The Jazz Singer at 90, Part IX (About those creaky early talkies)

While TJS played a huge role in the talkie revolution and the end of the silent era, it wasn’t an overnight development, contrary to popular misconception. Many U.S. theatres still weren’t wired for sound as late as 1930. Thus, many Hollywood films were released in both sound and silent versions.

Even with growing access to both Vitaphone and Movietone sound-on-film systems, most studios remained slow on producing sound films. Silents continued to be made as usual, along with hybrids selectively using sound.

Warner Bros. released the first complete talkie, Lights of New York, 6 July 1928. It had a paltry budget of $23,000, with an extraordinary gross of $1.252 million. People wanted to hear talking pictures, regardless of quality.

In September, they released Jolson’s all-talking The Singing Fool, which more than doubled the profit made by TJS. Within nine months, its song “Sonny Boy” had sold two million records and 1.25 million sheet music copies.

As Warner Bros. continued going from strength to strength with their talkies, other studios followed suit by quickening their own production pace.

By 1929, all-talking pictures had become the industry standard, though many theatres still weren’t wired for sound. While sound theatres jumped from 100–800 between 1928–29, silent theatres increased too, going from 22,204–22,544.

Many studios still weren’t completely convinced talkies were the wave of the cinematic future. They were seen as popular novelties which would soon wear off. Charlie Chaplin famously held out until 1936. His last silent (albeit a hybrid), Modern Times, is a farewell not only to the silent era, but also the dear Little Tramp.

TJS premièred in Europe 27 September 1928, by London’s famed Piccadilly Theatre. The European film industry almost immediately embraced sound as the wave of the future, and their first hybrid, Ich Küsse Ihre Hand, Madame (I Kiss Your Hand, Madame), released 16 January 1929.

Most of Europe’s major studios began converting during 1929. The continent’s first successful talkie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, released 21 June 1929. It was filmed as a silent, then reshot with dialogue, sound effects, and a soundtrack.

Due to the rapid changeover, and technological limitations, many people had to go abroad; e.g., many French talkies were shot in Germany.

1930 saw the talkie débuts of Poland, Italy, the former Czechoslovakia, the USSR, Romania, Belgium, Greece, and Denmark.

Some countries converted quicker than others. By the end of 1930, about 60% of British and U.S. theatres were equipped for sound, while over half of French theatres were silent through 1932. As of May 1933, less than one in 100 Soviet theatres had sound capabilities.

Asia and the Pacific were silent much longer. While Japan began experimenting with sound films in 1926, over a third of their films were still silent by 1938. It was traditional to have a benshi (narrator) performing as accompaniment to film screenings, with voices, sound effects, plot summary, and evocative descriptions. Many were stars in their own right.

China’s first talkie came in 1930, but they remained largely silent through 1934.

India’s first talkie premièred 14 March 1931, and was so popular, cops had to control the crowds. Sound proved to be a huge boon for Indian cinema, and helped to bring the industry into its own.

Australia released its first talkie in 1930.

Korea was the final country with a major cinematic industry to make its first talkie, in 1935.

Show Girl in Hollywood (1930) is a documentary about sound filmmaking. It illustrates many of the problems plaguing early talkies, such as microphones dangling from rafters and multiple cameras simultaneously filming in soundproof booths.

Early sound cameras were very noisy, thus the soundproof booths, but this meant cameras couldn’t move very far. To compensate, multiple cameras were used. Actors also had to stay very close to microphones, or their speech wouldn’t be picked up.

Sing-Song Red Girl Peony, China’s first talkie

Many cameras were overcranked or undercranked, for dramatic effect or improving exposure. Many projectionists also ran too quickly to squeeze in more shows and shorten running time. However, this created improper synching and made sound unlistenable. An industry standard of 24 FPS was instituted.

Loud arc lights used in studios had to be abandoned, since microphones picked up every little thing. The quieter incandescent lights, while technologically superior, necessitated more expensive film.

Many early talkies are just that, talky. They’re little more than a nonstop stream of talk, so eager were people to play with the shiny new toy. Gone were the sweeping, panoramic shots, since cameras could no longer move that far. So many early talkies are like filmed stage plays, in the same small setting, held hostage to technological limitations.

While there were notable exceptions, like director King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), it took awhile for most filmmakers to start getting back to the same level they’d been at in the twilight of the silent era. In general, people who waited a few years to make their first talkies, instead of jumping right in to play with the shiny new toy, ended up with far superior sound débuts, both technologically and artistically.

5 thoughts on “The Jazz Singer at 90, Part IX (About those creaky early talkies)

  1. Very well researched. As with any technological advance, it takes a while to get things going because of doubts, fears, and finances. You reminded me about how when I was a kid Cinerama was touted as the “next big thing” and people flocked to see the early experiments in the new technology. I recall going with my parents when we lived in Cleveland Ohio to see one of the This Is Cinerama films and being amazed by what I saw. Cinerama never really took hold, but it was a cool experiment that I imagine opened the way for new advances. Then I think about later retrofits to accommodate things like digital. Always new stuff coming that cost theaters more money. No wonder the snacks have gotten so expensive.

    Tossing It Out


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