The Transition from Silent to Sound Film

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A description of the different strategies used by cinemas, musicians and film companies during the transition from silent film to sound cinema.

The transition from silent to synchronised sound was by no means an easy one. A host of new technological innovations brought sound films to the public, and the economic strategies of the major Hollywood studios would have a big impact on their introduction. The period of transition from silent to sound gave rise to a variety of unusual temporary solutions.

During the silent era, the method of sound production was dependent on the film content and the venue in which it was being shown. Typically, a silent film which showed musicians or dances would be accompanied by live musicians, if available. Films which showed noise producing objects required sound effects, a tradition which came in part from popular theatre. For this, some cinemas used ‘sound effects cabinets’ which could produce many different sounds. Illustrated travel lectures and “magic lantern” shows were very popular in the late 19th century, and these were often accompanied by a spoken narrative from a film lecturer.

Sound accompaniment was initially used for two reasons; to draw the audience in and help immerse them in the experience, and to cover the sound of the projector. Early film projectors were exceedingly noisy, and musical accompaniment was used to prevent the audience becoming irritated by the mechanical sounds of the film reel. Some cinemas also used concealed actors to voice lines spoken by actors, and in the era before microphones, the sound of their voices could easily be drowned out. It seemed clear that a new way of bringing sound to the cinema was needed.

Initial attempts such as the Chronophone and the Cameraphone used a system of primative record players, which were synched to the projector via a cable. Unfortunately, these systems were unreliable, and the records would often fall out of synchronisation with the picture. By the 1920s, the big film studios were producing musical scores to be distributed to cinemas along with the film. The scores for films such as Ben Hur and Metropolis, these required a full orchestra which the local cinema with a single pianist could not do justice, and these scores were often ignored in favour of established classical pieces. This was not acceptable to the studios, and they began to investigate mechanical sound in more detail.

The first studio to make a major investment in synchonised sound was Warner Brothers, whose sound-on-disk system, Vitaphone, was to become an early front-runner. The studio installed the system in it’s own cinemas around the US, and as interest in ‘Talkies’ such as The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool grew, so did their profits. However, the introduction of sound had important consequences for actors. In Blackmail, an early sound film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the main actress Anny Ondra spoke English with a heavy Czechoslovakian accent, and had to mime her lines whilst an English actress spoke off-screen. Many stars of the silent era never achieved the same success in the sound era.

By 1930, around 75% of American cinemas were wired for sound. However, the cost of the new sound films technology coupled with the economic depression forced mainy independent cinemas out of business. The remainder were overwhelmingly owned by the very Hollywood studios producing the films, and the profits from the talkie craze could be ploughed back in to the delivery systems themselves. Soon, the Photofone system of sound-on-film developed of RCA became the dominant system for film sound. Whilst Vitaphone had been a big success, the records were easily lost or mixed up, and synchronisation was a delicate process. With sound-on-film, the cinema now had a reliable, synchronised and cheaper alternative to the traditional orchestra.

Sound-on-film standardised the experience of cinema and the loss of the independent cinema network ushered in the age of the studio, and the golden age of Hollywood cinema.