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Film Rhythm after Sound
Technology, Music, and Performance
By Lea Jacobs
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Film Rhythm and the Problem of Sound
How many times in the cutting room have you subconsciously said to yourself—"My God, I wish there were some way of speeding up this sequence or some way of getting that man across the room so that he could deliver his lines and get out of the door without it taking all week?" Sitting as I do night after night in the cutting room working on films, I would rank the lack of tempo as public enemy #1.
—DARRYL F. ZANUCK, "Memo to All 'A' Directors and Producers," June 4, 1941
The many complaints about the early sound film by critics and filmmakers frequently turned on the perceived disadvantage of introducing speech into what was fundamentally a visual medium. In 1930 Dorothy Richardson wrote of searching the cinemas of London for a theater that was still showing silent films and finding only one, a backwater that was screening The Gold Rush. She explained her continued preference for silent film on the grounds that sound represented a dilution of the essence of the medium:
In daily life, it is true, the faculty of hearing takes precedence of the faculty of sight and is in no way to be compensated. But on the screen the conditions are exactly reversed. For here, sight alone is able to summon its companion faculties: given a sufficient degree of concentration on the part of the spectator, a sufficient rousing of his collaborating creative consciousness. And we believe that the silent film secures this collaboration to a higher degree than the speech-film just because it enhances the one faculty that is best able to summon all the others: the faculty of vision.
After having seen the talkie The Terror in London in 1928, the critic Alexandre Arnoux, editor of Pour vous, mourned the passing of silent cinema in terms quite similar to Richardson's:
I am deeply attached to the cinema. For me, its play of black and white, its silence, the rhythmic succession of its images, its power to relegate the word, that ancient symbol of human bondage, to the background, seemed to me the promise of a new and wonderful art. Now a barbaric invention comes to destroy it all.
Even after the early years of the transition, discussion of the sound cinema continued to focus on the problem of speech. The director René Clair railed against the theatricalization of cinema and entered into a prolonged polemic with his colleague Marcel Pagnol on this point. Rudolf Arnheim's essay "A New Laocoön: Artistic Composites and the Talking Film," written in 1938, criticized the sound cinema as a mixed or composite form. His comments forcefully recapitulate Richardson's arguments of 1930:
It is obvious that speech cannot be attached to the immobile image (painting, photography); but it is equally ill-suited for the silent film, whose means of expression resemble those of painting. It was precisely the absence of speech that made the silent film develop a style of its own, capable of condensing the dramatic situation. To separate or to find each other, to win or give in, to be friends or enemies—all such themes were neatly presented by a few simple attitudes, such as a raising of the head or of an arm, or the bowing of one person to another.
Thus, as late as 1938, Arnheim continued to reject sound cinema, and particularly the introduction of spoken dialogue, as an unfortunate diminution of the medium's unique aesthetic capacities.
These well-known objections to sound were framed theoretically in terms of the problem of language in relation to the image. But in my view they should also be seen as reactions to the phenomenon of the talkies and contextualized in terms of the specific technical problems of rendering speech in synchronization with picture during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The difficulty of achieving synchronization during the period of the transition affected many aspects of film style, including performance and staging. The limitations of early sound-film dialogue scenes were discussed by contemporary filmmakers and critics, and they remain palpable to present-day viewers, even those who do not advocate for the primacy of the visual or mourn the passing of the silent-film medium.
Excellent research by, among others, Rick Altman, Barry Salt, James Lastra, and David Bordwell has given us a very precise sense of the constraints on shooting dialogue scenes prior to about 1930 in the United States. The dialogue for a scene was initially direct-recorded in a single take. Efforts to render dialogue as clearly as possible led actors to articulate their lines very slowly and carefully. These limitations help to account for the fact that early sound-film dialogue is rife with pauses and can have a stilted quality. Figure and camera movement were both restricted prior to the adoption of the microphone boom in 1929. Scenes were blocked with actors situated near the microphone or moving from one mic to another. Until 1930 the camera was encased in a booth or a heavy blimp so that its noise would not interfere with recording. While multiple-camera shooting allowed the studios to maintain some semblance of continuity editing, the choice of angles and use of depth was thereby restricted. In addition the necessity of recording the sound in a single take hampered both editing and staging. These restrictions made it difficult for actors to pace their performances and for directors and editors to control the flow of the narrative. The contrast prevalent in early sound films between the fluidity of those shots or scenes done "wild" and the static quality of scenes done with synchronized dialogue helps to reveal the way that the latter wreaked havoc on film rhythm and pacing. Here, I seek to delineate the problem that the innovation of film sound posed for the rhythmic control of cinema in more depth.
There are consistent references to the effect of sound on tempo and pacing in the American film trade press during the early years of the transition. Some commentators refer to the slow speed of line delivery. In 1928 Variety reported on an address delivered by Roy Pomeroy, who was in charge of "sound-producing experiments" at Paramount, to title writers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: "Pomeroy also said that in the matter of speech between two persons in a 'two shot' it is necessary to permit an appreciable lapse of time between the end of the remarks of one and the beginning of the other's so the audience might follow the change and have an opportunity to realize the shift in speakers." At the beginning of 1929 an article anticipating the coming year in sound noted: "The main deficiency in script talkers, short or full length, has been an utter disregard of tempo, relegating everything to make sure the microphone will catch each sound and word." The exaggerated pauses between one actor and the next, and within a given actor's speech from line to line, may be heard in many early films, such as Warners' Lights of New York (July 1928). As late as 1930 a Variety review commented on the inaudibility of dialogue in Harmony at Home because of the speed of the actors' delivery. But eventually improvements in microphone technology, as well as the capacity to record and reproduce higher frequencies, made slow and careful enunciation unnecessary. William Everson cites The Trial of Vivienne Ware (May 1932) as an early example in which the pace of line delivery quickens. In Lewis Milestone's The Front Page (premiered March 1931), Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien also speak very quickly relative to other films of the period.
One also finds scattered references to the problem of editing the sound film for pace. In his 1928 address to the title writers, Pomeroy noted that any break in the film, or removal of footage, would produce a corresponding break in the continuity of the track; "in contrast, it was brought out that the cutting of several frames out of ordinary films rarely makes any difference." In another meeting at the Academy during the same year, William de Mille slyly complained about being ruled by Pomeroy's dictates at Paramount and insisted on the need to maintain editing capacity. Variety quoted his comments as follows: "'The talking picture will not be a stage play photographed. It will be a motion picture that talks.' The speaker declared it to be inevitable that the fluidity of the picture form be kept, with the consequent ability to move quickly from one place to another without loss of time."
More attention to the specific problems of editing were raised by James Wilkinson and E. W. Reis in a 1931 paper on preparing the release print:
One of the basic principles of the silent picture was the appeal to the imagination. A short flash of picture would suggest an idea to the individual in the audience which would develop in his own imagination. Great freedom in cutting was possible. The addition of dialogue limited this freedom since dialogue cannot be intercut as freely as can the picture.... Without question, because of the quantity of dialogue found in sound pictures, the art of controlling the attention and arousing emotion by appeal to the imagination through intercut scenes, has been seriously limited. The flash back, so frequently used in silent pictures, may only be used after elaborate preparation.
The authors also noted that while exposition was considerably facilitated by the use of dialogue, sound film lost the advantage of the facile revision of intertitles, an aspect of silent filmmaking that offered more freedom to both editors and directors.
Although the editing of sound and picture was obviously a crucial part of the problem of pacing in the early talkie, another was the more general question of how speech could be fit into the structure of the silent film scene. The overwhelming majority of comments in the trade press do not concern the actual speed of line readings, nor the problem of editing per se, but rather the way in which dialogue interfered with "action," sometimes understood as physical movement within the scene and sometimes as narrative pace (the apparent speed of the succession of events). Writing in July 1928, Joseph Dubray, the technical editor of American Cinematographer, contrasted silent cinema with how he imagined that talkies would develop. He noted that in silent film, as a result of editing and highly condensed titles, "every move is carefully analyzed so as to dispense with all nonessentials." In contrast, in the talkies, "the eye confined to the surface of the screen would have to absorb a lot of lost motion in order to give the ear the opportunity of absorbing the essentials of sound." Apologizing for the introduction of a fancy word, he continued: "the whole tempo (excuse me for the use of this expression) of the picture would be lowered, its action would lose its greatest asset, the afore mentioned elimination of nonessentials." Thus, in Dubray's view the problem with introducing speech within a visual medium was that the image track had to "slow up" in order to allow for it.
Many critics and filmmakers understood the problem of handling speech in terms of a comparison between stage and screen. Writing in 1929, William de Mille compared silent film technique to both theater and the talkies:
Probably the talking picture will develop its own form of writing, since stage-plays contain too many lines for the medium, and screen construction leaves room for too few lines. Less plot can be told in a given space when it has to carry the spoken word. The vocal photoplay must contain fewer words than the stageplay because the dramatic spacing of lines will be different, and intimate pantomime is bound to be a more essential element in the new form, since the close-up can do so much more work than the silent moment on the stage can do. Another conflict of inherited impulses occurs in the matter of tempo. The physical tempo of the screen, so much quicker than that of the stage, finds itself checked by the spoken word, which cannot be made consistent with such rapid movement. In this case it would seem that the element of sound has the upper hand, and will bring the talking picture down to a tempo much closer to stage time than to screen time.
Variety's reviews of the many stage adaptations filmed after the coming of sound return frequently to the problem of the slowness of stage dialogue. Reporters generally judged the adaptation of old theatrical warhorses such as Raffles, Madame X, East Lynne, or The Trial of Mary Dugan to be good box office. And they generally approved of films in which a famous stage actor reprised a well-beloved role, such as George Arliss's performance of the title role in Disraeli, or a screen star took on a classic part, such as Will Rogers as Bill Jones in Lightnin' or Mary Pickford as Norma Besant in Coquette. Despite this respect for theatrical tradition, however, one finds frequent complaints about theatrical dialogue scenes. For example, the review of The Trial of Mary Dugan notes: "It's a verbatim celluloid and disk report of the play.... Result is the questionable sacrifice the studios are repeatedly making to the talking era—much dialog and no action. 'Mary Dugan' might not have been such a consistent talker had the expected screen license been taken for movement." The Broadway musical Sally (book by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, with music by Jerome Kern) was first adapted as a silent in 1925, directed by Alfred E. Green with Colleen Moore, and then with sound in 1929, directed by John Francis Dillon with Marilyn Miller. Variety objected that for the sound version, the studio "took the stage script not only seriously, but literally. Like putting a pony in a corral when it has the whole pasture to romp in. Result is that the opening half hour is so deadly that the film never fully recovers, and the fourth reel lacks speed." The reviewer preferred Colleen Moore's silent version for "action and laughs." Variety similarly criticized MGM's 1929 adaptation of Frederick Lonsdale's 1925 successful stage comedy The Last of Mrs. Cheyney: "Significant angle is that its whole method is more of the stage than of the screen. No visible action, whole development depending upon the spoken word. Tension and suspense lie in the tricky lines rather than in situation expressed in movement."
To my knowledge the only theatrical adaptations that Variety approved for their pace were films based on vaudeville comedy teams or actors: the performances of the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers, Eddie Cantor in Whoopee!, Joe E. Brown and Winnie Lightner in Hold Everything, Joe Smith and Charlie Dale in Manhattan Parade. The review of Hold Everything is particularly revealing: "Del Ruth, directing, has given the film an abundance of pace. At times it moves lightning fast, and there are never any long pauses between laughs. It was a good book originally, after the stage show was straightened out in Philadelphia, and the studio not only left it that way, but improved upon it for speed." It may be that vaudeville comedians, often relying heavily on comic repartee, and interspersing spoken gags with physical comedy and songs, were in a good position to break up the draggy dialogue scenes that plagued early sound cinema. But their style depended precisely on the interruption of the continuity prized in most Hollywood narrative filmmaking: they could not provide a model for how to handle dramatic action.
Even dramatic films that were not adapted from plays came in for criticism by Variety on the grounds that the dialogue slowed the pace. In its review of The Masquerade, based on the novel The Brass Bowl by Louis Joseph Vance, Variety complained: "Starts out as a crook story of swift complications with interest centered in rapid surprise developments. Tricky background is laid and then the whole thing goes to pieces in a sea of meaningless dialogue. Story pauses on the brink of tense situation while principals go into long exchanges of useless conversation." The Racketeer, from an original screenplay, was evaluated in similar terms: "While technically a high class job, with some of the photographic work out of the ordinary, story, dialog and direction let the picture sag below average rating. Last minute attempt to inject action comes too late. One of the talkiest talkers to date, 'The Racketeer' becomes so immersed in dialog, much of which is superfluous, that it never has time for action." The review of the sound remake of Henry King's great silent film of 1921, Tol'able David, finds that the best parts of the film are those sequences done silent and notes that "the dialog doesn't compensate for the strong silent act in the original version." In Old Arizona, the Raoul Walsh and Irving Cummings western that was the first talking film to be shot outdoors on location, came in for criticism as well as praise: "It's the first outdoor talker and a western, with a climax twist to make the story stand out from the usual hill and dale thesis. In fact the yarn is minus a chase. It's outdoors, it talks and it has a great screen performance by Warner Baxter. That it's long and that it moves slowly is also true, but the exterior sound revives the novelty angle again.... 'In Old Arizona' is a corking piece of work but despite its exterior locale demonstrates that dialogue inevitably slows up action as far as the screen is concerned." Thus, although present-day audiences unfamiliar with the conventions of silent cinema often find intertitles a clumsy and disturbing break in the flow of images, critics writing for the film industry trade press in the early 1930s had quite the opposite reaction: they considered titles condensed and relatively quick and speech a prolix and unnecessary drag on narrative development.
Excerpted from Film Rhythm after Sound by Lea Jacobs. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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