Most early sound films are completely forgotten, even overlooked by film historians. Usually any given history of the film musical starts with The Jazz Singer and nearly anything before it is excluded—even Al Jolson’s first film appearance in the Vitaphone short “The Plantation Act.” The story of sound film is more complete when you look at the transition from silent films to sound films, but in my research I found Lee de Forest dismissed in many early histories and without Lee de Forest sound would not have been able to be amplified to the level it needed to be in theaters. The Jazz Singer was released in 1927. The earliest sound film was created somewhere between 1894-1895. There’s three decades of film history in between—numerous attempts to amplify sound and then solve the problem of syncing it to film.
I thought I knew the story or at least most of the story. Even tonight I’m still struggling to write this without going back to smoke signals and I might just do that in the next bit. Amplification was such a large part of why early sound films didn’t take off. Had amplification gone hand in hand with the ability to record we would have had a very different film industry from the start.
Singin’ in the Rain is a good jumping off point. When we jump back into 1927 with Kathy, Cosmo, Lina we see some of the early problems with sound in some of the greatest scenes in a film musical—we initially see the use of mood music while filming scenes showing that on set and more often in theaters silent films were not truly silent even off-set. Orchestras were hired for the bigger theaters with full orchestrations and smaller theaters hired piano players to add sound effects.
It wasn’t as easy to add sound as to “just add talking to it” when it’s decided that the film will now be a musical. In Singin’ in the Rain, we see the trouble in trying to hide a microphone—attempts at trying to hide it bush or bosom. The sound fidelity was pretty poor depending on the sound system being used and if heads were turned away words were missed. You get Lina Lamont unable to utter her lines in a manner befitting opulently dressed character. We see Kathy dubbing for her which at the time would have been done live. They didn’t have the ability to dub after filming in 1927. Certainly not on a wax record. It’s believed Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause from 1930 was the first to edit sound.
It’s true that sound stages were built overnight and the studios attempted to have their stars trained in proper speech, but it was a long road to get to the nearly overnight turnover. The studios didn’t want anything to do with sound. At every turn, they tried to dodge it any way they could. Warner Bros. was not a big studio at the time of the transition and they truly took a gamble with Vitaphone. Sound destroyed careers and out of the ashes were a new set of stars to fill the void and new genres to come—not only the film musical, but also screwball comedies and it was a game changer for horror films.
My hope with this project is to do something two-fold—revamp ReelJewels.com and try to give an in depth look at the history of sound in film, but keeping to the theme of what ReelJewels has always focused on in the last 20 years, advancements in sound that made a huge difference to the evolution of the film musical.