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The Speed of Sound
Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930

By Scott Eyman

 

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BOOK REVIEW

The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930
By Scott Eyman

Simon and Schuster : New York, New York : 1997
ISBN 0-6848-1162-6 : 413 pages : hardcover : $39.95
The Johns Hopkins University Press : Baltimore, Maryland : 1999
ISBN 0-8018-6192-6 : 413 pages : trade paperback : $18.95
Kindle e-book edition

Reviewed by Carl Bennett
Perhaps it’s a little easy, with the advantage of historical hindsight, to harshly judge the studio owners in Hollywood for their reticence in adopting new motion picture technologies in the silent era. Most of the major Hollywood studios didn’t see the point of shaking things up. After all, don’t we each crave stability and homogony in our lives? The same would apply to a Louis B. Mayer or an Adolph Zukor, if downright arrogant snobbishness and megalomania weren’t among their character flaws.

The forced introduction of sound technologies into the mainstream of Hollywood motion picture production in 1928 was the worst thing that happened to the art of the silent film and the status quo of the recently established Hollywood studio system. It was also the best thing that happened to the motion picture in the long term. And, according to Scott Eyman’s book on the talkie changeover, the men who made that happen were Sam and Jack Warner.

This paperback edition of the 1997 Simon & Schuster book is a welcome addition to the sparce but informative body of works on early sound technologies and their application to motion picture production. Eyman’s book covers a period of time greater than the title suggests, for there are two chapters that bring the reader up to speed on the early pioneering work in sound reproduction. Those chapters come to focus on the early to mid-1920s work of the bumbling and sometimes shifty “Father of Radio” Lee de Forest and that of the underfunded and technically more proficient Theodore Case and E.I. Sponable.

The reader will come to understand that the introduction of sound film didn’t just happen in October 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer. Rather that, from the turn of the century into the ’20s, short synchronized sound films were being produced and exhibited on an ongoing basis in America, France and Great Britain. These technologies were developed by hardcore inventors and engineers consumed by the brainbusting challenge of synchronized sound film and the lure of instant riches and worldwide fame. The success of each experimental system depended not so much on the ‘taking’ of the sound subject but on the theatrical reproduction of the synchronized film.

Synchronization was one problem unto itself. Sound reproduction and amplification was another. If recorded sound could be reliably synched to the projected picture, then filling a motion picture theater with that sound was usually the shortcoming. A notable failure in early sound technologies was the P.T. Barnum of inventors, Thomas A. Edison.

Enter the well-funded think tanks of corporate America. In the early 1920s, the baton of sound development was picked up by Western Electric and later by the Radio Corporation of America. These corporate engineering giants were simultaneously working on solving the problems of telephone improvements, radio development, electrical recording systems, microphones, amplifiers, loudspeakers and synchronized sound film.

It was not until many of these tecnologies came together that the commercial sound film could be born. And, it can be noted, it wasn’t the small time inventors who benefited from the eventual worldwide embracing of sound films. Even then, as now, it was the corporation that took the money to the bank.

Eyman gives a seemingly well-balanced account of the innovations and the machinations of the 30-year trek of the sound film to the screens of neighborhood theaters everywhere. His facts are well-researched and plentiful, with the body of the narrative focusing on the efforts of the Warner brothers, in conjunction with Western Electric, to develop and successfully introduce the Vitaphone sound system to American movie audiences.

Eyman credits much of the future vision of the commercially successful sound film to Sam Warner, who (in a strange twist of fate) died just before the world premiere of The Jazz Singer. There is just enough biographical information to give the reader an idea of who the Warner brothers were, without bogging down in the irrelevancy of their day-to-day lives. (Although, Eyman piqued some interest in this reader in his portrayal of Jack Warner as a charming raconteur, forced by Sam’s death into becoming a studio mogul, with an eye to the creative and visionary to balance the fiscally conservative and controlling nature of Harry Warner.)

The other major proponent of the sound film was William Fox, who had purchased the rights to the Case-Sponible sound system and dubbed it Movietone. By marrying his mobile sound-film recording system to amplification equipment developed by Western Electric, Fox was an early industry leader in sound films especially in the production of sound newsreels. Side by side with Warner Bros., Fox pushed sound films into the mainstream of motion picture entertainment and further toward their eventual acceptance by motion picture audiences.

Despite the perception in the motion picture industry that Fox and Warner Bros. were a couple of lowly B-film studios, on a par with or below Universal, these two studios dragged the major studios kicking and screaming (literally) into sound film production. It is perhaps an eye-opener that the two largest studios, Paramount and MGM, were the most reticent to adopt sound films, sneeringly unconvinced of the popular demand of synchronized sound films. Whether their concern was for exposing their high-priced and extremely popular stable of actors to a passing fad that could potentially alienate legions of film fans or that they smugly refused to believe that a couple of two-bit producers had stumbled onto something of true marketable value remains a subject of historical debate. Anyway, it is satisfying to know that Zukor and Mayer almost made critical business errors and that ultimately the film-going audiences dictated to them the future of the motion picture industry.

At times the book masquerades as a biography of F.W. Murnau, delving at times in detail into the production of his Hollywood films and saying little about the Fox studio’s application of sound technologies to those films. The exception is Our Daily Bread (1929), which was partially reshot and reedited into the sound-film hybrid City Girl (1930), an unfortunate victim of the popular demand for all-talking sound films and a film with a troubled production history that is detailed in the book. Eyman’s digressions into things Murnau are those of a biographer rather than those of a sound film historian and are understandable considering Eyman’s previous biographies of Ernst Lubitsch and Mary Pickford. But one wishes Eyman had saved much of the material included here for a book-length biography on Murnau and focused on the subject at hand instead.

Over all, Eyman gives the reader an understanding of who the big players were in the development of the commercial sound film and in the details of the laborious but rapid conversion to sound film exhibition. In the space of about two years an entire industry was turned on its ear and forced wholly into a phoenixlike rebirth. The loss of the silent film, which had just maturely developed its artistic vocabulary, is lamentable but the ultimate value of the development of the sound film is seen is each of the world’s greatest sound era films. The Speed of Sound is a worthwhile document, along side of Harry Geduld’s The Birth of the Talkies, of this confusing and painful transformation of a static technology into a precious artform.

 
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