The Beginning of Sound Movies

This has always bugged me. I asked something about this before, and Eve responded by mentioning something I’d never heard of before. If she or someone could be a little more explicit, I’d appreciate it.
When I was growing up, the references I checked said that the first “taslkie” was The Jazz Singer, and that it used records for the sound.

This seems absurd, when you think about it. Sound recording technology long predates motion pictures. Edison, who invented the phonograph, was also a pioneer in movies, and he was noted for his ability to marry technologies. Surely the idea of using phonograph recordings to give sound to the moviers long predates the 1920s.

The film The Celluloid Closet opens with an Edison film showing two guys dancing while a third plays a violin into an Edison cylinder phonograph recorder. Surely there was a recording that accompanied that film!

So why do the histories say that sound movies started in the 1920s?

I thought I understoiod why a few years ago, when the American Heritage Magazine of Science and Invention ran an article that noted that records and such non-synchronized sound technology had the fatal flaw of becoming unsynchronized if the projector and phonograph speeds differed, or if the film had broken and gotten spliced. But then The Jazz Singer would have had the same flaw. And I’ve recently learned that “Sound Disc” recordings were used to provide the sound for movie theaters making the switch from silents to talkies, and they’re just glorified phonograph discs. So we’re back to my original question.

And just to muddy the waters, synchronized sound baeed on optical or magnetic recording apparently preceded The Jazz Singer. Leslie Cabarga, in the second edition of “The Fleischer Story” notes that there was a lone inventor making sound cartoons prior to 1920 (and well in advance of Disney’s “Steamboll Bill”). Apparebntly his problem was largely a lack of money.
So what’s the story? Why wasn’t there more widespread use of phonographs for sound accvompanying motion pictures prior to the 1920s? It clearly wasn’t a matter of synchronization, since phono discs and sound discs must have had the same problem. And why the big deal about The Jazz Singer when it used a system due to become completely obsolete in just a couple of years?

Sound movies existed at least as far back as 1900—Sarah Bernhardt made a “talkie” around then, and I have seen several sound music-hall acts from c1900. But the earliest ones were done by making a record and a movie at the same time, and playing them back simultaneously. Many problems: exact synchronization was almost impossible, and the record could not be amplified enough fior a while theater to hear it.

So various scientists started experimenting with “sound on film” by the early 1920s. DW Griffith made a sound intro to his 1921 film Dream Street, and several vaudeville players (Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor) made sound shorts in the early-mid 1920s. More problems: theaters needed to install special machines to project sound films!

Problems began to get ironed out by 1926, when the Warner Bros. film Don Juan had a complete soundtrack: no voices, but an orchestral accompaniment. It was also preceded by some sound shorts (very boring opera-type crap).

The Jazz Singer (also Warners, late 1927) was actually a part-talkie: it was mostly silent with orchestral accompaniment, and a few musical voice interludes. It was the first financially successful talking film, the first to show the industry that the technology had advanced enough so that it was worthwhile to start making talkies to compete with those damned Warner Brothers.

From 1928–30, the industry had a collective nervous breakdown, still making silents (which most audiences preferred to the earliest talkies, which were just a novelty to them) and gearing up for producing sound—while at the same time, theaters had to start rerwiring for sound. No one really thought silents would die, but that both art forms would continue sided by side. But by 1930, only a handful of silents were being made.

I think with any new technology, there is debate as to when it first started. Usually people will come to a common consenus, but there is always an earlier version that could be considered the ‘first’.

Like VCRs. Most people will say the first VCR was by JVC and came out in 1979 (or whatever, I’m not sure exactly; just an example). Yet others will point out that the first VCR was demonstrated at a Technology Fair several years previous. Even more people will cite a similar VCR-like device used in the 50s…and so on.

Though many attempts were made at matching picture and sound, it did not become commonplace until the early 1920s, so people generally refer to this as the start of the talkies.

Thanks, but I still have the question – why so long before sound accompanied movies? Didn;t the discs with The Jazz Singer have the same problem with synchronization? Didn’t the “sound discs” that Universal used at first? The Jazz Singer may have been the first commercially successful sound film, but that says to me that audiences were thirsting for this experience, and they liked the first time they had access to it.

Is it possible that the real issue was one of sound amplification? Based on what Eve says about the early record-assisted “talkies” being too quiet, it seems to me that the issue may have been the late development of amplification technology. Is the success of The Jazz Singer mainly due to the development of the triode vacuum tube?

The Jazz Singer didn’t use discs, if I’m not mistaken. The sound was “on the film.”

In England, the first financially successful talkie was Hitchcock’s Blackmail, with Anny Ondra. It was primarily shot silent, but when the technology became available, he reshot a portion of it in sound.

Ilsa’s right—it was the invention of a workable “sound on film” process that really got the ball rolling. Some studios (notably Vitaphone) continued using sound on disc into the early 1930s, but it wasn’t practical (and, sadly, many of the records were broken or lost, so now we only have the silent film versions left).

Also, the financial success of The Jazz Singer made the other studios realize they would have to finally get off their asses and start to compete in that market. They had been aware of the technology, but everyone was waiting for someone else to try it first and see if it flopped or not.

I think it’s interesting to note, apropos of Eve’s above information regarding the earliest reception of talkies, and the early mistaken assumption that silents would continue to be made even as talkies grew in popularity. Talkies were not seen as “the medium of film, till then woefully silent, FINALLY made whole by sound.” The addition of spoken dialogue to film was seen by some as undesirable, rather than as an improvement (some felt the same about color). This is difficult to grasp from our modern perspective, when we tend to think of silent films as talkies minus sound. But remember, the earliest silent films were very explicitly called motion pictures, and were seen as a great evolutionary leap forward for the still photograph, and not as–as today–a nearly perfect (give or take a dimension) simulacrum of noisy, colorful life. From that perspective, that of the film as a still photograph (which was even then not too distant an artistic concept from the painted portrait) brought to life, the addition of sound can be seen more as an utter shift of paradigm than as an inevitable step on the way to total spielbergianism.

lis, look at my Notorious thread.

And don’t talk about spielberganism like that!:smiley:

Spielberg is the devil. Just so you know.

The history of motion picture sound:

http://history.acusd.edu/gen/recording/motionpicture1.html

The Jazz Singer used sound-on-disc (which produced clearer sound), though of course sound-on-film quickly won out in the industry.

CalMeacham is correct in his guess that the problem was as much that of amplification as it was synchronization. Prior to the 1920, all sound was recorded acoustically – the vibration of the sound was mechanically transferred to the recording stylus. This method could record only loud sounds, and with very poor frequency response. Musicians would have to huddle closely together to record. (Except for drummers, who were banished far to the rear for fear the drums would make the recording stylus skip.)

The development of “electrical” recording – that is, recording using microphones and amplifiers – resulted in much clearer sound with much higher fidelity. Combine much clearer electrical recording with newly developed public address systems that could project that sound to the back rows and the theatres, and talkies/soundies went from being the highly experimental novelty they had been in the teens/early twenties to a technology that was ready for mainstream use.

Cal, it’s not quite right to think that the early movies were not accompanied by sound. They were almost always accompanied by live pianos, organs, sound effects (many producted by the prodigious abilities of big theatrical organs), bands, and entire orchestras. The silents were never silent!

From The Guinness Book of Movie Facts & Feats, by Patrick Robertson:

Jazz Singer was sound on disc? Color me corrected! Shame that disc wasn’t lost, it would have aved us endless screenings of that piece of tripe . . .

THANK you, Eve. I watched The Jazz Singer out of historical curiosity, and I must say I’d rather have spent the time tongue kissing a lamprey.

Then I saw Hallelujah I’m a Bum, which has a stellar critical reputation, and though the movie itself wasn’t so bad, Al Jolson himself was almost as annoying on screen as Jim Carrey or Robin Williams. Have tastes changed so much, or did Jolson sell his soul to the devil to achieve such popularity?

THANK you, Eve. I watched The Jazz Singer out of historical curiosity, and I must say I’d rather have spent the time tongue kissing a lamprey.

Then I saw Hallelujah I’m a Bum, which has a stellar critical reputation, and though the movie itself wasn’t so bad, Al Jolson himself was almost as annoying on screen as Jim Carrey or Robin Williams. Have tastes changed so much, or did Jolson sell his soul to the devil to achieve such popularity?

I knew that The Jazz Singer was on disc, which is what prompted my query in the first place.

I still have questions about all this. My expectation, knowing that some early film exhibitions were small, would be that there would have grown up a system or industry of small, intimate showings of phonograph-accompanied films, so that everyone could hear, as long as there was no effective way to amplify them. After all, they’d been making films for over thirty years before The Jazz Singer! That’s a helluva long time to be without sound. Somebody would’ve tried to fill the gap.

And if the Srah Bernhardt recording Eve cited wasn’t made for such a gatheriong, what was it made for?

Is it possible that there was a somewhat brief culture of phono-sound movies that hasn’t been adequately acknowledged? Or is this just an evolutionary pathway that was never exploited?

You’re not telling me anything I don’t know – I’m a big fan of the silents. But there’s a world of difference between orchestral accompaniment and the full ambient sound of music, voice, and incidental noises. I use “silent” as the usual shorthand for these iolder films.

Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet?

Yup, Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet on film … at the age of 56, too!

As explained by Walloon and in the link I posted, lots of people did try adding sound to film in the 30 years before the Jazz Singer (including Edison.) It’s just that none of those methods caught on in the mass market.

It’s like 3D movies. We have 3D movie technologies, but they’re all clunky or expensive or cheap-looking or hard on the audience. So the mass market sticks to 2D, even though 3D technology has been around for 50 years.

To reiterate what others have said, what hindered the commercial development of sound movies in the 1900s and 1910s were the lack of electric microphones and auditorium-size sound amplifiers. With the acoustic microphones used for phonograph records from the 1870s to the mid-1920s, the performer had to stand in front of a large recording horn and almost shout into it.

To get around this problem, the producers of experimental sound films in the 1900s and 1910s often had the performers record onto a disc or cylinder in a recording studio, and then had the performers lip synch to a playback of that recording in front of a silent movie camera, much as musicals have been filmed throughout Hollywood history.

By the 1920s, both electric microphones and auditorium sound amplifiers were available, and the commercial development of sound movies moved steadily forward from 1922 onward. A series of DeForest Phonofilms were produced under the aegis of Lee DeForest, the inventor of the audion vacuum tube, starting in 1923. These sound-on-film short subjects, shown in selected big-city theaters mostly in the eastern U.S., included vaudeville acts, singers, speeches by politicians (including President Coolidge at the White House), ballets, and mini-dramas. All of them probably lost money for DeForest, but their intent was to induce Hollywood studios to license DeForest’s sound-on-film patents. Although Warner Bros. made a big splash with its sound-on-disc Vitaphone system in features like Don Juan (1926) and The Jazz Singer (1927), by 1932 sound-on-film was used by all studios.

First of all, quite a few Jolson fans argue that Jolson wasn’t meant for film, as his style was aimed too much at stage performing, and didn’t adapt well into other mediums.

Second, tastes in singing had changed by the mid-1930’s, and, with the likes of Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo now popular, Jolson’s style was out-of-date.

Finally, even many of his peers though Jolson to be an obnoxious ham, so it isn’t just due to a change in taste.

Wouldn’t it be more practical to lose the film, seeing as how “TJS” can be viewed (if barely) as a silent, but not at all if it’s only discs?