“I don’t think,” film mogul William Fox had remarked only a few years before, in the mid nineteen-twenties, “that there will ever be the much-dreamed-of talking pictures on a large scale. To have conversation would strain the eyesight and the sense of hearing at once, taking away the restfulness one gets from viewing pictures alone.” In a world that had already seen “fads” like the telephone (radio, motorcar) catch on and explode, Fox should have known better.
He came around rather quickly, as a matter of fact. by the time Fox made his strange prediction, the Warner Brothers had already plunged into sound with Vitaphone, a Bell lab wonder of synchronized sound. It consisted of a turntable which took twelve or sixteen-inch discs timed (more or less) to match the lip movements of actors on the screen.
So many technologies had already preceded Vitaphone (the Phonokinema, Phonofilm, Web’s Electrical Pictures, the Kinetophone, the New Kinetophone, the Cameraphone) — it’s hard to keep track. Fox, the naysayer, was soon to get into the action himself with sound: “Movietone,” based on a German invention, Tri-Ergon (sound on film). When his adaptation of this process was complete, Movietone became the sound track of movies, as the world eventually came to know them, with a “stripe” of audio (variously-dense lines) along one side of each film. This was better than Vitaphone, more exact, but, for a time, Vitaphone was the expensive process theater operators dug deep into their pockets to absorb the cost of, all so their patrons could hear the first spoken (movie) words, “Wait a minute — wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothing yet!” — Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.
Vaudeville was on the wane by then, and so were some silent film stars. Whoever couldn’t talk without sounding like a squeaky mouse, had an unacceptable accent, or just couldn’t adjust to a different style of acting, was in for early retirement. Clara Bow (the “It Girl”) was one such: when she heard there was a fire at Paramount, she quipped "I hope to Christ it was the sound stages!" A seasoned actor, she nonetheless went on to make 11 talkies, before retiring to become a rancher in Nevada.
What exactly was it about sound pictures that so disappointed a number of actors? Beyond wishing the sound stages would go up in flames, Bow observed, "I hate talkies ... they're stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there's no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me."
Harold Lloyd’s career had been based entirely on action, and never quite recovered after sound came in. The very soul of a physical actor who always did his own often-perilous stunts, he couldn’t adapt. When sound was more or less a fait accompli, Lloyd actually made a film (Welcome Danger) in two versions, one a talking picture and the other silent.
Charlie Chaplin, who wrote and produced most of the movies he starred in, simply refused to accept sound, producing City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936) without dialogue. His use of sound-effects in both these films was, by the way, brilliant.
Sound was here to stay, and nothing in Hollywood would ever be the same. In February 1929, sixteen months after The Jazz Singer's debut, Columbia Pictures became the last of the eight major studios to release its first (part-) talking feature, Lone Wolf's Daughter.
It would take a while for all of America to follow the new technology: the number of sound cinemas grew from 100 to 800 between 1928 and 1929, outnumbered for a brief time, by silent theaters – which somehow grew in number in the same period, from 22,204 to 22,544. For a while, a little way into 1930, Hollywood produced movies in dual versions, silent and talking. Points West, a Hoot Gibson Western released by Universal in 1929, would be the last purely silent mainstream feature to emerge.
By the time I came of age in the sixties, most of the silent stars had left their handprints and footprints in Grauman’s cement, and, endangered species that they were, had gone off to live in the Hollywood Hills or elsewhere — assuming, that is, they’d made enough money to live there. Lillian Gish who kept working until six years before her death in 1993, making her last screen appearance in 1987, is an interesting exception.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking about movie palaces as the natural homes of the silents, but it ain’t necessarily so. Our theater, the St. George, was built when silents reigned, but never actually showed one. Its backstage dressing rooms (rubble-strewn and vacant by the time we came along in 1976) housed vaudeville actors a little way into the 30’s, but silents were, as it turned out, never on the bill. Nor were they available at a host of other prominent palaces, including, among others, the gorgeous Atlanta Fox (1929), the Pomona Fox (1931), The Loew’s 175th Street Theatre (1930 — “Times Square entertainment nearer your home!” – now the United Palace).
What exactly is a movie, in these post-millennial, post-pandemic days; and how long will movie-going last? When I first entered the projection booth of the St. George, its hulking carbon-arc projectors were already obsolete, though we used them. Perhaps film-going in a general sense has gone the way of carbon arc itself, or perhaps not.
Not so long ago, friend Bob Endres, who worked the better part of his adult life as the head projectionist at Radio City Music Hall, a man I remember for his white-gloved treatment of film, dropped a small disc into a computer at Dolby Sound, where he currently works, and a crisp movie appeared on the screen. He jokes that he retired from classic projection just in time.
Now think of the kinetoscope at the beginning of the 20th century, film’s century, a single-viewer device. And then came nickelodeons — those primitive storefront theaters. Crowds gathered in vacant lots in places like Toledo, Ohio — my mother remembered sitting on some wooden benches watching flickering images on a bed sheet, batting away the mosquitos. That’s how it all began, followed by movie palaces and hometown theaters.
In the fifties, TV came along, right there in your living room, smaller but free. It forced the movie industry to create smaller theaters with more screens to allow for select crowds and greater choice. (I had the bad luck or poor judgement to try running a movie palace at that juncture!). Movies had already come to TV by that time. A decade later TV was in every room of every house.
Then it too begins to disappear — or be absorbed. The Internet, that biggest of all fishes, finally ate everything, and here we are again, watching tiny screens. You could almost call them Kinetoscopes!
Actually, the first “talkie” had already aired in New York (August, 1926), by the time Al Jolson spoke up in The Jazz Singer. The overall sound prize goes to Don Juan, a romantic adventure (most kisses in film history, BTW — 127 actually!) that starred John Barrymore. It was technically the first feature-length film to utilize Vitaphone (with synchronized musical score and sound effects), though it has no spoken dialogue, so Jolson nails it on a technicality.