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:
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.
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.
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.