Today it’s almost impossible to conceive that in the mid to late 1920s the notion of putting sound to film was received with repudiation, reluctance, and even hostility, even in the immediate aftermath of Warner’s colossal 1927 hit The Jazz Singer directed by Alan Crosland and starring popular entertainer Al Jolson. There are two popular misconceptions regarding The Jazz Singer by those who have not seen it: firstly, the film is not strictly a talkie, rather it is a silent film interspersed with a handful of synchronous musical numbers. Secondly, it is not in fact the first time that sound had been conjoined with image on film; D.W. Griffith had used a Photokinema technique, a primitive sound-on-disc method of sound recording, for his 1921 film Dream Street. Unlike Griffith’s widely unpopular attempt – Dream Street is still ranked as one of the director’s weakest films – The Jazz Singer captured the zeitgeist, producing a box-office hit while demonstrating film’s practically limitless technical potential.
Of course, The Jazz Singer changed everything; soon after the success of Warner’s smash hit all the major studios were fitted for sound recording in desperate bids to exploit the new industrial cash cow that had presented itself to them. The arrival of film sound at the end of the 1920s provided the technical means of developing a new genre that had previously been impossible to produce on film, the musical. In 1929 The Broadway Melody became the first talkie to win best picture at the Oscars while simultaneously signposting the arrival of a film genre that would dominate Hollywood production until the 1960s. After The Jazz Singer the studios immediately knew that they were facing industrial redundancy if they did not pursue sound recording and Hollywood frantically sought to produce as many talkies as possible which sometimes meant recording soundtracks for silent films that had not yet been released. Early hits such as Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Blackmail (1929) and the best picture award winning war epic All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) were produced both as silent films and as talkies to maximise their commercial appeal.
The matter of industrial redundancy is one that had a broad and rather tragic effect on Hollywood’s production and film in general. Any film lover knows that the arrival of sound and the effects that that had on the film industry is famously satirised in Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s 1952 hit Singin’ in the Rain, a film that makes light of this tumultuous moment in film history. Of course, Kelly and Donen’s musical masterpiece touches upon various issues that surround such a change in the industry; the film carefully illuminates key points relating to the question of stars, genres, and transforming production contexts, and yet its soft touch somewhat marginalises the wider cinematic concerns. Firstly, sound had a heterogenous effect on film; sound of course meant speech, and speech of course meant language, and language proved to be the thing that partitioned film from a universal, homogeneous medium that defied cultural boundaries to something that was domesticated and segregated by linguistic limitations. Before sound, a cinematic language was constructed that existed on purely visual terms and was all-encompassing; for instance, the antics of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton could be laughed at across the world. Film sound ushered in an exciting and innovative epoch in filmmaking, but of course in doing so it had to mark the end of the silent period, that beautiful moment in which film began.
It goes without saying that it was not all doom and gloom; film sound brought with it the dawn of Hollywood’s Golden Age, a historical moment in American filmmaking that saw the rise and saturation of the studio system and the emergence of great filmmakers such as David O. Selznick, Frank Capra, and John Ford. It was during this period of growth and saturation that film rose to become the dominant artistic medium of the twentieth century. During this time, film sound transformed from a novelty to become an endlessly expressive tool of filmmaking; dialogue demanded new techniques of framing and editing and sound mixing and design became invaluable instruments in a filmmaker’s technical arsenal – consider the fizzling dialogue scenes in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) or Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), and bear witness to the various ways in which sound revolutionised uses of the mis-en-scene and challenged pre-existing cinematographic techniques.
Michel Chion, a famed theorist of film sound, argues that “we never see the same thing when we also hear; we don’t hear the same thing when we see as well” (Audio-vision: Sound on Screen xxvi). His thoughts provoke discussions relating to the sensual experience of cinema, issues of spectatorship, and the deployment of film narratives. Film sound would continue to be manipulated and utilised to achieve specific and increasingly impressive effects throughout the century. One may consider the inter-diegetic use of sound in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960); as Marion Crane escapes with the stolen cash she sonically constructs her internal anxieties in as a conscious personal reaction to the suspiciousness of her recent behaviour, thus engaging the viewer with her character’s development and the narrative itself through the manipulation of soundscapes.
The 1970s saw the emergence of Dolby surround sound which drastically transformed the in-house experience of film by manipulating sound in space to wholly immerse the viewer in whatever spectacle lay before them. A film such as Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) used the expansive potential of the new Dolby systems to create a sonically authentic (audio)vision of early twentieth century rural America. The 1970s also saw the rise of special effects cinema in which films such as George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) utilised sound beside breathtaking visual effects for the purpose of constructing a visually and sonically plausible future for his iconic space opera. Both Days of Heaven and Star Wars also employ evocative film scores – composed by Ennio Morricone and John Williams, respectively – to aid their cinematic visions. Scores are of course an important feature of non-diegetic film sound that contribute to the sensation of film and play a crucial part in the development of narrative. Most recently films such as Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar-winning Gravity (2013) provide further evidence of film sound’s limitless potential; Cuaron’s film showcased the potential of Dolby Atmos while effectively utilising silence, score and sonic vibrations to create an eerily convincing environment for outer space.
Anyone can tell you that film is a visual medium whose potential is only limited by technology and the visions of its creators, however the same may be said of sound. Sound is a fascinating feature of filmmaking which directly contributes to the embodied and immersive experience of cinema, taking the viewer to the outer fringe of their imagination.
Five Films to Watch:
The Jazz Singer (1927) – The moment when it all began; Al Jolson’s New York City musical provides a fascinating and historical entry point into the wonderful world of film sound.
Blackmail (1929) – An early Hitchcock masterpiece filmed in both silent and sound versions; it also features a fantastic ending for those who have not yet had the pleasure. One might also want to consider Psycho; besides those features discussed above, Psycho perfectly blends score and sound effects to punctuate its infamous central scene.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – Not only is Singin’ in the Rain arguably the greatest musical of all time, it also fictionalises a vital moment in the history of film sound. On top of a lavish production design, wonderful performances, and a string of timeless musical numbers, at its heart Singin’ in the Rain is a perfect encapsulation of pure cinematic joy.
Days of Heaven (1978) – Malick’s New Hollywood sophomore feature is a perfect illustration of the potential of Dolby surround sound. Another great, albeit more widely viewed example is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) which, alongside Days of Heaven, uses sound to world-building effect (one may also consider George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) to this end).
Gravity (2013) – Besides a sumptuous visual design, Cuaron’s recent masterpiece is an aural delight that creates an authentic soundscape for space that is as beautiful as it is terrifying.