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