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The silent era started from 1894 to about 1929. Historians say the peak of silent films happened in the 1910s when its level of sophistication escalated to new heights (Loretta & Robert, 2001). In the silent era, silent films were not only an art form, but also a literary form. Although the term “silent” means there was no sound accompanying pictures, evidence shows that most silent films had an accompanying music (Loretta & Robert, 2001). The accompaniment of live music emerged from a strong belief (among film producers) that it was important to incorporate music in motion picture films. Indeed, because of the lack of sound, live music gave audiences a clue about what was happening on the screens.
In small towns, pianists played music to accompany silent films, but in big cities, filmmakers used full orchestras to achieve the same purpose (The Times, 2004). Because of the lack of sound, the success of silent films mainly depended on how well the actors would present their facial expressions and emphasize their body language. Arce & Acker (2010) say that silent films may outrage most modern audiences because the actors would be over-acting. Some of the best silent films included the 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, the 1919 film, Broken Blossoms, and the 1922 film, Nosferatu.
This paper argues that the development of synchronized dialogues heralded the death of silent films because years of experimentation enabled film producers to include dialogue into motion picture works. Evidence from this paper will show that, except for Charlie Chaplin, most filmmakers made very few silent films in the 1930s (after the development of synchronized dialogue). The final sections of this paper show that the development of synchronized dialogue was a new territory for the motion picture film industry because silent films did not have a sound. Broadly, from this background, this paper argues that the development of synchronized dialogue is one aspect of cinema that greatly distinguishes silent films from modern-day films.
The earliest infusions of sound in films occurred with the production of the American music film, The Jazz Singer. Although a high commercial success characterized this film, some critics argue that the introduction of synchronized sound in motion picture films changed the entire structure of the film industry because it eroded the value of film experiences (Arce & Acker, 2010). Some film producers like Alfred Hitchcock hold this view because they perceived the introduction of sound as a “whitewash strategy” for covering some film imperfections (Kristin, 2013).
For example, Kristin (2013) says scriptwriters often used dialogue to cover cinematic imperfections. Arce & Acker (2010) also say the introduction of synchronized sound minimized the “cinema effect” of motion pictures. This background further birthed a greater group of critics who believed modern films lacked depth and eroded the aesthetic quality of films (Arce & Acker, 2010). Such critics believe silent films were the “purest” forms of cinema, but the introduction of synchronized sound led to the erosion of depth in motion picture films. Some critics say the introduction of synchronized sound is equivalent to “pictures talking” (Kristin, 2013).
Among the greatest critics of synchronized sound was the British film critic, Paul Rotha (cited in The Times, 2004), who believed the infusion of synchronized sound (in films) was contrary to the goals of cinema. Such critics believed synchronized sound was a misguided attempt of destroying the true purposes of cinema because it operated outside the confines of cinematic viewing (mostly historical confines). Such views were synonymous among people who believed cinema needed to remain an art, based on the belief that the introduction of synchronized sound would erode this trait.
Critics therefore regarded the introduction of synchronized sound as a substitute of the aesthetic attributes of cinematic presentations because it did not preserve the goals of authentic cinema. Some of them equated the introduction of synchronized sound to the reproduction of written materials (Kristin, 2013). The same group of critics however acknowledges that the lack of sound was a significant weakness of silent era films. However, they do not believe this imperfection warranted the huge revolution that synchronized sound brought to the motion picture industry.
Proponents of new age films saw the introduction of synchronized sound as a new era in the film industry. Although the high ratings of silent films during the first few years of introducing synchronized sound in films suppressed their optimism, history would prove them right. Indeed, they were able to discredit the idea that sound was irreconcilable with art. Instead, they demonstrated that the introduction of sound created a new platform of creativity that would raise cinematic presentation to a new height of cultural and aesthetic success.
For example, to counter the belief that synchronized sound would erode the aesthetic value of films, proponents of new age films highlighted the new levels of creative success that synchronized sound brought to the industry (Arce & Acker, 2010). A notable example is the opportunity created by synchronizing sound to tap into vernacular dialects of human dialogue. This development helped to increase the flexibility of cinematic representations, even when the industry was still experiencing rapid changes in its production processes and audience perceptions. Some people viewed the inclusion of vernacular creativity as a solution for the overreliance on technical advancements in new-age films (Arce & Acker, 2010).
While 1920 silent films did not appreciate the value of distinct dialects, cinematic presentations that included synchronized sounds appreciated the value of human dialogue by including vernacular presentations in cinematic presentations. The mere opportunity of including dialogue in films almost acts as a way of representing human dialects because it presents the unique voices of the human race. The introduction of vernacular dialects in filmmaking exposes the difference between silent films and modern-day films because it introduced cultural complexity in films. Silent films often lacked this sophistication. Nonetheless, because synchronized sound introduced vernacular dialects into filmmaking, arguments supporting the view that synchronized sounds eroded the authenticity of cinematic presentations lost merit. Indeed, the inclusion of vernacular speech in the filmmaking process (as an example) was authentic for representing the true nature of human dialogue.
Many observers consider the introduction of synchronized sound in motion picture films as a significant technological advancement in the motion picture industry (Arce & Acker, 2010). Indeed, one distinction that separates silent films from modern films is the technological limitations that most producers experienced when producing both types of films. In the silent era, the greatest challenge was merging visuals and sounds. From this difficulty, some producers of silent films were uncomfortable with the idea of producing films that had synchronized sound because they believed their films were not completely silent (the presence of live music) (Arce & Acker, 2010).
Moreover, they were satisfied with the reception that silent films received. Certainly, Chareen & Ross (2009) say that before the introduction of synchronized sound in motion picture films, audiences appreciated silent films as an art. The goal of silent film producers was to entertain their audiences and as Arce & Acker (2010) affirm, they were very good at it. The same group of professionals ensured the film industry was highly successful in the 1920s. They produced thousands of films yearly and sold millions of tickets in the same effort.
However, with the development of new technology that provided a better synchrony of sound and visuals, a new era of motion picture films emerged. The filmmakers also found it easy to amplify film sound through the adoption of new technology. Many American companies played a leading role in providing this new wave of technology as leading technological companies such as RCA and Western Electric assumed a pioneer role (Chareen & Ross, 2009). These corporations also helped to introduce the vita-phone technology that made it possible for cinemas and filmmakers to use sound as a commercially viable venture in film production and screening (the more efficient celluloid prepped sound system later replaced the vita-phone technology) (Arce & Acker, 2010).
Although technological developments helped to revolutionize the commercial viability of films that had synchronized sound, filmmakers still experienced many problems using synchronized sound in their productions. A major problem was the fact that most of the equipments used to synchronize and amplify sound were big, clumsy, and noisy. In fact, technicians had to secure these equipments in soundproof rooms so that they do not diminish the experience of the audience when watching the films. Moreover, it took a long time before filmmakers could know that it was possible to use a mobile microphone to get the best audio quality from the actors (by placing the microphone just above the view of the camera) (Arce & Acker, 2010).
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Therefore, most early sounds in films were static, as most actors had to speak through static microphones. Moreover, before the development of advanced camera technologies we see today, the cameras used to capture movements in silent films were not as fluid as they are today. Because of the problems experienced by filmmakers in the initial stages of using sound in their filmmaking process, there was a great fear that silent films would eventually supersede the popularity of sound-infused films because they enjoyed a big market share (especially internationally) (Loretta & Robert, 2001).
Indeed, one notable development that arose from the inclusion of synchronized sound was the loss of foreign appeal to new films (unlike silent films, which had a strong foreign appeal). For example, in 1926, the former boss of Warner Bros claimed that synchronized sound would not match the foreign appeal that silent music enjoyed in the international market (Arce & Acker, 2010). Ironically, his company benefitted from the commercial success of new-age films after “talking pictures” achieved a great market success. The road to success was however bumpy because, initially, actors had trouble trying to speak in foreign languages and emulate foreign accent.
This was especially more difficult for actors as they tried to speak through primitive microphones and amplification equipments. Arce & Acker (2010) say such developments also led to more criticisms about the introduction of synchronized sound in films because it opened a new opportunity for actors to introduce stereotypical undertones in film production. Nonetheless, positive developments from this process also emerged as a new crop of films, such as comedy, also emerged.
Advancements in technology, up to 1927, showed a huge commercial potential of synchronized sound films (Arce & Acker, 2010). In fact, Hollywood attributes most of its success to this potential as they exploited the commercial viability of synchronized sound technology in filmmaking. In fact, the unprecedented success of the Jazz Singer film motivated Hollywood filmmakers to pursue the production of similar films. Before the use of the Technicolor technology, in the fifties, Hollywood made a lot of money by exploiting sound technology in filmmaking. Evidence shows that the industry produced about 800 movies annually (using this technology) (Loretta & Robert, 2001). This analysis shows that silent films provided the background for a new age of filmmaking that Arce & Acker (2010) call, the Golden Age of Hollywood. In sum, technological challenges helped to draw a big divide between silent films and modern films because it helped to improve the audiences’ experiences.
Redefinition of Standards in the Film Industry
The introduction of synchronized sound in filmmaking changed the nature of the silent era film industry by providing a new lens for hiring workers. During the silent era, deaf people comprised a great percentage of actors since the filmmakers perceived them to be natural actors (because of their mastery of the use of sign languages and facial expressions). In fact, most silent films achieved commercial success by using deaf actors. From this background, it is correct to say the greatest distinguishing development in the introduction of synchronized sound in filmmaking was its redefinition of audience segments. Particularly, the silent film era gave an opportunity for deaf people to view films at the same level as other people do, but the introduction of sound changed this experience completely. Schuchman (2004) says,
“When Hollywood abandoned silent films in 1929 and 1930 in favor of the new sound technology popularly known as the talkies, the movie industry also severely limited the ability of deaf and hard of hearing consumers to participate in the movie theatre audience with persons who could hear” (p. 231).
Because silent era films mainly used signs and facial expressions to communicate with the audience, deaf people often related with it because they used the same mode of communication to interact with people. Schuchman (2004) says the introduction of synchronized sound in films changed the film industry because many people often found it difficult to relate with such forms of communication.
Granville Redmond is a notable actor of the silent era that extensively featured in many silent films (including several films by Charlie Chaplin) (Loretta & Robert, 2001). Therefore, silent films only required a mastery of acting skills and not speaking skills from its actors. This situation prompted Arce & Acker (2010) to say the silent film era was a golden era for deaf actors because they had an equal opportunity to participate in filmmaking (as actors).
For instance, James Spearing, a silent film director, is among the most celebrated professionals who greatly used deaf actors in his films. In fact, in one production (His Busy Hour), he used an all-deaf cast (Schuchman, 2004). Although the film was not highly successful, Spearing marketed it as an attempt to convince the deaf community to participate in the film industry. Efforts to do so manifested when the producer marketed the film to deaf communities in New York (Schuchman, 2004).
From the above assertions, it is correct to say the introduction of synchronized dialogue changed the landscape of the film industry by requiring actors to speak. This change closed the opportunity for deaf people (or actors who could not express themselves on television) to act in new-age films. Despite launching successful appeals to filmmakers, the industry found it untenable to hire actors who could not talk. To meet the demands of disadvantaged audiences, directors introduced captions to accommodate minority groups (mostly the deaf). Today, many film producers use captions almost voluntarily.
Comprehensively, it is crucial to say the introduction of synchronized sound did not mean that all actors could now talk; instead, it opened a floodgate of new changes in the filmmaking industry that would separate silent films from modern films forever. Indeed, unlike silent films, where actors were not necessarily required to perform beyond showing sound body languages, films that emerged after the silent era required fluent actors who could present themselves with professional eloquence. In fact, there was a further scrutiny of actors in post-silent era films because studios saw actors that had a poor stage presence as suspect (Loretta & Robert, 2001). Moreover, they perceived actors who had a heavy accent and discordant voices as suspect too. This intense scrutiny led to the declined popularity of many celebrated silent movie actors, such as Norma Talmadge.
Other actors who suffered similar fates include John Gilbert, and Emil Jannings. The inclusion of synchronized sound made many audiences to believe some of these silent sound actors were old-fashioned. Indeed, the shift to synchronized sound led many film executives to tame most of the silent era film actors by cutting their salaries and ending their contracts (Loretta & Robert, 2001). These changes forced many actors to quit. People who had irked out a living by playing live music in the silent movie era also lost their jobs because filmmakers preferred to use mechanical instruments to play music. This shift led to the emergence of a new debate that criticized the introduction of synchronized sound in the film industry by saying it is a form of replacing real music for mechanical music (Arce & Acker, 2010). Therefore, many people believed the mechanization of music would lead to the eventual decline of the soul of the art.
After evaluating the findings of this paper, it is crucial to mention that silent era films represent a special age in the history of filmmaking. Based on the arguments that showed the value of cinematic representations of silent films as a “pure” form of cinematic art, it is correct to say that many filmmakers were hesitant to embrace synchronized sounds as an important tenet of the filmmaking process. However, evidence from this paper show that synchronized sounds changed the entire industry by creating new standards for filmmakers to hire actors and for audiences to experience human dialogue in films. Indeed, through synchronized sounds, modern-day films have adopted a distinguishing feature (human dialogue) that sets them apart from silent era films. Evidence from this paper also shows that technological advancements greatly supported this change, as better and more efficient technologies (for merging visuals and sounds) enabled filmmakers to produce high quality cinematic representations. Synchronized sounds therefore emerge as the strikingly different factor that distinguishes modern-day films and silent era films.
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