Early Talkies: A Primer

Acquired Tastes
If one wanted, for whatever reason, to sketch a dividing line between the casual movie fan and the serious cinephile, the early talkies are probably the place to do it.

Their stars are unfamiliar—flashes-in-the-pan whose popularity is more mysterious and unaccountable than those that came immediately before and after. (Modern audiences instinctively understand the magnetism and sexuality of Valentino and Garbo or Stanwyck and Gabin; not so El Brendel, whose narrow ethnic burlesque is such an acquired taste that it beggars belief he was ever accorded starring roles in big-budget specials.)

Too often, discussion of the earliest sound movies (say, between 1928 and 1932, but especially those made before the summer of 1930) is heavily laced with apology. It’s assumed that they’re successful in spite of incontrovertible deficiencies. Their music often comes across as a soupy, repetitive mess. The sets are sometimes barely dressed. The takes are long and the camera movement minimal. The dialogue is so heavy it’s no wonder they were called talkies.

With eight decades separating us from their original context, it’s an understandable misreading. The late silent era boasted such a consistently high level of craft that it’s somewhat baffling that moviegoers were content to exchange high-toned masterworks like The Sorrows of Satan, The General, The Docks of New York, The Crowd, The Wind, and The Wedding March for Al Jolson in The Singing Fool, the first talking blockbuster. (The ledger looks even more uneven and incredulous when one factors in mute exercises in mass-market formalism from across the Atlantic: Napoleon, Faust, L’argent, Rotaie, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and The Fall of the House of Usher.)  Today’s scholars value these films as showcases of dazzling camera choreography, intricate montage, subtle performance style, and a generally ecstatic engagement with the technological promise of cinema—a new language for a broken world. Why discard all this for something so inert? (Until the 1960s, many film buffs refused to do so, with a reflexive and reactionary insistence that the major artistic milestones in American cinema were largely confined to the pre-talkie era.)

There are some potential—and highly condescending—explanations. The Hollywood machine conspired to thrust a false talkie consciousness upon the masses, who were naturally powerless to resist. In the less populist version, the yokels of 1928 had never appreciated the Art of Cinema in the first place and were just knocked out by any damn thing that moved and spoke (or sang or barked or yapped) at the same time. (Of course, many Americans had never heard electronically amplified sound in a public space before the movies began to talk, and that’s not nothing.) Really engaging with the early talkies, though, demands a more charitable framework that allows that the exchange of silence for sound may well have been seen as a fair trade by the average moviegoer.

What the movies lost in graphic sophistication was at least equaled by a new polyphonic dimension of strange, ancestral accents, disarmingly elemental sound effects, abstract layers of aural atmosphere, and the newly legible terror of true silence. In aggregate, they had no less claim to art. And indeed, films like Thunderbolt, Alibi, Hallelujah!, Morocco, Enthusiasm, and Berlin Alexanderplatz suggested an entirely new kind of art—ambiance radically conjured through ambient noise. For a western like Hell’s Heroes, the soundtrack served to underline and enhance the severity of the outdoor photography. In style and effect, these early talkies are in no significant fashion different from the recent ‘slow cinema’ features (Syndromes and a Century, say, or the work of Hong Sang-soo) much-lauded on the festival circuit over the last decade.

In a category all its own was the music-and-effects movie, that most ephemeral of forms to spring from the early talkie era. Conceived to show off sound reproduction capacities at wired theaters but designed to play comprehensibly in equal measure in old-fashioned houses, they contained little or no spoken dialogue. These delicacies retained the graphic and rhythmic punctuation of the silent-style intertitle while subjecting lucky listeners to a barrage of non-narrative aural information. In their gratuitousness, the music-and-effects movies suggested a poetic overlay upon prose entertainment—a genuinely experimental form arising wholly from economic necessity. The best music-and-effects fusions—Sunrise, Tabu, The Man Who Laughs, Prix de beaute, the international version of All Quiet on the Western Front—combined stock music and new compositions with machine sounds and truly disembodied snatches of indistinct voices.

We need look (and listen) no further than Paul Fejos’s Lonesome for the characteristic music-and-effects masterpiece. (Available for decades only in a heavily-circulated but still underseen 35mm archival print, the latest restoration from George Eastman House was finally released on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection last month.) A mutant entirely of its time, Lonesome samples and summarizes three decades of technological progress: straight black-and-white photography, hand-colored sequences, in-camera tricks and optical superimpositions, avant-garde cutting, pokey dialogue interludes, and more. Appropriately enough, the happy ending hinges upon a 78rpm phonograph record—a redemption by (and of) pop culture. (In this respect, and many others, Lonesome suggests an immediate and complementary comparison with its tenement cinema contemporary, The Crowd.)

Some modern-day fans of Lonesome lament its three dialogue sequences as rude interlopers in a ‘pure’ feat of visual cinema. I can only respond that I wouldn’t love this film half as much with these awkward scenes excised. They emanate from a very brief moment in cinema history when the need for dialogue was understood but the imperative to import professional writers from Broadway had not yet ascended to conventional wisdom. The dialogue in Lonesome is not in the least bit literary; indeed, it’s shockingly trivial and, in that sense, reveals depths of vulnerability unavailable to the most seasoned of playwrights. The lines may not represent the way real people talked to each other in 1928, but they do capture the mass-culture-mediated way people talk to themselves in any year. It’s just talk and doesn’t aspire to anything else. (Of course, these verbal exchanges were hardly incidental to the studio’s bottom line; Universal had to the chutzpah to tout Lonesome as its first all-talking feature on the basis of six minutes of dialogue.)

If early talkies are distinguished by their gimmicks and rough edges, they’re also marked by a drive for something more coherent and unified. We might call it genre.

Until 1932, American films are only groping towards pre-fab, assembly-line blueprints. Their tonal shifts and plot twists are wholly their own, with the seeds of genres-to-be freely cross-pollinated. The Great Gabbo is both a backstage musical and a despairing character study. Madam Satan is a comedy of infidelity and a dirigible spectacle for the ages. Is Blonde Venus a maternal melodrama, a swanky musical, or a bawdy fairy tale? Can it all be three at once? How can you even classify a film like Other Men’s Women or The Strange Love of Molly Louvain? They shift moment to moment, not only in their register but in their presumed audience.

By virtue of its peculiar alchemy, Just Imagine probably reigns as the ultimate early talkie. Its existence is a triumph of blind faith in the cumulative power of wholly unrelated mass culture obsessions and idioms. An other-worldly operetta that correctly predicts the promiscuously electronic entertainment landscape of the eighties, Just Imagine looks strangely prescient. (It would take five decades for Giorgio Moroder to retrofit Metropolis as MTV Ground Zero; Just Imagine was already there in 1930.) It’s a truism that period pieces often say just as much about their own time, but it’s especially true of Just Imagine, which seems consciously to strive for time capsule status. (In fulfilling that goal, Fox could cast no better leading man than El Brendel, whose every dumb Swede rejoinder carries an imminent expiration date.)  It’s a designer folly that takes itself for a subject.

The soundtrack of Just Imagine is likewise representative. Its musical numbers are uneven, but consistently sincere. The recording quality is primitive, even for 1930—a fact compounded by the questionable lab work that mediates all modern prints of Just Imagine. In one scene, the soundtrack is abandoned entirely, with the track area on the left edge of the print occupied by the ‘noise’ of the picture. (When read by the sound head on a projector, this section produces a garble that would be the envy of any sound engineer in 1930.)

Inevitably, Just Imagine disappoints as a musical and as science fiction. (It’s too serious to be really pulpy, but its statist scenario sounds more like Tea Party paranoia circa 2012.) For a film like Just Imagine to be enjoyed and understood, it’s most productive to treat it, generically-speaking, simply as an early talkie, its concerns and methods shaped most decisively by the rudderless abandon of a new plaything.

The Northwest Chicago Film Society will be screening Just Imagine in a 35mm print on September 30 at Cinema Borealis. See our current calendar for more information. Special thanks to Brian Block at Criterion Pictures, USA and James Bond.