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The Velvet Light Trap 51 (2003) 4-16

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The Uncanny Body of Early Sound Film

Robert Spadoni


There are uses of sound that produce a desirable effect; on the other hand, there are uses that disgust people.

—"Facts about Talking Pictures and Instruments-
No. 4," Harrison's Reports 8 September 1928

The first synchronized sound films were widely hailed as a forward leap in cinematic realism. Many critics and other commentators noted that everything in the films and, most strikingly, the speaking human figures in them now appeared to be more lifelike, present, and three-dimensional. Today, silent films seem to viewers who are not accustomed to watching them to be remote, bound by conventions such as intertitles that are strange and unreal. The impression that sound brought the cinema closer to reality, therefore, seems to have been one that stuck. This was not the only impression that sound films made on their first audiences, however. Sound also brought to the foreground certain uncanny qualities that had always been present in the cinematic image. It complicated the general viewing sensation of the presence of the figures speaking and moving on the screen. Sound changed the visual appearance of these figures in ways that made them look to some viewers like ghosts. This widespread, sporadic, uncontrolled, and temporary film reception phenomenon possibly influenced Hollywood film production trends in ways that long outlived the three and a half years of the sound transition period.

The Shrinking of Personality

When orchestral accompaniments and the noises of such things as steam engines, horses' hoofs, gun-fire and the like were synchronized with pictures, nobody became alarmed. They were an addition, that's all. But when screen actors began to speak lines, the silent drama was attacked. Voices invaded its peculiar domain.

—"Now the Movies Go Back to Their School Days,"
James O. Spearing, New York Times 19 August 1928

Speaking and singing figures in the first sound films often struck viewers of the period as excitingly present. When, in a 1927 Fox Movietone short, George Bernard Shaw stepped forward and said a few words to the camera and microphone, he charmed critics everywhere, including the one from Photoplay, who wrote: "[I]t is the first time that Bernard Shaw ever has talked directly and face to face with the American public. What a voice and what a face! Although over seventy years old, Shaw is built like an athlete. He moves as gracefully as Jack Dempsey. And he has so much sex appeal that he leaves the gals limp." 1 The cinematic apparatus, now made bulkier by the addition of synchronized sound technology, appears not to have interfered with this viewer's experience of Shaw the man in the slightest way. In a general reflection on the new films, another commentator wrote: "[N]ow, when a great singer opens his mouth in song we feel the thrill of his voice and his personality." 2 Critic Alexander Bakshy agreed, writing that "the popularity of the talkies is not wholly a craze for novelty. Their success is much more due to the warmth and intimacy which has been given the picture by the human voice and which is so unmistakably missing in the silent picture as this comes from Hollywood." 3 How this newfound warmth and intimacy was to find immediate application within the character-centered narrative tradition of Hollywood cinema was suggested [End Page 4] by the exhibitors weekly Harrison's Reports when it explained the success of The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927): "It was the talk that Al Jolson made here and there, and his singing of his 'Mammy' song, chiefly the singing of 'Mammy.' It was so successfully done that people were thrilled. The sight of Mr. Jolson singing to his mother, sitting in the orchestra, stirred the spectator's emotions as they were stirred by few pictures; it brought tears to the eyes of many spectators." 4

Within this chorus of praise, however, were indications that sound simultaneously was getting in the way of the general viewing sensation and enjoyment of the...


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