Monthly Archives: August 2010

JOHNS HOPKINS LECTURER ON SILENT-TO-SOUND

In my novel, Sloane Hall, the main characters wrestle with the challenge of adjusting to the “new” Hollywood of talking pictures. While this was a period of great upheaval, resulting in careers dashed and others being born, the film industry adjusted pretty quickly to the new technology, says Meredith Ward, a lecturer in the Johns Hopkins University Film and Media Studies Program and a Ph.D. candidate in the Northwestern University Screen Cultures program.

Here’s a Q and A with Ms. Ward about her study of that tumultuous and fascinating time:

Meredith Ward

LMS: Most people think of the silent screen actors who lost their jobs when films went from silent to sound. What other positions were lost?

MW: More than positions lost, there were positions gained. Diction coaches, scriptwriters (especially dialogue writers), and new talent were hired to staff a new Hollywood for its new plans. As far as I’m aware, and as far as what I’ve read  in the major accounts – these being Don Crafton’s The Talkies, Jim Lastra’s Sound Technology and the American Cinema, and Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity – what’s most remarkable is how well Hollywood took the transition, and how much stayed the same.

LMS: Could you describe the “standing coffins” that housed cameras during the early talkie days and why they were used?

MW: These were referred to as “camera booths” and they were used to house the cameras, which were otherwise far too noisy for sound film sets… There was a lot of debate about how to quiet cameras.

The booths had a window in the front that the camera pointed at. The booth itself was on wheels, so it could be moved around the set. The difficulty of moving them, however, proved to be a real problem. And the shift to sound films caused a revolution in the way films were shot. After a late silent period in which cameras were incredibly mobile, swooping up and down on cranes, tracking in and out on dollies, able to somersault and pivot in films like F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, things changed. The camera was locked down to one spot more or less because of its connection to sound equipment. To get around the incredible static quality of the camera set-up required by the booths, Hollywood often shot films with a three-camera set-up. A scene was shot simultaneously by three different cameras. The footage was then spliced together to give a feeling of visual movement. The effect was often unsatisfactory and viewers complained that it felt unnatural after the more fluid movements of the camera.

LMS: Not all silent directors made the transition to talkies as Hollywood started importing stage directors to work with actors who were speaking. Can you give some examples of great directors who lost their jobs, great ones who did make the transition and why they survived?

MW: The directors who survived the best were those who knew how to work with actors. Howard Hawks and George Cukor both really came into their own after the sound tradition. Cukor was famous for his work with actors, particularly his female stars. An interesting example of someone who began well before the sound shift but whose work absolutely thrived after it would be Ernst Lubitsch. Guys along that line, whose work was very verbally-oriented, might be a good avenue to pursue if you’re interested in this question. Some directors who definitely did not thrive included the silent comedians. Keaton’s career tanked in the sound era, Chaplin’s waned, and Harold Lloyd’s disappeared entirely. But again, this is not as big an aspect of either my own research or the texts I’ve read!

LMS: The Jazz Singer uses two kinds of lighting  — a quieter incandescent lighting for the sound sequences. Can you talk a bit about this change, too, and how it affected the industry?

MW: The original lighting used for motion pictures was designed to do just the task of lighting a silent film set: they illuminated the scene completely and strongly, but they had one major flaw. They hissed, popped, and crackled fairly loudly. This, of course, was in no way acceptable when the shift to sound cinema occurred. So Hollywood turned to incandescent lighting. These lights were much quieter, which solved that one problem, but they unfortunately also caused a host of other problems. Instead of being loud, they were instead very, very hot. This caused problems on the movie sets because the actors would, simply put, overheat. Makeup would run under the intense lighting, causing a notably un-Hollywood and unglamorous effect. The amount of incandescent light necessary to mimic the intensity of the original arc lights produced intense heat that, for a time, made sets unlivable.

LMS:  Did studios see the shift to sound as a way of purging highly-paid actors and directors from their stables?

MW: I believe this is mostly a myth. It’s true that certain actors like John Gilbert did disappear with the sound shift. And in certain cases, these disappearances were welcome. So yes, in certain cases it was a way of getting rid of an actor whose ego and whose salary had both gotten a bit out of hand. But as a general rule, it would have served the industry best to hold on to those stars who could complete the sound transition. Sound pictures were a real risk for motion pictures. Coming, as they did, on the heels of the Depression, Hollywood was taking a chance in taking on sound. One way that it secured its own safety as an industry was in the continuity of its stars across the gap. The studios were particularly proud of their stars who did make it across the sound shift and considered them prize ponies. Their presence ensured a continuity of audience, since stars had a truly enormous pull on audiences and were one of the very top reasons that a given spectator would return to the theater again and again. They (silent actors who made the shift to sound) also helped to put to rest the claim that was sometimes made that they were less talented than theatrical actors. The idea that they could “do it all” was very important for the studios in making the claim that motion pictures were a new art, and not just a new technology.

LMS: Around the time The Jazz Singer was released, Murnau’s silent Sunrise was released. Why should audiences–outside of film students, that is!–watch this movie today?

MW: Sunrise is one of the movies that I know of that can consistently make men cry. I don’t know whether it’s the theme of wronging a woman only to have her forgive you so completely, but it’s enormously popular with men and it seems to be quite consistently moving to them. In terms of the film itself, it is incredibly beautiful. It is a moving and universal human tale. And it’s one of only a handful of films that F.W. Murnau made before he died in an unfortunate auto accident. Murnau is one of those iconic Hollywood figures — the young genius whose career was cut too short by tragedy, a bit like Irving Thalberg. Sunrise also serves as an interesting segue in F.W. Murnau’s career. It is, essentially, a German film that happened to be made in Hollywood. It has elements of German Expressionism left in it, and cinematographically it’s stunning. It also had a synchronized soundtrack, which, although we don’t think of that as being particularly notable now, was a major step toward complete sound films. While not everyone was on board with the idea of “talkies,” many folks in the know supported synchronized music because it was considered to be the height of artistry: a perfect fusion of sound and image, dictated by the producers and creating the maximum possible dramatic effect.

LMS: How accurate is the 1952 musical comedy Singin’ in the Rain, which tells the story of two silent actors making their first talkie, at portraying the challenges of early talking pictures?

MW: Singin’ in the Rain captures many of the jokes that would have circulated in Hollywood about the sound transition. It showcases a whole host of concerns that were active at the time, if not real-life events. Actors did have a very difficult time learning to speak properly for the camera. Diction coaches were called in to help to craft appealing tones from actors’ voices. Being a diction coach during the sound shift was a great gig. And, yes, certain actors (Clara Bow being among them) had dialects and accents that didn’t play well. The placement of the microphone was a real concern, as well (here, echoes of the situations in Singin’ in the Rain when they have to place the mic in a bush, a corsage, etc.) but these situations were not as extreme as they are depicted in the film — of course, because it’s a comedy. But yes, there are accounts in the original Academy documents I’ve been looking at that have sound technicians complaining that directors don’t understand how sound technology works, and directors insisting on truly bizarre microphone placements on set so they don’t get in the way of the picture.

LMS: When did the “tyranny of the sound technician” start to end?

MW: There was a period for the first three years during which traditional Hollywood personnel fought pretty rancorously with the sound techs. This had a lot to do with the fact that sound technology was the product of scientific electro-acoustics laboratories and not Hollywood. There were a few major initiatives that helped to quell the rancor, but these are highly specific and probably wouldn’t be too interesting to a general audience. They’re also the subject of the second chapter of my dissertation, which I haven’t published yet! But suffice it to say that by 1930, Hollywood was back to functioning more or less as it did before, which, given the upsets caused by the change, is really quite amazing. As Don Crafton points out in The Talkies, it also serves as a real testament to the stability of Hollywood. The resolution came about largely by studios intervening and encouraging film directors and sound technicians to discuss their problems on mutual ground and come to an understanding of one another’s needs and problems.

Meredith went on to add: Some of this comes from my own research, but for these answers I am definitely indebted to the scholars who have already written on the topic. For my own dissertation, Donald Crafton’s The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, Jim Lastra’s Sound Technology and the American Cinema, and Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity have been my bibles as well as the foundation and jumping-off point for my own research. Many of the answers given come from knowledge gleaned from their texts. My own dissertation research focuses on the question of noise in American cinema, and as a result I have done a significant amount of original research at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. Some of the answers, then, come from that. My research on Hollywood’s transition to sound is going toward my dissertation: Insurgent Sounds: Noise, Audiences, and American Cinema Culture. My first chapter, “Songs of the Sonic Body: Noise, the Audience, and Early Moving Pictures” will be published this fall in Propelled by Media: Rethinking American Studies Part I: Cinema and Americanization, edited by Kingsley Bolton and Jan Olsson.

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Sloane Hall by Libby Sternberg, a story set in old Hollywood and inspired by Jane Eyre, tells the tale of troubled chauffeur John Doyle, who falls in love with his starlet employer Pauline Sloane, only to be repulsed by secrets she hides from the camera and the world. It is available in hardcover for preorder on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, among others. It will be available on Kindle within the year.

Check out other posts on my blog for more related to old Hollywood, Sloane Hall, and its inspiration, Jane Eyre.

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JANE EYRE ON FILM

A decade doesn’t go by without a new film version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic romance, Jane Eyre. Test your knowledge of the various film versions with this quiz:

1. What actress played a young Jane in the Jane Eyre film released three years after she won an Academy Award for her performance in a film co-starring Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel?

2. What composer/conductor wrote the music for an American television version of Jane Eyre before becoming famous for music he composed for many more movies, particularly a series that started in 1977?

3. What “brave new” British author famous for a futuristic novel helped co-write the screenplay for the 1944 Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine film version of Jane Eyre?

4. What now-famous actress played an uncredited role in the 1944 film version?

5. The first talkie of Jane Eyre starred what actor as Rochester who went on to play a famous monster maker?

6. A BBC miniseries of Jane practically transcribed the book word-for-word to the screen and starred what actor who might have preferred his off-camera drink shaken, not stirred? 

7. Robert Stevenson directed the 1944 film version, coaxing lovely performances from the child actors playing the young Jane and Helen Burns. What well-known child-friendly film did he go on to direct starring Julie Andrews?

8. A 1918 silent version of Charlotte Bronte’s book featured a change in the story — Rochester doesn’t realize his first wife, Bertha, is still alive, until her brother brings her on the scene and attempts to blackmail Rochester before his wedding to Jane. What was the name of this version?

9. Another early version of Jane handled the first-wife angle by having Rochester in the process of annulling his marriage to Bertha, when Jane discovers it’s not yet final and flees the scene. Which version was this?

10. Finally, another musical question — the composer of the score for the 1944 Jane Eyre went on to score a famous Hitchcock movie where one scene’s music is remembered as much as the scene itself. What was the movie?

Bonus question: How many silent iterations of Jane Eyre were made?

Answers:

1. Anna Paquin played young Jane in the 1996 William Hurt/Charlotte Gainsbourg version of Jane Eyre directed by Franco Zefferelli. Paquin had won the Academy Award for her role in the 1993 movie The Piano starring Holly Hunter.
2. John Williams, who wrote the music for the Star Wars movies among many others, was a relative unknown when he composed the score for the 1971 American television version of Jane starring George C. Scott and Susannah York.
3. Aldous Huxley, author of the novel Brave New World, was one of the screenwriters for the 1944 film version of Jane Eyre.
4. Elizabeth Taylor played young Jane’s friend Helen Burns in the 1944 film, but she received no screen credit for the role.
5. Colin Clive played Rochester in the 1934 talkie of Jane Eyre. He went on to play Dr. Frankenstein.
6. A 1983 BBC version starred James Bond-portrayer Timothy Dalton as Rochester.
7. Robert Stevenson went on to direct Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in the lead roles.
8. The 1918 silent was called Woman and Wife.
9. The 1934 first talking version of Jane Eyre featured a storyline where Rochester was annulling his marriage to mad Bertha, who comes upon his wedding preparations in one scene and thinks he’s marrying her again.
10. Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the score for the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine version of Jane, also wrote the music for Hitchcock’s Psycho. The screeching violins of its shower scene make up perhaps one of the most recognized pieces of movie music.
Bonus: There were eight silent versions of Jane made.

Hope you enjoyed the quiz.

____

Sloane Hall by Libby Sternberg, a story set in old Hollywood and inspired by Jane Eyre, tells the tale of troubled chauffeur John Doyle, who falls in love with his starlet employer Pauline Sloane, only to be repulsed by secrets she hides from the camera and the world. It is available in hardcover for preorder on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, among others. It will be available on Kindle within the year.

Check out other posts on my blog for more related to old Hollywood, Sloane Hall, and its inspiration, Jane Eyre.

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WHEN JANE MET ROCHESTER

Recently on my old blog, I hosted a discussion of favorite scenes from Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the inspiration for my own September release, Sloane Hall, which is set in old Hollywood as films shifted from silent to sound.

A favorite Eyre scene for a bunch of folks was when Jane first encountered Rochester, not knowing who he was, on a walk near Thornfield Hall.

Here’s how I handled that scene in Sloane Hall, when chauffeur John Doyle encounters his starlet employer for the first time, not knowing who she is:

In a refreshed state of mind, I decided one Thursday afternoon to set out on a dirt road just north of the house, one that led away from the fields and into more barren land. I’d traveled nearly five miles by my reckoning and just made my way to the crest of a hill when I saw a tiny ball of fur in the middle of the road, trying to scamper to the side with no success.

Pushing my hat back on my head, I bent forward to help the poor creature. It was a baby rabbit with a leg cramped tight against its body, and it wouldn’t last long. Not in this land with sun and wind and other creatures aiming to hurt it. I felt the need to do something, so I took my hat off to scoop it up and into the brush where it could at least rest peacefully before death surely claimed it. Before I had a chance to touch its downy back and soothe its fright, I was put into a fright myself.

Heehaw, heehaw! A motorcar horn split the air, as out of place in that barren region as a snow-draped Christmas tree. I jumped back, just in time to save myself from being run over by a spitting new Duesenberg J, its long nose jutting down the road like a ramrod.

“What the . . .?” My head twitched as I saw the large wheels crush the animal into the earth. Damn that driver! Damn him to hell!

My gaze turned up to the vehicle, careening into a ditch while its driver cursed with a vocabulary I thought only my fellow reform-school inmates had mastered.

My hands clenched into fists. I marched toward the car, ready to give that driver more than just a piece of my mind. Out here on this sun-baked road, I could pound that rascal’s head into the ground, and no one would know but me and God. And I was sure, at that moment, that He was on my side.

But that feeling faded as I took long strides toward the car and . . . damn. Damn if the driver wasn’t beautiful. Soft and pretty like the small thing she’d destroyed.

A porcelain doll. A translucent face, too pale for California’s savage sun, and eyes as piercing as old Milqueton’s but blue instead of brown. Blue ice. Or blue flame, I suppose, depending on your perspective. Now they burned with anger, and her small rosebud of a mouth pursed in annoyance. Her hair was blond — white blond, like blinding sun–in one of those new short, wavy styles all the girls were favoring, and she wore a long-sleeved dress–something yellow and silky that gave the impression she had nothing on underneath. I was beaten back by all that, by the softness and the beauty. . .

. . . Opening the door, she jumped onto the road, but the car was leaning at an angle that made the distance from running board to ground farther than she’d counted on. Her knees buckled for an instant and she herself would have fallen had I not stretched out my hand to catch her arm.

Here was Eve herself. Soft skin, even though she herself was thin and bony, and sweet scent. . .

. . . I had to steady her with both my hands, while she latched onto my arms with her slender fingers. It was then that she looked me in the eyes and laughed. Here was the apple. That laugh. A silvery sound that rippled into the empty space like birds trilling in the distance, jangling my nerves. . .

“Dear boy, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

(For more about Sloane Hall, be sure to check out other posts on this blog. Or to pre-order the book, go to amazon.com or bn.com!)

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WHEN ROCHESTER LOVED JANE

Sometimes I wonder if I was what is now called a “reluctant reader” as a child. I remember my father reading to my sister and me from Golden Books, the thin volumes one could purchase at drugstores and the like, and enjoying the stories. But once in school, reading was often as much chore as pleasure. I didn’t devour books the way my mother and sister did (and she still does–reading a book a week). I read them for class assignments.

Some exceptions stand out in memory like goldfinches among sparrows. The prosaic Trixie Belden stories hooked me as a preteen. And the poetic Great Gatsby made me swoon a few years later.

Somewhere in that time I discovered the great love of my reading life — Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I read and reread that book many times.

Today I think of Jane Eyre as the classic romance novel. Don’t cringe, purists. Bronte’s novel follows the romance novel story arc to a tee. Just because it’s artfully written and the story is magnificently told doesn’t mean it can’t be classified as romance.

Romance novels follow this formula:

  • girl meets boy (or vice versa)
  • it’s obvious they’re meant to be together
  • circumstances intrude;
  • they ultimately confess their love
  • they plan to be together
  • the Black Moment occurs — something happens capable of rending them asunder for all time
  • they reunite after the crisis passes
  • the HEA — happily-ever-after–tops things off.

If you look at each of these elements in the context of Jane Eyre, you see just how skillfully Bronte told her story.

Girl meets boy — was there ever a better first meeting scene than when Jane encounters Rochester on the road to Thornfield?

And the Black Moment — Bronte tears the reader’s heart out, placing this moment at the very pinnacle of what should be the lovers’ happiest time — their wedding day. Now that I’m an author myself, I have to smile and shake my head in awe at that stroke of genius. Charlotte, you sly fox, how clever you are, how well you knew your readers!

Today’s readers, however, would have little patience with a romance where the first third of the book is backstory. Yet Jane Eyre begins with page after page after page of young Jane’s early life and growth to adulthood. As a reader, I enjoyed that portion of the story, feeling with Jane the injustices that befell her, grieving with her when her dear friend died, admiring her feisty contrarian spirit, and rooting for her as she struggled to survive and ultimately break away.

In fact, when I read the book the very first time, I had no idea where it was going, thinking perhaps it might just be a poor-girl-makes-good, rags to riches tale. I had no idea of the great love story that was about to commence.

To this day, though, I recall the scene that really enraptured me, that had me aching for Jane and her love of Rochester.

It occurs when Rochester demands that Jane attend his house party with Adele, and there she overhears the cruel ridicule uttered by Blanche and her mother about governesses. After Jane leaves the gathering, Rochester catches up with her, asking her how she is doing after noticing her downcast mood.

“. . . What is the matter?”
“Nothing at all, sir.”
“Did you take any cold that night you half drowned me?”
“Not the least.”
“Return to he drawing-room: you are deserting too early.”
“I am tired, sir.”
He looked at me for a minute.
“And a little depressed,” he said. “What about? Tell me.”
“Nothing–nothing, sir. I am not depressed.”
“But I affirm that you are: so much depressed that a few more words would bring tears to your eyes. . . If I had time, and was not in mortal dread of some prating prig of a servant passing, I would know what all this means. Well, tonight I excuse you. . .Now go, and send Sophie for Adele. Good-night, my — ” He stopped, bit his lip, and abruptly left me.

In that spare scene of dialogue — with speaker “tags” missing, feeling like a page from a play — Bronte communicates Jane’s yearning and Rochester’s desire to comfort her. He notices the unshed tears in her eyes. He wants to use an endearment when wishing her farewell but stops himself. At that moment, you know he loves her, and it’s just a matter of time before our sweet Jane realizes it herself.

Bronte allows the reader to discover Rochester’s love before Jane does. In on this happy secret, we eagerly turn pages anticipating the moment when our dear friend Jane will understand that her love is not unrequited. And, after allowing us to rejoice with her, letting us in on wedding preparations, even while throwing in a few ominous signs that obstacles still await (but surely nothing they can’t overcome, we think in our naivete!), Bronte dashes us all — Jane, Rochester, readers — against the rocks of heartbreak.

Charlotte, you sly, sly fox.

These emotional benchmarks–the sympathy for young Jane’s plight, the yearning for her love to be returned, the heartache of betrayal, the joy of reunion — are the moments that lingered with me over the years and had me returning to reread this perfectly told tale. Those moments were what ignited in me a desire to write a story that I hoped would capture those high points. In a way, writing my book, Sloane Hall, was a selfish endeavor as I strove to recreate the emotional roller-coaster ride of Bronte’s original tale.

Tell me what you loved most about Jane Eyre. . .I’d like to know. I originally ran this post on my old blog, and it generated a lively discussion of favorite scenes.

For more about my novel, Sloane Hall, see this post.

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THE JAZZ SINGER AND THE KINDLE

When the first feature-length “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927, it represented a half-million-dollar investment in a movie that could only be shown in two theaters in America. Nobody was wired for sound.

But Sam Warner, the visionary who spearheaded the production despite his brothers’ objections, correctly assumed that once the public had a taste of a full-length sound movie, they’d want more and more. . .and more. Movie theaters would catch up quickly enough.

He was right, of course, even if he didn’t live to see it–tragically, he died of an infection several days before The Jazz Singer’s premiere.

Once The Jazz Singer debuted, however, it started what amounted to a nuclear reaction in the film industry, exploding away the old ways of making films, and with them, some of the people and professions associated with silent movie-making.

While this upheaval progressed, some folks remained in denial. Irving Thalberg went so far as to say, “sound won’t last,” calling it a “passing fancy.”

Even those who saw sound’s audience potential still believed that the silent picture market would continue to flourish–due to its great artistry and ability to be marketed worldwide (no dubbing necessary).

Nonetheless, within two years, talkies became the dominant movie form. In that time, directors who didn’t know how to work effectively with speaking actors lost their careers (such as Fred Niblio, who’d made the silents Ben Hur and The Mask of Zorro) while mere speaking coaches imported from the New York stage would see their directing careers begin (George Cukor among them).

Actors who couldn’t capture audiences’ imagination with their voices lost their livelihoods (John Gilbert, Mary Pickford) while new stars were born (John Wayne, for one, who was hired by Raoul Walsh for The Big Trail). Even second-string movie companies like Fox and Warner Brothers were able to speed past their “quality” company brethren (such as Paramount) by jumping on the sound bandwagon fast and furiously.

Denial wasn’t just a river in the Egypt of film actors’ and directors’ minds, though. It also flowed through film journalism. The Film Daily didn’t utter a peep about sound in their yearly editorial about the business in 1927. And the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s 1927 list of important events in cinema only included the release of The Jazz Singer at the very end, “behind DeMille’s The King of Kings and the movie industry’s contributions to flood relief,” writes Scott Eyman in his book The Speed of Sound.

Denial is a powerful thing. But we witness it today in the midst of another great technological upheaval beginning to send shock waves through. . . the book industry.

Like Thalberg, some in publishing and beyond haven’t quickly seen the potential of e-reading devices such as the Kindle. Quick, who’s the famous utterer of this bit of nonsense, spoken a mere two years ago:

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product (e-reader) is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

That would have been Apple’s Steve Jobs. Two years later, he metaphorically ate those words when his company released its own e-reader of sorts, the iPad (which in many ways is just a slimmed-down version of a Mac computer) in order to keep up with Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, who, like Fox and Warner Brothers back in the day, were speeding past Apple in this area.

What else will happen in publishing as prices of e-reading devices come down and more consumers read books in that format?

The author Joe Konrath, a pioneer in bypassing publishing houses entirely and putting his own material for sale in e-markets himself, lists his predictions at his blog here. They’re worth a look. The ones that jump out at me are these:

“Ebook readers will be available in stores for less than $99.” — Although Konrath included this in a round-up of predictions made several months ago, it’s already on the horizon. Kindle is now available in Target, and prices have been falling dramatically. Once ebook readers are widely available at reasonable prices, that part of the book market will explode, just as the market for sound pictures exploded once the technology was in place.

“A bestselling author will self-publish an original ebook novel” — I wholeheartedly agree with Konrath’s prediction here. After all, bestselling authors have a following. They don’t depend on marketing strategies to sell their books. Their name on the book is the marketing strategy! By self-publishing an ebook novel, however, they get to keep all the profits.

“Bankruptcy” — Konrath predicts that some major publisher or bookseller will go out of business. I don’t follow the financial news vigilantly enough to determine the merit of this prediction. But if publishers act like the old moviemakers of the silent era, it could happen. (UPDATE: Since I first wrote and posted this on my old blog, Dorchester Publishing has announced it will cease producing mass market paperbacks and go to digital books.)

Added to Konrath’s prediction, I have one of my own — I think hardcover books will disappear eventually, except perhaps for the library trade where durability is a concern, or for those books people will want to own as objects in their own right–art books, for example.

And, another sad prediction–just as silent film directors lost their jobs in the late 1920s, so, too, will some editors today as publishing houses move to ebook markets. If you follow the publishing world, you can see this already happening as houses try to streamline and save money.

But I think market pressure will drive personnel shifts in the future. Right now, publishing is curiously immune from some market responses. Because of the book returns policy — where bookstores can return unsold books to a publisher for a refund — publishing houses aren’t able to respond with alacrity to the reading public’s market desires. They don’t know quickly enough, in other words, what is selling (except, of course, for the megasellers). For many books on their lists, they are groping in the dark for a long time before seeing precisely how well or poorly books did.

Epublishing changes that. Sales are immediately known and can be tracked. It becomes apparent pretty quickly if an editor has chosen wisely.

Meanwhile, authors will continue to bypass editors and publishing houses completely, going to the ebook market directly, as Joe Konrath has done (and as I have done as well).

Back in the days when films moved from silent to sound, it took the movie industry two to three years, starting in 1927, to adapt and start down a stable money-making path in the new world of sound. By my reckoning, we’re probably at the 1928 mark in the parallel shift in the book industry.

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Sloane Hall by Libby Sternberg, a story set in old Hollywood and inspired by Jane Eyre, tells the tale of troubled chauffeur John Doyle, who falls in love with his starlet employer Pauline Sloane, only to be repulsed by secrets she hides from the camera and the world. It is available in hardcover for preorder on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, among others. It will be available on Kindle within the year.

Check out other posts on my blog for more related to old Hollywood, Sloane Hall, and its inspiration, Jane Eyre.

Several of my books, including a Kindle-exclusive mystery novella, are available in ebook format. Look for books by Libby Malin and Libby Sternberg.

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THE MUSIC OF SILENTS

At one point in my novel, Sloane Hall, the old cinematographer Leo asks John Doyle, now a chauffeur for starlet Pauline Sloane, if his boss needs any musicians for parties. That’s because Leo knows “some good piano players. Out of work organists, really. No need for them in the theaters much now.”

Odd-voiced actors weren’t the only ones losing their jobs when silent movies shifted to sound; many musicians also found themselves out of work. Music had played an integral role in silent films, with even small theaters hiring a pianist to accompany the flashing images.

Larger theaters in major metropolitan areas actually supported full orchestras. Such was the case with the old Capitol Theater in New York, where a house orchestra rehearsed twice a week for three-and-a-half hours each.

Not only did these orchestras accompany the showing of the film. They often also played overtures from the classical repertoire before the film began.

“In larger theaters,” writes Scott Eyman in his excellent history book The Speed of Sound, “the orchestra conductor had the responsibility of compiling the musical score for a film from large libraries of sheet music: light classics or source music composed especially for stock situations, agitatos for actions scenes, and so on. . . Very early, the showcase theaters provided music of considerable sophistication. Accompanying the premier engagement of Cecil B. DeMille’s Chimmie Fadden at the Strand Theater in 1915, audiences heard the overture from Cavelleria Rusticana, a duet from La Forze del Destino, and the sextet from Lucia Di Lammermoor.”

According to Eyman, the Capitol Theater orchestra conductor would regularly log over nine hours on the podium on a Sunday and also conduct evening shows. The matinees were left for assistants.

The eighty-five piece orchestra at the Capitol, by the way, employed a young concertmaster by the name of Eugene Ormandy, who eventually became the theater orchestra’s conductor before moving on to bigger things.

In 1931, Ormandy’s really big break into mainstream classical conducting came when he was asked at the last minute to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra, filling in for an ill Arturo Toscanini. After this auspicious debut, he went on to become the conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra until 1936, when he returned to Philadelphia and began his 44-year tenure leading that esteemed ensemble. He was known for being a quick study, often conducting from memory.

Years later, he reminisced about his debut with the Philadelphia. Stepping in for Toscanini on such short notice had actually been easy, he commented. “Of course,” he said, “I knew Till Eulenspiegel very well. We played it at the Capitol.”

_____

Sloane Hall by Libby Sternberg, a story set in old Hollywood and inspired by Jane Eyre, tells the tale of troubled chauffeur John Doyle, who falls in love with his starlet employer Pauline Sloane, only to be repulsed by secrets she hides from the camera and the world. It is available for preorder on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, among others.

Scroll down this blog for more posts related to old Hollywood, Sloane Hall, and its inspiration, Jane Eyre.

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“TERROR IN ALL THEIR FACES”

In his biography of filmmaker Samuel Goldwyn, A. Scott Berg describes the scene when Hollywood insiders finished watching the L.A. premiere of The Jazz Singer on December 28, 1927.

“The audience sat stunned,” he wrote.

Frances Goldwyn herself observed that there was “terror in all their faces. The game they had been playing for years was finally over.”

Many silent stars fell from the Hollywood sky after that, their voices too heavily accented or too unappealing for sound.

Some actors had perfectly acceptable voices, but their on-screen persona was weakened by the reality of speech. Listen to John Gilbert in the early talkie Queen Christina, playing alongside his lady love, Greta Garbo. His voice is all right.

But that’s the problem. It’s just “all right.” Not dashing or heroic or suitable for a “great lover.” And when studios could ditch his high salary for an up-and-coming speaking actor who’d work for less. . . well, the rest, as they say, is history.

Other folks besides actors lost their jobs in this industry upheaval, as tumultuous as any industry shift where great technological change is involved.

I previously told a story on this blog about Charles Rosher, Mary Pickford’s cameraman. She fired him because he couldn’t quickly enough master the new lighting that sound required when shooting her sound screen test.

Rosher’s career didn’t “go to ashes” the way others’ livelihoods did during the shift from silent to sound, even if being fired by Pickford was a low blow for a man who had been one of the most sought-after cameramen during silent films’ heyday. He actually went on to work on films such as Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Yearling, Kiss Me Kate and Showboat, among others.

But Rosher’s artistry would have been a waste in the first days of sound. Cameras had to be stationary, housed in boxes to mute their noise, on the very first talkies. There was little for cameramen to do in those early days but stand and shoot.

Ironically, look to some of the great silent films for examples of when cameras really “spoke.”

One of the great achievements of artistic cinematography was F.W. Murnau’s silent Sunrise. Released by Fox in 1927–the same year Warner Bros. released the first feature-length talkie, The Jazz SingerSunrise is so visually rich and dense with great storytelling that one forgets there is no dialogue. Title cards are few as well in this story of country versus city life, domesticity versus urban excitement. Silent film directors like Murnau knew how to tell a story with images alone.

The film is available through Netflix. During research for my novel, Sloane Hall, my husband and I watched it, mesmerized from beginning to end. Someone has also posted it on YouTube in nine parts. Click here for the first one. (Photos in this post are from Sunrise.)

Today, even casual observers of film know of the movie The Jazz Singer, while only film aficionados are aware of Sunrise.

If you’re wondering who Murnau’s cinematographer was for his masterpiece — it was none other than Charles Rosher.

——-

Sloane Hall by Libby Sternberg, a story set in old Hollywood and inspired by Jane Eyre, tells the tale of troubled chauffeur John Doyle, who falls in love with his starlet employer Pauline Sloane, only to be repulsed by secrets she hides from the camera and the world. It is available for preorder on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, among others.

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