The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview


The Introduction of Sound


The transition from silent to sound film marks a period of grave instability as well as great creativity in the history of cinema. The new technology produced panic and confusion, but it stimulated experiments and expectations too. While it undermined Hollywood's international position for several years, it led to a revival of national film production elsewhere. It is a period with specific features that differentiate it from the years before and after. This chapter will focus on these special characteristics, without losing track of some important continuities. Though the conversion to sound did not follow the same path everywhere, and while every country has its own history, most attention will be paid here to the main line of developments.

To understand the impact of sound, it should not be forgotten that silent cinema was not silent at all. Silent films have plenty of references to all kinds of sounds; they deliberately put the viewer in the position of a listener. Moreover, these films were presented in a cinema with live music performed by a pianist or an orchestra, and often the musicians would add sound effects to the action on the screen. In Japanese cinemas a voice was added to the images by a lecturer or benshi, who actually dominated the film show with his verbal interpretations.


Long before the introduction of talking pictures, inventors on both sides of the Atlantic had developed a range of technical devices to synchronize sound with moving images. The oldest method was to link a phonograph to a film projector. Thomas Edison himself built the prototype of this sound-on-disc apparatus in the early days; it was still a viable system in the 1920s. Another method, more inspired by modern electro-technics, did away with the discs and recorded sound directly on film. This sound-onfilm system would prevail and become the standard of the international film industry in the 1930s.

The conversion to sound did not depend completely on technology, nor would its effects be restricted to technological matters. Software, not hardware, would become the deciding factor of the innovation process in the USA as well as in Europe, although this was not immediately obvious. Hollywood took its first step towards conversion in the 1926-7 season when Warner Bros. and Fox Film began wiring their theatres for sound. Both studios hoped to earn an extra profit by investing in new technology, but the roads they followed were different.

Warners presented its first synchronized programme in August 1926 using a sound-on-disc system called Vitaphone. Warners' main intention was to offer the cinema owners a substitute for the live performers in their programme, in particular the cinema orchestra and the stage show. Because of this, their first feature film with sound, Don Juan ( 1926), was not a talking picture at all; it only used a musical score recorded on discs to accompany the silent images. The studio was more interested in Vitaphone's shorts: lipsync-recorded performances of popular vaudeville and opera stars, who could now bring their act to even the smallest theatres. Fox did not believe in talking feature films either. In April 1927 the studio launched sound newsreels as its alternative, using a sound-on-film system. Fox Movietone News, as it was called, became a big attraction immediately. The success of these innovations was temporary, however, as the novelty appeal wore off.

The real breakthrough came during the 1927-8 season when Warners released a second feature film, this time with lipsync recordings of songs as well as some dialogue. The Jazz Singer, directed by Alan Crosland and starring the popular vaudeville star Al Jolson, was really a silent picture incorporating a few inserts with sound. This hybrid form, in which two technological eras come together, corresponds well to the melodramatic theme of the film. A conflict of generations finds expression in a clash of two musical traditions that seem to be mutually exclusive: religious songs and profane jazz. In this way, the film gave birth to a new film genre, the musical.

The success of The Jazz Singer proved that sound could come off' well if presented as a full-fledged feature film with lipsync acting. As soon as this fact was recognized, the other Hollywood studios rushed to convert to sound. Their hurry was not unmotivated: the new technique would save the costs of live musical accompaniment in their main theatres, and the savings would exceed the costs of conversion considerably (an advantage that did not apply to small cinemas). Cinema musicians were fired


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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