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Sound + Hollywood = Panic!
By 1928, chaos reigned in Hollywood. Most major studios had been caught
unprepared by the overwhelming demand for talking films. The public knew what it wanted,
and voted with its dollars. Critically acclaimed silent films were suddenly playing to
near-empty theatres, while even the tackiest part-talkies were drawing
crowds. Small town theatre owners watched locals drive off to the nearest city
with a sound theatre -- and realized that sound was no longer an option. Silent
film, the most popular form of entertainment the world had ever known, was suddenly
yesterday's news, and no one in the industry was sure what lay ahead. MGM silent star
William Haines later recalled
"It was like the night of The Titanic all
over again, with women grabbing the wrong children and Louis B. (Mayer) singing
'Nearer My God To Thee.'"
- as quoted in Bob Thomas, Thalberg: Life and Legend (New York:
Doubleday, 1969), p. 146.
As theaters scrambled to install sound equipment, the studios raced to
build soundproof facilities, come up with sound projects, and find ways to master
a very different way of making films. Desperate executives purchased the rights to
hundreds of existing plays and songs, and every major studio hired Broadway composers
to write new screen musicals.
For all their enthusiasm, audiences were also caught off guard. In
The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930 (New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1997), historian Scott Eyman tells us that moviegoers were so
overwhelmed by the first "talkies" that they did not
mind "that what was being recorded was of no real dramatic interest."
Top vaudeville stars filmed their acts for Vitaphone in
return for one-time pay-offs, inadvertently
helping to speed the death of vaudeville. After all, when "small time" theatres
could offer "big time" performers on screen at a nickel a seat, who could ask
audiences to pay higher amounts for less impressive live talent? The newly-formed RKO studios
took over the famed Orpheum vaudeville circuit and swiftly turned it into a chain of fulltime
movie theaters. The half-century tradition of vaudeville was effectively wiped out within less
than four years.
Sound completely supplanted silent film by 1929. As a visual medium
gave way to an audio-visual one, cinematic professionalism gave way to a spirit
of desperate improvisation. Inexperienced bozos with self-confidence could talk
their way into major production jobs. And the new technology involved serious drawbacks.
Cameras and their motors had to be muffled in immobile booths, giving talkies a static
appearance. Almost all of Hollywood's early sound films interpolated a few songs.
Silent stars with thick accents or voices that could not overcome early recording
techniques slipped into quick obscurity, and the public did not seem to mind one bit. In
several cases, studio executives used sound as an excuse to dispose of
"difficult" stars. Latin heart-throb Ramon Novarro had a fine voice, but
he refused studio demands that he marry to cover up his homosexuality. Although his
one musical was well-received, MGM sent him into semi-retirement. The
high-priced and emotionally explosive silent star John Gilbert didn't
sound quite as sexy as he looked, so MGM executives were not too upset when
his career sank in a series of inferior sound vehicles.
Two films in particular provide contrasting illustrations of what
Hollywood studios were doing with early musical features. One is a mediocrity that
achieved landmark status -- the other is a delight that few people today
have heard of.
Charles King and his clod-hopping chorines appear on
this page from the souvenir program for Broadway Melody
Most early sound films were melodramas. In the summer of 1929,
the manager of New York's Capitol Theater told MGM production chief Irving Thalberg
that a decent, all-sound romantic comedy would guarantee sell-out business. Thalberg
promised to make just such a film. He quickly assembled a production team, shot the film
in just 28 days and had it ready for release that October -- an unthinkably quick accomplishment
today, but not all that unusual at a producer-driven studio like MGM. The
backstage show biz plot centered on two sisters battling for over their shared passion for a
charming song and dance man. The film turned out so well that MGM passed over the Capitol and
opened Broadway Melody (MGM -1929) across Times Square
at the company's own Astor Theater. Audiences and critics were delighted, and Thalberg
was credited with bringing MGM the first in what would become a long line of musical triumphs.
MGM was the last major studio to switch to sound production, but
once it got on the bandwagon, it
went first class all the way. The studio's sound team invented two vital technologies
for Broadway Melody sound editing and pre-recorded soundtracks.
When studio executives decided that the elaborate "Wedding
of the Painted Doll" sequence should be re-shot, sound technician
Douglas Shearer suggested they save some money by using the existing
soundtrack and just filming new visuals.
Since the use of pre-recorded sound allowed for more creative camera angles
with better sound quality, it quickly became standard procedure for all musical films.
Although Broadway Melody cost a moderately steep $379,000 to produce,
it raked in a healthy $1.6 million in its initial release. Advertised as
the first "All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing" feature, it
became the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The score
by Nacio Herb Brown and
Arthur Freed included seven songs,
including the title tune and "You Were Meant For Me."
Time has not been kind to Broadway Melody. In fact, you might find it difficult to
sit through it all and stay awake. The talking stinks, the singing hurts and the dancing is
lead-footed. However, most viewers in 1929 considered Broadway Melody a
technical miracle, with content and sound technology superior to every "talkie"
that had come before. Although Bessie Love (as one of the sisters)
and Charles King (as the love interest) overacted, their work seemed naturalistic
compared to Al Jolson's histrionics. Whatever its flaws, Broadway Melody was the first
all-out movie musical hit, and its success opened the way for the genre.
The souvenir book for Love Parade (1929) includes this photo of
Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier performing "Anything to Please the
Paramount Pictures was founded by mogul Adolph Zukor in 1912 as Famous
Players Film Company, a studio that promising audiences "famous players
in famous plays." Within a few years, Zukor merged with a smaller
studio called "Paramount," and gradually put his entire operation
under that attractive title. Paramount had the largest nationwide chain of
theatres, guaranteeing its films wide distribution. Zukor handled the
business end, leaving most creative decisions in the hands of directors.
Since these directors were some of the best innovators in early cinema,
Paramount attracted an unusual number of extraordinary performers and
The same year as MGM's Broadway Melody, veteran silent screen director
Ernst Lubitch put together an original screen operetta for Paramount that outclassed
all other early Hollywood musicals. Lubitsch realized that finding musical stars for this
new medium was tricky. Broadway veterans Fanny Brice
(My Man 1928), and
Helen Morgan (Applause
1929) had landed in weak musical melodramas that even their legendary talents
could not save. And stage-based performance techniques often seemed outsized
and artificial on screen. Lubitch sought out younger singing newcomers with
stage credentials whose personalities would respond well to the intimate scrutiny of the
camera. He also found ways to get around clumsy equipment, achieving the same sexy
but classy sense of fun that marked his best silent films.
As a result, the famed "Lubitch touch" is evident in
Love Parade (Paramount 1929), a lighthearted romantic fantasy worthy
of Broadway but custom-tailored for the screen. Broadway soprano
Jeanette MacDonald plays the young queen of
a fictional European country who summons home a scandalous playboy diplomat played
by French cabaret star Maurice Chevalier.
They fall in love and marry, but Chevalier must fight to become more than a puppet
consort. Love and male chauvinism win out, with plenty of laughs along the way.
Chevalier is charming and hilarious, and the lovely MacDonald makes a poised screen debut. The
melodic and witty score includes the hit ballad "Dream Lover" and the playful
duet "Anything to Please the Queen." A memorable sequence has the
serenading the courtesans of Paris from a window with "Paree, Stay the Same"
while his valet sings the same to the local housemaids and Chevalier's dog
"woofs" the tune to the local female pooches.
Success breeds copycats. The 1930s would start off
with an avalanche of bad screen musicals. When the public turned away from movie musicals
in disgust, Hollywood managed to redefine the genre, urging audiences to "Come and
meet those dancing feet . . ."
Next: Film 1930s