When movies found a voice

S. Raghunath gives a rundown on how silent films gave way to the golden age of talkies

FOLKS, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet," sang Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer and he was right. Suddenly, movies found a voice — it was the advent of the golden age of sound and they had to have something to say.

It was 1926 that Warner Brothers decided to risk everything on an invention that Bell Laboratories had been tinkering with for many years — talking pictures. Their Vitaphone made its first tentative bow on August 6, a programme featuring several talking and musical shorts as a prelude to John Barrymore’s Don Juan.

Al Jolson wearing the blackface make-up in the part-talking The Jazz Singer
Al Jolson wearing the blackface make-up in the part-talking The Jazz Singer 

The picture had a musical accompaniment provided by the "Vitaphone Symphony Orchestra", a great many sound effects, but no talk. It created a stir and little more but when in November 1927, Warner Brothers released the part-talking The Jazz Singer, starring the magnetic Al Jolson, the story was quite different. Within two years, the silent movies were to become obsolete. The success of the movie revolutionised the industry. The sound had arrived, literally with a ‘bang’.

Although sound had been hailed as a novelty in 1927, in actual fact, it had been around for quite some time. Indeed, Thomas Edison’s initial interest in motion pictures had been largely spurred by the success of his earlier talking machines, and his first efforts had been largely concentrated on combining the two media — synchronising the images with the sound on the wax cylinders. By 1912, Edison was turning out reel-long comedies that were literally all talking.

As theatres grew in size in the period immediately prior to the First World War, the acoustic recordings of the day were simply incapable of producing a sufficient volume of sound to fill the hall. During the war, America’s Dr De Forrest invented the Audion tube that could amplify sound impulses to an extraordinary degree. The Audion tube not only provided the essential clue to sound movies, but also to radio broadcasting. Dr De Forrest, then, went on to research with recording sound directly on to photograph as a variation of light and dark. By 1928, he had succeeded so well that his phonofilms were being exhibited theatrically.

The Bell technicians, meanwhile, once again addressed themselves to the problem of synchronising a photograph to a projector, but now with the possibility of proper amplification. It was dubbed the Bitaphone that Warner Brothers bought in 1926. Inventors all over the world were now working on the problem of synchronising sound with the moving action on the screen. Even before Dr De Forrest demonstrated his phonofilm, a group of scientists in Germany had patented their own method of photographing sound on film and in the United States, William Fox demonstrated his sound-on-film system that became known as the Movietone.

A still from John Barrymore’s Don Juan
A still from John Barrymore’s Don Juan

What the Jolson film contributed, to which its myriad customers responded with joy and enthusiasm, was the force of an electric personality emerging as a totality in performance and that was the greatest contribution of sound to films.

A star was no longer remorse, silent entity. He (or she) suddenly became a vibrant human being. With the onrush of sound, art, artistry and even technical finesse were clearly beside the point. The public wanted films that talked and little else mattered either to the audiences or the producers. The microphone was the ruling monarch and great and talented artistes, directors and others who, for one reason or other, could not cope with the new medium, quickly found the studio gates barred to them.

Critics of early sound despaired of the new medium or sought to dismiss it as a mere passing fad, but the public decreed otherwise. Their appetite for sound was every bit as avid as its appetite had been for sheer movement in silent movies. Dogs barked, telephone jangled, trains roared and public loved them all. When theatres advertised, "100 per cent All-Talking", they were literally not exaggerating.

In America alone, figures leapt from 60 million paid admissions per week in 1926 to 110 million paid admissions per week in 1927 — the first full year of sound films. Such was the sheer business and commercial impact of sound. And when the US stock markets collapsed in the summer of 1929, the public enthusiasm for talking films safely carried the great Hollywood studios of the day thru’ the grim years of the Great Depression.

The advent of sound, however, caused a sharp drop in the quality and creativity of cinematic techniques, and the public, though their enthusiasm for sound films remained high, yearned for a return to the pace, the scenic variety and the visual excitement of the old silent movies.

As in other fields of movie making, the technology of sound films was becoming more simplified and flexible. Small, efficient sound recorders and synchronisers and that most basic of all editing room tools — the Movieola — a marvellous, versatile machine that enables an editor to view his film, frame by frame if he desires, once more returned, cutting back to the realm of creative arts.

By 1931, sound on film had replaced, once and for all, the cumbersome sound-on-disc system and an ingenious device suppressed all unwanted noises on the soundtrack to a bare minimum.

By 1931, less than four years after the advent of sound, almost all the technical problems of sound films had been effectively solved.

Al Jolson sang, "Folks, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet." Well, we can reassure him now. "We have heard something."