10 great early sound films

As Damien Chazelle takes us back to the end of the silent era in Babylon, we celebrate the early years of sound cinema and the new technology’s greatest innovators.

20 January 2023

By David Parkinson

M (1931)

Hollywood is wedded to its folklore when it comes to the talkies. From Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) to Damien Chazelle’s new 1920s Hollywood epic Babylon (2022), the consensus is that it was Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927) that sounded the death knell of the silent era. Yet The Jazz Singer was itself largely a silent film, bar a couple of musical sequences and snatches of improvised dialogue. Most Americans actually saw the simultaneously released silent version. It was the more widely distributed bootlegging drama Lights of New York (1928) – the first all-talking picture – that caused queues to form outside the few cinemas wired for sound, with audiences keen to hear the actors talk.

Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952) has also cemented the impression that every talking picture was a nightmare to shoot because of noisy cameras, over-sensitive multi-directional microphones and glamorous mummers with voices like nails down a blackboard.

Sound did change everything, as the visual became the verbal and the allusional went literal. But the studios soon found ways to muffle motors to liberate cameras from their ice-boxes and dub sound so that dialogue didn’t always have to be recorded live by performers huddled around a plant pot. Moreover, a number of filmmakers embraced the creative possibilities of sound, seeking ways to use it expressively and experimentally. 

Of course, there were star casualties like Clara Bow and John Gilbert, and the joys of slapstick were kiboshed. Given the seismic nature of what many considered a transition from ethereal art to vulgar entertainment, it was also inevitable that an abundance of what were dismissed as ‘squawkies’ were hamstrung by technical and thesping limitations.

Yet, that early period of 1928 to 1931 yielded many fine films, several of which were sonically innovative. Others, such as Lewis Milestone’s war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), even made poignant use of silence. 

The Broadway Melody (1929)

Director: Harry Beaumont

The Broadway Melody (1929)

The first talkie to win the Academy Award for best picture, MGM’s backstager was set to be part-silent before production chief Irving Thalberg read the fizzing showbiz argot in James Gleason’s dialogue. The decision to make an all-talkie brought its problems, however. MGM didn’t have a soundstage or an in-house orchestra to create musical numbers. Instead, they had to be recorded and balanced live after hours of painstaking rehearsal. 

Adding to the complications, the ‘Wedding of the Painted Doll’ finale was filmed in two-strip Technicolor, and dissatisfaction with the pedestrian staging led to it becoming the first routine to be photographed with a playback soundtrack, so as to avoid rehiring the musicians. In supervising the synchronisation in the studio laboratory, recording engineer Douglas Shearer paved the way for post-production dubbing. A neat twist also saw three of the specially commissioned songs – co-written by future MGM producer Arthur Freed – find their way into Singin’ in the Rain.

Blackmail (1929)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Blackmail (1929)

Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie was also his last silent. There are intriguing differences between the two versions, as Hitchcock was reluctant merely to tag dialogue passages and sound effects on to his silent scenario. There’s a fluidity to the wordless sequences that’s missing from the more stolid speechifying, even in the famous scene in which the gossipy customer keeps repeating the word ‘knife’ over breakfast the morning after Anny Ondra’s character has stabbed a rapacious artist.

However, such use of sound to explore a character’s psychological state was novel, and Hitchcock repeated the trick with the newsagent’s ringing doorbell that drowns out all other sounds, as Ondra is suffused by guilt. 

In order to reunite with her after The Manxman (1929), Hitchcock was forced to conduct an experiment in live dubbing: the Czech actor’s thick accent necessitated her to mime while an off-camera Joan Barry delivered her lines in clipped Home Counties tones.

Hallelujah (1929)

Director: King Vidor

Hallelujah (1929)

It’s easy to find fault today with the social morality and stereotypical characterisation in MGM’s all-Black musical, which chronicles the fall from grace of a sharecropper led astray by lust. But director King Vidor’s intentions were so well meant that he bartered his salary to help finance a picture the studio knew would never make a cent below the Mason-Dixon line. Ironically, Vidor shot much of the action silently in Tennessee and Arkansas, and ingeniously synced the neo-realistic footage with dialogue, music and expressionistic sound effects.

Jazz and spirituals play their part in the battle for the soul of Daniel L. Haynes, whose continuation of a song across several locations is one of several inspired meldings of sound and image. But it’s set-pieces like the outdoor baptism, the revival meeting and the climactic swampwater chase (with its foleyed squelches, rustlings, screams and gunshots) that leave the deepest sonic impression.

Applause (1929)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Applause (1929)

In making his feature debut, theatre director Rouben Mamoulian reasoned that stylisation could be more truthful than realism if done with finesse. In the opening scene of this story about a washed-up burlesque performer and the daughter she had placed in a convent, he roved a camera along a desolate street before following the off-screen sound of a brass band, which leads the viewer through a match cut into a seedy downtown theatre. 

In addition to defying wisdom that cameras had to remain stationary, Mamoulian also recorded dialogue on separate microphones and combined them in post-production. He also used sounds at the tail-end of scenes to anticipate the ensuing action, and annotated montages by overlaying them with the sounds of nuns singing, train doors opening and car horns honking – in order to impose rhythm, spatial depth and momentum. It feels creaky now, but in 1929 it was an audacious cinematic statement of intent.

The Love Parade (1929)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

The Love Parade (1929)

Having imparted an innate musicality to his silents, Ernst Lubitsch was reluctant to tackle talkies, as he loathed tethered cameras and literal dialogue. He was intrigued, however, by the notion of merging operetta and revue into a new form of musical comedy. Consequently, he had screenwriters Guy Bolton and Ernest Vajda integrate songs into the storyline – about a Ruritanian queen (Jeanette MacDonald) and her emasculated consort (Maurice Chevalier) – so that characters could break into song in order to conduct a conversation or express their emotions. 

For one duet, Lubitsch had a live orchestra play between two adjoining soundstages so that the score could guide cross-cuts between singers in separate rooms. He also made amusing use of contrapuntal sound and even staged one encounter offscreen while the camera lingered on the reactions of those eavesdropping. The result was sophisticated, satirical and subversive. Yet it all seemed like a harmless fairytale. No wonder Jean Cocteau considered it miraculous. 

Sous les toits de Paris (1930)

Director: René Clair

Sous les toits de Paris (1930)

René Clair disliked sound cinema, branding it “a redoubtable monster”. Yet, he experimented with the new technology in this tale of a street singer who falls for the same girl as his best friend and a hoodlum. Shooting on stylised studio sets designed by Lazare Meerson, Clair opened with a sinuous crane shot that allowed music to grow louder as the camera drew closer to its source. He used noise to create the bustling tenement ambience, even letting it seep through the floorboards. 

But he resisted synchronisation outside dialogue and song. Moreover, he didn’t hesitate to silence sound with closing doors or stall it with sticking gramophone records. At other times, he drowns it out entirely, as with the crash of a hurtling train during the knife fight, which continues in sound-effected darkness after a bullet shatters a streetlight. The scene is finally illuminated again by car headlamps. Clair was accused of romanticising cliché, but he actually laid the foundations of the poetic realism style that became dominant in 1930s French cinema.

Enthusiasm (1930)

Director: Dziga Vertov

Enthusiasm (1930)

The coming of sound sparked a theoretical debate in the Soviet Union about its optimal use. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) director Dziga Vertov (who had experimented with a futurist Laboratory of Hearing before turning to cinema) supported Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin in their calls for non-synchronisation and fashioned a musique concrète soundtrack for this ‘Symphony of Donbas’. Such was the innovative dynamism of his approach that Vertov dubbed the film “the lead icebreaker in the column of sound newsreels”. 

Devised to extol the Five-Year Plan to industrialise a backward nation, the film opens with a denunciation of outdated, unsocialist distractions like religion before focusing on the mines of Ukraine and the benefits that coal brings to the people. Rather than employ a commentary, however, Vertov shuffled complementary and contrapuntal sounds to reinforce or refute the metaphors created by montage. The inter-cutting, distorting, slowing/speeding, and looping of voices, instruments and machinery is daring and dazzling. But the technique needs to be experienced, not read about.

Little Caesar (1931)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Little Caesar (1931)

Besides the nightclub robbery montage of shifting images over a background of revelrous hubbub, there wasn’t anything particularly innovative about this adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s Al Capone-inspired crime novel. Roland West’s Alibi and Josef von Sternberg’s Thunderbolt (both 1929) had already made evocative use of screeching tyres and gunfire on their soundtracks, while Archie Mayo’s The Doorway to Hell (1930) had exposed the ruthless rivalries within underworld hierarchies. But Little Caesar was the apotheosis of the nascent gangster genre, as Caesar Enrico Bandello dispatches rivals en route to taking over Big City. 

The screenplay seethes with gangland slang, delivered with rat-a-tat relish by Edward G. Robinson. He’d played mobsters on stage but brought restrained menace to a role that couldn’t have been played with such restless ferocity at a time when actor movement was restricted by microphone placement. That said, Robinson had to have his eyelids taped to stop him from flinching each time he fired a weapon. 

M (1931)

Director: Fritz Lang

M (1931)

Depicting a society on a moral precipice, Fritz Lang’s account of the crimes and punishment of a Berlin child killer is perhaps the most sophisticated picture of the early sound era. It generates tension and dread from the darkened opening scene, in which children sing about a bogeyman. The presence of Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) in the rundown neighbourhood is signalled by a whistled snatch of ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite (which Lang performed because Lorre couldn’t whistle), with the leitmotif’s waivering notes betraying his psychological state. 

We don’t see the murder, just a shadow looming, as Beckert talks to his victim. A mother’s call over images of absence chills to the bone, and Lang would employ similar sound bridges to collapse time and space while cross-cutting between the meetings of the police and the criminal underworld. It’s fiendishly inventive, but done with such deftness that it never feels forced.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

By 1932, talkies were so established that few Hollywood filmmakers bothered experimenting with sound. An exception was Rouben Mamoulian, who, for example, casually switched time signature three times in the opening tune of his glorious Lubitsch pastiche, Love Me Tonight (1932). 

Even more intrepid was the sound effect he created to accompany Fredric March’s first transformation in his 1931 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s easy to be distracted by the ingenious confluence of makeup and colour filters that enable Hyde to appear before our very eyes. But the impact would be less horrifying without the disconcerting cacophony of what was nicknamed “Mamoulian’s sound stew”, which was concocted from snatches of Bach, the reversed reverberations of a gong, the director’s heartbeat and striations painted directly on to the sound strip.

Typically, a quarter of a century later, Mamoulian was still pushing sonic boundaries, with the ‘Stereophonic Sound’ number in Silk Stockings (1957).

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