Friday, February 27, 2009

The First Talkie

Ever since The Jazz Singer opened in October 1927 it has been labeled "The first talking picture" which of course is untrue. It was in fact far from first or even a true talking picture. About 75% of it was silent as only the songs had synchronized sound. So when did filmmakers start to put sound to their pictures? Which was the first talkie? The truth is that sound was there from the very start. The moving picture as we know it was invented around 1890. Experiments with synchronized sound took place almost immediately. One could suppose that the moving picture never was intended to be silent but that it became silent for technical reasons.

At the turn of the century the sound and picture elements had to be separated as there was no way to put the sound in perfect sync on the film itself. It would have been cumbersome and expensive for the exhibitors to have at least two different machines going at the same time. There was no electronics at hand to amplify the sound and no easy way to obtain a fool proof synchronization of the machines involved. The film itself, without sound was such a sensation that it really didn't need the sound to make its mark. So instead of solving the problem the filmmakers left both sound and synchronization in the laboratory. After all it was the moving pictures that had the novelty value. Sound recording was yesterday’s news even in the 1890’s.

Not many of these really early sound pictures have survived. I have only managed to find one really early example, made by William K.L. Dickson at the Thomas A. Edison laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey in the fall of 1894. The film was made in the Kinetophone process, a technique developed by Edison which basically consisted of hooking up the movie camera to a phonograph. No electricity was involved and the synchronization was far from perfect.

The film shows Dickson playing the violin into a phonograph horn making the sound recording while two of his pals are dancing beside him. The soundtrack to the film, a phonograph cylinder was considered lost until the 1960’s when researchers managed to track it down. The cylinder was badly damaged and unplayable. In 1998 it was possible to put the pieces together with help of some computer magic. This is probably the earliest existing film with a synchronized soundtrack.

In Europe early experiments were carried out all over the place. Many different processes were tried, most of them very similar to the Kinetophone process but with different names like the Vivaphone in England or the Chronophone system developed by Léon Gaumont in France. The Chronophone used sound from a disc rather than from a cylinder, very much like the Vitaphone system used by Warner Bros in the late 20's.

The Chronophone machine

Most Chronophone films were done playback, the same technique as used in modern day rock-videos where the artist simply mimes to an already made recording. The effect is still striking and appears very life like. Let’s take a look at a “Phonoscène” made by female pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, head of production at Gaumont and one of the very first directors. The film shows the well known French vaudeville artist Polin in one of his most celebrated numbers. The film was made in 1905.

About a hundred Phonoscènes were made in the Chronophone process between 1902-1910, almost all of them are showing vaudeville acts or songs. This was how the synchronized sound was used until the mid 20’s when Warner Bros went “all in” with Vitaphone and the Jazz Singer.

Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968)

However, The Vitaphone process of having the sound and film elements separated was already old fashioned in 1927. One of William Dickson’s assistants at Edison's lab, French born Eugène Lauste actually patented an optical sound-on-film system as early as 1907 but didn’t manage to get enough funding to develop it further, and in 1914 the First World War came in the way.

Eugène Lauste working on a talking picture in 1911

Around 1920 Lee DeForest and Theodore Case developed Laustes ideas of an optical soundtrack into what was to be known as the Phonofilm. The process was bought by Fox in 1926 and renamed to Movietone. The Phonofilm/Movietone process is very similar to the method still used for sound in moving pictures. The first showing of the Phonofilm took place in 1922 and one of the first talkie stars to be captured on a Phonofilm was Eddie Cantor. Here’s “A Few Moments With Eddie Cantor” made in 1923.

As we can see, not much had changed artistically since Alice Guy made her Phonoscènes in 1905. We still have a performer and a camera that doesn’t move an inch. Most of the early Phonofilms shows vaudeville acts and doesn’t even try to be fancy. What about titles like “Miss Manila Martin and Her Pet Squirrel” and “Chinese Variety Performer with a Ukelele”. Have a look at this incredibly strange Phonofilm from 1925 showing “Gus Visser And His Singing Duck”. It’s not exactly high brow entertainment, but fun, in a sort of perverse way.

Why is The Jazz Singer considered as the first talkie then? It’s actually quite simple, Warner Bros was the first studio that took the talking movie seriously and also managed to commercialize it with great success. One should have in mind that the main purpose of adding sound was to provide music for the silent films and not for dialogue. Sam Warner’s vision was to provide the splendor of a big orchestra even to the smallest cinemas in every corner of the world. This could only be made by adding a soundtrack that accompanied the picture. Unluckily Sam Warner died the day before the premiere of the Jazz Singer, his vision died with him as the world soon decided to use the sound in a different way.

The Vitaphone system demonstrated by E.B. Craft 1926

Naturally I should add that the first all talking feature film was Warner Bros. The Lights Of New York, starring Helene Costello, Cullen Landis and Eugene Palette. It opened in july 1928 and was directed by Bryan Foy.
From the start it was intended to be a two reel musical short but Bryan Foy took advantage of Jack Warner's absence and expanded it to six reels. It was shot in one week at a minimal cost of $23,000. When Warner discovered Foy's expansion he ordered him to cut it back to the original short. Only when an independent exhibitor offered $25.000 for the film Warner agreed to take a look at the film. It went on to make a staggering gross of $1.3 million making it one of the most profitable movies made to that date considering its initial cost.

Seen with modern eyes it is an extremely stagy piece, with acting that ranges from passable to pure lumber. The script feels improvised, the visual style is non existent (apart from the shooting scene done in silhouette) and scenes grind on interminably with incredibly slow dialogue making the mere 57 minutes feel like one big tailback.

Bryan Foy later become a successful producer. Among his most memorable productions we find Bonita Granville's Nancy Drew suite from 1938-39.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Original scores and theme songs - Eternal hits in quickly forgotten films

The 1923 Skandia Cinema, Stockholm

The silent film was never silent. Even the first public showings of motion pictures at the end of the 19th century often had a musical accompaniment of some sort. At the beginning not much attention was given the music as it served only to break the silence of the flickering images on the screen. Within a few years this random procedure found something of a standard formula in the accompaniment furnished by a house pianist. The honky-tonk piano, slightly out of tune soon became the most common apprehension of what a silent movie sounded like. It still is.

The untuneful hammering was the experience most people had when going to the movies as a majority of the cinema goers were living in small towns or villages. In the big cities a visit to the cinema often was something completely different. Many big city cinemas were palaces with an in house orchestra of sometimes as much as over a hundred musicians. The big cinema orchestra quickly became an attraction in itself. For people of lesser means, the cinema orchestra was probably their first encounter with “high-brow” culture, and must have been a wonderful experience to a person who wasn’t used to attend regular symphonic concerts.

The orchestra pit at the New York Roxy in 1927

Nearly every large cinema theatre had a musical director who arranged the movie scores from week to week. For this purpose the biggest cinemas had enormous libraries, some of them containing as many as 25,000 pieces of music. Normally, a silent film score consisted of different bits and pieces of music to fit the mood of the scene. Most commonly used were symphonic extracts from the old masters as Bach, Mozart or Brahms but also ballet music and interludes from operas and stage plays. Folk tunes and popular melodies quickly found their way to the movies. All these pieces were then carefully patched together by either the musical director or a hired arranger. When the musical director couldn’t find satisfactory music for a certain bit of action, he was often obliged to compose some himself.
It was at this point the film score as we know it was born.

To gain control of the overall impression of their movies, some studios started to commission scores, and had those sent out with the prints. An original score craved its composer. A two hour movie required as much music as an average opera. One of the first original scores was written by Victor Schertzinger for the movie Civilization in 1916. Schertzinger later turned into a director of many silent pictures, most notably Redskin (1929). Among his talkies The Road To Zanzibar (1941) is probably his best work. He kept a foot in the music department throughout his career. He got his biggest hit with the song Tangerine which he wrote for the noir classic Double Indemnity (1944).

The original score became more and more common practice for the biggest movies. The Frank Tuttle movie Puritan Passions (1923) had a score by Massachusetts born Frederick Shepherd Converse, his only credit in the movie world. The Marion Davies vehicle Little Old New York (1923) and Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924) both had original orchestral scores, both of them are apparently considered lost today. By the mid 20's, many bigger European productions also had original scores written. Gottfried Huppertz wrote a huge, almost Strauss-like score to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Giuseppe Becce who usually worked on a smaller scale wrote almost 200 scores during his career from 1913-59, among them several for F.W Murnau.

Chaplin composing

The films with a smaller budget usually settled for theme songs instead of an original score. One of the first who used specifically written theme songs in his movies was Charlie Chaplin, who even early on frequently composed music for distribution with his films. In many cases the sheet music to the theme songs was for sale in the lobby. Many of these theme songs became big hits, several of them even bigger hits than the films themselves.

Let’s have a listen at some of the most well known theme songs from the late 1920’s.

Charmaine - What Price Glory? (1926)
Written by Lew Pollack & Erno Rappee
Played by Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians (1927)
Charmaine later became Mantovani's signature tune, and with that a true elevator classic.

Diane - Seventh Heaven (1927)
Written by: Lew Pollack & Erno Rappee
Played by: Jack Hylton & His Orchestra
Diane was recorded by Jim Reeves in the 50's and by Miles Davis in the 60's making it a clssic in many different genres.

Ramona - Ramona (1928)
Written by: Mabel Wayne & L. Wolfe Gilbert
Performed by Gene Austin to Nat Shilkret & His Victor Orchestra
Ramona is probably the most well known of all the silent theme songs. This version sold more than a million copies. Ramona has been used many times in many different movies. In Europe the Dutch/Indonesian duo, The Blue Diamonds had a huge hit with an uptempo version in 1960.

Weary River - Weary River (1928)
Written by: Louis Silvers & Grant Clarke
Played by Jan Garber & His Orchestra
Weary River has been recorded so many times it has become a true evergreen.

Should I - Our Modern Maidens (1929)
Written by: Nacio Herb Brown & Arthur Freed
Played by Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra
Should I was also the theme song for the 1930 talkie Lord Byron Of Broadway and has been recorded in many different versions ever since.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

It was 80 years ago today...

Broadway Melody, the first talkie musical had its celebrity premiere February 1st 1929 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The public premiere was held a week later, February 8th in New York, making it exactly 80 years ago today. Historically, Broadway Melody is a very important movie, not only for movie musical lovers but for numerous other reasons as well.

Broadway Melody was the first talkie to have a score and songs specifically written for it by a songwriting team set up by a major studio. Former vaudeville artist Artur Freed wrote the lyrics and former tailor shop owner Nacio Herb Brown wrote the music. The two were hired by MGM in 1928. The story was written by Edmund Goulding and adapted for the screen by Sarah Y. Mason, Norman Houston and James Gleason. Harry Beaumont directed the picture. The three leading roles were played by Bessie Love, Anita Page and Charles King. Broadway Melody was shot on 26 days between September and November of 1928.

Bessie Love & Anita Page

At this time MGM only had one operable soundstage so Broadway Melody had to share space with the studio’s first all-talking dramatic film, The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), starring Norma Shearer. During the morning and early afternoon, the Trial of Mary Dugan company would use the studio, and in the evening, the Broadway Melody cast and crew moved in.

Typical talkie set 1929

This is the original backstage musical and it tells the story of Hank and Queenie Mahoney, a sister act arriving in New York hoping to hit it big time on Braodway. Bessie Love plays Hank, the pepperpot of the sisters who's also running the act. She is in love with Eddie Kerns, an upcoming songwriter (Charles King) who eventually falls for Queenie, the younger sister (Anita Page). Rather than hurt her sister, Queenie starts running around with a scummy playboy. The truth about who loves who finally comes out and Hank backs off in a very memorable heart-breaking scene, giving up Eddie and the act, and clears the way for Queenie and Eddie.

The story is said to be loosely modeled on the life of The Duncan Sisters who also were sought after to play the leads in the movie. But for various reasons the leads instead went to Bessie and Anita. The Duncan's later got a consolation price in It's A Great Life which had a very similar plot but lacked the novelty value of its predecessor. It's A Great Life was to be The Duncan's only full length feature.

Bessie Love was nominated for an academy award for best actress in a leading role but lost to Mary Pickford in Coquette. Broadway Melody had three nominations and won the Oscar for best picture 1929-30.

Let's take a look at one interesting scene.
The movie starts off with a firework of sound at a Tin Pan Alley music publishing company. If we look closely we can see the composer Nacio Herb Brown at the piano and a glimpse of Arthur Freed as a spectator towards the end of the clip. The sound is noisy, the cutting is rough but the use of sound like this in a motion picture was something completely new to the audience.

The scene was orchestrated by the pioneering and inventive sound engineer Douglas Shearer who by no means was an experienced sound man at this time. Shearer was running the sound department at MGM as a one man operation and this was his third assignment. Maybe it tells something about MGM's look at the new talkie fad.

A proud Douglas Shearer with his 1930 Oscar for The Big House

Douglas Shearer was Queen Norma's older brother who came down to Hollywood from Canada one day to visit his sister. Norma quickly got him a job at MGM and almost by mistake he was chosen to set up the brand new sound department. As talking pictures was something new both to Shearer and to the world he had to be resourceful. In what seems to be a couple of weeks Shearer more or less invented how to make talking pictures.

A color frame from The Painted Doll number

Originally the film included a brief color sequence. The Wedding Of The Painted Doll, a ballet number sung by James Burroughs off camera. The sound was fine, however the dancers were not well rehearsed so Beaumont ordered a retake, but instead of letting the orchestra work overtime Douglas Shearer came up with the idea to use the soundtrack of the first take and let the dancers dance to the music coming from a loudspeaker. No one had an idea that the sound actually could be stiched on afterwords. Douglas Shearer had just invented the audio dubbing, a technique used in almost every single motion picture made ever since.

Broadway Melody is available on DVD

Sunday, February 1, 2009

20 Favorite Actors Meme

Raquelle of Out Of The Past smacked me with her trusty wrench once again. This time it was the actors that came to me in living color. 
In no particular order and with many fine names left out, here goes...

Spencer Tracy

Rudolf Klein-Rogge

Ronald Coleman

Robert Montgomery

Richard Barthelmess

Orson Welles

The Four Marx Brothers

Lawrence Gray

Joseph Cotten

James Stewart

Fredric March

Erroll Flynn

Emil Jannings

Eddie Cantor

Cary Grant

Bela Lugosi

Roscoe Arbuckle

Since everyone I know have been tagged or smacked already, I'm resting my case.

Cliff Edwards - Forgotten superstar

While strolling around YouTube the other day I found this disturbing clip concerning one of the most prolific entertainers of the early talkies.
No need for an introduction, it's all in the clip:

The saddest thing is that Cliff Edwards isn't the only one who has been erased from public memory. There are so many of these fine entertainers that simply didn't make it to our times. I don't blame all these seemingly ignorant people in the clip. How should they know who Cliff Edwards was when no one is no longer mentioning "their own" Ukulele Ike in the medias.

Mark Twain may be a fine writer but he did certainly not know how to strum a ukelele the way Cliff Edwards did! I think it would be suitable to proclaim a Cliff Edwards Day in Hannibal, Missouri after seeing this clip. A nice ukelele parade could be a fine thing to start it off.
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