What Was The Effect Of The Introduction Of Sound Into Cinema On The Development Of Cinema Across The World?
Not everyone was excited about the introduction of sound to cinema, or “talkies”. Chaplin once told an interviewer that he “loathed” talkies, adding, “They are spoiling the oldest art in the world – the art of pantomime. They are ruining the great beauty of silence. They are defeating the meaning of the screen… The screen is pictorial. Pictures! Lovely looking girls, handsome young men… What if the girls can’t act? Of course they can’t. Who has cared?…” Two years later, in 1931, he was still venting his spleen: “I give the talkies six months more. At the most, a year. Then they’re done.”.
Chaplin wasn’t alone in his scepticism of talkies, however, he clearly got it wrong this time. However, his argument isn’t totally invalid and he; You do still get the odd over (or just plain bad) actor who, in a silent movie, would be fine. But the talkies are, of course, still thriving today.
Their introduction wasn’t quite as smooth as one might think, however. As the film The Artist (2011, Dir. Michel Hazanavicius, France) explores: some proficient silent movie actors would have been foreign actors whose first language wasn’t English, and would have strong accents, potentially making them hard for largely English-Speaking American audiences to understand and some actors might even be mutes. Or, as Singing in the Rain (1952, Dir. Gene Kelly, US) explores; and already proficient silent movie actor/actress might have an unappealing talking or singing voice, or might not be able to remember their lines, effectively ruining their career.
Silent cinema is also international. No dubbing, so subtitles. You may have to translate and make a new title card, but that would be easier and cheaper than dubbing/subtitling an entire film. Not least because there would be fewer title cards in a silent movie than there would be dialogue in a talkie. This may also cause confusion as to who the star of the film actually is. With silent movies, you were watching, say Chaplin, in every country. But if a film were dubbed, now you’re watching Chaplin while listening to someone else, who’s the real star? Or, of course, the film could be subtitled, in which case, why move to talkies at all? If you’re not going to change the way everyone watches movies, why change them at all?
The Jazz Singer (1927, Dir. Alan Crosland, US) is cited as the first “Talkie”. A Warner Brother’s production, its opening credits were still very much in the style of a silent film, even having some text on the screen after the credits to introduce it (Image 1) as well as title cards for speech (Image 2). Three minutes in, however, We see and hear a woman singing. Soon after, a man is seen and heard singing and, once the song ends, about 17 minutes into the film, the man starts to talk to his audience (Within the film, not breaking the fourth wall), whom we can hear are clapping and shouting at him. However, once his songs are over, he goes and talks to a young girl in the audience and the speech cards return. This is very reminiscent of The Artist (Or vice versa as The Artist is a much more recent film).
Before talkies came about, films had some very interesting experiments with sound; Sunrise (1927, Dir. F.W. Murnau, US) is an interesting film in that it is a silent film with no dialogue (But does use inter-titles) that plays with sound rather interestingly. It uses sound effects such as a horn when the main character is shouting.
The first “All-talking” feature-length picture (The Jazz Singer was only about 25% talkie) was Warner’s gangster film Lights of New York (1928, Dir. Bryan Foy, US). However, even after the introduction of the talkie, studios would make two versions of a movie, one talkie and one silent. A major example being All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Dir. Lewis Milestone, US) these being called “International Sound Versions”.
The existence and use of the afore mentioned International Sound Versions shows that the movie industry did clearly realise the problem that English talkies might have with an international audience which would, in turn, affect that which studios cared about most; their intake. So obviously they had to over come the problem somehow.
During the early years of the talkie, the synchronization technology was still too primitive for dubbing, and so some american studios found their sound productions being rejected in foreign-language markets and even among speakers of other dialects of English. One of the solutions for this was creating parallel foreign-language versions of Hollywood films. In 1930, american companies opened a studio in Joinville-le-Point in France. The same sets and wardrobe were used for time-sharing crews.
The parallel versions also brought in unemployed foreign actors, playwrights, etc. to work on the parallel versions of English-language films. The parallel versions had a lower budget, were shot at night and were directed by second-line American directors who, more often than not, did not speak the foreign language. Unfortunately, the productions weren’t very successful in their intended markets due to problems like the actors having no experience in cinema, the low budgets being apparent, the mix of accents (Spanish, Mexican, Chilean, etc.), some markets lacked sound equipped theaters.
Some productions did, however, compare favourably with the original, Dracula being one example. But by the mid-thirties, synchronization had advanced enough for dubbing to become normal.
The first talkie cartoon was, of course, Steamboat Willie (1928, Dir. Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, US) (Image 3), the first appearance of Mickey Mouse. It isn’t really a “talkie” as the only dialogue is muffled sounds, however, it is the first cartoon with synchronized sound full of sound effects and music. The film also took its title from the film Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928, Dir. Buster Keaton, Charles Reisner, US). Mickey Mouse never spoke until his ninth short, The Karnival Kid (1929, Dir. Ubi Iwerks, Walt Disney, US), voiced by Disney himself, he said “Hot dogs!”.
The same year, Walt Disney started his Silly Symphony animated cartoon series, the first release being The Skeleton Dance (1929, Dir. Walt Disney, US). The same year still, the first synchronised talking cartoon (as opposed to a cartoon with a soundtrack), Bosco The Talk-Ink Kid (1929, Dir. Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising. US) (Image 4). Harman also created the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoon series with Warner Brothers.
The first British all-talkie picture was made by none other that Alfred Hitchcock. Blackmail (1929, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, Britain) was originally released as a silent film, but the studio pressured Hitchcock into adding dialogue sequences (With post-synchronaisation techniques). The film was advertised by posters: “See & Hear It – Our mother tongue as it should be – SPOKEN! 100% Talkie. 100% Entertainment. Hold everything till you’ve heard this one!”. A silent version was still released for theatres not equipped for sound.
So, it seems that when talkies were first introduced they got off to a rocky start in their production and distribution, especially in non-english speaking countries, until technology managed to catch up. However, Hollywood did realise this and try to overcome it by releasing silent and foreign language versions of talkies. But it was a bumpy start to say the least. Talkies were a big hit by the early thirties, causing silent cinema to die out fairly quickly, with Chaplin producing his last (almost) silent film, City Lights (Dir. Charlie Chaplin, US) in 1931 before briefly trying his hand at talkies.
Boyd, W. (2011). Is The Artist the Best Film of the year?.Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/8943585/Is-The-Artist-the-best-film-of-the-year.html. Last accessed 10th Dec 2013.
Dirks, T. (N/A). The History of Film The 1920s The Pre-Talkies and the Silent Era . Available: http://www.filmsite.org/20sintro4.html. Last accessed 10th Dec 2013.