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What if sound had come to movies 10 years later?


DavidEnglish
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What if sound had come to movies 10 years later?

 

* Would gangster films have become as popular as they did in the early 1930s?

 

* Would we still have had the Production Code?

 

* Would Keaton have stayed at MGM?

 

* When would Preston Sturges, Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, and the Marx Brothers have come to Hollywood? Would they have stayed in New York throughout the 1930s?

 

* Would City Lights and Modern Times have been exactly the same visually?

 

* Would Citizen Kane have included more sound experimentation?

 

* Would we have had a bunch of film noir musicals in the 1940s?

 

* What would have been the 1937 equivalent of The Jazz Singer?

 

* Would the Warner Bros. and Disney studios have survived the Great Depression? How about Columbia?

 

* Would Disney have made Fantasia before making Snow White and Pinocchio?

 

If sound hadn?t come in until 15 years later, would David O. Selznick have made a silent Gone With the Wind? Who would have been the director? And who would have been the actors?

 

DavidE

http://www.classicfilmpreview.com

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The first thing I thought when I saw your heading was "No Marx Bros.". That would have been more than many of us could bear. There would have been a mass of humanity that would have stayed in NY. I think the likes of Keaton, Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy would have been fine.

 

I think the production code still would have come in. People would have missed the gunfire in gangster pictures (that maybe they didn't miss in westerns.) I doubt Disney would have been as successful as early.

 

What do you think?

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> What do you think?

 

As a big fan of both silent films and screwball comedies, I think the end result would probably be a wash.

 

Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd might have produced their best comedies during the 1930s (in Chaplin?s case, more best comedies). The Depression might have fueled silent comedies to incredible heights. I can only imagine how much further silent films might have progressed when you consider the incredible films that were made at the very end of the silent era. Would Gance have made another Napoleon? Could Stroheim have matched Greed (assuming the studios gave him another chance)? Imagine Vidor topping The Crowd, or Seastrom creating something better than The Wind? Lang, Eisenstein, Dryer, Murnau (assuming he quit Hollywood and returned to Ufa, thereby avoiding the car accident) -- it boggles the mind.

 

Then there's the downside. No Duck Soup, no Trouble in Paradise, no It's a Gift. It?s possible there wouldn?t be any screwball comedies. From 1937 through 1940, Hollywood would be getting its sea legs with sound, and the war rushes in before great sound comedies have a chance to become established. Screwball comedies were a byproduct of hard economic times and a need to escape. It would be the same with Busby Berkeley movies. No Footlight Parade. And no Top Hat. On the other hand, it might have been a real boon for Broadway and radio. Maybe television would have come in sooner as a result.

 

DavidE

http://www.classicfilmpreview.com

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Interesting hypothetical, but the forward momentum of film history makes it very unlikely. Radio was conditioning people for sound movies, and television was being researched heavily in the early 1930s. And the Depression put pressure on filmmakers to come up with bigger and better things every year.

 

That said, here's my answers to your questions:

 

* Would gangster films have become as popular as they did in the early 1930s? Probably, because of the Prohibition-related crime that inspired a lot of those films.

 

* Would we still have had the Production Code? Probably, because of the cumulative effect of the content of 1920s films, which included some pretty racy stuff.

 

* Would Keaton have stayed at MGM? Probably, 'cause that's where the money was.

 

* When would Preston Sturges, Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, and the Marx Brothers have come to Hollywood? Would they have stayed in New York throughout the 1930s? Berkeley, definitely, because of his heavy visual style. Astaire, maybe. I vacillate with Sturges and the Marx Brothers, because of their witty scripts and unique faces (including Sturges' stock company).

 

* Would City Lights and Modern Times have been exactly the same visually? Yes for City Lights. Modern Times has sound effects, so it might have been a little different.

 

* Would Citizen Kane have included more sound experimentation? Hard to tell. Kane built on a lot of the historical developments of film, so Welles would have had less precedent for, say, the newsreel part of the film. But Welles not only broke molds, he created a lot of new ones, so the relative novelty of sound might have inspired him to communicate his story using a variety of abstract sounds.

 

* Would we have had a bunch of film noir musicals in the 1940s? Maybe in the late 1940s. World War II would probably have slowed a lot of development with film sound, like it did with television.

 

* What would have been the 1937 equivalent of The Jazz Singer? Something starring a famous radio singer or comedian. Bing Crosby would have been a good choice for debuting sound.

 

* Would the Warner Bros. and Disney studios have survived the Great Depression? How about Columbia? WB and Disney, yes, because of their unique visual styles. Columbia, with witty Frank Capra films and sound effect-heavy Three Stooges, maybe not.

 

* Would Disney have made Fantasia before making Snow White and Pinocchio? Yes, with full orchestras in major theaters. That's fun to imagine.

 

If sound hadn?t come in until 15 years later, would David O. Selznick have made a silent Gone With the Wind? Yes. You didn't say anything about color, and I'm sure that would have been a big selling point of the movie. Who would have been the director? Maybe John Ford, because of the epic visual style he started developing during the silent days. And who would have been the actors? Gable and Norma Shearer. Don't think they would have gone for an unknown like Vivien Leigh in a silent version of GWTW.

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Interesting question.

 

Would the Warner Bros. and Disney studios have survived the Great Depression? How about Columbia?>>

 

Weren't the Brothers Warner one step away from hauling it all in and "The Jazz Singer" saved their financial hides? Am I remembering that correctly? If so, there might not have been a Warner Brothers, and without Warner Brothers no great gangster films of the early 1930s.

 

Without Warner Brothers gangster films, no breakthrough roles for Paul Muni, James Cagney, Eddie Robinson. No gangster films for Mervyn LeRoy, Darryl Zanuck and others to cut their teeth on.

 

I'm getting depressed.....

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> Weren't the Brothers Warner one step away from

> hauling it all in and "The Jazz Singer" saved their

> financial hides? Am I remembering that correctly?

 

That's what I was thinking -- that they wouldn't have the financial boost from betting on sound early on. Columbia wouldn?t have the benefit of It Happened One Night, which gave it the necessary cash (isn?t it supposed to have saved that studio?). I'm guessing Disney would survived by tailoring its Silly Symphonies to live performances by local musicians.

 

> Without Warner Brothers gangster films, no

> breakthrough roles for Paul Muni, James Cagney, Eddie

> Robinson. No gangster films for Mervyn LeRoy, Darryl

> Zanuck and others to cut their teeth on.

 

Would another studio would have picked up the slack? Maybe Universal would have hired Hawks for a silent Scarface. Would Frankenstein and Dracula have become silent horror films? I would think so. They could work well as silent films.

 

> I'm getting depressed.....

 

Me, too. It's like a bad alternate-universe episode on Star Trek. (I?m the good Kira! No, I?m the good Kira!)

 

DavidE

http://www.classicfilmpreview.com

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Well, I think that's a bit of idle and, I must say, backwards speculation. Like any technology, it's invented not because some genius in a workshop has a brainwave and cobbles together some marvel out of spare wristwatch parts, or because a dedicated scientist or engineer devotes years of his life to methodically reasoning out why something works (though that's a lot closer to the truth).

 

The very idea that, say, Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell were the sole creators of the light bulb and telephone is absurd (Bell beat another inventor to the patent office by only a couple of hours; had he been run over by a horse, we'd still have the phone, only it'd have somebody else's name attached to it, as there were dozens of others working on the same idea at that time).

 

Things are 'invented' because society is ready for them, because the progress of technology is a fairly steady one and that, at any given moment, all the basic parts of something 'new' are figuratively arrayed on a table in front of someone who recognizes that they can be put together in a certain way that'll fill a need that civilization has collectively created for itself.

 

Consequently, the question is not what might've been if sound had been delayed by ten years, but what if Edison (or smeone else) had figured out how to synchonize sound from Edison's phonograph with the first film cameras and projectors.

 

As fashionable as it became about 35 years ago to say what a great artform silent cinema was, and how it was destroyed by the coming of sound, if there had been synchronized sound from the beginnings of motion pictures, there would have been no silent films, and no one would have missed them, because to rob human beings of speech is to render them something less than human.

 

Dialogue has been a part of drama at least since the days of Sophocles, Euripedes and Aristophanes, and it would've been unthinkable to begin filming dramas without it unless it had been imposed on filmmakers by technological limitations.

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> Well, I think that's a bit of idle and, I must say,

> backwards speculation.

 

Now that you mention it, I realize there aren't many films that go back and re-imagine history (or technology) as it might have been. Kevin Brownlow's It Happened Here (1966) posits what England might have been like if the Germans had successfully invaded England during WWII (it's based on Sinclair Lewis' novel It Can't Happen Here).

 

Are there other films that explore alternate histories, such as what the U.S. might have been like if England had won the Revolutionary War or if the South had won the Civil War? Or any fictional films at all that show a historical path not taken?

 

In a sense, this is the opposite of science fiction where we imagine the future (rather than the past) based on a supposed turn of events.

 

DavidE

http://www.classicfilmpreview.com

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DavidEnglish,

 

Quote:

"Are there other films that explore alternate histories..."

 

A good question. The only "what if..." movie I could think of was Fatherland (1994). I looked the thing up on IMDB--a "made for television film (HBO)".

 

The "what if..." plot is, of course, used quite a bit for television episodes. Star Trek's--"what if the Roman empire did not collapse", "what if aliens were prohibition era (Earth) gangsters". My favorite television thing is the Saturday Night Live skit--"what if Spartacus had had a Piper Cub". Kirk Douglas (the guest host) is a passenger in the Piper Cub and gets to fly over and drop rocks(?) on the grounded Roman soldiers. Big laughs.

 

Rusty

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Sound films could have been made as early as 1900.

 

They work on the principle of a light shining through a film sound track and hitting a photocell. The optical sound track is actually a long continuous photograph of sound waveforms. They look like black and white ?wiggles? on a sound track. Loud noise (big wiggles and light shining through them) excites the photocell and no noise (no wiggles) doesn?t excite the photocell.

 

The optical track technology was available as early as 1900 but only a very few people thought of using it. It took nearly 30 years to sell the idea to Hollywood.

 

The earliest sound films used large phonographs to play the sound, but they had a synchronization problem. However, an optical sound track was physically part of the side of the film so it could not go out of synchronization, but it was not widely used professionally until 1929.

 

Edison didn?t invent sound recording. He invented a sound playback system. Short sound recordings were made as early as the 1850s but there was no way to play them back.

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> Sound films could have been made as early as 1900.

 

Maybe the topic should be: What if sound had come to movies 10 years earlier? None of the great silent films from the 1920s would exist, but we might have had more Marx brothers films and many more years of screwball comedies.

 

> The optical track technology was available as early

> as 1900 but only a very few people thought of using it.

> It took nearly 30 years to sell the idea to Hollywood.

 

Sometimes it takes a convergence of technologies to push something over the edge. The current push for 3D is centered on the adoption of digital cinema because it's much easier to do high-quality 3D with digital projection. Lucas wants to re-release Star Wars in 3D (I've seen some clips, and the 3D is far superior to what was available in the 1950s). Peter Jackson is also interested. There's no reason the same technology couldn't be applied to classic films, though the effect really lends itself to action scenes. For classic films, I would be leery just on principle. Films should be seen as intended (to the degree possible -- we all watch movies on TV). If Lucas and Jackson choose to retrofit their films for advanced technologies, then that?s a different matter.

 

Another question might be: What if 3D in the 1950s was as successful as sound was in the late 1920s and early 1930s? How would that have changed the kinds of films that were produced from that point on?

 

DavidE

http://www.classicfilmpreview.com

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Hello,

 

Something important from the silent movie era that was lost with the switch over to talkies was "as the camera whirs" directing. Adapting today's fabulous technology (a tiny receiver in ear) 'real time' direction could make a return. On the other hand, performers might have that "caught in the headlight" look. Well, more than they already have...

 

Rusty

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One of the joys of silent films is that language was not a barrier. The films played on a universal level that audiences could relate to whether or not they could read the title cards.

 

Sound changed all that. You had to hear the dialogue to keep up with story and for the foreign market that meant translation.

 

Would film have become the American artform it has become if sound had been there from the beginning? Remember, audiences were surprised and stunned when first watching silent films, especially ones that featured every day life. Would they have embraced the artform if sound had accompanied that or would they have been totally overwhelmed?

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The "what if..." plot is, of course, used quite a bit for television episodes. Star Trek's--"what if the Roman empire did not collapse", "what if aliens were prohibition era (Earth) gangsters". My favorite television thing is the Saturday Night Live skit--"what if Spartacus had had a Piper Cub". Kirk Douglas (the guest host) is a passenger in the Piper Cub and gets to fly over and drop rocks(?) on the grounded Roman soldiers. Big laughs.

 

Speaking of Kirk Douglas, an example of the "what-if" film is THE FINAL COUNTDOWN (1980), which recounts the improbable tale of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz being transported from the present (c. 1982) to the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged the United States into WWII.

 

Enjoyable in its somewhat cheesy way, this low-budget film falters when the time-warp suddenly, and inexplicably, reappears to summon the Nimitz back to the present before its F-14 jet aircraft can turn the tide of battle against the Japenese, therefore gutting the very dramatic question the film has spent ninety minutes setting up.

 

 

Perhaps MGM's La Boheme would have starred Rosa Ponselle, Beniamino Gigli and Chaliapin instead of Lillian Gish, John Gilbert and Edward Everett Horton...

 

Then we wouldn't have had to wait till 2003 to have to suffer through GIGLI.

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> As fashionable as it became about 35 years ago to say

> what a great artform silent cinema was, and how it

> was destroyed by the coming of sound, if there had

> been synchronized sound from the beginnings of motion

> pictures, there would have been no silent films,

> and no one would have missed them, because to rob

> human beings of speech is to render them something

> less than human.

 

A great irony of film history is the creativity that came out of the constraints of each era. More than 100 years after the beginning of cinema, we can sit back and choose from many different kinds of films, but we're only a personal witness to a fragment of film history. We can't comprehend the sequential steps that led to the current day (although watching TCM helps!).

 

Is this most recent kind of film the only true film, or is it just a reflection of current tastes and technology? Would Casablanca be better if it was Technicolor, widescreen, with a lot of explicit sex, violence and language? A similar debate is playing out now in major league baseball with the questions about the recent home run records.

 

"All kinds of things may be left out which would be present in real life, so long as what is shown contains the essentials. Only after one has known talkies is the lack of sound conspicuous in a silent film."

 

Film Historian Rudolph Arnheim in a 1933 essay, "Film and Reality"

 

"I always wanted to be able to search for things, but once Google was created, I must have my search engine."

 

Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat, 2005

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