Professor David Shaw
July 12, 2017
Wired For Sound
In the 1920's, the Hollywood film industry had major breakthroughs in both scientific discovery and theatrical arts. Advances in sound technology changed the silent film into modern day “talkies”. Warner Bro's, “The Jazz Singer,” marked the first depiction of this newfound technology by combining motion picture with synchronized sound. Professionals in the silent film industry would now have to keep up with the new changes or risk being left behind. Gene Kelly's “Singin' In The Rain” takes a brief look at how some of these advances helped to change the movie industry.
One immediate change was the use of lip synchronous sound within silent film. Before the advent of the vitaphone, there was no sound accompanying motion pictures in movie theaters. Professional musicians would perform in a pit area at the front of the stage and provide sounds and effects so the audience would not sit in silence. Title cards were used on screen to tell the audience what was going on and were displayed intermittently between scenes. In “Singin”, Producer R.F. Simpson and actor Don Lockwood kidded, “The Warner Brothers are making a whole talking picture with this gadget – ‘The Jazz Singer' they'll lose their shirts. What do you think of it, Don? It'll never amount to a thing.”(green/comden p.30) Simpson later found out he was mistaken and told Don, “It's a sensation! The public is screaming for more! More what? Talking pictures! Talking pictures!” (green/comden p.42/43) Synchronized sound over a motion picture film had now created the Talkies.
The talkies ushered in a new wave of professionals onto the Hollywood film scene. With voice added to film, diction coaches and staged play actors became high in demand. For some actors, the switch to sound was effortless and increased their productivity and stardom. For other actors, the move to sound was detrimental to their livelihood and ultimately could drive them out of the film industry entirely. “Singin” shows those possibilities with silent film on-screen couple Don and Lina Lamont. Don's voice was honed on the Vaudeville circuit as he danced and sang his way to stardom before becoming a movie actor. His new diction coach perfected his voice to match his on screen persona for the new voice accompaniments. He could make a perfect fit of his skills in the new era. Lina's vocal coach, Phobe Dinsmore, would have a considerably harder time getting Lina up to speed. Her natural voice was high pitched and nasally. Previously having no dialogue, Lina was nothing more than a pretty face for Monument films to feature with Don. Rod, Monument Pictures' marketing director, never let Lina speak in public saying, “Lina, you're a beautiful woman—audience thinks you've got a voice to match. Studio has got to keep their stars from looking ridiculous at any cost.” (green/comden p.17) Cosmo Brown summed up Lina's ability saying, “Lina – she can't act, can't sing, can't dance. A triple threat.” (green/comden p.68) Actresses like Lina did not fit well in the new talkie era.
As promising as the new talkie era seemed for the industry, it was not without setbacks. Sound engineers now had the responsibility of capturing clean audio to be played with the motion picture. With the equipment being new to everyone, the challenges to record and playback sound were plentiful. Microphone placement was essential to this process and the actors had to become accustomed to less freedom while acting so as to make sure their voice would be heard in the microphone. The actors did not like the new restrictions placed upon them for fear it would undermine their overall performance. ‘Singin” displays some of these hardships during the filming of the “Dueling Cavalier”. In one scene, the director Dexter asks his sound engineer, “What's that noise?” after hearing a thumping noise during the recording session. The engineer replied, “The mikes picking up her heart beat.” (green/comden p.56) Other issues would also come up during final playback such as inadvertent microphone booms shown in the camera shots, and out of sync sound playback in the theaters. Silent film may have been on its last breath, but the talkies were not taking over, overnight.
Hollywood's new sound breakthrough would ultimately reign supreme as the silent film era came to a close. Talkies were quickly becoming the industry standard and film musicals became the newest craze as stage plays could now be filmed and shown in movie theaters. Theaters everywhere had to upgrade with new sound systems to keep up with this new demand for audio. Silent film had entertained audiences for years before the evolution of sound technology.
The inclusion of recorded sound with film not only changed how modern movies are made; it became \"a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament.\" (green/comden p.86)
Green, Adolph and Betty Comden. Singin' in the Rain. Script. May 1951. The Daily
Script. 12 July 2017. <http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/Singing-In-The-
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