Sound film’s potential

Jazz Singer (1929) movie poster

While raking around my collection of digital clippings from the Neue Freie Presse, I found this fascinating article anticipating the advent of the ‘talky’ from June 15, 1929. The night before the premiere of Korngold’s ‘Das Wunder der Heliane’ in Hamburg in 1927 saw the premiere in America of ‘The Jazz Singer’. With that, it became inevitable that silent films were to become a thing of the past. Obviously, this development would be important to many refugee composers and it’s worth raising an eyebrow at the point below when the writer speculates that acoustic cinema may potentially bring forth a composer as unique in their own way as Richard Wagner. Indeed reading this article, it’s easy to understand the transitional relationship between opera and cinema. Music was clearly an important component in movies from the very beginning – if only in compensation for their lack of spoken dialogue. This sense that music was what carried films obviously held through these early days. Reading the speculation of Dr Hans Thiering, it’s amusing to see how far off the mark he frequently was, yet how circular other points have become. Only recently a silent film won every award on offer. However the writer – of whom I have never heard and about whom I can find no information – ruminates on a number of points that seem today self-evident: yet how questionable such conjecture was at that time! His speculation about the profitability of marketing films with audible spoken dialogue reminds us of how open and accessible the world market of silent films must have been. How he goes on to extrapolate the potential dominance of German cinema is again a reminder of the fact that the past is very much a foreign country.

The Cultural Value of the Sound-Film 
by University Professor Dr Hans Thiering

With those arts that require proficiency of an instrument, it is normal that technological advances anticipate the performer’s technique, which only afterwards develops the means to exploit new possibilities to their fullest. Photography is something that we have had with us since the mid-19th century and any glance through a domestic photo-album will confirm that it began life in what was at best, mere craftsmanship. Only in the previous decades have photographers begun to exploit the fuller possibilities of portraiture and landscape. And with cinema, we encounter a similar situation, with the only difference being that the period of perfecting new possibilities has taken place more rapidly. Moving pictures are an invention from the 1890s and by the turn of the century, cinemas had more or less taken on the attributes of traditional spoken theatres. The films from this period, quite apart from their obvious technical limitations, were unacceptably primitive by today’s standards. Despite this, it became a favoured innovation by a large and varied public, resulting in material profits that could be reinvested into higher quality productions, allowing for the rapid blooming of the entire industry. It led initially to more perfect technical representation, followed by honing necessary techniques unique to the medium. And of course, this required development of expressive techniques that were suited specifically to cinema such as mime (Chaplin and Jannings) and a dramatic narrative that came across as credible despite a lack of dialogue – one recalls the latest and greatest recent Russian films. Against this must be weighted the shallowness of even the most sophisticated script. This development of some attributes at the expense of others is already familiar to us: just think of the excellent hearing that many blind people possess or the ability of the deaf to process and follow conversations simply by watching facial expressions. Nevertheless, one must admit that though the art of pantomime has reached its highest possible level, it is not intrinsically the nature of cinema itself. Indeed, it was making the best of limited possibilities that brought pantomime to such a level that we can enjoy it without missing audible dialogue. And it goes without saying that even the best actors are unable to save a [silent] film that has no music. Indeed, if ever there was a need to consider the power of music, one must remember that it alone has been able to justify the existence and guarantee the popularity of cinema in its present soundless form.

And now, we find ourselves on the threshold of the ‘talky’ or sound film, which brings an entirely new epoch of cinematic artistry in tow. We should not assume, however, that its advent will not be met with resistance. We’ve already had protests along the lines that spoken dialogue is diametrically opposed to the very nature of cinema. In a recently published article in these pages by Edgar Wallace, he stated the view that Charlie Chaplin’s brilliance in the film ‘Gold Rush’ would be impossible with sound. He even went so far as to write that ‘the entire film would have been ruined if so much as a single word had been audible’. I certainly agree with Mr Wallace in regard to the specific scenes in ‘Gold Rush, but disagree with his conclusions regarding the value, or lack thereof, of the acoustic-film. That the form a work of art takes demands a very specific type of expression, does not discount the question of whether the form is itself adequate for the purpose of conveying an artistic idea. We should not assume that it implies that there is only one legitimate form. Beethoven’s moonlight sonata would not be acceptable if played by an orchestra, but this does not discredit orchestral music.

The present pantomime style of acting is something that has developed quite simply through the limitations of cinema’s technical means. To force dialogue upon those films conceived as being without, would be unnatural – indeed it would be an abuse of artistic integrity in the same manner as filming something that was conceived for the stage. The sound film will simply demand the development of new techniques that are equal-distant from both our present cinema and staged-theatrical dramas. The acquisition of such techniques, or to put it more clearly: the training that will be necessary, will inevitably take time. For that reason, we can assume that our first encounters with acoustic-cinema will, despite undoubted public acceptance and success, slip as permanently beneath the waves as the nonsense films that were made around 1900. This applies particularly to those movies that offer no discernible plot and at present are only vehicles for demonstrating the possibilities of sound, speech and music for a couple of minutes or so. [The Jazz Singer?] Indeed, none of these films will have the slightest artistic pretence. Long-term, such films would never be able to meet the expectations of the public. The nature of cinema is not the nature of a mimed story-line, but the nature of a story-line per se. The greatest effect that cinema has had to offer so far, has been the presentation of a fundamental narrative, using any location with swift and seamless scene changes. To take this away would deprive cinema of its greatest advantage. Its only chance of survival is if another equally effective advantage could be offered. A sacrifice of story-line would only be possible in my opinion in the case of an exclusively sound-only film, by which I mean a ‘music film’. One could well imagine how cinemas across the world would race to show ‘concert-movies’ as the greatest names in music gave performances using a medium that offers greater quality than the gramophone while allowing the musicians to be seen. Indeed, one can even imagine that such a medium may exchange their relative importance with sound ultimately dominating the visual image.

The transition to dramatic acoustic-films means that we shall be seeing a good deal of both light and heavy-weight music dramas. And it is probably here that one can imagine the medium reaching its true calling, perhaps even offering opportunities to future composers of the calibre of a Richard Wagner. If one considers the general inadequacies of the opera house — marvellous though advances have been — it is no wonder that many music-lovers simply see the stage as a hopeless surrogate and prefer to keep their eyes closed during performances. The concept of a music drama composed specifically as cinema and using the advantages offered by acoustic-film, would inevitably be inferior to what we hear in our opera houses, while offering degrees of realism that would set new theatrical standards.

Many writers of stage dramas have decided to maintain a cautious distance to cinema – in my opinion, this is a mistake. The structures of drama conceived for the theatre have always been subject to the restrictions of what is possible to achieve. If a writer were offered the means of lifting these natural restrictions, then the director would find himself confronted with quite insolvable problems in filming such works as ‘Faust’ or ‘Wozzeck’. Indeed, future writers may need to employ a level of imagination that takes no account of the stage at all. As such, filmed drama would effectively have no limitations. In my view, writers for the stage should be particularly enthusiastic about these latest developments. It sets none of the boundaries or limits to the imagination demanded by theatrical stage.

In addition, cinema has the advantage of showing us the actor as through a magnifying glass. In traditional theatre, one is barely aware of an actor’s facial expressions or grimaces, while within cinema, one would be able to follow the actual mimic of the role far more carefully. Indeed such would be the effect that those who have until now maintained that film and the silent story-line were natural bedfellows may be surprised to discover that the naturalism of cinema gives us a new experience as sound and gesture are joined together more realistically than either theatre or silent film. Those who maintain that cinematic illusions will be destroyed the moment one hears the head on screen start to speak, have not yet comprehended how habit has shaped our ability to address questions of acting and drama. If we could only just imagine for a moment that sound and moving pictures had come about at the same time so that dialogue could be heard as it took place rather than read in written interjections – well the public would find it unacceptable to convert to mime while making do with interpolated texts. Indeed, no doubt the very same critics who today maintain that we would lose the illusion with audible dialogue would maintain the opposite – in other words, they would maintain that the illusion would be destroyed by resorting to mime with its continuous interruptions of written dialogue – how irritating they would find it if an actor opened his mouth and no sound were to be heard! Also, let’s just imagine a situation wherein people with a reasonably good education yet no access to theatres – such as we hear of in the far west – are frequent cinema visitors and have seen a number of excellent films with the highest artistic values: these people would surely find the opera stage that we Europeans worship so reverently ridiculous and unconvincing. It is only when considering the above points that I find objections to sound-films to be groundless. Indeed, I’m of the opinion that with the arrival of sound, the movies will finally find their true soul and manage to transcend the limitations of story-lines that with time, will no doubt appear primitive in silent film.

And a final word about the international markets for movies with spoken dialogue: It should present few problems to film dramatic scripts in several of the world’s most important languages. The greatest costs in shooting a movie, are in any case, the creation of sets. These costs remain the same if the film is shot several times in succession using different actors speaking their lines in different languages. These costs must be easily recoverable with sales to international markets. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine how ‘talkies’ will have much of a future in those places where only minor languages are spoken. Thus films with sound will become powerful propaganda tools for promoting the world’s major languages. Despite increased nationalism everywhere, it’s clear that in many territories, people will simply prefer watching films in German. Indeed, I’m convinced that with time, one will learn to value the spoken film as a means of exporting German culture.