Blog Directory CineVerse: Hear to stay: The onscreen marriage of sound and vision has been a happy one for over 80 years

Hear to stay: The onscreen marriage of sound and vision has been a happy one for over 80 years

Thursday, July 23, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

Eighty-two years ago, motion pictures--which had been going gangbusters since the 1890s--were hardly in their infancy. Yet it would take until 1927 to utter their first real words.

It would be vaudeville performer Al Jolson who would become the spokesman-of-sorts for a new generation in movies. Jolson played the lead role in Warner Brothers’ black-and-white 1927 musical “The Jazz Singer,” the first commercial motion picture that married realistic synchronized dialogue and sound to picture, an
d the era of “talkies” was born.

Though it contained many popular musical numbers like "Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye," the movie itself--which depicts the musical ambitions of an aspiring song-and-dance man whose career alienates him from his stern Jewish father--was not particularly groundbreaking.

Nevertheless, the film was a smash hit and the concept of talking pictures took the world quickly by storm, as did Warner's revolutionary Vitaphone sound-on-disk system that made synced music and dialogue possible. Jolson's catch line "You ain't heard nothing yet" became a household phrase.

Ironically, however, Hollywood had, at first, rejected synchronized sound in films in the early 20s. An
d even after "The Jazz Singer's" release, many critics and viewers panned the early “talkies” as lesser artistic works because sound negated the need for pantomimed expressions long considered to be a hallmark of quality dramatic acting.

Also, the non-stop accompanying music--usually played on a record player or by an orchestra or organist in the theater during the silent era--took more of a back seat, which many audiences found to be an awkward adjustment. A number of silent era stars with poor singing talents or gauche voices also found themse
lves out of work.

Still, by 1928 sound was here to stay, and Hollywood studios began churning out hundreds of talking film
s every year, many of them musicals.

Arguably, it was the Euro
pean filmmakers who best helped ease the transition from silent to talkies by expanding the artistic and creative possibilities that the marriage of picture and sound provided. Good examples include Alfred Hitchcock's "Blackmail" (1929) and Fritz Lang's "M" (1931).

Over the past eight decades, sound in film has progressed from a once crude
and tinny aural experience for audiences, to a full-blown, digital multi-track “event for the ears.” Music and audio sound effects are prominent players in today’s films, and the majority of theaters are equipped with immensely expensive sound systems, from George Lucas’ THX Sound to Dolby Digital to DTS surround sound.

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