In Which Walter Huston’s Vacation is Ruined, and Joan Crawford Never Had Much of a Vacation to Begin With (1932)

A recent service call at the Portage led us to the service manuals for the early 1930s Western Electric Soundheads currently installed in the cinema, which included the list price, no less than $34,000. This is in 1934 dollars, and given that the only way film could be run at the time (and the only way a respectable repertory house runs film now) was on a two projector changeover system, the cost of the sound heads alone was at the time just under $70,000. This didn’t include the cost of installing the machinery. The manual reminds the exhibitor that though the cost might seem a bit high, Western Electric was offering the best sound reproduction possible. (They were right, of course, the design on those sound heads is very similar to those used in theaters today, about eighty years later as we look at the end of 35mm distribution as an industry standard, and the ones installed at the Portage are still running flawlessly.)

Exhibitors running expensive sound systems in 1932 – and regardless of what system they were using it never would have been cheap – were no doubt quite frustrated with Rain. Most exhibitors, critics, and audiences were at least unimpressed with the film, Variety called it a mistake, and Joan Crawford hated her performance, but the most impressive thing about Rain is the sound of Lewis Milestone recklessly destroying the sound mix with an onslaught of engineered thunderstorms. The dialog is never unintelligible (it helps that everyone is yelling at each other) but every scream and every murmur is abrasive and often downright frightening.