Why were there silent movies?

There was already technology for recording sound and music – why didn’t film companies record the sound at the same time they filmed, and then play both recordings simultaneously? Or, if the audio quality would have been poor in the film studio and on location, then why not re-record the dialogue and sounds (and music) later with foley artists and the actors, and cut it with the film?

Moved to Cafe Society.

It was not a simple or easy thing to do until technological advances could be made on several fronts. The problem was one of synchronization. the earliest systems were merely a phonograph record playing along with the projector. Keeping them in synch was a big problem.

You also have to deal with amplification problems.

Yes, electronic amplification of sound came along with the invention of triode vacuum tubes around 1920. If you look at early gramaphones, the amplication was basically a big horn attached to the needle - loud enough for a small parlour but not really for a huge auditorium - plus, a lot of these gramaphones were hand-cranked and spring driven, making precise synchronization difficult… Using electricity and a speaker to amplify sound (along with using electronic means to capture, broadcast, and amplify sound at the receiving end for radio), came along about 1920.

The other significant invention was the technology to take the sound and apply it to a movie, and to take that sound track and play it back. Light-sensitive electronics small and accurate enough to read a film sound track came along in the mid to late 20’s. Then the film makers had to develop a standard and get the cineas to buy equipment to play the soundtracks.

The film when it’s played runs jerky - the film has those sprocket holes, and a little set of fingers grabs and advances the film using those holes, then stops it and opens a shutter to flash the light through the film - that’s why you see pictures, not a continuous blur. Above and below the film are free loops that allow the smooth-flowing film to move jerkily in front of the light shutter.

The big development was to put the sound recording offset from the picture, so that the sound pickup could be reading a dozen frames or more ahead where the film could be moved smoothly.

So, taking a sequence of pictures was easy compared to adding the soundtrack on and playing it back too. The implementation did not lag the technology by much.

It’s also a conceptual issue. Why assume moving pictures have to be accompanied by sound? Sure, you could decide a film was similar to a stage performance, in which case sound would be expected. But you could also assume film was like a moving photograph, in which case sound was not expected. It’s like asking why novels aren’t all written in comic book format with words and pictures instead of just words.

There was resistance to the introduction of sound even after the technology was perfected. In the documentary series Hollywood, an actress from the Silent Era (I think it was Lillian Gish) said they thought they already had the perfect universal combination: pantomime and music. At some cinemas, whole orchestras would provide the accompaniment for big productions like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments (and yes, there were silent versions of these).

IIRC, that famous documentary of early Hollywood Singing in the Rain :smiley: includes a vivid illustration of this problem.

Phonograph recordings prior to 1925 were made with what we now call the “acoustic” process–the performer(s) stood in front of a recording horn and sang, spoke or played instruments. The soundwaves they produced activated a diaphragm that cut the sound onto the cylinder or disc master. (In the case of discs, the master was made of zinc until 1900, when wax began to replace it.)

Some pictures of what acoustic recording studios looked like:

There were attempts to combine acoustic recording and motion pictures between 1894 and 1921. Here’s an Edison Kinetophone demonstration from 1912:

The biggest problem, other than amplification and synchronization, was that the acoustic process just wasn’t very mobile–performers had to stay close to the recording horn or their words would fluctuate in terms of volume and intelligibility. Even if talking pictures had been a success in 1912, the movies that resulted would have had very little editing or camera movement. It took the adoption of electrical (microphone) recording, in both its sound-on-film and sound-on-disc forms, to attain talking pictures that could go beyond that.

What I don’t get is modern audiences thinking silent films are somehow ‘better’ or ‘more pure’, or something. I’ve seen it on this board, especially when The Artist was released. I’m not saying a silent movie can’t be enjoyable, but better? Never.

Did Shakespeare have silent plays with title cards held for the audience? Sound is the natural way of the world. The only reason early films were silent is because the tech wasn’t there. I’m sure they would have liked sound.

But then, once silent films get entrenched, people don’t want to change. Why else would there be comments such as ‘no one wants to hear actors speak’? Do they not speak on the stage?

And black and white films? Early films weren’t colorless because B&W films are ‘better’, but because that’s all they had. Was there ever a period of B&W painting before pigments were perfected? Then why are B&W films considered by some to be ‘better’?

I like films that were made in B&W. But seriously, would Casablanca been a worse film if it had been filmed in color from the start? Of course not.

I think there are almost zero people today who hold this view. When sound was new, sure, some people thought it would be a fad and the old ways were better. But that was a long time ago.

The comparison between sound and color is not valid. Color films are all inferior to B&W films. Have you noticed how many films today tone down the brilliance of color compared to the early Technicolor days? Especially for dramas, color is a distraction. The old rule was ‘color for comedies, B&W for dramas’ from the 40s to late 60s. For the most part, I wil not watch a film that is in wide screen and color.

How anyone could have preferred silent to sound though is beyond me.

Oh, but you’re missing out on all the wonderful variations of teal and orange!

Actually, yes: some early films were indeed colored; every frame was tinted by hand. I believe economics was more important than artistic considerations in the shift from B&W to color; certainly movies were being filmed in color by the early 20th century.

It doesn’t have to be “better,” just different. A silent film is one kind of artistic experience, a sound film is another. Different skills are called upon from all involved in making a silent film. When all (or at least most) involved deliver, you have a satisfying artistic experience…one that is different from taking in a sound film.

Did Shakespeare have silent plays with title cards held for the audience? Sound is the natural way of the world. The only reason early films were silent is because the tech wasn’t there. I’m sure they would have liked sound.


As others have pointed out, not necessarily. A group of artisans developed the skills to make moving pictures (in the other sense of the word), and moving pictures were made within the constraints of the medium.

To accept your argument, you would have to believe that any silent picture would have been “better” if it was filmed with sound. This is manifestly not the case. To take an example off the top of my head, Harold Lloyd made thrill comedies in which he hung off the sides of buildings or otherwise imperiled himself on either side of the silent/sound divide. His sound films of this nature, in which you can hear him grunting and groaning and crying out in fear, are FAR less effective than his silent ones.

Buster Keaton could have never made the artistic statements his films made (and though he argued to the contrary, and said he was just trying to make people laugh, they WERE truly artistic statements) if he had had to deal with sound.

I give these examples because I know something about film comedy, but those schooled in dramatic film could make them too, with examples of their own.

I’m gonna guess you are no older than 30 years old.

Yes, Casablanca been a worse film if it had been filmed in color from the start. Black and white fits the mood and atmosphere of the film, and lighting for black and white is an entirely different artistic endeavor than lighting for color.

I wonder if you feel that the only kind of paintings that have any merit are photo-realistic ones.

If not, then why would you demand that all movies must be an absolutely faithful representation of life as we normally perceive it through our eyes (or ears)?

By the way, Casablanca is one of many films that was colorized when that process was in vogue a couple of decades ago.

The people involved in this enterprise should be taken out into the public square and placed in stockades.

Why is it beyond you? These two opinions are equally absolutist and equally arbitrary.

The current debate would be over 3D. Is a 3D movie automatically better than a 2D movie?

Personally I feel that the quality of the individual work outweighs the general quality of its format. A good black and white movie is better than a mediocre color movie.

Regarding the OP, I think that the basic explanations – difficulty in synchronization and amplification – have been given. But it’s not as if these hadn’t been addressed before the official Sound Movie Era.

Edison, having invented the phonograph and the kinescope, could naturally be expected to try to mate the two technologies, and did. The Dickson Experimental Film is the earliest sound film we have, and it dates from 1894. (The cylinder recording the sound was located about 20 years ago, and the two have been combined):

The problem of synching the sound to the film was solved (multiple times) before the idea of putting the sound recording directly onto the film was around. In fact, the Vitaphone system used by everyone before 1932 relied upon record-style recordings on discs that accompanied the film. The Jazz Singer was all on discs, originally.
Even the idea of amplification technically didn’t have to wait until electronic amplification via audion, diode, triodes, or pentodes were around. Amazingly, there was pneumatic amplification before then:

The quality of sound has been described as listened to something projected through a bullhorn. And LOUD, apparently. I’m not surprised electronic amplification., especially with the fidelity the pentode provided, replaced this.

I think we run into the problem of deciphering if the movie was better because it didn’t have sound, or if the movie was made in a way to take advantage of the limitations of the media. I don’t think they would have made that film if they had sound tech, but they would have made a different film, and maybe that one would have been just as good. Just throwing this out there, maybe a sound version of a Lloyd film might be a Jackie Chan film such as First Strike, with the rapid-fire stunts and humor.

But he might have made different, equally good, films.

Nope. 52. grew up with B&W TV until 1980(!) (My parents abused me so…) so my entire childhood was sans color.

I disagree. I think there are many films of equal “mood and atmosphere” that come from the color age. I feel the story is the heart of Casablanca, more than the mood, so it would translate to a color era (unless you call it Barb Wire…)

There’s nothing I said that supports that opinion. Sounds like you’re ‘straw manning’ me. I’m talking movies and color, not art in general. I used paintings as an example of a medium that always had color. it didn’t have to go through a B&W phase as did movies or photography. (which is also why i said paintings and not drawings)

I never said that. I said life has sound and color, and not having either is a lesser version of representation in movies.

That’s why I picked that particular example (that, and the fact I think it is a great movie). Color was not the problem, colorization was. As noted, I think the movie would be fine in (proper) color.

No real disagreement there. I’m not arguing for colorization, just opining that lack of color does not by itself make a better movie.


Sounds pretty good, until your eardrums burst. So loud that even Edison could hear it.