2.    How did the adoption of synchronised sound in the late 1920s transform cinema as a visual medium, and as an institution.

Since the beginning of cinema, experiments were made with sound, leading to Harold Arnold’s electrical recording technology that Western Electrics and Bell Labs used for sound-on-disc inventions, demonstrating the first talking picture in Yale in 1922 The Audion. Warner Bros., the only interested studio, for the film economy went well and had no needs, bought the Vitascope system and with Western Electric, Bell Labs and their Vitaphone Corporation made the first successful commercial sound-effect film Don Juan (Alan Crosland) in 1926 (Sandiego.edu).

After further big successes like the first spoken language film, The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927), elevating Warner Bros. to a major studio, the other big studios, like MGM and Paramount, adopted sound technologies, allying with Western Electronics (James Chapman: 90-92), who combined the Fox Film Corporation’s sound-on-film, Movietone, with their amplification system in 1931 (Virginia.edu). This photoelectric cell became standard, lasting longer than the 24-play-discs and being more synchronous (Sandiego.edu).

The switch to sound led to more formations of alliances and vertical integration with links to other businesses, as stated above, so studios dominated cinema from production to exhibition (Jill Nelmes: 28-29). Thus, they had to invest $ 500 million to spread the technology in cinemas (James Chapman: 92). The new “producer-unit-system” brought a better overview on the production (Jill Nelmes: 30). Simultaneously, movie palaces fired orchestras but lost the advantage over cheap town cinemas and lowered prices, for by then sound was available everywhere (Thomas Doherty : 146).

Other problems were the different techniques that sound cinema required. Scriptwriters needed dialogue  (Thomas Doherty : 160), directors were less mobile as the camera noise had to be kept away (Infoplease) while new audible techniques like voice-overs needed visual cues (Thomas Doherty : 159), and vaudeville actors were replaced by theatrical actors (Laraine Porter). Also, actors with accents, wrong voice tonalities or sole talent in visual skills did not succeed in the sound era (Thomas Doherty : 160).

Tinting and toning could not be done as it would destroy the sound-on-film and the lack of the universal language of silent films hindered exports, until dubbing was successful (James Russel: Sound Cinema); instead, national cinemas emerged in Europe and domestic industry grew, even in India and later Japan (James Chapman: 94).

For the audience, the visual experience as a voyeur was more emotional and engaging before sound due to the stronger distance and wish for involvement (Thomas Doherty : 158), supported by the “audible expressions of approval and reproach” (Thomas Doherty : 143); with sound, the unity of the audience receded as loud expressions disrupting the eavesdropping process were inappropriate (Virginia.edu). Additionally, less action, close-ups and tempo made the films more static (Thomas Doherty : 160), focussing on dialogue and necessitating a sharp ear and concentration (James Russel: Sound Cinema). More reality could be seen instead.

Removing musical acts, magic shows and commentators transferred the visual effects to the screen, as sound introduced new opportunities such as musicals, literary adaption like Hemmingway, or different comedy types (Infoplease). The greater expressive range gave “shorts” more importance as programme-fillers, because less linear narratives began scheduling to ensure one can watch from the beginning to the end (Thomas Doherty : 145).

This outlines that the adoption of synchronised sound in the late 1920s made cinema a less visual experience by focussing on dialogue and eliminating vaudeville acting and life acts. The resulting technological challenges reduced some acting in the beginning until the “boom” was invented (Infoplease). The institution changed partly with and partly due to the coming of sound, resulting as described in big studio companies controlling the market and different employees necessary for sound filmmaking.


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