Synchronized Sound Technology and the British Musical Film in the 1930s
The introduction of synchronized sound technology significantly altered processes of film production and exhibition. This article examines some of the implications of synchronized sound technology for the construction of filmic narrative and strategies of representation in the immediate post-transition period in Britain. The discussion of two musical films, Evergreen (1934) and Waltzes from Vienna (1934), suggests that synchronized sound film in the early post-transition period treats sound not simply as a technological gimmick, but as a means of reflecting explicitly on film’s changing processes of production and storytelling. For the case of Evergreen, the discussion centers on the musical film’s overt engagement with the technological recording and reproduction of the female voice as a key element of the film’s narrative and its successful conclusion. In Waltzes from Vienna, the musical film demonstrates how it can both visualize and make audible musical composition and orchestration as two crucial components of sound film. These examples suggest that synchronized sound film in the early post-transition years moves beyond principles of classical narrative film, which is normally understood as working towards the invisibility (or inaudibility) of its processes of production.
Keywords synchronized sound film / musical comedy / operetta / Jessie Matthews / Alfred Hitchcock
Sound Film in the Space Between
The media historian William Uricchio suggests that “moments of tension and instability offer particularly sharp insights into the construction of a media form” (31). While the conventions of classical film style, such as continuity editing, psychological causality and “self-effacing craftsmanship” (Bordwell et al. 3-4), emerged and solidified over the first half of the twentieth century, the transition to sound in the late 1920s arguably introduced a period of tension and instability to the interwar film industry and to the construction and consolidation of classical cinematic conventions.1 The development and dissemination of synchronized sound technology led to a renegotiation of film’s processes of production, storytelling, and representation vis-à-vis sound. Many films produced in Britain in the late 1920s and early 1930s, for instance, indicate that there was continued development and reflection on the ways in which sound could and did renegotiate filmic mise-en-scène and narrative. Indeed, the “evolution of sound technology” within the film industry cannot be read as a linear “progression toward [technological] self-effacement” (Belton 63), as is often assumed within theories of classical narrative cinema.
Several British musical films of the early post-transition years indicate the extent to which film made explicit its reliance on sound composition, orchestration, recording, and reproduction as fundamental elements of film’s representational strategies. Through an analysis of two musical films of 1934, Evergreen and Waltzes from Vienna, this essay argues that synchronized sound film in the early post-transition years inhabits a “space between” not merely in a period sense, but also thematically and technologically. The case studies suggest how sound arguably contributes to a reformulation of filmic aesthetics and narrative conventions which do not neatly align with ideas of classical cinema in the sense that they do not work towards the concealment of film’s underlying processes of production. Indeed, the essay argues that Evergreen and Waltzes from Vienna do not conceal their reliance on the recording, reproduction, and editing of the soundtrack and, instead, construct themselves explicitly around questions of sound, voice, and composition. In this way, the films dramatize their reliance on the technological reproduction of voice, song, and sound effects. Here, synchronized sound technology does not feature as a technological gimmick, but as an element of filmic self-reflexivity which highlights underlying processes of production. The films push beyond John Belton’s poignant observation that
the work of technology can never quite become invisible. Work, even the work that seeks to efface itself, can never disappear…The work of sound technology, through its very efforts to remain inaudible, announces itself and, though concealed, becomes audible for those who choose to listen for it. (63)
While Belton’s point speaks more to the idea of classical narrative film as a style that seeks to efface its processes of production, making the argument that the technological processes of filmmaking can never fully attain invisibility or inaudibility, the case studies discussed below suggest that sound film in the early post-transition years does not even aspire to fully concealing its processes of technological construction. Evergreen and Waltzes from Vienna deploy sound to inspire, structure, and resolve their narratives and invert a classical “image-sound hierarchy” that puts sound at the center of attention (Herzog 7). In what follows, the essay briefly contextualizes its discussion by giving an overview of the transition to sound in Britain, followed by an analysis of Evergreen and Waltzes from Vienna vis-à-vis sound.
Britain’s Transition to Synchronized Sound
Contrary to viewing the introduction of synchronized sound as a radical break with silent cinema, it is more accurate to understand the introduction of synchronized sound as the result of a longer developmental trajectory in the global film industry that had been working towards the connection of sound and moving image since the late nineteenth century (Crafton 4). After the successful launch of sound film shorts in the form of newsreels and vaudeville film clips, there were concerted efforts to extend the use of sound technology to feature-length films. The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson, is now widely regarded as one of the first feature-length movies with synchronized sound in an Anglo-American context. It was a sensation with American audiences in 1927 but was shown in just a few cinemas in Britain in 1928. A follow-up production, The Singing Fool (1928), also featured Jolson and was released to public and critical acclaim in Britain.2 In the wake of the success of The Singing Fool, “sound films began to be taken seriously and the installation of sound equipment in [British] cinemas began in earnest” (Murphy 146). Accordingly, a wave of sound systems for cinemas and film production companies flooded the American and British markets in the 1928–29 season: Photophone by RCA, Western Electric’s Vitaphone, American Powers-Cinephone, German Tobis-Klangfilm, British Phototone, British Acoustic, Marconi-Visatone, and many more (Murphy 147). Broadly speaking, those systems could be divided into two categories: sound-on-disc and sound-on-film systems. Sound-on-disc, for instance Vitaphone, was a system by which the soundtrack was recorded on a separate disc and, during exhibition, the soundtrack had to be played separately from the film. While sound reproduction offered relatively good intelligibility and fidelity, it was more complicated to achieve accurate synchronization in theats with this system. Sound-on-film, for instance the German Tobis-Klangfilm or RCA’s Photophone, contained both image track and soundtrack on the film strip. This allowed for better results with synchronization, but the sound quality of the recording was initially less convincing than that of sound-on-disc systems.
Early sound film production came with new requirements and changed the practicalities of filmmaking significantly; cameras had to be soundproofed (“blimped”), microphone placement had to be devised carefully on set (often adversely affecting lighting and set design), and both early microphones and heavy soundproofed cameras restricted movement for actors and made on-location filming with sound virtually impossible (Salt 37–43; Cousins 117–22). For the performer, accent and voice became paramount and sound doubtlessly required a completely new approach to acting, speaking, and enunciation. Reflecting such developments, trade magazines included new categories in their review sections. The film reviews of Kinematograph Weekly, for instance, added “sound technique” to its review categories. While the reviewers would normally comment on “story,” “acting,” “production,” “setting,” and “photography,” by 1930 the comments here included information on whether a film’s recordings were of good quality and clear, whether the speech heard in the film was “pleasant” and intelligible, and whether accents were (too) strong.3 By 1931, the actual transition to sound had been largely completed and film industries in both the United States and Britain subsequently worked towards improving and refining the technology as well as achieving greater fidelity and intelligibility. Western Electric and RCA had developed portable recording equipment which made filming and recording on location easier and more feasible (Low 84). D.L. LeMahieu summarizes some of the most important developments in film sound of the early 1930s as follows:
Western Electric and RCA perfected recording techniques that eliminated the extraneous noise of early recording. Microphones became mobile, and sound engineers developed ingenious techniques to reproduce music and dialogue of good fidelity. Actors adjusted their styles to the intimacy of movie dialogue. (231–32)
With developments in technology that overcame the initial teething problems mentioned above, the production of sound film in the immediate post-transition period also became more sophisticated.4 During the early post-transition years, musical comedy was one of the most popular and commercially successful film genres. In terms of British film industry output, Stephen Guy estimates that musical films formed “a fairly constant proportion of total film output averaging out at one in every six or seven films made” (100). He suggests further that “audiences, still predisposed towards musical and variety theatre, could relate to the musical film as an offshoot of it” (118). The production of musical films across different studios at the time drew on a number of stage shows and different dramatic traditions, predominantly music hall, operetta, and revue: “While these theatrical strands are reasonably distinct, it should be noted that there was considerable overlap and cross-flow of influences and artists” (Guy 101). John Sedgwick’s analysis of the top fifty British films of each year from 1932 to 1937 shows that films featuring song and dance routines were regularly among the box office successes in Britain (23–35). Some of the most successful productions released in the early 1930s were Sally in Our Alley (1931) and Sing as We Go! (1934). In addition to these musical comedies, there were also films building on the operetta tradition, notably Good Night, Vienna (1932) and Bitter Sweet (1933). For studios and producers, musical film seemed especially suitable for presenting the new possibilities of sound in cinema. It allowed filmmakers to build on the heritage of early sound shorts with their mixture of filmed vaudeville and music-hall acts by integrating such content into a narrative shaped by causality, temporal linearity, and spatial depth. Drawing on the theatre also yielded several other advantages for film producers; scripts and musical numbers could be copied or adapted fairly easily from existing material and successful stage performers with appropriate voice training could be drafted into the film industry.
In addition to such practical considerations, the musical film also allows for a unique reflection on its underlying narrative and technological processes. In her work on the musical moment in film, Amy Herzog suggests that music or song “inverts the image-sound hierarchy,” turning “music [into] the dominant force in the work” (5–7). Through the musical moment, “the work music performs in relation to the image [is foregrounded], destabilizing the image and opening it to outside associations” (6). The integration of music and especially popular songs, for instance, can subordinate the image to the demands and requirements of the song (6–7). Herzog argues further that the musical moment is “marked by excess, rupture, fluidity, and the dissolution of the space-time continuum that orders the reality of our everyday existence” (7). In other words, music may re-structure the filmic portrayal of space and time as required by the song. For this reason, the musical moment can become a “point of rupture” (7) within the filmic work that could interrupt the traditional, “linear flow” (8) of the cinematic narrative and may lead the viewer to question the performative operations and representational patterns shown on screen. Herzog writes,
The musical moment generates patterns of representational repetition that are, simultaneously and uniquely, open to the interventions of difference. The musical moment is unusual in its capacity to make this tension palpable; it is at once one of the most conservative and the most irreverent filmic phenomena. (8)
Through its very reliance on the technological mediation of sound, the musical film allows for an in-depth reflection on its underlying processes of production, drawing attention to the significance of sound within both filmic narrative and mise-en-scène.
In April 1934, the musical comedy film Evergreen was released to great acclaim in Britain. The film was commercially successful and extremely popular with both British and American audiences. The New York Times lauded it for its “suave and expert technical arrangement” and the “melodic pleasure” of its songs and musical arrangements (Sennwald 29). Directed by Victor Saville and produced by Michael Balcon for Gaumont-British, the film stars the British singer, dancer, and actress Jessie Matthews in one of her most iconic roles. Evergreen is the rise-to-fame story of the aspiring singer Harriet, the daughter of the fictitious Edwardian music hall star Harriet Green (both women are played by Matthews). The film begins with the Edwardian star taking her leave from the stage to marry an aristocrat. However, she is blackmailed by the father of her illegitimate daughter, who threatens to reveal that she has a child and thus sabotage the impending high society marriage. Scared, the Edwardian star disappears forever, leaving her baby daughter in the care of a friend. The film then moves to 1930s London, twenty years after the disappearance of Harriet Green, and tells the story of her daughter, young Harriet, who is an aspiring singer and performer. Thompson, a publicity agent, recognizes Harriet as the daughter of the Edwardian star and proposes a PR stunt: the daughter is to impersonate her mother, pretending to be the timelessly beautiful Edwardian icon who has chosen to return to the stage. The stunt is successful and the daughter, posing as her famous mother, is cheered by audiences. Keeping up the pretense becomes increasingly difficult when Harriet falls in love with Thompson. When she confesses the deception, she is brought to court. Harriet must convince the judge (and her audience) that she truly is the daughter of the Edwardian star by singing along perfectly to a recording of her famous mother, thus evading a conviction and bringing the film to its happy conclusion.
Originally a West End stage revue called Ever Green, with musical compositions by the famous American duo Rodgers and Hart and a script by Benn Levy, the stage version (also starring Jessie Matthews) premiered in December 1930 at the Adelphi Theatre in London. While the stage version solely relied on Rodgers and Hart compositions, the sound film offers a mixture of the original Rodgers and Hart songs, together with contemporary music by the London-based American composer Harry M. Woods, as well as traditional folk songs and several well-known Edwardian music hall hits. The film relies on a large repertoire of music, spanning three decades, and plays with the film’s themes of Edwardian past and 1930s present. A major part of Evergreen’s audience appeal lay in its superb rendition of the music, not least due to advances in sound technology which allowed the film to fully reproduce the breadth and skill of Jessie Matthew’s vocal range. During the transition years, it had been difficult to record and reproduce voices with a higher frequency, especially female voices, due to shortcomings in sound recording equipment and microphone sensitivity. By 1934, advances in technology meant that studios were in a much better position to capture more fully the key, range, and volume of higher frequency voices, especially female sopranos.5 Nonetheless, microphone placement had to be devised carefully and strategically on set, especially during performances that involved different layers or levels of sound. For some scenes in Evergreen, orchestra, chorus, and Matthews as the lead singer had to be recorded simultaneously. This was achieved by using several microphones. One microphone would be placed close to the orchestra and another one close to the singer. The sound recordist on Evergreen, A. F. (Peter) Birch, remembered this process in an interview conducted for the British Entertainment History Project:
Peter Birch: Oh, I remember the song she [Jessie Matthews] sang, oh yes, we used to have a funny sort of way of recording the songs in those days; we used to do it on the set, and have the orchestra on one side, you know.
Alan Lawson: Louis Levy.
Peter Birch: Louis Levy, yes, and Bretton Byrd. And it was quite a job, you know, on a set, trying to get a decent recording with the voice and the orchestra. You know, you couldn't segregate them very easily. But we managed after a fashion.
Alan Lawson: How many mikes [sic] would you use on an orchestra then? Just the one?
Peter Birch: As a rule, one.
Alan Lawson: One, and one for the singer.
Peter Birch: Unless there was a solo section in the orchestra that you had to portray, and then you'd have an extra mike [sic] of course, and you'd have to read your music. (Birch 8)6
Evergreen situates itself at the intersection of contemporary 1930s musical idioms and state-of-the-art technological innovation while also framing itself as the descendant of a much longer tradition of British musical theatre and Edwardian music hall entertainment. The musical leitmotif of the film is the song “When You’ve got a Little Springtime in Your Heart,” which was composed especially for the film by Woods.7 Strings and high register piano lend the music a symphonic sound, whereas the horns, particularly in several off-beat horn lines after the vocals, sound more typical of jazz and swing compositions. Lawrence Napper notes that “Springtime in Your Heart,” while being a contemporary 1930s composition, “gently pastiches the Edwardian musical style” (37).8 In the final moments of Evergreen, “Springtime in Your Heart” is performed when the PR stunt is discovered, and Harriet is taken to court for fraud and impersonation. Her defense lawyer argues that she must not be tried for fraud if she can “deliver the goods,” meaning if she can prove her talent as a singer. The lawyer calls Harriet to the witness stand and sets up a phonograph (“Exhibit A”) in front of the judge and jury. He then plays a cylinder recording of Harriet’s mother, the Edwardian star Harriet Green. The recording is “Springtime in Your Heart,” and Harriet begins to sing along effortlessly to the recording in the courtroom, convincing the judge that she is the daughter of the Edwardian star as well as a talented singer in her own right. This is the film’s climactic scene which resolves the problems created by the impersonation of her mother. The film’s narrative interweaves the use of sound recording and reproduction technology, here in the shape of the phonograph, with attaining proof of Harriet’s identity and her gaining recognition as a performer in her own right. Sound recording and reproduction, on the story level, also leads to the overall resolution of the narrative. The use of the phonograph and the cylinder recording in the film raise crucial questions about the significance of sound reproduction for Evergreen. In the courtroom scene, the phonograph is placed at the centre and foreground of a medium long shot, presenting the phonograph in rack focus, and drawing the viewer’s attention to the sound reproduction device on screen.
As soon as the recording begins to play, the camera presents close-ups of the cylinder turning within the phonograph, thus filming in minute detail how the voice of the Edwardian star is released into the space of the court room. The camera here explores the technological source of the female voice by intercutting medium long shots of the courtroom, upper body shots of Harriet and the judge, along with close-ups of the phonograph.
Through cross-cutting between the phonograph and Harriet, the film also links the “live” performance in the courtroom with the “recorded” performance of Harriet’s mother. As both female voices fill the courtroom, seemingly merging with each other, the film also establishes the close relationship between live performance and recording, asserting sound technology’s capacity to reproduce the voice in a way that does not compromise intelligibility, fidelity, and vocal range. Evergreen does not obscure or conceal its representational strategies, but self-reflexively reveals its representational and technological operations by making sound reproduction a key part of the film’s narrative conclusion. The film insists that the case against Harriet can only be resolved via the technological mediation of sound. The law itself permits it. Harriet’s defense lawyer quotes the fictional case of “Smith versus Smith in 1914” to prove to the judge the admissibility of sonic evidence.9 The use of the phonograph in the courtroom scene further underscores the film’s pastiche fantasy of the past. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 and Emil Berliner developed the rivaling gramophone with its flat disk record in 1887. By the early 1930s, the phonograph with its cylinder recordings had been largely displaced by the gramophone since Berliner’s flat disk records could be reproduced more easily for a mass market. In 1929, Edison ceased production of cylinder records, and the phonograph subsequently became associated with outmoded strategies of sound reproduction technology.10 Featuring the phonograph in the courtroom scene in Evergreen emphasizes the fictional historicity of the Edwardian music hall recording that is presented as a piece of evidence. The phonograph and the cylinder record evoke nostalgia for an outdated form of music reproduction technology and create a cinematic fantasy of the recent past for contemporary 1930s audiences. The past materializes in the shape of the phonograph, which provides a visual cue for 1930s audiences to underscore the alleged historicity of the pseudo-Edwardian song “Springtime in Your Heart.” Evergreen thus mobilizes sound throughout the film to convey a historical fantasy that merges Edwardian music hall traditions and contemporary 1930s musical entertainment while simultaneously capitalizing on advances in sound technology that allow it to faithfully reproduce Matthews’ vocal range.
Waltzes from Vienna
Produced for Gaumont-British, Waltzes from Vienna (1934) is part of a cycle of operetta films made in Britain from the early to mid-1930s.11 It remains of interest to film scholars to this day for being Alfred Hitchcock’s only musical film. Based on a Viennese Singspiel, the film gives a fictional account of the rivalry between Johann Strauss the Elder and his son Johann Strauss the Younger (“Schani”), along with the latter’s romantic involvement with both a baker’s daughter, Therese (“Resi”), and a wealthy older countess, Helga von Stahl. The action is set in mid-nineteenth-century Vienna, offering a fictitious and anachronistic account of the conception and composition of one of the younger Strauss’s most popular waltzes, The Blue Danube (An der schönen, blauen Donau). As a musical film about the composition of a piece of music, the film is arguably inherently self-reflexive. At the same time, the film addresses its reflexive relationship with sound in more subtle and nuanced ways. Jack Sullivan suggests that Waltzes from Vienna offered Hitchcock a vehicle for “dramatiz[ing] ideas about music that he would use for the next forty years” (xiv). Although it is often disregarded by critics due to Hitchcock’s own assessment of the film as one of the lowest points of his career (Schroeder 90), it remains of interest due to its overt dramatization of processes of musical composition and orchestration. Hitchcock himself suggested at various points throughout his life that the concept of orchestration was “perhaps the best simile for a film…and the director is, as it were, the conductor” (Hitchcock qtd. in Gottlieb 216).12 Waltzes from Vienna addresses the question of orchestration as both a literal concept vis-à-vis its film music and as a metaphorical concept for thinking more widely about filmic composition.
A key sequence in the film takes place in the bakery of Resi’s father who shows Schani the production of bread, bread rolls, and cakes, hoping that his potential future son-in-law might show interest in the family business. Schani, however, has music on his mind, contemplating a composition with which he has been toying for a while. As Resi’s father introduces the different pieces of equipment in the bakery, such as a dough-kneading machine, the machinery’s noise and regular, timed use by the employees inspires Schani to mentally add to and ultimately complete his composition, The Blue Danube Waltz. The camera in the scene cuts between close-ups of Schani’s face as it changes from a look of contemplation to increasing excitement, medium long shots and long shots of Resi’s father and the workers in the bakery, and close-ups of different pieces of machinery that inspire Schani’s composition. The different devices and work processes in the bakery are underscored by a few bars of The Blue Danube Waltz, with each device and work process inspiring a new addition to the composition. Finally, Schani hastily leaves the bakery feeling certain that he has found a way of composing his breakthrough piece of music. Later in the film, he presents his composition during a concert performance with a full orchestra at his disposal.
This sequence of the film renders explicit a process of composition, where everyday mundane tasks yield inspiration. As the film derives much of its tension from the ongoing competition between Schani and his famous composer father, Johann Strauss the Elder, the scenes in the bakery are especially poignant because they assert Schani’s ability to become a composer in his own right, setting himself apart from his father. Those scenes also show composition and orchestration as two processes that intersect with everyday activity. Schani’s musical inspiration comes from the mundane, but it results in a successful and timeless composition.
The film also reflects on the role of the composer, depicting the struggle for recognition, fame, and financial independence through Schani’s relationships with his father, Resi, and Countess Helga. Once Schani has completed his composition, he is elated, but still not at the end of his journey since the piece has not yet been publicly performed. These circumstances lead up to the second key sequence of the film: Schani presents The Blue Danube Waltz in a public concert at which he is in charge of a large symphonic orchestra. The concert performance of The Blue Danube Waltz fulfills a similar function to that of the court scene in Evergreen; in both cases, the climactic performance of music also leads to a successful narrative resolution that highlights the film’s (and the story’s) dependence on sound. During the concert performance in Waltzes from Vienna, the soundtrack initially starts with a performance in which the parts played by all instruments are fully blended. After a while, the soundtrack switches to sound close-ups of individual instruments. These sound close-ups highlight, for instance, the string and horn sections of the composition, thus moving the sonic emphasis from one instrument and performer to another. Waltzes from Vienna distinguishes the filmic representation and reproduction of music from listening to the live performance of a piece of music in a concert hall. Sound editing allows the sound film to enhance the volume or clarity of certain instrumental sections artificially. While the live performance of music is central to the story level of the film, the editing and mise-en-scène deliberately foreground the ways in which the sound film can modify and play with the recording of a live performance.
Hitchcock subsequently used sound close-ups frequently. His first feature-length thriller with synchronized sound, British International Picture’s Blackmail (1929), contains an extended use of sound close-ups to draw attention to the word “knife.” While, as outlined by Sullivan, Hitchcock’s whole career makes “music a crucial part of the [filmic] narrative—sometimes even key to the mystery” (xiii), Waltzes from Vienna is an early example of Hitchcock’s engagement with ideas around composition, orchestration, and sound film’s relationship to music. The film’s narrative is constructed around the younger Strauss’s attempts to establish himself as a successful composer. Yet, the film further enhances the link between filmic image and musical composition through its visual representation of Schani’s mental efforts to compose, showing how mundane activities can serve as inspiration for creating a timeless piece of music. The film’s focus on the act of composition repeatedly invokes the inversion of the “image-sound-hierarchy” (Herzog 7); The Blue Danube Waltz drives the action forward and determines the visual montage of Schani’s visit to the bakery. Like Evergreen, Waltzes from Vienna makes sound in its various iterations the key element of the film. Both films place sustained emphasis on the performance of music, either through the voice of the female singer, or through a focus on processes of composition and orchestration. Story and mise-en-scène are significantly shaped by and represented as musical performance.
This essay suggests that the implementation of synchronized sound technology led to a renegotiation of filmic storytelling and mise-en-scène vis-à-vis sound. The musical films discussed here indicate that sound, in the early post-transition period, does not follow a “progression toward [technological] self-effacement” (Belton 63), as is frequently assumed within theories of classical narrative cinema. Evergreen and Waltzes from Vienna do not conceal their reliance on orchestration, recording, sound editing, and sound reproduction. Rather, they construct themselves explicitly around questions of sound, voice, and composition. Synchronized sound technology becomes an important element of filmic (and sonic) self-reflexivity. Evergreen features the phonograph as a central sound reproduction device which supports the film’s creation of a musical-technological conflation of Edwardian music hall traditions and 1930s musical comedy. Additionally, sophisticated reproduction of the female voice becomes paramount for the film’s narrative resolution, framing synchronized sound film as a medium which relies on the technological reproduction of the performer’s voice with a view to both story and discourse. The approach taken by Waltzes from Vienna differs in that it does not explicitly feature sound reproduction devices as part of its plot. The film, however, dramatizes processes of composition and orchestration at climactic narrative moments, thereby exposing, rather than concealing, the underlying processes involved in producing the soundtrack. The film is inherently self-reflexive as a musical which constructs its plot around the task of creating a piece of music, but it is also self-reflexive in its nuanced technological mediation of sonic composition and orchestration, for instance in sequences of sound montage and through its reflections on the profession of composer.
Evergreen and Waltzes from Vienna interrogate sound’s capacity to inspire, structure, and resolve filmic narrative while also reflecting on sound as a key technological and aesthetic element of cinematic production. As such, these case studies provide some crucial, early reflections on the wide-ranging influence of sound for devising new strategies of cinematic storytelling and production. From the implementation of synchronized sound in the interwar period to our present moment, films have repeatedly and explicitly returned to issues of recording, transmission, reproduction, composition, and performance in new and surprising ways, establishing sound as one of the most important, but also one of the most compelling dimensions of cinema.13
1 In The Classical Hollywood Cinema, Bordwell et al. argue that the development and consolidation of classical film style took place from about 1917 to 1960. Their seminal work defines classical film style as a move towards continuity editing, narrative causality and coherence, psychological complexity, and as a move towards greater filmic realism.
2 The Daily Mail called The Singing Fool a “Talking Film Triumph,” stating further that “the entire picture was a revelation of what the real Al Jolson can do....To hear the star sing ‘There’s a Rainbow Round my Shoulder’ makes this first really arresting talking picture to be shown in London a significant and a deeply enjoyable entertainment.” The importance of The Singing Fool for the British film industry’s move to sound is also stated by Brown (95) and Porter (88).
3 See, for instance, Kinematograph Weekly’s “Reviews of the Week.” Detailed discussions of the challenges faced by film industries in the United States, France, and Britain upon the conversion to sound can be found in Charles O’Brien’s Cinema’s Conversion to Sound, James Lastra’s Sound Technology and the American Cinema, Donald Crafton’s The Talkies, and Lea Jacobs’s Film Rhythm after Sound.
4 Rachael Low (73–90) and Barry Salt (19–32) discuss these developments in greater detail and provide important insights into some of the issues that arose out of the implementation and diffusion of synchronized sound technology.
5 In her study of Hollywood sound practices in the 1930s and 1940s, Helen Hanson explores the difficulty of capturing voices with a higher frequency and discusses some of the changes and technological adjustments that were made by 1934. Hanson’s case study is the American operetta film One Night of Love starring the actress and soprano singer Grace Moore (19–23).
6 Page numbers refer to the interview transcript, which is available online.
7 The song alludes to light Edwardian music as composed by, for instance, Eric Coates, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (“Dusk”) or Albert William Ketèlby (“Bells Across the Meadow”; “Persian Market”) by combining a typically Edwardian, diatonic melody with a more contemporary compositional framework that consists of a slow musical introduction to the song, followed by the song itself. I would like to thank Professor Jeremy Dibble from the Music Department at Durham University for sharing his insights and for suggesting these connections to Edwardian compositional styles.
8 You can listen to the changes between Edwardian music-hall style and 1930s jazz idioms in the song here.
9 Sound recording had been admissible evidence in court since about 1906 in the United States. According to Peter D. Roper, the advantages of admitting sound recordings in court were clear to members of the legal profession: “A sound recording possessed attributes unknown to other forms of evidence, such as the ability to capture the shades of meaning that come with inflection, emphasis and other qualities of speech” (525).
10 In The Audible Past, Jonathan Sterne suggests that “Berliner’s machine was considerably louder than its immediate predecessors, but one of its most important differences was that its disks were reproduced through a ‘stamping process’ and, therefore, easily mass produced” (203–4). However, Sterne maintains that this is not the sole reason for Berliner’s gramophone gradually replacing the phonograph. The decline in popularity was possibly also due to the increasing availability of radio (Morton 91). On the cultural and literary connotations of the phonograph with the Victorian and Edwardian eras, see also Picker (769–86).
11 Operetta films were not an exclusively British phenomenon. Richard Barrios summarizes some of the main developments in US operetta film production in the early 1930s (269–97). In the United States, Waltzes from Vienna was released as Strauss’s Great Waltz.
12 These ideas remained with Hitchcock throughout his career and also pertain to other films, such as Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), or Notorious (1946). Sullivan’s Hitchcock’s Music and Schroeder’s Hitchcock’s Ear offer detailed discussions of these works and Hitchcock’s use of sound throughout his career.
13 In Britain and Hollywood, this process arguably begins with the production of feature-length revue films and films featuring “backstage” stories. See, for instance, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1929) and Elstree Calling (British International Pictures/Wardour Films, 1930). Following the initial wave of self-reflexive interrogations of sound in the 1930s, films from the mid-twentieth century to the new millennium have repeatedly returned to the issue of sound. Some notable and well-known examples include Singin’ in the Rain (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952), The Conversation (Paramount Pictures, 1974), and The Lives of Others (Buena Vista International, 2006).
Altman, Rick. “The Evolution of Sound Technology.” Film Sound: Theory and Practice, edited by Elisabeth Weis and John Belton, Columbia UP, 1985, pp. 45–53.
Barrios, Richard. A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film. Oxford UP, 2010.
Belton, John. “Technology and Aesthetics of Film Sound.” Film Sound: Theory and Practice, edited by Elisabeth Weis and John Belton, Columbia UP, 1985, pp. 63–72.
Bitter Sweet. Directed by Herbert Wilcox, starring Anna Neagle, British and Dominions Film Corporation/United Artists, 1933.
Birch, A. F. (Peter). Interview with Alan Lawson and Geoff Parry, 26 March 1992. Interview No. 246, The British Entertainment History Project. Accessed 28 January 2020.
Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. Columbia UP, 1985.
Brown, Geoff. “When Britannia ruled the Sound Waves: Britain’s Transition to Sound in its European Context.” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image, vol. 12, no. 2, 2018, pp. 93–119.
The Conversation. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Gene Hackman, Paramount Pictures 1974.
Cousins, Mark. The Story of Film. Pavilion Books, 2006.
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Elstree Calling. Directed by Adrian Brunel and Alfred Hitchcock, starring Tommy Handley, Lily Morris, and Cicely Courtneidge, British International Pictures/Wardour Films, 1930.
Evergreen. Directed by Victor Saville, starring Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale, Gaumont-British, 1934.
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Good Night, Vienna. Directed by Herbert Wilcox, starring Jack Buchanan and Anna Neagle, British and Dominions Film Corporation/United Artists, 1932.
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Guy, Stephen. “Calling All Stars: Musical Films in a Musical Decade.” The Unknown 1930s: An Alternative History of the British Cinema, 1929–1939, edited by Jeffrey Richards, Tauris, 2000, pp. 99–118.
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The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Directed by Charles Reisner, starring Conrad Nagel, Jack Benny, and Buster Keaton, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1929.
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The Jazz Singer. Directed by Alan Crosland, starring Al Jolson and May McAvoy, Warner Bros, 1927.
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LeMahieu, D. L. A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communication and the Cultivated Mind in Britain between the Wars. Clarendon P, 2002.
The Lives of Others. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, starring Ulrich Mühe and Martina Gedeck, Buena Vista International/Sony Pictures, 2006.
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Roper, Peter D. “Sound Recording Devices used as Evidence.” Cleveland State Law Review, vol. 9, 1960, pp. 523–34.
Sally in Our Alley. Directed by Maurice Elvey, starring Gracie Fields, Associated Talking Pictures/RKO Pictures, 1931.
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Sennwald, Andre. “THE SCREEN: Jessie Matthews in ‘Evergreen,’ a Pleasing Screen Musical From England, at the Music Hall.” The New York Times, 11 January 1935.
Sing as We Go!. Directed by Basil Dean, starring Gracie Fields, Associated Talking Pictures, 1934.
The Singing Fool. Directed by Lloyd Bacon, starring Al Jolson and Betty Bronson, Warner Bros., 1928.
Singin’ in the Rain. Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952.
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Strauss, Johann. An der Schönen Blauen Donau. Op. 314, 1866. Audio.
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Waltzes from Vienna. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Jessie Matthews and Esmond Knight, Gaumont-British, 1934.
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- Fig. 1. The courtroom scene in Evergreen showing the phonograph in rack focus. Directed by Victor Saville, starring Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale, Gaumont-British, 1934. Screenshot by Lara Ehrenfried.
- Fig. 2. Close-up of the phonograph in Evergreen. Directed by Victor Saville, starring Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale, Gaumont-British, 1934. Screenshot by Lara Ehrenfried.
- Johann Strauss II - An der schönen, blauen Donau - Walzer, Op. 314