Friday, April 17, 2009

The Part-Talkies of 1928-29

The part-talkies were a quite exclusive bunch of movies that came out just when the transision from silent to talking pictures was taking place. We all know that the talkie craze started in october 1927 with the Jazz Singer which in fact was the mother of all part-talkies and thus the first film in this very exclusive club of films. The Jazz Singer was a part-talkie as only the songs in it had synchronized sound.

Soon every studio wanted to explore the new technique and of course also make a profit on the talkie fad. However, technical limitations prevented most studios from making all talking pictures at once. There was almost no sound stages built yet because most studios still didn't take sound in motion pictures very seriously so the shortage of equipment was very comon as well. The major studios thought that including talking sequences in their movies would do fine for the time being. Sound was clearly a fad after all and would soon fade away, or so they hoped.


At this point, early in 1928 no one knew that talking pictures were here to stay. During a very brief period of about 18 months from mid 1928 to the end of 1929 quite a few part-taklies saw the flickering light of the projector. Most of them are forgotten or incomplete today.

Let's have a look at the part-talkie as a genre. As such it can be divided in three distinct types. The first type is a film that was meant to be a part-talkie from the start. Essentially it's a silent picture which has been graced with certain scenes with synchronized sound, often songs. I don't count the silent movies with a recorded score as part-talkies as there are no talking in those. Sometimes, as in the case of The Jazz Singer, they actually contain very little sound. The Jazz Singer only have about 15% of its running time in synchronized sound. With The Singing Fool it's the inverse as it contains very few silent scenes, about 70% are sound scenes. They are still both good examples of this first type.

Warner's head sound engineer George Groves recording 
Fanny Brice in the part-talkie musical 'My Man' (1928)

The second type is a silent film with an added, often lengthy talking prologue where the actors present the movie or as in the case of the British film Piccadilly in 1929, one of the key players recollects the story and what the audience is about to see. The film itself becomes a giant flashback. The talking introduction served as a nice addition to the plot and it worked rather well. It could also be omitted quite easily without affecting the movie. Douglas Fairbanks made a talking prologue for The Iron Mask, which also included a prologue to the second act of the film.

The third type is a silent movie where talking sequences have been spliced in here and there, seemingly out of context because the picture itself were shot as 100% silent. Sometimes the talking sequences were added months after the completion of the silent picture. I think this hybrid usually stands as the example for how bad these films could turn out. They are often labeled as "grotesque curios" and mostly very rightly so. This kind of movie was never meant to be talking in the first place but it was made talking because of the ongoing talkie craze. Usually the talking sequences doesn't move the plot forward at all but halts the flow of the picture almost completely. In many cases the talking sequences were shot without the lead players and contained very banale dialogue, or simply a song with no connection to the movie what so ever.


Noah's Ark, one of Warner's bigger productions towards the end of 1928 was turned into a part talkie well after its initial premiere. For it's rerelease in the 1950's the talking sequences were considered so odd that they were cut from the film. In the recent print that airs on TCM from time to time most of the talking sequences has been restored. The brilliant MGM comedy A Lady Of Chance starring Norma Shearer had talking sequences added but according to my information Norma didn't get to talk. A Lady Of Chance only exists as silent today.

Another quite bizarre movie that was in production for so long it had to be made in to at least a part-talkie was The Mysterious Island (1929). Production started in 1926 and it was intended to be MGM’s high-budget answer to First National’s hit The Lost World (1925) and UFA’s Metropolis (1927). It was originally budgeted at a million dollars, shot in two-strip Technicolor and was to feature extended sequences of cutting-edge undersea cinematography. But the production was seemingly cursed — churning through countless rewrites that led it ever further from its source material, originally Jules Vernes books. It came to have three very different directors, one of then the Danish rather excentric Benjamin Christensen. The production suffered from very difficult weather conditions that thoroughly destroyed the expensive underwater sets on location in the Bahamas. As it limped to completion, the advent of sound changed everything and necessitated a cast change and still more rewrites and reshooting. Talking scenes were added, other scenes lifted. It was a complete mess.

When it finally premiered as a part-talkie in October 1929 it was way behind its time technically, a reported $3 million over budget, just a few weeks before the stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. The worst timing possible. Despite positive reviews in the popular and industry press, The Mysterious Island bombed at the box office and earned back only a tiny fraction of its production costs. Believe it or not, it didn't turn out a total failure artistically. In many ways it's a fascinating film. Too bad no color prints survive.

Jane Daly is getting some help putting on her swimming suit 
when filming The Mysterious Island sometimes 1928.

The part-talkie was an overgoing fad that soon was replaced by all talking pictures. There is however an example of a silent picture that was turned into a full talkie, The Canary Murder Case from 1929 starring Wiliam Powell and Louise Brooks. Most of the film was re-shot for sound but Louise Brooks was filming Pandora's Box in Germany when reshooting took place. She refused to return to Hollywood for re-takes and dubbing. She couldn't be replaced so the people at Paramount had to be very creative when they had Brooks silent scenes dubbed by Margaret Livingston. The editing is not the best but it works. Paramount spread the rumor that Louise Brooks didn't have a voice and with that her career in pictures was over.

The last movie that can be considered a part talkie was Chaplin's Modern Times from 1936. It contains some talking scenes, none by Chaplin but he get to sing his famous gibberish song "Je Cherche après Tétine" in synchronized sound. 


7 comments:

KING OF JAZZ said...

Fascinating stuff. Always happy to read your columns!

Anonymous said...

Great entry! Thanks for the insight and information!

Tom Ruegger

Raquelle said...

Superb Professor Jonas. Now I know all about Part-talkies. Thanks for mentioning A Lady of Chance. :-)

Was there ever a film which was scrapped completely and started over as a full-talkie? Or were the 3rd type of part-talkies a clever way of saving money and still satisfying talkie-hungry audiences.

OMG! I want to see Canary Murder Case!

Samuel Wilson said...

I had the mixed fortune to see The Mysterious Island on the big screen at the well-preserved Proctor's Theater in Schenectady during a Barrymore family film festival one summer. Unfortunately, they advertised it as a Technicolor film, which you know it wasn't. Then, because they wanted to show off their Mighty Wurlitzer, the organ played over the actual soundtrack, dimming enough so you could hear the dialogue. But it was indeed a strange, fascinating film. Thanks for mentioning it.

Jonas Nordin said...

King Of Jazz and Tom,
Thank you! I'm doing my best. :)

Raquelle,
There were quite a few silent pictures that were turned into talkies with more or less success. The Canary Murder Case is probably the best example, where they had the intention to turn a silent movie into an all-talking film.

Most films of 1929 were done in both a silent version and a talkie version, sometimes they were quite different. A good example is Hitchcock's Blackmail where the two versions differs quite a bit. in my opinion the talkie version is the better of the two. then there were the different language versions which is a science in itself. Der Blaue Engel or Anna Christie are basically two completely different movies in their German versions, both are much grittier and use a partly different cast.

There were also a couple of really weird experiments where none of the talking were done "on camera". It works, but not very well. This was of course done to simplify dubbing in other languages. You can get an impression of this technique in The Canary Murder Case in the scenes featuring Louise Brooks as she never speaks "on camera".

William Wyler's The Love Trap is a half-talkie, maybe a fourth type of part talkie. The first 40 minutes of it is silent with titles and then it suddenly changes into a full talkie for the latter half of the movie. Dramatugically it's quite effective and works rather well.

Samuel,
The Mysterious Island was indeed a Technicolor film. I think the UCLA archive holds the one color reel that still exists. The print in circulation have no color though.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Another wonderful post, Jonas. Thanks for the Chaplin clip.

kittypackard said...

have just stumbled upon your blog and am enraptured! a place where someone can talk extensively on part-talkies?? i am home. thanks so much!

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