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Early sound period of adjustment?


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Yesterday I watched the first 15 minutes of a real early talkie, THE GAY DIPLOMAT( 1931).

 

Since I know sound was introduced in 1927, but silents were still being made a couple of years since, I attributed the overdone facial expressions and stilted dialogue to a possibility that there were STILL some actors, directors and even editors who used silent film techniques in shooting talking motion pictures. That they were still trying to adjust to the move to sound.

 

It seemed there were many who had no problem with it, as the Marx Brothers' COCONUTS predates this movie by three years. But the Marx movie was a film reprise of a well known and oft performed stage act, and they were securely sure of the pace and delivery.

 

Was this movie an exception to the rule, or was there REALLY a "period of adjustment" in technique as far as acting, pacing, dialogue and cutting in some of the early talking films?

 

Sepiatone

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I wouldn't say "Coconuts" isn't a good example of this "period of adjustment" you mention here Sepia, as even this film and a comparison between it and later Marx Bros films made during their peak years such as "Duck Soup" and "A Night at the Opera" clearly demonstrates how much "Coconuts" is still very much stagebound, and as were most early talkies due to the pioneering of sound-on-film technologies of the time.

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Sepia,

 

Scott Eyman wrote a terrific book about the sound revolution and that period of adjustment you are interested in.

 

It's called *The Speed of Sound* and is worth the read!

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Silent acting and style does not = exaggerated facial expressions (this is a facet of practically every era in film history, even today, and there have always been tons of films that have little or none of it) and slow pacing. In fact, it was the practices the studios tried to change in the early sound period that led to an increase in stuff like that. It's during the sound transition that the stilted speech of stage-bound theatrical dialogue coaches mandated by the studios appeared. It's during this period that almost every film reverted to stage-bound camera set-ups that silent films hadn't been mired in since the early 1910s. The industry recovered when it realized there was really nothing wrong with the way it had been making films in the silent era.

 

Who were the people who made the most inventive early sound films? The ones that provided the foundation for the next forty years of American cinema? People like Sternberg, who didn't change very much during the transition. John Ford is another who never forgot the lessons he learned in the silent era. Lubitsch too, despite the increased amount of dialogue, continued to do things he had developed in his American silent films, all for the better of the art form (in fact, Paramount Pictures, the studio that did the least meddling in its artists' affairs, home to guys like Sternberg and Lubitsch, fared far better in this period than any other studio.)

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>But the Marx movie was a film reprise of a well known and oft performed stage act, and they were securely sure of the pace and delivery.

 

Still, there were problems on the set with sound. In the classic "Why a duck" scene, Groucho shows Chico blueprints. The crackling of the blueprints drowned out the dialogue take after take. Director Robert Florey, after twenty seven takes, decided to soak the blueprints in water. The 28th take was successful.

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I remember on one of the documentaries (probably shown on TCM) it was pointed out how difficult it was to move a heavy camera around on a set without making any noise. Of course in the silent era there was no problem. But in the sound era they almost had to keep the camera stationary through the whole take. So the actors movements had to play to that stationary camera position. This probably also created some problems with picking up the actors voices as the actors moved about and recording other sound effects. So until they could solve the problems of silently moving all of the filming/recording equipment around everything looked like a filmed play , just as if you were a member of the audience sitting in your seat and viewing the action.

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Lets not forget the vaudeville performers that had to make radical adjustments to their lives whom became unemployed due to the introduction of sound.

 

The Beau Brummels (Shaw and Lee) cutting their own throats.

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Don't forget Lewis Milestone. His work on All Quiet on the Western Front, Rain, and especially The Front Page demonstrate that with a little innovation, sound films could be just as visually exciting as silents. What I have noticed in a number of the better early sound films is that the directors simply shot scenes with mobile cameras as silent, and added sound over them. That way they could use smaller, more nimble cameras, and not worry about unwanted sound.

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Bear in mind I wasn't referring to ALL talkies, but maybe just several.

 

At 2:00am, TCM showed the HOWARD HUGHES directed HELL'S ANGELS. I think I read or heard somewhere that it was Hughes who came up with the way to move cameras around. Can't really say. But this movie presented another surprise to me.

 

Up until last night, I thought THE WIZARD OF OZ was the only movie to employ the trick of starting in B&W, then switching to color. "Angels" did this in 1930. The difference was, OZ switched to color and didn't go back to B&W until the very end. "Angels" switched to color for a ten minute or so sequence, then went back for the remainder of the movie. I didn't understand the why of this. It seemed quite an ambitious endeavor for 1930, and Ben said afterwards that it cost 3 million depression era dollars. AND lost money. Although the acting was nothing to marvel at, it was a very entertaining movie, and it's FX were quite advanced for the times.

 

Sepiatone

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Joe Adamson's classic, GROUCHO, HARPO, CHICO, and SOMETIMES ZEPPO, sums up pretty well the difficulty surrounding the production of COCOANUTS (proper 'improper' spelling) - which included the idea that no one had any clue how to make a musical! Also somebody at Paramount concluded that they needed to feature Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton more than the Marxes - to the point of giving THEM the fade out!.

 

And lets not forget that, the brothers were still on Broadway with ANIMAL CRACKERS, so, they were shooting COCOANUTS during the day, and then running to the 44th St Theater to do ANIMAL CRACKERS at night (plus 'mutinies Wednesday and Saturdays'). And it did not help that the director did not think the Marx Brothers were funny! Not to mention the brothers were not used to playing in front of just a camera.

 

By the time they got to filming ANIMAL CRACKERS, they were more confident, the director knew what he was doing, the screenwriter Morrie Ryskind cut a lot of the crap out, and the tech people had figured out most of their problems...

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I don't think THE GAY DIPLOMAT is a good example here, though the thread topic is a good one. By most accounts, THE GAY DIPLOMAT was a bomb when it was released, and its value has not increased over the years. Some of the problems involve the unnatural acting of its male lead, and have less to do with the adjustment of sound technologies. There are other talkies made in 1929 and 1930, with stronger direction and more capable lead actors, that seem to handle the transition better than this picture does.

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I think Hell's Angels is a brilliant film and it should get far more credit today.

 

The scenes of the Zeppelin flying over London are extremely realistic. The scenes of it crashing to the ground in flames are very realistic too. This is an amazing sequence.

 

The sound is exceptionally good too, especially when we hear the pilots shouting while their engines are running. We hear loud engine noise, yet we can understand what the pilots are saying because the sound man mixed the two sounds just right. There even seems to be a flutter in their voices, because their shouts are passing through the gaps in the spinning propellers. I've recorded a lot of sound, and I know what voices sound like when someone talks through a spinning fan.

 

The air shots are fantastic. I think this film is a little better than WINGS.

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Yes, Milestone was probably the most innovative of the directors who worked in early sound pictures. But there were many other great silent directors who did just as great work in developing techniques. Clarence Brown and John Ford come to mind.

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In his book, Short Time for Insanity, William Wellman talked about how much he hated the transition to sound due to the fact that they couldn't move the camera and how he and a number of directors finally were able to break that barrier down.

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lz,

 

I read somewhere that it was Dorothy Arzner who came up with the idea of using a fishing rod and reel to place the microphones above the performers (like the way boom mics are used today) in order to increase camera mobility. True?

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> Some of the problems involve the unnatural acting of its male lead, and have less to do with the adjustment of sound technologies.

 

 

OK then. It could be that the ACTOR found it hard to adjust to sound? I wasn't that familiar with him, so I couldn't say if he had any success in silents or not.

 

@Fred. I too, was impressed with "Angels" photography and FX. I also noticed something else.

 

All my life people like movie hosts on TV and other film "historians" have pointed to GONE WITH THE WIND as the first major motion picture that had profanity spoken in the dialogue( "Franky my dear, I don't give a damn!"). But in HELL'S ANGELS, during the sequence the brothers were flying the German bomber over the munitions depot, I swear I heard, faintly over the noise of the plane's engines, one of them say, "****", and at another point in the same sequence, one of them blurted out "SONOFAB!TCH!". And it seemed Hughes took advantage of it being the "pre-code" days by giving us, due to clever camera angle, a slightly more than brief shot of Harlow giving us some "**** action" when she changed into "Something more comfortable". It wasn't a close-up(dang!), but it was clear enough from the distance it was shot.

 

I agree "Angels" was a good film and should be given more credit than it seems to get. Hughes seemed to do better as a director than his often hailed THE OUTLAW, which I think is given more credit than due because of JANE RUSSEL'S assets more than the film making effort.

 

Sepiatone

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>I read somewhere that it was Dorothy Arzner who came up with the idea of using a fishing rod and reel to place the microphones above the performers (like the way boom mics are used today) in order to increase camera mobility. True?

 

TB,

 

I had not heard that story before. If I see author Cari Beauchamp at the FF in a few weeks, I will try to remember to ask her as she is quite familiar with Arzner's life and career.

 

slayton,

 

Wellman's autobiography is a great read. One of my favorites along with Raoul Walsh's, *Each Man in His Own Time*. I got both from abebooks years ago.

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Sepiatone,

 

There are dozens of Silent film with Two-color Technicolor sequences that switched back and forth from Color to Black and White. Some are even on DVD and or Blu-ray THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923), BEN HUR (1925), and THE KING OF KINGS (1927) among them. With early talkies OUR BLUSHING BRIDES is almost entirely in Two-Color Technicolor and most likely the Black and White part the first couple reels, was originally Technicolor as well.

 

THE WIZARD OF OZ was tinted Amber in the Black and White portion. Such as Silent films were tinted and toned in various shades. But I was astonished to see HELLS ANGEL'S on the schedule as it hasn't been shown in probably a decade. This is the only film in which Harlow looks good to me. MGM should never have plucked her eyebrows.

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>>I read somewhere that it was Dorothy Arzner who came up with the idea of using a fishing rod and reel to place the microphones above the performers (like the way boom mics are used today) in order to increase camera mobility. True?

TB,

 

>LZ: I had not heard that story before. If I see author Cari Beauchamp at the FF in a few weeks, I will try to remember to ask her as she is quite familiar with Arzner's life and career.

 

A couple of years ago I heard someone interviewed on TCM, I think it was a younger relative of an old actor or film technician or director, etc., and he/she said that her father/uncle/ or some relative invented the "boom microphone" early in the sound era. This allowed the hanging microphone to be easily moved around with the camera.

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PS: See this:

 

------------------------------------------------------

http://www.nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=8989

 

sepiatone

 

Posts: 1658

Joined: Mon Oct 11, 2010 3:10 pm

Location: East Coast, USA

So who really invented the "boom microphone"?

Fri Apr 29, 2011 7:34 am

 

I see several well known Hollywood personalities credited with this invention

 

* William Wellman(during the shooting of BEGGARS OF LIFE 1928)

 

* Lionel Barrymore(when he returned to directing; credits himself in his autobiography )

 

* Dorothy Arzner(to better aid Clara Bow on sound set)

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Pre-Boom, maybe as early as the mid-1920s:

 

Photo from a Bing search. Text from Wiki:

 

George Jessel:

In 1924, he appeared in a brief comedy sketch, possibly the telephone sketch described above, in a short film made in the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process.[3]

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Jessel_(actor)

 

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