The advent of sound film

Sound on film demonstration

Having pulled out one article about the advent of sound-Cinema from June 1929, I thought I would also translate this far more informative and entertaining review from the following month by Paul Goldmann, the Neue Freie Presse’s theatre critic in Berlin. Even after the fall of Austria’s Empire, the Neue Freie Presse remained the preeminent German language paper through huge swathes of Europe. Goldmann wrote an extensive article for an Austrian readership about Hitler’s brutal takeover on the 24th of June 1933. He was arrested by the Gestapo in early August and ‘held for questioning’. He returned to Vienna but died only a year later. He was an engaging and amusing writer as the following article demonstrates. The illustration comes from the Department of Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives and shows a lecture hall of the university’s physics laboratory on June 9th, 1922. Professor Joseph T. Tykociner is shown giving the world’s first public demonstration of sound-on-film movies. His work resulted in the redundancy of the former system of ‘pictures on film, sound on phonograph discs,’ alluded to in the article below.

Neue Freie Presse: 
Berlin Theatre: The Sound-Film
Paul Goldmann: July 23rd, 1929

Is the Sound-film coming? This question has already been answered: the sound-film is here. Apparently in London, sound-films are the only ones being shown. And in America where all of this started, an initial flood has now, according to latest reports, started to ebb off a bit. In Germany, sound-films have not yet been able to gain any kind of secure footing due to legal battles between different patent-holders offering competing systems. In addition, the American industry has an inbuilt advantage with almost a third of the globe speaking English. The German sound-film is limited to Germany, Austria and the German-speaking regions of Switzerland – not enough to make the necessary profits to support the investment. So, as things stand presently, we have no German sound-films, though two American films, both enormously popular here in Berlin, have now come our way thanks to the UFA cinema chain: the famous ‘The Singing Fool’ and the underwater drama ‘The Submarine’.

The sound-film is now reality. The question on today’s agenda is what it means to the art of cinema as well as to what it possibly means to the art of theatre. These are questions which only the future can answer.

But one thing, however, is beyond discussion: the sound-film is an astonishing technical accomplishment. The industry has been working to join sound with image for years and regular visitors to the cinema recall the ropey beginning. The people on the screen would start to speak but the words and movements of the lips were out of synch. This problem has now been unequivocally solved. The illusion is so complete that the sound is obviously coming directly out of the mouth of whoever is singing or speaking. In addition, the sound film comes with its own dedicated musical score that actually accompanies what’s happening on screen and was recorded at the same time. Acoustical, ambient sound effects are also audible and very realistic: knocking, hammering, motors roaring, bird-song, the surf of the sea etc. — but the best effect of all is hearing something sung. The songs from ‘The Singing Fool’ that have so enchanted America, sound as if Al Jolson were standing on the stage and really performing. It is the realisation of a fantastic dream – as if it a story from E.T.A. Hoffmann had come to life: a picture starts to sing just like a person. In addition, the orchestra has been splendidly reproduced and it is only with some difficulty that one realises that there isn’t a band in front of the stage – an orchestra is playing that isn’t even present – though there is an obvious audible difference between a real orchestra and the sound of one on film.

To tell the truth, the sound-film has quite a few obvious deficiencies. The levels of recording are not consistent: music, speech and song are often wantonly louder or softer. The speaking voice sounds slightly muffled, as if being spoken from inside a barrel. Quite a few consonants seem to go missing – apparently still entangled within the machinery. But it shouldn’t be too long before these shortcomings are also solved. Indeed, nothing appears to be impossible to today’s technology, which seems capable of dealing with every possible defect. In as much as something fake can replace something real, cinema now finds itself on the way offering a legitimate and believable alternative to the living voice.

The first thing to be noticed is the music. It should now be possible to hear good music accompanying films in the smaller cinemas that previously have not been able to afford their own orchestras. The pianist, who hitherto had to fill in the scenes between the young aristocrat and his virtuous but working class lover with the Andante from the c-minor symphony, will no doubt vanish altogether. Of course, we won’t be expecting to see many sound-films in the smaller cinemas anytime soon: they would need equipment that at the moment can only be afforded by the larger more capitalised movie theatres. And rightly, the musicians of the cinema are worried about their jobs – just as the weavers once rioted and destroyed mechanical looms – anything to stop progress – but it’s a hopeless undertaking. Technology is ruthless and shows no concern for the ruined existences it leaves in its wake.

Will the sound-film eventually crowd out silent cinema? It’s certainly a technical advancement – but by no means can it be considered an artistic one – and we shouldn’t assume that the artistic cinematic transition over the next years will offer only positive improvements. In fact, most likely it will result in precisely the opposite. Silent films brought forth enormous artistic achievements through its very limitations. As sound has been missing, the actor was forced to expand the art of mime and expression through movement and gesture in order to achieve maximum dramatic effect. The greatest film actors even take the view that it’s possible to communicate more through gesture than through spoken dialogue. There’s something to this idea. The voice – the human machine for creating sound — is actually also something technical, whereas gesture is something intellectual, even spiritual. Charlie Chaplin has written an article about the sound-film in which he states: ‘The film actor has learned that the camera cannot record words; it can only record thoughts. Gesture starts where words fail us.’ So it would appear to be clear that Chaplin believes that spoken text will be a veritable disadvantage to the future of cinema and acting. He goes on to say, ‘I certainly don’t believe that my voice is right for my comic moments – in fact, I think quite the opposite – it would destroy the illusion I was trying to create.’ In ‘The Singing Fool’ we alternate between the mime of silent cinema and spoken dialogue – and it would seem that it is precisely at these moments when the drama loses tension. It’s very clear that Al Jolson conveys much more expression through gesture than with his voice.

Nevertheless, we are equally certain that even if the artistic advances are retrograde, the technical advances continue regardless. The public will no doubt have the final word on how things pan out. But this is a new, even modish innovation which absolutely does not guarantee the end of silent cinema. If American producers are – as we hear – only promoting films with sound and not producing further silent films, this would in our opinion be both hasty and rash. It’s impossible in this transitional phase to predict what the future will bring. There appears to be ample evidence that both silent and sound films should be able to co-exist for the foreseeable future. It will simply be a matter of what the producer decides; there will be scripts that are more appropriate for sound and others that would be better suited to mime. And this also applies to the actors: Al Jolson is perfect for sound films. He has a wonderful voice, which can’t be said of everyone. In addition, it appears to suit perfectly this specific type of mechanical reproduction. On the other hand, there are delightful actresses whose delights fade the moment they start to speak. The ‘talky’ is merciless in this respect as demonstrated with the charming Mary Pickford, who apparently possesses a voice that is both hard and raw. In ‘The Singing Fool’ there’s a lovely blond who plays the part of the unfaithful wife – yet the moment she starts to speak one could easily believe that it was a sailor we were listening to. I suspect that the most likely outcome will be a slow amalgamation of both silent and sound cinema. Indeed, this would already appear to be the case: The so-called 100% ‘all-talking’ only exists in theory at the moment. Even the so-called model for the 100% ‘all-talking’, ‘The Singing Fool’ is made up of a collection of mimed, spoken and sung scenes. Probably the use of purely mimed sequences against short bursts of spoken dialogue or song will be applied in order to heighten or lessen dramatic tension.

Another type of hybrid film is ‘Submarine’, the second sound-film to make the UFA rounds in Berlin. ‘Submarine’ is actually a sound-effect film. There is no speech as such – this is replaced by stretches of acoustical noises which audibly add suspense when implemented.

It’s certainly not clear how much competition spoken theatre will have from sound-cinema. Even in the days of silent movies, we were led to believe that we were going to see the end of the theatre as a dramatic medium. There is no doubt that a good film will beat a bad play anytime. But in general, I think we shall see a coexistence of theatre and cinema without one harming the other. Indeed, film will enhance theatre by reaching far wider audiences. However, now with sound-films, it can’t be assumed that the theatre can rely on its exclusive, acoustical advantages. The film industry has already made movies of the most successful plays – and now with the advent of sound, they will no doubt proceed with even greater zeal. So spoken theatre should not be complacent – though it too will probably end in coexistence, similar to what we shall most likely see between sound and silent cinema. In any case, cinema will always remain photographed theatre – no matter how advanced technology becomes, it remains a surrogate – or as Chaplin writes, ‘the artificial imitation of an older and greater art-form.’ Sound film can only become an art-form, when like silent-cinema it’s able to create its own experience that demands new and specific talents.

The drama behind ‘The Singing Fool’ is not exactly the best that American cinematic-poetry has to offer. It’s basically the familiar story of the sad clown. In reworking this material, the American authors appear not to have offered any new variations on this already well-known theme. In fact, it would appear that their only priority was to exploit all means – including the grubbiest – of extracting as many tears from its viewers as possible. This is a goal that they certainly achieved. For the duration of this lump of schmaltz, hankies remained in continuous use. It’s been said that ‘The Singing Fool’ is the life-story of Al Jolson himself. Let’s hope that he lived his story a bit more credibly than the script writers would have us believe. In any case, our hero is also named ‘Al’ – just like the star of the movie. Al is a waiter in an elegant nightclub in New York’s Broadway. The waiter is also the club’s entertainer who sings songs that he’s written and composed himself. A New York theatre director hears him, recognises his talent and offers him an engagement. Al applies black-face so that he can come on stage as a minstrel and in the course of the film becomes enormously popular, increasing his fame and fortune well beyond his wildest dreams. Before leaving the nightclub job, he asks blond Molly – also a nightclub singer – to marry him. Al only has eyes for the lovely Molly and therefore never notices that Grace, the cigarette girl, only has eyes for him. That he’s failed to notice Grace is the more remarkable as she’s played by the gorgeous Betty Bronson, one of the most stunning creatures to appear in an American movie for some time. Molly doesn’t love Al, but she marries him anyway since she foresaw his inevitable fame and wealth. Inevitably the marriage is unhappy and soon, we spot Molly at the side of a handsome young sportsman in a flashy new car. This is probably as far as American cinema can go in order to demonstrate to their virtuous public that the marriage is on the rocks. Al’s only comfort is in the company of his little boy, the only good thing that Molly ever gave him. He composes ‘Sonny Boy’ which soon becomes the biggest of his hits and his most successful song ever. A central scene in the film is when Al has Sonny on his knee and the little boy asks ‘Sing me the song of ‘Sonny boy!’ His dad complies and the auditorium comes alive with the rustling sound of dabbing tissues and handkerchiefs.

One day, Al comes home to an empty apartment: No wife – no child. Molly has left him and has moved in with her sportsman-lover and taken Sonny with her. What follows is pure cinematic delusion. Under normal circumstances, Al should have gone straight to the police and forced the return of his son. From here, either he or his wife can apply for a divorce and given the circumstances, the father would gain custody of the child over the mother who has abandoned the family for a lover. Under these circumstances, however, we would lose our weepy. So Al does not go to the police, does not apply for a divorce and remains paralysed with emotional pain. He requests a final meeting with his son in a public park (‘parting scene’ – out come the hankies again), and he leaves a broken and lonely figure. Without Sonny, life is not worth living.

As the experienced movie fan will know, when a child is the only possible source of happiness to a father or a mother living in a miserable marriage, it’s time to start worrying about the child’s health. Normally, it falls desperately ill allowing the parents to become reconciled over its sick-bed. In ‘The Singing Fool’, the child is in for an even rougher time. In order to get the tear-ducts flowing to maximum capacity, it has to die. Al is called to the hospital where his finds his only happiness lying and the verge of death. He sings ‘Sonny Boy’ to his son for a final time, before Sonny expires. Al leaves the hospital and races to the theatre. He can’t sing today – his child has just died – one can’t expect him to perform under such circumstances. But one expects it of him anyway. It’s an act of unimaginable barbarity that one would not find even amongst the most insensitive theatre directors. Happily, Grace, the former cigarette girl is now his girlfriend and does not leave him alone during this hour of need. Al is in his dressing room applying blackface with tears rolling down his cheeks. He clambers onto the stage and sings ‘Sonny Boy’ more beautifully than ever before, sending the crowd wild with applause. But in the final verse, his sadness overcomes him and as the curtain falls, he collapses. And the tears in the theatre flow in competition with those of Al.

The only redeeming feature of this film is Al Jolson. His melancholy harlequin’s face has a faint resemblance to Girardi – who also is equally well regarded as a singer. Jolson has a warm and appealing baritone and his performance is easy and speaks straight to the heart. In this respect, he again recalls Girardi when singing the ‘Hobellied’. ‘Sonny Boy’ – the song that has conquered America and is presently continuing its victory march through the four corners of the globe is hardly what could be called original – but it’s easy on the ear and Al Jolson sings it extremely well. It’s all extremely cheesy, but such cheesiness that is able to conquer the world is also a worthy accomplishment. And Al Jolson is a true actor: He portrays his roles simply and naturalistically and brings his characters to life. We share his grief. Young David Lee is also remarkable in the role of the little boy Sonny. Among the children with acting talent – a speciality of American cinema – this boy is certainly the best we’ve encountered.

‘Submarine’ the second sound-film brought to us by UFA in Berlin is based on an underwater catastrophe that happened some time ago off the American coast: A submarine is rammed and sinks to the bottom of the sea and cannot be recovered, leaving the crew to suffocate. The film however changes the historic facts and offers us its much needed ‘happy end’. The crew is rescued – rescued by Jack Dorgan, the best deep-sea diver of the American fleet. But it takes a long time before Jack can make up his mind to act. The second officer on the sunken submarine is Bob Mason – Jack’s former best friend, but now hated because Bob is falsely believed to have seduced Jack’s wife. Jack is one of those men who needs to get married right away. He meets the lovely Bessie in a dance bar in a harbour town and marries her. Bob arrives in the same town a few months later and also meets Bessie who takes him home for the night without realising that he’s Jack’s best friend – nor does Bob know that Bessie’s married to Jack. Both Jack and Bob are perfectly portrayed. Jack, played by Jack Holt, is serious and ponderous, while Bob is easy-going and cheerful. Bob easily wins all female hearts. He’s played by Ralph Graves, who must be one of the most appealing stars we’ve seen for some time. A lot of time passes – indeed, a lot of valuable time passes before Jack realises that it was Bessie who was responsible for the infidelity and not Jack. In the meantime, the crew is fighting for life on the sunken U-boat. One watches with concern as one oxygen tank after another is emptied. The atmosphere grows ever closer and more claustrophobic. The men’s half naked bodies gleam with sweat as they writhe together on the floor in order to gasp the last layer of oxygen. Only the Capitan and Bob Mason continue to stand. The heroes of modern cinema don’t breathe oxygen apparently. The scenes in the submarine are cinematically brillant and the actors all deserve the highest recognition.

Above the sunken submarine, a ship drops anchor, from whence numerous futile attempts are made to rescue the crew: The water is simply too deep and no diver can withstand the pressure. But enter Jack Dorgan — and it is at this point that we discover what a sound-effect film is capable of offering. Our hero arrives first on a plane before changing to a motorboat – as the tension increases, so does the level of sound from the plane and the boat. What no diver has ever been able to achieve is accomplished by jack Dorgan. He dives below and attaches an oxygen hose to the submarine. In the meantime the captain and the second officer have decided to shoot themselves rather than die a torturous death by suffocation. The second officer is instructed to shoot first the commander than himself. Bob Mason already has the revolver aimed when one hears on the outer shell of the submarine hammering that announces their rescue – soon, air is whishing through the hose and those near death are brought back to life.

In contrast to the first film reviewed, this one shows us true dramatic developments. The material is well written and even if not exactly a work of immortality, it offers a good suspense story which is followed perched on the edge of our seat.

Paul Goldmann.