Tag Archives: The Jazz Singer

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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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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