The Sound Revolution: The Medium Re-Born | Introduction
In “Synchronized Sound Technology and the British Musical Film in the 1930s,” Lara Ehrenfried shows that sound was more than just a gimmick or a passing fad. Through an examination of two 1934 films, Evergreen and Waltzes from Vienna, Ehrenfried’s focus is on the transformative ways sound altered cinema’s narrative structures and storytelling possibilities. When filmmakers began to adapt a popular stage form, the musical, for the screen, audiences found themselves in the space between traditional entertainment and a novel technological revolution. Furthermore, as Ehrenfried demonstrates, the very process of sound production called attention to the technologies of the cinema in ways that filmmakers had previously attempted to conceal. Sound, especially as used in the musical, displayed itself as a kind of rupture, literally bursting into song in an otherwise linear narrative, and upended more traditional modes of storytelling.
In providing two case studies of films in which the process of sound production figures as part of their narratives, Ehrenfried grounds her analysis within the “tension and instability” of a rapidly changing medium. Evergreen, directed by Victor Saville, produced by Michael Balcon for Gaumont-British, and starring Jessie Matthews, spans three decades reflected in its musical repertoire and use of song throughout. Sound reproduction technology is not only essential on the less visible production side of the film, but when a phonograph and cylinder recording become crucial in a key courtroom scene, such technologies also become central to the visible elements of the plot. Ehrenfried deftly claims that the presence of sound recording objects in the film “evoke nostalgia for an outdated form of music reproduction technology” that creates “a cinematic fantasy of the recent past for contemporary 1930s audiences.” Those objects, moreover, have the capacity to “convey a historical fantasy that merges Edwardian music-hall traditions and contemporary 1930s musical entertainment while simultaneously capitalizing on advances in sound technology.”
Waltzes in Vienna, also produced at Gaumont-British, is Alfred Hitchcock’s only musical film and tells a fictional account of Johann Strauss the Younger’s conception and composition of the The Blue Danube (An der schönen, blauen Donau). A film about musical composition, Ehrenfriend argues, is already self-reflexive, but the point of interest is in the way that Hitchcock uses “sound close-ups”—the camera’s focus on individual objects or musical instruments making sound—to reflect upon how film can differentiate sound in a way that a live performance cannot. Sound close-ups become a signature part of Hitchcock’s repertoire as a director, and Ehrenfried’s reading of them here offers us a vitally important bridge between his early (often dismissed) work and his later masterful use of sound technologies in a film like The Birds (1963). It is of note that both Evergreen and Waltzes from Vienna suggest a contrast between the traditions of the stage and the innovations possible in filmic representations of drama. Nicole Flynn and Claudia Kotte make the same point in their essays in the third section of this issue. One could also contrast the stage within a sound stage of the repurposed drama or musical to the ideas of Mateo Santos on liberating the camera just as the revolutionary militias liberated the cityscapes of Barcelona in the process of reclaiming Spain for the working class; see the contribution of Ameya Tripathi elsewhere in this issue.
The Birds. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, performances by Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, 1963.
Evergreen. Directed by Victor Saville, performances by Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale, Gaumont-British, 1934.
Waltzes from Vienna. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, performances by Jessie Matthews and Esmond Knight, Gaumont-British, 1934.