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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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Vintage: Bristolphone and Cue Sheets

This week's episode has the first of a short series of segments we'll be doing about sound in the movies. To go along with that, I figured we'd talk about sound in this Vintage series as well, starting with this terrific 1927-28 photograph of the Bristolphone, one of many sound projection systems that came about in the late 1920s. Some made it, and some didn't.

I love this photograph. (Click to enlarge.) That machine is a monster, all full of gears and hoses and spindles. Operating it and especially maintaining it were time-consuming chores, which was just one of the reasons why projection booths needed skilled projectionists on hand at all times. You couldn't just have the popcorn sales clerk duck out at showtime and hit a button.

Information about the Bristolphone is scarce. I'd like to know more than I do about how widespread the device was employed and how successful it was. The scarcity of information suggests that, if successful, it was perhaps not in use for a great deal of time before becoming obsolete by other devices. But we know that anyway. Sound-on-disc processes all became obsolete once sound-on-film technology could match the fidelity, which was already happening in 1927 with Movietone.

Talking Film Systems
This little snippet, from a directory of addresses for movie-related businesses, lists the major sound systems in use in 1927. Three of these -- Phonofilm, Vitaphone, and Movietone -- are well-covered in this week's episode. Vocafilm is one we'll cover in a future Vintage post.

Here's a short article about the Bristolphone that spells out some of the technical details. What really caught my eye on this page, though, was the article above it, which talks about cue sheets, another subject discussed in this week's episode.

Bristolphone and Cue Sheets
Cue sheets had been around since the early 1910s, but it doesn't mean theaters were always using them. What you got for music when you went to the movies could be anything. Although some silent films did have original scores written for them, many did not, and in any case it was basically up to the theater and the theater's musicians what to do with the score or the cue sheet, if anything.

That, more than anything, distinguished one theater from another in a way that isn't the case today. Today, one theater is basically like another. Yeah, one theater might have different projection quality than another, and one theater might have a different ambience than another, but they're all ostensibly delivering the same product. They even largely sell the same concessions.

In the silent era, theaters showing the same film could deliver dramatically different viewing experiences. The picture would be the same, but maybe one theater had a lone musician rigidly following the distributed cue sheet, and another theater had a full orchestra with a conductor that preferred to devise cues of his own. Some may have been musical geniuses, and some might have been just pounding away at instruments to get through the day. It meant that two people watching the same movie at different theaters could come out with not just different opinions but substantially different experiences.

This is just one reason, albeit a big one, why audiences handled moviegoing with a whole different perspective than we do today. Today, big marketing blitzes tell us what all the different movies are. We decide which titles we want to see, and then we decide where to see them. It's been that way for decades.

In the silent era, though, this was less common. Sure, people had their favorite stars and sought them out. But it was also common for people to decide they wanted to go to the movies, then decide on the venue, then find out what was playing there. If what was playing didn't interest them, maybe they'd choose a different venue or stay home. For many, though, moviegoing was a weekly ritual, and they saw whatever was playing.

The article on cue sheets has a bizarre opening paragraph, though, that doesn't seem to connect with the matter at hand. Probably what that first paragraph is talking about is the short-lived practice of airing a movie as part of a larger production with live performances. Vaudeville and burlesque were both still popular forms of entertainment. Vaudeville was classy, and burlesque was seedy, but both types of shows were basically sequences of unrelated musical or comedy acts. You'd open with a big number, then have a couple of guys telling jokes, then a tap dance, and so on.

For a while, theater owners experimented with integrating movies into this kind of structure. (Feature films were shorter then, and short films were plentiful, so it was easier to do this and still have a reasonable total running time.) Maybe the movie was the centerpiece of the show, and maybe not. Maybe the rest of the live show was based on the theme of the picture, and maybe not. In any case, exhibitors were quick to catch on, and "mix" shows quickly disappeared. When people went to the movies, they wanted the movies.

The cynic in me figures we're repeating the same mistake today, but instead of surrounding our movies with far more preferable live acts, we're surrounding them with commercial advertising instead.

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