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The orderly transition from silents to talkies

Studios didn't panic after 'The Jazz Singer,' but made multiple versions of the same films. This period is the focus of the new UCLA archive series 'Silent/Sync/Sound.'

January 11, 2013|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • "All Quiet on the Western Front"
"All Quiet on the Western Front" (UCLA Film & Television Archive )

"Singin' in the Rain" got it wrong.

The beloved 1952 musical-comedy spoofing the transition from silent films to sound in Hollywood didn't reflect what really happened after the release of 1927's "The Jazz Singer," the blockbuster starring Al Jolson that featured synchronized songs and limited dialogue.

According to UCLA Film & Television Archive programmer Paul Malcolm, the studios didn't go into a panic, as portrayed in the Gene Kelly-Debbie Reynolds classic, when "all of a sudden production stopped and nobody knew what to do."

What actually happened, said Malcolm, was "a very rational, ordered decision to move forward with sound production, and they did it in a very rational and orderly way."

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The studios decided to make multiple versions of motion pictures. Within two years of the release of "The Jazz Singer," every major Hollywood studio was producing and distributing silent and sound versions of its films.

A new UCLA archive series, "Silent/Sync/Sound: Multiple Versions From the Transition Era," features several examples of these multiple versions. The festival begins Saturday at the Billy Wilder Theater with the sync music and effects track version of the 1930 antiwar drama "All Quiet on the Western Front," followed by the sound version of the World War I drama that won a best picture Oscar.

Other films in the series include Cecil B. DeMille's 1929 "Dynamite," Clara Bow's 1930 vehicle "True to the Navy" and the 1930 Hoot Gibson western, "Trailin' Trouble."

Each studio had a different approach when it came to producing the various versions. Some would shoot simultaneously or use alternate takes.

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There would also be plot differences between the two versions. The sound production of Frank Capra's 1930 "Rain or Shine" has a different ending than the silent one.

And in the case of "Brothers," a 1930 melodrama about twin boys who are separated as babies when one is adopted by a wealthy family and the other by a washerwoman, the opening sequences are reversed.

In the silent "Brothers," said Malcolm, "the rich family arrives at the orphanage, they have a conversation with the doctor and they take one of the twins. Then a washerwoman comes and takes the other." The sound version opens with a montage of crying babies followed by the poor woman arriving first to adopt the baby.

"Why and how they decided to make this distinction, I am not entirely clear at all," said Malcolm. "But that is the kind of thing which I think is so fun about the series — you start to notice the differences. It becomes really exciting."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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