The Evolution of Sound in Cinema

Topics: Sound film, Film, History of film Pages: 17 (6753 words) Published: December 6, 2012
The evolution of sound in cinema
Jay Beck

General histories of the relationship between sound and image in cinema tend to perpetuate an ocular-centricity (emphasizing vision over the other senses) that dates back to the very earliest experiments in “moving pictures”—a term which itself serves to confuse historians. The vast majority of cinema histories tend to relegate the subject of sound in cinema to a subordinate position by studying the transition to the sound period in the late 1920s and early 1930s, only to drop the subject of sound and to emphasize the visual nature of film. Yet as long as cinema has existed, sound has been a part of it—both in its presence and in its absence. A generation of new film historians has revealed that the interplay between sound and image in cinema is quite complex and a number of presiding assumptions about film sound need to be re-examined. For example, “detonating celluloid” was a popular slang term dating from a 1930 industry guidebook for “talking cinema,” and it encapsulated a crucial misconception in the history of early sound film (“Studio Slanguage,” 1930, p. 125). As an expression, it emphasized the radically transformative effect that sound was perceived to have had on the film industry in the late 1920s. However, the term obscured the fact that sound films had been produced in small numbers since the advent of cinema while it supported the popular myth that sound cinema emerged fully grown from the mouth of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927) when he uttered the now-immortal expression, “You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!” In fact, the transition to sound in cinema was quite orderly and not nearly as explosive as the term implies, and the history of film sound follows a winding path from the earliest experiments in sound and image synchronization to today’s digital cinema systems. The function of this chapter is to apply a corrective filter to film history and to amplify how film sound has aided the development of modern cinema. Sound and image relations during the “silent era”: 1895–1926 Perhaps the greatest misnomer in the history of sound and image relations is the term “silent cinema.” During the period commonly referred to as the “silent era” (roughly from 1895 to the end of the 1920s), films were never called “silent,” nor were they even called “cinema” for the first decade of their existence. In fact, from the very earliest experiments in the 1890s—such as Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope and the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe—through the rise of Nickelodeons in 1904–5, films were always part of other mixed-entertainment forms such as vaudeville shows, traveling lectures, magic lantern presentations, song–slide performances, phantasmagorias, and even circuses. Despite these numerous divergent practices, there is general consensus that the earliest moving pictures were accompanied by some form of acoustic presentation. In the case of the first projected films in the United States, at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City on April 23, 1896, Thomas Edison’s films were shown with accompaniment by Dr. Leo Sommer’s Blue Hungarian Band. And two months later when the Cinématographe made its American debut at Keith’s Union Square Theater, it was accompanied by lecturer Lew Shaw and the use of live sound effects. In later presentations of the Cinématographe, this was expanded to include pre-recorded sound effects, such as the sounds of a train engine starting, played back via a phonograph in the auditorium. Although these models seem diverse from a twenty-first-century perspective, it is because films were interpolated into pre-existing entertainment forms as part of a variety bill. Therefore, much of the early history of cinema can be understood as multiple attempts at establishing a sense of accord between image and sound. After the turn of the century, as moving pictures began to be used more regularly in vaudeville shows, their musical accompaniment grew from the lone...
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