What Impact Did Sound Have on Cinema?
When Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer towards the end of 1927 it was the heralding of a new, revolutionary era in the history of film. Although mostly silent, the Al Jolson starring feature became the first truly recognised film to incorporate sound (speech and song) which was synchronised to the pictures.
Within two years, the ‘Talkies’ would be the predominant medium for Hollywood film-making.
This, however, was not a universally popular move.
Ground-breaking in its technology it may have been, but the general reaction to the introduction of sound into the movies was, at best, somewhat lukewarm.
Since the turn of the century cinema had blossomed into the primary form of entertainment for the masses – huge audiences fed upon a broad diet of silent films. It was the accepted norm for a film to be dialogue free, accompanied very often with music played live in the theatre rather than any synchronised soundtrack.
As such the sudden emergence of actors on screen, in possession of a ‘voice’ was an alien concept, dismissed initially as a novelty and, often as an annoyance to the storytelling.
One of the reasons to explain this perhaps is the fact that the studios at the time, so enthralled at the breakthrough did in fact treat it as a novelty and as such, produced films that were so dense with dialogue that it impacted on the quality of the film-making.
It would be sometime, into the 1930s, before audiences would begin to accept this new medium, partly through a new generation of cinema-goer and partly through the refinements of the film-makers with directors such as Fritz Lang and emerging talents such as Alfred Hitchcock blending the old image-heavy techniques with the new possibilities afforded by sound to make films of a quality that would be accepted by the public.
Its emergence also had a negative effect on the careers of many artists in the industry. Actors who simply couldn’t make the transition to dialogue fell spectacularly from the screens (Clara Bow & Buster Keaton often cited as major casualties).
The emergence of sound in the cinema coincided with the onset of the Great Depression following the Wall St Crash of 1929. Much like every other aspect of society, cinema would feel the pinch of the economic downturn although, even during the worst years, cinema attendance continued to be high with the ‘Talkies’ undoubtedly playing their part.
In fact, despite the reservations of audiences and the critical negativity towards the early sound films, the big studios would see a pre-depression soar in their profits following the move away from silent pictures, a factor that would help them through the leanest years of the depression and actually solidify their place as dominant players in the artistic industries.
As you might expect, not everyone was able to prosper from these events. The huge investment in sound technology from the big studios brought a sea change to the film industry. As a result, and combined with the depressed economy, many smaller independent filmmakers simply couldn’t afford to keep up and disappeared from the industry.
This, as much as anything else would contribute to what became known as the Age of the Studio System.