The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk (2007)

The period of the transition from silent films to talkies at the end of the 1920s is one that’s fascinated me ever since I started getting interested in films in my mid-teens… at which time, mind you, it was fairly difficult (especially in thise country) to actually see many films from said period, and when I’ve later had the opportunity to do so the films themselves have not always, shall we say, been mega entertainments. They can be difficult to watch and listen to. Still, I retain the fascination, probably because, after all, it was a transformational time in filmmaking worldwide; the advent of colour, widescreen and 3D haven’t quite had the same effect on the whole art of filmmaking (maybe widescreen has, but not in the same way, and not as immediately). So I’m prime target audience for this doco (a bonus feature on the Jazz Singer DVD, but I found it on Youtube), although I did expect it to be somewhat limited in its outlook… To its credit, given that it’s a Turner production accompanying Warner’s game-changing film, it does at least acknowledge the pre-Vitaphone efforts of De Forest and Case (the clip of Gus Visser and his duck never gets old, or any less weird), and it does acknowledge the ultimate victory of Fox’s sound on film process over the technically problematic Vitaphone disc system (while making a point I’d never really thought of before, that it was the popularity of Fox’s Movietone newsreels—and the actual voices of the people in them—that kind of spurred the Warners to make actual talking films rather than silents with music and effects). But, you know, as is often the case, unless something happens in America then it doesn’t happen anywhere, and so it is with this documentary; a fairly bare acknowledgement of the very existence of other countries in the form of references to reshooting films in other languages, and no recognition of the work being done in some of those other countries on the sound film… we get the 1894 Dickson experiment, but not even a glancing mention (that I noticed, at least) to the Tri-Ergon system that was one of the major ingredients of Movietone, nor of the Gaumont Chronophone which kind of defied the documentary’s assertion about sound films being box office poison by running successfully for years (and apparently being deafeningly loud; evidently it didn’t suffer the amplification woes that hamstrung Lee De Forest). But it was popular in Paris, not the US, so who cares, it may as well have never happened and if it did it would only complicate the narrative anyway, so. Still, though I obviously have problems with the documentary, it’s not really bad or anything, it’s a limited but fairly well-made account of an intriguing but obscure period in film history and it does offer some quite nice historical footage. Plus Leonard Maltin getting angry about the sad decline of John Gilbert and the myth of his poor voice. Good on him.

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