The transition between silent and sound cinema has often been presented as a technological revolution heralding the death knell of the 'art of silent cinema' and the birth of the more prosaic 'talking picture'. American philosopher Stanley Cavell later questioned why 'the loss of silence was traumatic for so many who cared about film […] in particular the silence of the voice' (1979, p.147). When sound arrived in Britain at the end of the 1920s, the silent film became nostalgically mourned by the critical establishment and literati while popular audiences clamoured and queued to see and hear Al Jolson and their favourite Hollywood stars. In a process that lasted less than two years, sound transformed cinema from a medium based on the poetic combination of music and the moving image to one based on the spoken and sung word.
Over the decades the coming of sound in America has been widely and fruitfully documented by scholars from a range of perspectives, including the history of early inventors like Edison and Lee de Forest, the early practice of film accompaniments, the commercialisation of sound by studios like Warner Bros., the development of the American film musical; the development too of Hollywood's linguistic and cultural world domination as American English became the movies' lingua franca. Inevitably, though, these American narratives, just like the global dominance of the American industry, have overshadowed the impact of synchronised sound on other international cinema industries. This is particularly true in Britain and Europe, where, until the twenty-first century, individual national studies, such as Roger Icart's La révolution du parlant (1988) or Karel Dibbets's coverage of the Dutch transition period, Sprekende films (1993), remained largely isolated achievements.1 In Britain, Robert Murphy's pioneering paper 'Coming of Sound to the Cinema in Britain', examining the British transition's complex industrial and financial background, appeared in 1984, one year before Rachael Low's coverage in Filmmaking in 1930s Britain (1985). Since then, most published activity in Britain has actually focused on the use of sound in silent cinema (e.g. Brown & Davison, 2013) rather than on the talkie transition and its aftermath.
The Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project 'British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound 1927–1933' was specifically [End Page 87]
set up to begin filling the gaps, exploring how the British industry, not yet settled after the shake-up of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act (legislation conceived only with silent films in mind), responded a year later to new turmoil in the form of Hollywood's talkies. The impact was felt in shockwaves across the industry, by British producers unsure whether to take the plunge and wire their studios for sound; by exhibitors forced to install expensive and largely untested sound equipment to satisfy popular demand for talkies; and by British stars obliged to cultivate 'talkie voices' to match their erstwhile silent screen images. Equipment manufacturers entered into global trade wars, largely pitched between Europe and the American conglomerates of Western Electric and RCA. Film distributors sought new financial relationships with exhibitors who rented their films; thousands of musicians lost their principal trade overnight as cinemas laid off expensive orchestras and musical directors. Highbrow critics and public intellectuals pontificated on the artistic shortcomings of the new talkies; educationalists feared their effects on children and the impressionable working classes, and a fresh wave of anti-Americanism rolled in, spurred by the horrors of nasal voices and indecorous slang in the imported talkies.
Transnational British film directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Asquith and stars like Betty Balfour and Chili Bouchier were effectively recalled from creative collaborations in France and Germany where silent co-productions had combined the best of European talent, ingenuity, and resources. British producers from Victor Saville to Dinah Shurey (the only woman producer working in the late 1920s) scrambled to add sound to films previously shot silent, creating infamous 'goat-glanders': films with soundtracks added post facto to boost their pulling power in the talkie market. International stars like Anna May Wong, Lya de Putti, Anny Ondra, and Carl Brisson found themselves working in Britain with the wrong...