The sound era wasn’t kind, as many Hollywood stars found it difficult to make the transition from pantomime to dialogue, but audiences approached star vehicles in much the same way they always had. When audiences had to adapt from the cinematic length of shorts to features, Paul Grainge says, “audience concentration spans would stretch … in direct correlation with their worshipping of stars” (Grainge 93). The idolization of John Barrymore, Greta Garbo and Douglas Fairbanks was analogous to that of Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, only with additional sensory stimulation. The biggest studios protected their assets by holding large “stables” of actors under contract through the studio era.
However, if overall attendance diminished in the sound era, it’s likely due to how both audience experience of the theater space changed with the advent of sound and how this business model from the big companies limited opportunities for independents. As cinemas came into their own in the 1920s, “vaudeville acts and popular singers entertaining audiences while a reel was changed gave way to orchestras and Wurlitzer organs. Sound effect machines such as the Kinematophone became popular before up-market theaters began to expect specially prepared scores to accompany each film” (Grainge 96).
|Balaban & Katz's The Chicago Theater (c. 1921)|
Silent film was never silent, it was always accompanied with music from anything between extravagant orchestras in the largest chain theaters to pianolas at second-run theaters. Audiences went to the movies to be entertained, but not just by the film itself. In his analysis of a large, independent chain theater in the 1920s, Gomery states, “remarkably, one of the variables that did not count in Balaban & Katz’s rise to power and control was the movies themselves. Indeed, the company grew and prospered despite having little access to Hollywood’s top films” (“Rise” 105).
The cinema was a new form of entertainment accessible to the working-class, and it stands to reason that the sustained success of silent films (especially within the context of falling attendance of the sound era) had to do with not only the gala atmosphere of the biggest theaters, but the performance aspect in cheap second-run theaters. Mark Jancovich suggests that audiences weren’t initially smitten with synchronous sound pictures because silent “film showings were still associated with the presence of live music” (Jancovich 162).
|American Federation of Musicians ad, Portsmouth Herald, 1 Oct. 1930|
|American Federation of Musicians ad, Syracuse Herald, 2 Sept. 1930|
Not only did the introduction of sound to motion pictures leave many local musicians and vaudeville acts without work, the cost of upgrading synchronous sound equipment was often too much for smaller, independent theaters. If independents like Balaban & Katz could be highly successful without screening Hollywood’s major films, the major production studios found a way, with the advent of sound, to bolster their product by offering no alternative.
Vertically-integrated studios had the initial capital to pour into upgrading their theaters to be equipped with sound and, when they began to only produce sound films, independents and second-run theaters had a difficult time keeping up. “In many rural areas, cinemas closed and those cinemas that did stay open changed their practices,” meaning service took a back seat to concessions, and live entertainment was sacrificed to upgrade to sound equipment (Grainge 189). The business behind the transition to the sound era meant more than mere equipment, it changed the way American audiences experienced the theater. As the Depression waged on, the sound era took away from working-class audiences the appearance of luxury and live entertainment in exchange for talkies and popcorn. Total attendance may have decreased, but the “big five” ensured that the remaining attendees were in their seats.
Yet not everyone on the major studios’ payrolls was happy with the change. Sound film brought with it an aesthetic shift which, arguably, detracted from film’s artistry. Alfred Hitchcock lamented that “silent pictures were the purest form of cinema,” and the aesthetic montage innovations of artists like D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein support this theory (Chapman 93). A visual medium for which D.W. Griffith laid the groundwork, narrative silent film was “constructed through parallel editing … consist[ing] of shots of two or more separate but usually parallel locations interwoven to advance the film’s plot” (Bernardi 32). Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein extended the art of montage, proving silent film to be a new diegesis of lyricism, movement, attraction and narrative.
Donald Crafton says of Eisenstein that in, “probably referring to [Chaplin’s] The Kid (1921) he notes that the lyrical may coexist with the disruptive attraction” (Crafton 64). In furthering the discussion of how to understand this filmic language, Tom Gunning adds in his response to Crafton, “Eisenstein called … for a montage of attraction, and noted that, in this structure, elements of narrative could be introduced in such a way as to lose their usual claim to coherence and diegetic realism” (Gunning 73). Expressive pantomime acting, variations of shot length and juxtapositional montage allowed silent filmmakers to create a sophisticated visual language which could stimulate emotions and ideas. This language was raised to high artistry, but montage changed when sound took over.
|Seventh Heaven (1927)|
Coincidently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held their first Academy Awards presentation in 1929, the last year that silent pictures would be prominent in future Hollywood productions. F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise was presented with an award for “Unique and Artistic Production” in, tellingly, the only year it was ever awarded. Frank Borzage was presented the “Best Director, Dramatic Picture” award for his work on the silent feature Seventh Heaven, capping his tremendous run of moving, artistic silent romances (including Street Angel  and Lucky Star ). Two of the most artistically adventurous directors of their day, Murnau and Borzage advanced the language of silent film at Fox. These pictures are rich in the Kierkegaardian artistic virtues: the aesthetic, the moral, the religious and the dramatic. Borzage and Murnau were recognized within the industry as important film artists of their day and their silent pictures are considered canonical today.
Yet the lyricism these directors achieved through cross-cutting, expressive acting and mise-en-scene diminished in the early years of sound film. Borzage’s first sound film, They Had To See Paris (1929), feels clunky and uninspired compared to his string of silents for Fox. Takes are longer and more static, the pace is slowed due to the tempo of dialogue, and the compensational reframing and panning feel jarring. The early years of sound film treated dialogue as a gimmick rather than integrating it into the art form cinema had already established and, with the possible exception of Ernst Lubitsch, it took a number of years for even the most artistically recognized directors to recreate the graceful language cinema once had. These same years were needed for technology to advance in a way that allowed for camera and actor movement to be fluid with synchronous sound: They Had To See Paris also suffers—like many early sound features—as its acting is forcedly stiff, its characters talking at a microphone. The artistry of cinema may not have been “all over” as Chaplin rued, but the early years of sound film were a step back in terms of artistry.
However, if early sound films lacked a certain visual artistry in its early years, it advanced much of the work it was already doing in terms of creating an invisible narrative style that incorporated music. Silent film had already moved in its early decades from a style of cinéma vérité to that of narrative character subjectivity. Grainge said of the evolution of silent film, “initially placed before the shot in which dialogue took place, it became common for intertitles to come just after the character had begun to speak. This further enhanced the development of character subjectivity, the responsibility of narration transferring from the third person of the expository titles to the dialogue titles of individual characters” (Grainge 29-30). The transition to sound made this even more effective, as voice intonation became synonymous with character and took away the reflexivity caused by intertitles.
Furthermore, the music itself made sound features a more unified artistic product. Silent film is something of a misnomer as music was always performed alongside screenings. What synchronous sound allowed in the moving picture was not only incidental sound within the world of the narrative, but invisible score which could stimulate emotion in a very calculated fashion. The transition to sound “led to the development of non-diegetic musical scores, or the addition of music that was not supposed to represent sounds actually heard within the world of the film but rather acts as an interpretation of the action, implying menace, action or tragedy” (Grainge 188). The silent era saw scores being produced for movie-house orchestras for a cohesive dramatic experience, but the sound feature incorporated these elements into a single, unalterable unit. Such unity contributed to the strength of Hollywood’s invisible style as the music became less performance and more about influencing mood.
The transition to sound certainly changed audiences’ cinematic experience at the beginning of the 1930s. Major studios tightened their grip on the types of movies being made and where and how they would be shown. Luxurious, independent theaters were hurt not only by the Great Depression, but by the expense required for the new technological upgrade. Audiences had their options limited; not only did major studios help ensure their top product would be seen, second-run theaters and independents had trouble keeping up with the service and experience the theater once provided.
Artistry also took a back seat as top directors experienced a rough learning curve for both cinematic language and technology and, although new invisible camera methods were innovated, dialogue largely replaced Eisensteinian montage as a form of cinematic language. Yet sound proved to be more than a middling gimmick; music moved from orchestral and mediated to integrated and invisible contributing, just as spoken dialogue would, to the invisibility of Hollywood’s narrative style. Hollywood may have sacrificed some of its complex visual language with the coming of the sound era, but its tendency to invisible narrative structure grew stronger with the coming of sound.
Bernardi, Daniel. “The Birth of a Nation (1915): Integrating Race into the Narrator System.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 29-36.
Bogdanovich, Peter. “1928: The Last and Greatest Year of the Original Motion Picture Art, B.S. (Before Sound).” Blogdanovich. IndieWire, 30 Jan. 2011. Web. 19 Jul. 2014.
Chapman, James. Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present. London: Reaktion Books, 2003.
Crafton, Donald. “Pie and Chase: Gag, Spectacle and Narrative in Slapstick Comedy.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 61-71.
Gomery, Douglas. “Hollywood as Industry.” American Cinema and Hollywood: Critical Approaches. Ed. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 19-28.
Gomery, Douglas. “The Rise of National Theatre Chains.” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 103-119.
Grainge, Paul, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Gunning, Tom. “Response to ‘Pie and Chase’.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 72-73.