Technology, Consequence, and Ideology

Cinema audiences were introduced to the soundtrack in 1927. Before this revelation, a film was accompanied by a musical score played by an orchestra or a pianist. A delicate, elusive art was made of interpreting the visual content of a film through musical means.

In film's early years, a cinema pianist would sit at a piano flush against the walls of the theater, his or her head turned to face the screen. Keenly aware of the emotional and diegetic fluctuations at play in a 'silent' film, such pianists became regional celebrities on the basis of their ability to a weave a score spontaneously.

Early Breakthroughs

Though the first film to synchronize sound and image emerged not until 1927 -- with Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (Warner Bros) with Al Jolson -- the technology for enacting a sound film predates this film by over a decade. As the film industry in the war years enjoyed marked prosperity with silent films, there was no strong sense of urgency to invest in sound films. The first sound-on-film breakthrough was demonstrated by Eugene Lauste (1911) who worked for the American Edison; German technologists presented further improvements in 1918. In the end, the most influential technology to empower the use of sound in film was developed by the American Western Electric and the German Tobis-Klangfilm companies.

When Warner Brothers -- who desperately sought entrance to the tightly sealed world of the four majors: Paramount (est. 1913), Fox Film Corporation (1925), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1924), RKO (1926) -- launched The Jazz Singer, they were an immediate success story. Each of the majors struggled to update their technology, both in the studio and cinema, to emulate Warner Brothers' radical victory.

Cinema audiences during the mid-1920's were dwindling due in part to wider and less expensive access to radio and leisure activities. Sound was deified by the industry; they thought of sound as a novelty device that would save cinema from financial ruin -- closely mirroring the way the current television industry believes in the novelty of Survivor-type shows. The excitement and enthusiasm of sound was thought to bring the spectator back from distraction.

A second advantage of the sound revolution for the majors was that it unified two widely popular but mutually exclusive forms of entertainment: cinema and Vaudeville theater. While Hollywood went hogwild with the advent of sound -- giving birth to modern musicals such as The Broadway Melody (MGM 1929, Harry Beaumont), 42nd Street (Warner Bros 1933, Lloyd Bacon), and Top Hat (RKO 1935, Mark Sandrich) -- it appeared that the day of gestural, slapstick comedy, as exemplified by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, was over.

New Genres, New Faces

In the place of pure slapstick appeared two vibrant new film genres: repartee comedy and the screwball comedy. Repartee comedy is exemplified by the work of the Marx Brothers -- the cantankerous "Animal Crackers" (Paramount 1930, Victor Heerman); the anarchic, satirical "Duck Soup" (1933, Leo McCarey); or the more restrained but still hilarious "A Night At The Opera" (MGM 1935, Sam Wood) -- and W.C. Fields ("The Pharmacist", "The Fatal Glass of Beer", "The Barber Shop", all of 1933, collected on Criterion Collection's deeply rewarding DVD, "W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films").

The screwball comedy -- usually based upon high society, Battle Of The Sexes-humor and the star chemistry between actors Clark Gable and Cary Grant and actresses Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunn, and Rosalind Russell -- embraced sound technology in its use of sophisticated dialogue and elaborate aural mise-en-scene. See The Awful Truth (1937) for its fluent, nuanced use of body language and eye contact; Bringing Up Baby (1938) to understand what endures Katherine Hepburn (1907--) to endless admirers; and His Girl Friday (1939) for Rosalind Russell's powerful and assertive style, all captured in crisp, detailed sound images.

The Consequences Of Sound

The introduction of sound spirited numerous actors away from highly esteemed, though less lucrative, theatrical careers, and onto the silver screen. Conversely, sound assured the prompt exit of early screen starlettes whose grainy, lifeless voices failed to match to their sensuous screen personae. While this conflict between sound and the silent cinema is colorfully, poignantly rendered in "Singin' In The Rain" (MGM 1952, Stanley Donen), one can find a worthy complement in "Sunset Boulevard" (Paramount 1950, Billy Wilder) whose story concerns a withering relic of the silent era's downfall.

The (not necessarily) negative consequences of the sound era also extended to a film's diegesis, the development of the narrative. Prior to the advent of the soundtrack, viewers had not registered sound as an indicator of authenticity. Rather, spectators derived pleasure from silent cinema's emphasis on evocative body language, nuanced eye contact, and the subtlest gradations of lighting, shade, shot, and other mise en scene elements, as well as a strong storyline of course. These more metaphorical, evocative means of conveying meaning can be compared to the aesthetic school of impressionism and its valorization of sensory and emotional expression over physical imitation or accuracy. The presence of sound moved cinema away from its dream-like, hypnotic conception in early film to a more realism-based, though still fanciful, conception in the 1930's. Once sound was improved, as it was in the early 1930's, it allowed for a greater degree of diagetic economy; in other words, the narrative of a film moved along much faster without cumbersome intertitles.

Overwhelming Limitations

As "Singin' In The Rain" lovingly depicts, sound, in its early conception, moved film in a regressive direction by severely limiting the movement of a camera. The first microphone-equipped cameras were bulky, clumsy tools lacking the finesse and elegance of motion that silent cameras allowed. Actors were forced to convey their lines in unlikely linear body positions; visual realism was lost in favor of simple conversation.

Technical improvements -- the boom microphone and post-synchronization of sound in the late 1930's -- resolved these early conflicts while giving birth to other equally challenging ones. While renewed camera mobility, the placement options of the boom microphone, and post-sync production enacted visual and aural density, the critical values of improvised shooting and experimentation were diminished. In a few short years, film had suddenly become a more labor-intensive industry requiring a cauldron of dialoguists and sound engineers.

Optical Sound

From the advent of sound in 1927 through the early 1950's, film sound was recorded on single-track and placed optically on the reel. Optical sound is a system whereby light, modulated by sound waves, is recorded onto film. Beginning in 1951, magnetic tape became useful to record sound. The recording was then transferred on to the optical track of the film, and, as with the earlier system, sound was generated by the film passing through a light sensor.

Surround Sound and Artificiality

While a technical discussion of the properties of Dolby (surround) sound - a four-to-fifteen track stereo system used to record dialogue, sound effects, and music, which emerged in the 1970's to replace earlier stereophonic microphones and reduce background noise - is beyond the scope of this discussion, suffice it to say that this technology made possible a wave of action-oriented movies throughout the 1980's and 1990's characterized by the proliferation of aural special effects and virtuosic displays of financial muscle.

While earlier sound films had been inextricably linked to their imagery, these new action-oriented movies -- "Jaws" (1975), "Terminator 2" (1991), and "Gladiator" (2000) which each sport fluent sound technology -- deliberately draw attention to sound by way of wrap-around devices. Past audiences had become agitated when sound drew attention to itself; contemporary audiences however are in collusion with these sound elements, aware of their artificiality. The ideological impact of this radical sound technology is not to be underestimated.

While few film theorists have touched on the ideological effects of sound, a few directors, notably Jean-Luc Godard, have made strong efforts to show the importance of the soundtrack in relation to the image. His New Wave films of the 1960's, especially Le Mepris (Champion 1963) and Pierrot Le Fou (Rome Paris 1965), deconstruct the sound-vision unification. By mismatching a sound from the image it is supposed to represent--an aural form of the jump cut--Godard intends to make audiences cognizant of their hypnosis, to emphasize the degree to which sound synchronization has become just as natural as seeing.


Altman, R. Sound Theory And Sound Practice. London: Routledge, 1992.

Bordwell, David, et al. Classic Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Production to 1960. London: Routledge, 1985.

Konigsberg, I. The Complete Film Dictionary. London: Bloomsburg, 1993. Succinct, satisfying review of sound technology and film.

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