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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: The Onrush of Sound

This is a lengthy article from the 1929 Film Daily Yearbook that does a wonderful job of comprehensively covering the development of sound and its impact on the film industry. Since it was written just after most of the primary technological progress and the landslide success of the earliest sound films, but before the industry's complete conversion to sound films and adoption of sound standards, it provides a unique insight into this radical transitionary period.

I apologize in advance if this entry in our Vintage series is unsuitably dry. I said at the outset that I would try to avoid being too scholarly and focus on breezy trivia of more general interest. (To me, though, and hopefully to others, it's fascinating.) But in this case, the length and wordiness is unavoidable. The article is of great educational value, especially in conjunction with our ongoing series of podcast segments on sound, and can't conveniently be broken down into smaller units. I will, however, annotate each page so that those not interested in reading the full article can skip to portions of interest.

The Onrush of Sound
Page 1

What interests me most on the first page are the first three full paragraphs on the right column, which recount the first public demonstration of Vitaphone and the response it prompted within the industry. Interesting, that industry insiders and journalists would think the public wouldn't accept talking features, only shorts. It's like people knew that sound film wasn't just a novelty, but they were afraid to treat it as anything but. Show me the money.

The Onrush of Sound
Page 2

The paragraph beginning, "It seems beyond human comprehension," in the middle of the left column, continues a thought from the previous page, that sound films were expected to benefit small theaters more than the big ones. The reason is simple: a large theater would have a full orchestra accompanying the film, and a small theater would have a single pianist. But with synchronized music and sound effects stored directly on the film itself, a small theater could boast the same grand musical accompaniment of the big theaters. It evened the playing field.

In the right column, starting with "Warners followed up the initial success..." we see another revolutionary but now commonplace idea dawning: sound film would have its own stars. There were silent film stars before, and they were every bit as idealized and romanticized and hyped as movie stars would ever be. But in allowing the public to hear voices, movie stars became movie stars in a whole new way. A whole new aspect of a performer's charisma and charm could come through, and a new generation of stars, those with qualities best suited to the new medium, would supplant the old.

The Onrush of Sound
The footnote at the end, "Their Faith Justified," is also worth noting. It refers to a section of the Film Daily Yearbook that I have not yet featured, namely where industry insiders write up brief predictions about where the industry will be headed over the course of the following year. The difference between the predictions for 1928 and the predictions for 1929 are astonishing. As this footnote says, only two of the very many forecasters in early 1928 saw sound as a driving force, and they happened to be the heads of the studios that would develop Vitaphone and Movietone, respectively, the two dominant sound systems that would usher in the new era. In the 1929 yearbook, all the forecasters had something to say about sound.

Page 3

I have no specific comments about page three, except that this section chronicles the interesting story of how Fox's Movietone averted a big business war with Vitaphone: basically, strike a deal with the same manufacturing company, Western Electric. With a little bit of hardware compatibility, Vitaphone and Movietone wouldn't have to fight over theaters. This point continues into page 4.

The Onrush of Sound
Page 4

A key point on page 4 are the Adolph Zukor quote (third complete paragraph in the right column), which reinforces the novelty of hearing political figures make speeches. The section afterward discusses the recording of sound outside, initially not viable, but which was essential for newsreels. Among them, one covering Charles Lindbergh's landmark transatlantic flight really drove home the potential of newsreels with sound.

The second paragraph in that section chronicles one of those many missed opportunities common to the film industry. To this day, Al Jolson is famous for singing in The Jazz Singer, apparently because another guy refused to do it.

The Onrush of Sound
Page 5

Only a side note for this page: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), mentioned in the left column, had only been formed on May 11, 1927, two and a half months before the discussed agreement. The agreement was essentially a standardized work ethic for industry workers, designed to cut production costs. Things like, directors shouldn't shoot footage they don't plan to use. Actors should show up for work on time. A code of conduct. The idea was, if studios would not enact the proposed across-the-board 10% salary cuts, industry workers would agree to follow these guidelines instead, theoretically resulting in a comparable savings for the studios.

The Onrush of Sound
Anyway, what AMPAS is primarily known for today is for the Academy Awards, the first of which would be held in 1929 but cover films made from 1927-1928. In fact, Wings, also mentioned on this page, would be the first Best Picture winner.

With regard to the ad, note that it's for something called Movie-phone, not Movietone. There were dozens of sound systems trying to gain a foothold at this time, half of them with "phone" somewhere in the name.

Page 6

The last paragraph before "The Stampede Is On" offers a small glimpse into the panic sound films triggered for musicians. As we've said before, movie theaters were the single largest source of employment for live musicians, and that was drying up fast. Over the course of 1929, virtually all of them would be hunting for new jobs, right as The Great Depression was kicking off.

The Onrush of Sound
Page 7

No comment here. This page covers more hesitation and uncertainty within the industry at how far this sound thing could be pushed on the public, despite that every major sound experiment of the past year or two had been a sensation. Finally, the first all-talking film, The Lights of New York, is released.

The Onrush of Sound
Page 8

This page chronicles how the silent movie houses -- those theaters that had not yet converted to sound -- were suffering. An important thing to point out here is how short a period of time this article covers. We're up to the summer of 1928 now, and it was only at the end of 1926 and the beginning of 1927 that Vitaphone and Movietone were first demonstrated to the public. In a year and a half, suddenly there are however many hundred shorts and newsreels and one -- just one -- 100% all-talking feature, but already silent movie houses are feeling the pinch as crowds flock to the latest novelty. This simultaneously emphasizes how much of a furor sound triggered, as well as how short the production cycle used to be.

The Onrush of Sound
Page 9

This page touches upon a subject broached in this previous Vintage post, about how over-eager advertisers mistakenly tried to sell films with synchronized music and sound effects -- but no dialogue -- as sound films. The public was quick to catch on, and the false advertising backfired.

Otherwise, this page just covers a lot of technical details about interoperability of the various emerging sound technologies. It's not unlike the home video wars of the 1980s, or the high definition wars of today. Any major new medium is going to throw the technical side of things into a bit of chaos as various companies vie for position. Usually the best thing to do is to sit back and let the dust settle. In this case, though, exhibitors who did that saw an immediate downturn in revenues, so immediately and insistently did the public demand the switch to sound films.

The Onrush of Sound
Page 10

Finally, the last three paragraphs bring up huge subjects we'll save for a future week. One, the issue of censorship. Censoring of films was a weird thing back in the late 1920s, as this was not just before the MPAA rating system we know today, but before the Hays Production Code that preceded it. For the most part, censorship was handled more locally and more informally. But more on that in a later post.

Lastly, we come once again to a reference to the section of the Film Daily Yearbook devoted to forecasts by industry workers. These are very interesting sections, and we'll cover them sporadically, a few at a time, much like the ongoing Ballyhoo series. Stay tuned.

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