Originally written for suite101.com and published on 22/02/09, now hosted at Xomba.
There is a great deal of debate in regard to whether or not the coming of sound was a positive or negative force in cinema. Whether it led to a homogenisation of style and narrative, or was an essential element in the creation of differing and original national cinemas across the globe. Whichever case should win the day; the achievement of synchronised, realistic sound (and for that matter colour) was the ideal of the majority of filmmakers.
However to consider early cinema to be an entirely silent would be to do those early experimenters a great disservice. Not only were various experimental technologies in synchronised sound tried out over the years, but also a whole variety of other elements made the experience of the early cinemagoer anything but silent.
The musical score is the best-known aural element of early cinema. Perhaps because due to the lucrative nature of privately producing accompaniment music for films, led to detailed records being kept. Certainly newspaper reports on major film premiers of the time often make reference to the size of the accompanying orchestra and effectiveness of the score.
The importance of the role played by the pianist, to emphasise, distort or completely change the ‘intended meaning’ of the film through use of music and sound effects, is often underplayed by film historians. Yet even today watching a screening of a silent film the affects of watching with a pre-recorded score or with a live piano accompaniment are dramatically different.
The Sound of the Audience
The development of sound in early cinemas closely mirrors the development of what we think of today as the cinema ‘audience’. Prior to the 1910s the collective entity so beloved of theories of spectatorship and psychoanalysis in cinema did not exist in any meaningful sense.
Cinema, in its earliest days, entered a popular theatrical tradition of audience participation where two-way interaction between audience and performers was par for the course. “Babies cried, mothers talked, men conversed. From uptown to the Bowery, spectators translated intertitles, explained the action and discussed its meaning.” The discursive sound practices of these ‘entertainments’ were an essential part of the experience.
As has been mentioned previously the power held by the pianist to manipulate the audience and the narrative was considerable. It was also understood well by contemporary film writers, and there was some effort to get pianists to use this power to keep their audience under control. This was symptomatic of the change from the old model adapting the entertainment to the audience, instead creating a standard performance for a quantifiable audience.
Sound Effects and Synchronised Sound Experiments
Originally cinema sound effects were produced in the theatrical tradition: backstage and shaped by the skill and ingenuity of the individual sound person. However, a portable mechanical contraption came into use that could be hired out to individual theatres. This meant the same sound was created at each screening of the film, creating the same affect every time.
Best known of the early sound experiments were those of Edison in the 1890s, as he struggled to combine the success of the phonograph with that of moving pictures. Some success combining sound and image had been realised within the peep-box cinema stage, however, once projection became the standard, the issue of amplification raised its head and defeated inventors until the appearance in 1906 of Gaumont’s Elegéphone.
Even with the amplification issue resolved truly synchronised sound continued to elude inventors on both sides of the Atlantic. The varying speed of film projection being the primary issue, for while variations in film speed were popular with both filmmakers (for artistic reasons) and cinema managers (play the film faster, squeeze in more showings), any variations in sound speed was horribly obvious.
Although Edison’s Kinetophone showed considerable promise, the destruction of all the records and film masters used for it in a fire put paid to that. Experiments into synchronised sound in cinema died off for quite some time during and after the First World War. Not until Bell Laboratories’ Vitaphone in 1926 would there be a real threat to the dominance of ‘silent’ cinema.