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When Sound Was New: Sound and Image in Tandem in the 1930's

The crowd outside a theater showing Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer - the first Hollywood talking picture show.
The crowd outside a theater showing Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer - the first Hollywood talking picture show. | Source

The following item appeared in a February 1908 issue of Moving Picture World:

AUDIENCE APPLAUDS HIS SHRIEKS OF AGONY

Burlington, N.J., February 13—Reaching into the sheet-iron cage that covered a moving-picture machine with which he was giving an exhibition, John Riker seized a bare electric wire instead of the switch. He was held fast while a current of 1,000 volts went through his body.

He shrieked for help. His cries, coming through the narrow aperture of the booth, sounded to the audience like a phonographic accompaniment to the blood and thunder drama that was being portrayed in the moving pictures. The audience, not suspecting the dangerous plight of the man, applauded.

Andrew Harris, the piano player, saw that something was wrong and broke into the cage. He shut off the current. Riker’s hand still gripped the wire and had to be pried off. His hand was almost roasted by the strength of the current.

This article shows us two things: firstly, cinema audiences were ready and eager to move from silent films to sound; and secondly, as Jeffrey Klenotic puts it, sensational vocal effects make for a crowd pleasing show, that is, there was something about sound coupled with image that was affecting people in a new way. When the big change finally came, films were very aware of the novelty and importance of the new development of sound and aimed to exploit the technological innovation in various ways. What I would like to explore is three different ways that sound is used in tandem with images to produce meaning. I will use a different film to explore each particular way in which the innovation of sound and image is used to accomplish specific goals: From France, the first film is Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante which I believe is, thorough out the entire film, self-referential of the new development of sound in films. From Germany, the second film is Fritz Lang’s M in which sound coupled with image plays a central role diegetically and thereby effectively draws the viewing audience into the experience (both of the characters in the film and those actually viewing the film) in a way that silent films never could. Finally, from America, Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus in which sound and image work both independently and in harmony to add complex dimensions of time and space to the scene in frame.

In L’Atalante:

When Juliette marries Jean, she comes to live on his ship, on board of which are, besides the two of them, only a cabin boy and the strange old second mate Pere Jules. Soon bored by life on the river, she slips off to see the nightlife when they come to Paris. Angered by this, Jean sets off, leaving Juliette behind. Overcome by grief and longing for his wife, Jean falls into a depression and Pere Jules goes and tries to find Juliette.

Literally, from the opening song to the closing credits, the entire narrative of L’Atalante is woven around sound. This is a film very aware of its place in history and repeatedly pays homage to that by documenting the prevalence and importance of sound in real life.

Scene from L'Atalante (1934)
Scene from L'Atalante (1934) | Source

Clearly intent on having exciting adventures and seeing new and beautiful sights, Juliette is quickly disappointed by the cramped and dingy living quarters on the boat but finds solace and inspiration in, what else, the radio – a box of sounds without images. We get a number of shots in which Juliette looks longingly at the radio, listening to the news from Paris and imagining what a wondrous place it must be, her daydreams being nothing like what we later see as the real thing. What we find here is that just sounds in an imageless context are not enough – it is only the coupling of sound and image together that will ultimately fulfill her desires.

On the boat, sound becomes an integral part of daily rituals as mornings are met by Pere Jules and his accordion (playing the song we heard at the opening of the film that will ultimately aid Pere Jules in finding the lost Juliette in a music arcade) making us aware that, most often, the first thing we are met with when we wake up is sound. In one of the most engaging and fascinating scenes in the film, Juliette accompanies Pere Jules down into his cabin were we see all sorts of oddities collected by Jules in his travels. Though the cliché would lend one to estimate a thousand words per “picture”, it would not do justice to the short but very bizarre account of each of Pere Jules’s trinkets. Had he not been there to “tell” us the stories of his belongings – the most strange being a pair of hands in a jar that are “all that is left” of a friend of his – the room and its cargo would carry a fraction of its history and meaning to the character.

The point at which the film becomes most self conscious of its power is when Pere Jules puts on a show for Juliette using a music box and an antique puppet. The puppet acts out a scene as we listen to the instrumental music. We are, for all intents and purposes, watching a “silent movie” at this point. The frame is completely filled with the stringed puppet and no real life actor is present. As the scene, which lasts nearly a full minute, continues we become eager for the “show” to stop and for Pere Jules to tell more stories, that is, we are waiting for the dialogue to begin again and for this pantomime to end, for the silent era to move back into sound. What we get repeatedly in L’Atalante is the feeling that sound is always present and an integral part of action. The puppet show scene best embodies the films awareness of sound as we wait for the show - a “silent film” within the film - to end because that form of entertainment is, at that time in history, much like the puppet itself – quaint and outmoded.

In Fritz Lang’s M, sound takes on a role more important diegetically than referentially. In M sound, or lack thereof, in the context of a sound film is used specifically to elicit feeling and meaning for both the characters in the film and the viewing audience that silent film absolutely could not. In early film, sound, not yet being present, had to be represented in unique ways. The character then who can hear the “sounds” in a scene “becomes the spectator’s delegate in the story: by his posture and gestures, he/she signifies to the spectator that he/she has heard something.” Simply, this means characters and actions were used to represent sounds. Lang is able to do just the opposite in M by using sounds to represent characters and actions. In the opening scene we see and hear children playing a game and singing a song. The singing is a constant reminder of the children’s presence but this fact is not considered then by the mother who asks them to stop singing the horrible song to which they are playing. Later, when the same mother searches for her missing child, Lang plays on our inherent expectations (a mother’s call and a child’s response; singing and laughing sounds that we have come to associate with the children). However, the mother’s frantic cries are met repeatedly with silence. The silence then becomes symbolic - the absence of sound indicates the absence of child. This same duet of silence and symbolism is repeated at the very end of the scene when we see children’s playthings, specifically the balloon and rolling ball belonging to the missing child, completely alone in a silent frame – absence of sound now indicating the absence of life.

Later in the film, as we become increasingly aware of the murderer and his tendencies, we begin to associate the sound of his whistling with impending danger. We never actually witness the aftermath of the whistling murderer satiating his desires but the sound of his whistle triggers that fear and anticipation continually in the viewer and finally in the blind man who recognizes the meaning of the sound as we do. Like the blind balloon salesman we have not seen the wrath of this man, and in this scene can not see the man himself either, but both character and audience are aware of what the sound represents and we hear it, and fear it, together.

Another instance of sound acting as representative comes at the exciting moment when the child murderer is finally identified and is being pursued through the streets by the angry criminals. As the child murderer tries to run down one street he hears a whistle signaling the other criminals that he his coming that way. The whistles are heard, from anonymous sources again unseen, and the murderer at hearing them recognizes the very fear that we feel when we hear his own whistling. We watch as he is trapped in the frame and the only way out for him is to run away from the sound of the whistle. Therefore, sound, though having no physical presence, represents a means for capture to the criminals, a reason to escape for the murderer, and a barricade keeping the murder trapped to the spectator.

Marlene Dietrich And Dickie Moore In Blonde Venus (1932)
Marlene Dietrich And Dickie Moore In Blonde Venus (1932) | Source

In Blonde Venus, sound and image work at times together and at times on their own to enhance the conceptual time and space in diegesis. Repeatedly we find sound acting independently, much like in M, to be representative of things unseen – specifically the cheering audience. While in her dressing room Helen can hear the applause from her audience. Though we only hear them, we get a better, more “real”, sense of where she is, that is, where the frame is set in the scene. The effect this process (what Doane refers to in her article as “voice-off”) has is to create for the spectators the illusion that there is more than just what is seen in frame, that what we see is just a small portion of what is really there, “that sound does, indeed, issue from that other dimension.”

The music box plays an interesting role in the film acting not only to represent Helen herself (an individual entity whose repetitive nature is centered on making music for others) but also as a signifier of the past. We hear the music playing from the music box and the little boy requests, “Tell me the story, mama.” We do not need to ask what story though, nor do we need to hear it, because the music box symbolizes early “memories” of the characters that we shared in. At the sound of the music we too are brought back to the beginning and suddenly we become aware of all the time that has passed in the relationships of the people on screen. The lives of the characters are, because of sound, suddenly more three dimensional as we reminisce about better times along with them.

As the transition was made from silent to sound film, film makers were very conscious of the capabilities they now had as a result of the technological innovation. Across the globe, directors were experimenting with sound and stretching their abilities to the limits to use sound in novel and unique ways. What we find in these three films is that the new sound and image dynamic worked in several ways and could produce very different things. Neither was dependant on the other, but each individually relied on the accepted context that the other existed. In the context of the sound film era, sound without image, just as image without sound, now had special meaning. The absence of one or the other no longer represented the normal state of entertainment, but advancement in both the way films are made and perceived used very specifically to create those feelings and emotions to which silent film left us def.

Sources

(1)   Klenotic, Jeffrey.  “The Sensational Acme of Realism: ‘Talker’ Pictures as Early Cinema Sound Practice” From The Sounds of Early Cinema  Edited by Richard Abel and Rick Altman (IndianaUniversity Press October 2001)
(2)     Raynauld, Isabelle.  “Dialogues in Early Silent Sound Screenplays: What Actors Really Said” From The Sounds of Early Cinema  Edited by Richard Abel and Rick Altman(IndianaUniversity Press October 2001)
(3)     Doane, Marry Ann. The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space.  (ENG 3122 Course Packet c. Spring 2005) pp. 1-7

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