounds, were born in this advance." [1]

A microphone with modified head for quick capsule removal, moving in close on Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis filming a scene from '20,000 Years In Sing Sing' 1932.

"Soon cameras were mounted inside "blimps," which soundproofed the noise of their running electric motors, and microphones were mounted on "booms," long poles that were extended over the actors within a scene to allow mobility for the performers. Editing systems also improved, along with the introduction of separate sound and picture tracks that allowed cutters to freely manipulate the image and audio components of a film, as well as improvements in post-production sound mixing and dubbing." [3]

"The art of writing dialogue was new to the film and had to be imported from the stage. More than ever before, talented playwrights were employed in the film industry. The spoken word did not only enhance verbal communication in the screenplay, but an actor received a voice that would help to determine his character. In the early 1930s stars came to be identified by their voice as much as by their face. Hollywood developed a wide diversity of speaking styles, from tough-talking gangsters like James Cagney to the double entendres of Mae West, and the absurd puns of Groucho Marx. This quality was lost in foreign countries where voices were dubbed; dubbing damaged the star system. Dialogue also had the effect of enhancing the cultural specificity of a film in a way that could not be repressed by dubbing. This can best be seen in American films, for while Hollywood's silent pictures had a strong European bias, the spoken word urged them to give a more realistic impression of American society. Dialogue would make characters, scenes, and events thoroughly American." [2]


The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra performing Battleship Potemkin at the John F. Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts.

"The initial fear that the introduction of sound might cause a catastrophe aroused a greater sense of film history. Silent film art was discovered as an endangered heritage worth preserving for future generations. The importance of film archives was recognized, as a source of historical evidence and for aesthetic reasons. Nostalgia for the silent era came into being. Special cinemas were opened where one could see the masterpieces of the past, and the first histories of film as art were written: early attempts to define the canon of silent film, evaluating what belonged to the classical heritage and what did not. Here also begins the selection process that is typical of every historical enterprise: the tendency to forget what one did not want to see or hear in the past. For example, it was fifty years before it became possible to show a silent film as it had been presented originally in the cinema: accompanied by a live orchestra." [2]