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Talking Heads

THE SPEED OF SOUND: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930. By Scott Eyman . Simon & Schuster: 416 pp., $30

March 30, 1997|GAVIN LAMBERT | Gavin Lambert is the author of "Nazimova: A Biography," forthcoming in April from Alfred A. Knopf

The secret of the silent film, wrote Kevin Brownlow in "The Parade's Gone By," his classic 1968 account of the silent period, was the creative demand it made on its audience. The great silent movie directors perfected an art based on visual expressiveness, the power of imaginative lighting and composition, and "the audience responded to suggestion, supplied the missing sounds and voices."

Now, almost 30 years later, Scott Eyman describes in "The Speed of Sound" how the arrival of talkies in Hollywood quickly "changed everything," from the way movies were made to the lives of the directors, writers and actors who made them. "There is no aspect of film history that has been so slighted," he comments, but his fascinating book more than makes up for the slight.

By January 1926, Eyman tells us, the studio founded three years before by the Warner brothers--Sam, Harry and Jack--was beginning to founder. Ernst Lubitsch's comedies had brought prestige but no profit. Other productions had brought some profit but no prestige. The company needed an edge, and Sam discovered the way to get it when he saw some short films that employed the Vitaphone system of synchronized music recorded on disc. He proposed creating a partnership with the general manager of Western Electric, which owned Vitaphone; its manager accepted partly in default of a better offer and partly because, as an anti-Semite who refused to do business with Jews, he mistook Sam for an Irishman and admired his non-Jewish wife, silent movie actress Lina Basquette.

Six months later, Warner Bros. premiered "Don Juan," starring John Barrymore, the first full-length movie with a specially composed synchronized score. Although it did extraordinary business, Harry and Jack--and almost every other major studio executive--dismissed it as a flash in the pan.

But Sam, always the most adventurous Warner, believed he had seen (or heard) the future. Early in 1927, he signed Al Jolson to appear in a film of his Broadway hit "The Jazz Singer" and announced that it would be the first movie with a few synchronized dialogue scenes as well as music. And so Jolson was "industriously, unwittingly engaged in the destruction of one great art and the creation of another."

Although "The Jazz Singer" was an even more spectacular commercial success than "Don Juan," executives at MGM and Paramount still insisted that talkies were no more than a fad. Since 1891, when Thomas Edison patented his Kinetophone, there had been a number of attempts to add synchronized sound to film with results that Variety eventually dismissed as "The Sensation That Failed." And because MGM and Paramount, unlike Warner Bros., had been making highly profitable silent movies for several years, they saw no reason to invest in a widely discredited technology.

Only William Fox, not yet a major player but determined to become one, heard the future at the same time as Sam Warner. But he heard it as sound on film rather than sound on disc. Two sound-on-film systems had been developed at the same time as Vitaphone, and Fox managed to acquire the rights to both at bargain prices. Fox, who was, Eyman writes, the "single most avaricious man in the motion picture industry," was also one of the shrewdest. Before long, the advantages of sound on film became clear: Its machinery was less cumbersome, and the discs, which operators had to be trained to synchronize correctly, soon wore out.

For Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg at MGM and Adolph Zukor at Paramount, the road to Damascus was Warner Bros.' gangster melodrama "The Lights of New York," which premiered in July 1928 as "the first all-talking movie." Shot in seven days at a cost of $23,000, its box-office take was an extraordinary $1.2 million. Conversion to sound became the general order of the day, with results startlingly apparent in the balance sheets for 1929. Warner Bros. recorded a profit increase over the previous year of more than $15 million, Paramount of more than $7 million, MGM (the last to convert) of $3 million and Fox (with the smallest output) of almost $4 million.

But "this period of unparalleled industrial change" was littered with casualties. Among them were thousands of musicians, because theaters no longer employed live orchestras to accompany silent movies; writers of intertitles for those movies; and many directors and actors who failed to make the transition to sound.

Directors who soon disappeared from the scene included Rex Ingram ("Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"), Fred Niblo ("Ben Hur") and Herbert Brenon ("Beau Geste"). Among actors, Ramon Novarro and Vilma Banky sounded too impenetrably foreign, Mae Murray squeaked, Norma Talmadge had a Brooklyn twang and John Gilbert--who spoke in a rather thin baritone--was unable to scale down his silent-movie gestures for sound. The same was true of Gloria Swanson and, not coincidentally, her one success in talkies was as the reclusive silent-movie queen of "Sunset Boulevard."

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