Experiments in Early Sound Film Music: Strategies and Rerecording, 1928–1930
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Experiments in Early Sound Film Music:
Strategies and Rerecording, 1928–1930

Though the early sound era has received considerable attention from film scholars, it remains neglected by those who study film music. A fair amount has been written about the history of film music in the silent era (roughly 1895–1927), including its influences from prior media and its typical practices in nickelodeons and movie palaces.1 Substantially more scholarship has been devoted to what is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of film music (1935–50)—its scoring practices, techniques, and major film composers.2 Yet the literature on film music in the early sound era not only remains slim, but also often suffers from overgeneralizations and a lack of close analysis.3 Consequently, the prevailing narrative of film music in the early sound era has remained relatively simple: after a brief period (1926–29) that included music-and-effects-only synchronized scores (such as Don Juan [1926], Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927], The Man Who Laughs [1928], and Desert Nights [1929], to name only a few), technological restrictions and fears that all sounds needed a source in the image caused Hollywood to virtually abandon nondiegetic music. The standard account states that only later in the 1930s, with the advent of composer Max Steiner’s scores for films like Bird of Paradise (1932), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), King Kong (1933), and The Informer (1935), did the industry begin to recognize that an extensive musical score could greatly improve the overall film.4 [End Page 450]

A closer inspection of early sound films, however, indicates that an alternative story of Hollywood film music during the early sound years is needed. Warner Bros.’ The Singing Fool (1928) and The Squall (1929) and Fox’s The Big Trail (1930) offer evidence that the early sound era is best understood not in terms of a single-minded avoidance of nondiegetic music, but as a period of experimentation in which filmmakers offered multiple solutions to the new problem of how to incorporate music into a film featuring extensive dialogue. Though some films avoided nondiegetic music, others did not, revealing not only the rapidly changing assumptions for film music in the period but also the impact of sound film technologies, which themselves underwent substantial changes in these years. In the 1928–30 period, the film industry used a diversity of film music approaches and was already beginning to recognize the importance of the sound film score.5

Rerecording and the Early Sound Era

The story of rerecording and its considerable impact on early sound film music runs through all three examples. Rerecording refers to the post-production process in which separate existing soundtracks are recorded together (in other words, recorded again or rerecorded) onto a new sound record to attain a new, composite soundtrack. According to received wisdom, rerecording was not an option or, at best, was a seldom-used option during the early sound era.6 Though some scholars acknowledge the occasional existence of rudimentary rerecording, virtually all film music scholars agree that the major reason for the absence of rerecording was the substantial dropoff in sound quality that occurred.7

Standard accounts of the early sound era regularly cite rerecording as a major culprit in the period’s avoidance of nondiegetic music. This account began as early as 1937, when Steiner, who arrived in Hollywood in 1929, offered the following account of the early sound era in his memoir: “In the old days one of the great problems was standard (actual) recording, as dubbing or re-recording was unknown at the time. It was necessary at all times to have the entire orchestra and vocalists on the set day and night. This was a huge expense.”8 This claim has continued to be a driving force in film scholarship up to the present. In numerous film history books, one frequently encounters claims that music and dialogue had to be recorded together on the set.9 According to these scholars, providing an orchestra on set was not only too expensive, but was also logistically too complicated, since a single mistake from anyone on the set could necessitate...