The move to sound
But behind the scenes in the late 1920s, a revolution was brewing. 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. By 1923, de Forest had already licked the basic problems of recording sound on film; but while de Forest used his sound process in a number of short novelty films, it was up to Warner Bros., perhaps the most thinly capitalized of the major studios, to make the first feature film with talking sequences in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, directed by Alan Crosland.
Calling their rival process Vitaphone, Warner Bros. lured Al Jolson away from Broadway to play the title role in the film, about the son of a Jewish cantor who refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps, preferring to sing jazz music.
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 ad-libs, 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.
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.
We next look at how the film medium progressed in Europe and the rest of the world during the golden era of the silent films, and how the European lessons of the primacy of the image were eventually employed in Hollywood, even if, for the present, it was simultaneously in thrall to and visually shackled by the new technique of sound. This period of awkward transition from silents to sound in Hollywood would not last long, however, due in large part to the visual vitality of films made throughout the rest of the world, films that fully exploited a free and plastic use of the cinema.