“You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet!” Curator Dwight Blocker Bowers on the birth of motion picture sound

Editor’s note: On July 14 and 15, the museum, in partnership with Warner Bros. Studios, will host the third Classic Film Festival in the Warner Bros. Theater, featuring three films that spotlight the advent of sound in cinema. Admission is free and seating is first come, first served.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!” On October 6, 1927, when actor Al Jolson, portraying Jack Robinson in The Jazz Singer, spoke those words on the silver screen of Warner Bros.’ flagship theater in New York’s Times Square, the audience became hysterical. The truth is, they hadn’t heard anything yet, at least not in the movies, and certainly not with Vitaphone synchronized dialogue and song sequences. The film industry was on the verge of a great change, a sort of sound revolution, pioneered by bold risk takers like Sam Warner and innovative technology. Just a year before, Don Juan had been the first film to include a synchronized soundtrack and sound effects; 1929 would bring The Broadway Melody, the first sound film to be named Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It was clear that that the era of silent film was coming to an end, making room for the preeminent “talkies.” The birth of motion picture sound opened new doors of opportunity for the film industry while also creating new challenges.

Dwight Blocker Bowers, Director of Warner Bros. Festivals of classic Hollywood films and Curator of Entertainment Collections, sat down with Elizabeth Dowdle of the Office of Public Affairs and shared his thoughts about the end of the silent film era and how sound film has influenced both the art of movie making as well as the audience’s experience.


Q: How has the addition of sound changed the way audiences experience films?

A: The addition of sound added a dimension to movie going that had never been experienced before. For one thing, it allowed music and song sequences to be tailor-made for each film. In silent film, individual orchestras or pianists were hired to play music in the theater where the film was playing. Therefore, the music was likely to be different from show to show or might not be included at all. By introducing audio, film makers had one more sense to appeal to—making the interaction on the screen much more real for the audience. During the silent film era, actors were taught very elaborate gestures and facial expressions to convey each emotion, much more deliberate than those we use in real conversation. The addition of sound gave actors their voices and provided an outlet for more believable delivery of their performances.

 

Q: Speaking of actors, how has sound changed the role of the actor in film? Does it make their job any easier?

A: You’d probably have to ask an actor for confirmation, but I wouldn’t say the introduction of sound made their jobs any easier. They have to be able to speak and sing in such a way that is appealing and convincing to the viewer; one more talent on an already long list of requirements to make it in show business. An actor can’t simply stomp his feet and make a fist to demonstrate anger anymore, we have to hear and feel that anger in his voice.  For some, like John Gilbert, America’s “great lover” and silent film star, sound became the downfall of their careers. But most recognize sound as a great opportunity to exploit their talent for the camera.

 

Q: With all of the technological innovations featured in today’s films, why do we still enjoy early motion picture films?

A: I think it’s all about the plot; so many of these film’s storylines and songs have become classics because they are appealing to a wide range of audiences. Using situational comedy and drama, such as that featured in Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (1923), these early films often take every day situations and add an element of surprise that appeals to almost everyone.  Further, audiences like to see evidence of a more primitive state to fully appreciate how far film has come. It’s fun to remember that the screen that now hosts 3D films used to be home to black and white, silent pictures. The improvement overtime is quite inspiring.

 

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Actor Buster Keaton used this “hobby horse,” a pedal-less bicycle, in his slapstick comedy Our Hospitality.

 

Q: When The Jazz Singer premiered in New York City in 1927, people flocked to Times Square to take part in the excitement. Do you think those who attend the midnight premieres of the Harry Potter and Batman franchises share the same anticipation? Or is it a different feeling all together?

A: While their excitement may be on a very similar level, the reasoning behind that excitement is very different today than it was during the birth of motion picture sound. When films like The Jazz Singer and The Broadway Melody premiered, people knew that they were taking part in film history. They were anxious to see the latest film innovations and couldn’t wait to see what new, unimaginable feature would be added to their experience. Today, while movie special effects continue to grow more impressive, I think that most audience members are there because they love the stories and the characters being portrayed on the screen. Technological innovations certainly add to their experience, but it’s their loyalty to the characters that bring people back to the theater again and again.

 

Q: How much credit should be given to the Vitaphone for ending the silent film era? Do you think anyone could have predicted the impact this technology was going to have on the movie making business?

A: The invention of the Vitaphone process is largely responsible for the end of the silent film era. Thankfully movie making is no longer as cumbersome as the Vitaphone process, but it was nevertheless an incredible innovation, and one that Sam Warner utilized to its full potential. I doubt that Warner Bros. or anyone else could have known how far this technology could go, but they were very aware that this was the dawn of a new era in movie making. Today we watch superheroes fly around cities and wizards battle in castles, who knows what will be next? But one thing is for sure, none of it would be possible without the birth of motion picture sound. 

 

Elizabeth Dowdle is a fellow in the Office of Public Affairs at the National Museum of American History

Posted at 2:57 pm EDT