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Camera Obscura 17.1 (2002) 31-71

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"Cinema at Its Source":
Synchronizing Race and Sound in the Early Talkies

Alice Maurice


One of MGM's publicity photos for King Vidor's Hallelujah! (US, 1929) features two of its stars, Victoria Spivey and Daniel Haynes, looking at a piece of the movie's soundtrack. Entitled "Pictures of Their Voices," the studio's caption reads: "Victoria Spivey and Daniel Haynes look at a sound track of their voices in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 'Hallelujah!'" The photo economically figures the discursive link created—by studios, critics, and the popular press—between African American performers and sound technology. The picture sums up a common strategy of the early sound era: selling the sound cinema via black performers and selling black performers (primarily to white audiences) via the sound cinema. The year 1929 saw the release of Hollywood's first feature-length films with all-black casts. The Fox studio was first with Paul Sloane's Hearts in Dixie (featuring Stepin Fetchit), and MGM followed with Hallelujah!, acclaimed director King Vidor's first sound film. Both were musicals, and both capitalized on the combined "novelty" of an "all talkie" and "all Negro" spectacle. [End Page 31] While African American performers had a long history in the silent cinema, their opportunities in Hollywood multiplied during the first years of sound. Short and feature-length musicals featuring black casts became crucial to the way the new medium was publicized and received.

Robert Benchley articulates the link between race and the new cinema in his ecstatic 1929 review of Hearts in Dixie: "With the opening of 'Hearts in Dixie' . . . the future of the talking-movie has taken on a rosier hue. Voices can be found which will register perfectly. Personalities can be found which are ideal for this medium. It may be that the talking-movies must be participated in exclusively by Negroes, but, if so, then so be it. In the Negro the sound-picture has found its ideal protagonist." 1 Benchley, the regular movie critic for The New Yorker, published this review in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, and some African American writers drew the same connection between "black voices" and the new cinema in order to take advantage of and extend the growing opportunities for black performers in Hollywood. But this sort of fetishization of the "black voice" reveals the way in which the discourses of race and sound were intertwined during the transition to the talkie. The two discourses supported each other not because of the alleged suitability of "black voices" to sound recording, but because of what they already had in common: a dependence on popular expectations regarding authenticity, the alignment of internal and external characteristics, and the evidence of the senses.

Critics like Benchley turned to "the Negro" for a remedy to the often clunky and disappointing marriage of sight and sound in the early talkies. The suggestion that "black voices" could cure the new cinema's technical difficulties highlighted a kind of synesthesia already at work in the representation and perception of race. I am using the term synesthesia—defined as the "production, from a sense-impression of one kind, of an associated mental image of a sense-impression of another kind" 2 —because it explains one of the primary (if implicit) mechanisms through which the discursive links between sound technology and race were created. Most dictionary definitions feature examples similar to the one offered by the Oxford English Dictionary: [End Page 32] "When the hearing of an external sound carries with it, by some arbitrary association of ideas, the seeing of some form or colour." The presumed perceptual link between color and sound offers the exemplary instance of synesthesia—a sensory wire-crossing helped along by imagination and the "arbitrary association of ideas." Synesthesia also functions as a literary device: "The use of metaphors in which terms relating to one kind of sense-impression are used to describe sense-impressions of other kinds." The persistent link between color and sound in both registers—the psychological/perceptual...


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