Mary Pickford, arguably the biggest female star of the silent screen, was once quoted as saying that “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of talkies instead of the other way around.” Part of this statement might have been stimulated by sour grapes. Though Croquette, her first “talkie” was a hit, even winning her an Academy Award, Pcickford’s career faltered soon after. It’s a tantalizing hypothesis. The idea of synchronizing sound and moving images had been around for nearly as long as their have been movies. Shortly before the Lumier brothers exhibited the world’s first projected motion pictures in 1895, Thomas Edison had patented the Kinetephone. This was a peep show device with synchronized a Kinetescope – a motion picture device where rolls of film were shown to one viewer at a time through a peephole – with a cylindrical phonograph record. People would listen to a sound recording through a pair of earphones that resembled a stethoscope while viewing the movie.
Numerous experiments were made before Western Electric and Warner Brothers patented the Vitaphone, a sound synchronization system that was used in The Jazz Singer, the first talking feature. It wasn’t the first “sound” picture. Movies have always played with some kind of musical accompaniment, whether a piano in the nickelodeons, a Wurlitzer organ that was connected to various other instruments to create sound effects (drums, whistles, bells, etc.) or a full orchestra which was often utilized for grand premieres in L.A. and New York. By 1927 studios were already supplying theaters with pre-recorded soundtracks made up of music and sound effects to play along with their respected films. After all, it was a lot cheaper than hiring an organist, let alone a full orchestra. Even singing had been seen in the movies by this point, but synchronizing lip movement with pre-recorded dialog was a major challenge. Alas, Warner Brothers made it work and when Al Jolson turned to the audience and said, “you ain’t heard nothing yet”, audiences gasped with amazement. A motion picture actually TALKED!
As we’ve seen time and time again, once someone takes a risk and strikes gold Hollywood’s knee jerk reaction is to try and do the same thing. Dorothy Parker, one of many east coast scribes who traveled out west to add some much needed verbal wit to the screenplays then being written was asked what was Hollywood’s favorite “ism”, as in modernism, realism, impressionism, etc. Her response? “Plagiarism.”
We can all remember about a decade ago when Avatar came out and the studio bigwigs were saying that within a few years almost every movie would be made in 3-D. Well, 3-D cinematography has certainly enhanced movies like Hugo, The Life of Pi and Gravity but after a while moviegoers became more cautious about which stereoscopic movies they were willing to pay a surcharge to see (and don’t kid yourselves. That’s the real reason why Hollywood has been pushing 3-D). And so after The Jazz Singer came out “talkies” were all the rage.
And that’s pretty much all they were, talking. Cameras had to be housed in a sound proof booth and couldn’t be moved. Microphones had to be hidden in some sort of prop – a table centerpiece, a statue, and a houseplant – and the sound quality was rarely very good. Many of the great silent stars couldn’t make the transition to sound. Clara Bow was marred by her thick Brooklyn accent. Emil Jannings, the German actor who won the first Oscar for Best Actor, was virtually incomprehensible in English. Other actors had so refined their silent screen personas that adding dialog was nothing but an intrusion. There was nothing wrong with Buster Keaton’s voice but it completely ruined his deadpan reactions to the most death-defying stunts. Lon Cheney only made one talking picture, a remake of one of his earlier triumphs, The Unholy Three. He was slatted to play the title role in Dracula but died before he had the chance. Would this “man of a thousand faces”, one of the most expressive and purely cinematic thespians ever to step before a camera, be able to scare audiences as much with the addition of his voice? We’ll never know for sure.
In the end their was only one person who had both the foresight to know that adding a voice would destroy his signature character and also had the financial power to prevent that from happening. That was Charlie Chaplin. He recorded a soundtrack for City Lights (1931), which included sound effects and a beautiful musical score that he himself composed. He gleefully came close to crossing the line with Modern Times (1936) in which he sang a bunch of gibberish but never actually articulating. He finally did give in when he made The Great Dictator (1941) where he played both a Hitler-like despot and a Jewish barber who somewhat resembled the Tramp but didn’t wear the trademark bowler hat, tails, etc., thus sparing fans of having to hear their beloved Tramp speak. The success of City Lights and Modern Times seems to indicate that an audience for silent pictures still existed.
One can’t really say that movies never “needed” sound. After all, if there were no need for dialog then there wouldn’t be any need for title cards. Alfred Hitchcock, who’s 1929 feature Blackmail became the first British talkie, said that “the problem with silent films is that people’s lips would move and no sound came out. The problem with talking pictures is that once sound came in people started photographing plays.” Eventually audiences got tired of static talking films and filmmakers demanded that they be allowed to move their cameras. In time sound would indeed open up new doors and become a welcome part of the film medium. Without synchronized sound we could never have the musicals of Busby Berkley, Astaire and Rogers or the Arthur Freed musicals at MGM. Film noir is all but inconceivable without the dialog and voiceover. Orson Welles put his radio background to full use in Citizen Kane and the visual effects in Star Wars would never have been as effective without Ben Burtt’s revolutionary sound design.
Still, there was something magical about silent films. Directors who learned how to tell a story entirely through movement, close-ups, etc. made the best of them. While the melodramas of D.W. Griffith might seem a little dated today there were some films that continue to pack a wallop. The silent comedies are as evergreen as anything caught on film. Erich Von Stroheim’s monumental epic Greed is as powerful today as it was in the twenties and would only be ruined if the human voice were added.
And then there are the German expressionist films. These eerie, beautiful films set in a nightmare world where everything seems to be in turmoil. They would influence the horror films of the thirties and continue to see their influence on more contemporary films, most notably the films of David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) and Tim Burton (his version of Batman and Sweeny Todd especially). But the films that were made in Weimar Germany and later in Hollywood are among the most well crafted and visually stunning films ever made. They remain technically dazzling and don’t have any need for spoken words.
German Expressionism began as a movement in painting. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner organized a group of artists who called themselves Die Brucke or “The Bridge”. Their members included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Auguste Macke and George Grosz. These men filled their canvases with harsh, foreign colors, grotesque figures and asymmetrical architecture in order to comment on a world that was becoming more and more industrial, mechanized and un-human. Then came the dramatic works of Georg Kaiser, Ernst Toller, Arnold Bronnen and Bertold Brecht.
It was after World War I that expressionism reached the cinema. Economically, the Treaty of Versailles left Germany for dead and the country plunged into a Great Depression far worse than the one the U.S. would face in the thirties. The German mark was literally not worth the paper it was printed on. This anger and disillusion that would tragically lead to the rise of the NAZI party and the Third Reich. But for the time being it helped spark one of the most exciting movements in cinema history.
The first German Expressionist film was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, Caligari told the story of a mad scientist who hypnotizes a sleepwalker to kill on his behalf. The film was meant to be a statement on how international governments manipulated others into fighting in the Great War. A framing device that opened and closed the picture in an asylum muted this commentary. From a cinematic standpoint Caligari does seem kind of stagey. Its sets are rather two-dimensional and the camera mostly stays stationary. Yet the film creates a great, creepy atmosphere and the surreal sets are a wonder to behold. Soon the German film industry was thriving with some of the most unusual and visually arresting films ever made.
There were two main directors of the movement. First there was the Austrian born Fritz Lang. He first achieved fame with his two-part film Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler. His most famous film was the expressionist science fiction film Metropolis. The grandfather of such movies as Things to Come, Blade Runner, Brazil, City of the Lost Children, Batman, The Matrix and countless others, Metropolis is an amazing film that is as dazzling today as it was back then. His first sound film was M (1931), the story of a child killer (Peter Lorre) who is hunted down by other despicable members of an urban underworld. M could very well be the first great sound film. Rather then simply using the soundtrack to record dialog, Lang utilized sound to create mood, tension and to work with, rather than against, the images on the screen.
Released in the same year the NAZI’s came to power, M was meant to be an attack on fascism and the paranoia and scapegoating that it stirred up, a fact that was lost on the party officials. Shortly after the films release Joseph Goebbels contacted Lang about making propaganda films. That night he boarded a train for Paris, then booked passage to America. The day he arrived in New York he applied for American citizenship. He found work in Hollywood where his expressionistic sensibilities were put to use pioneering the film noir movement with pictures such as Fury, You Only Live Twice and Scarlet Street.
The other giant was Friedrich Wilhelm, or F.W, Murnau. A contemporary of Germany’s famed director Max Reinhardt, Murnau began making movies after World War I. Most of his earliest films are lost, depriving us the chance to see his progression as an artist. The movie that made him famous was Nosferatu (1922). A plagiarized version of Bram Stokers novel Dracula and subtitled A Symphony of Horror, Nosferatu is still one of the creepiest vampire films ever made. Unlike most German Expressionist films it was filmed on location but was lit so beautifully by cinematographers Fritz Arno Wagner and Gunther Krampf that it created an eerie, otherworldly quality that still creates a chilling atmosphere today.
He later also directed The Last Laugh (1924), which chronicled the mental breakdown suffered by a hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) when he’s demoted to a washroom attendant for no other reason then the fact that he’s getting on in years. As visually stunning as it is heartbreaking, The Last Laugh is noteworthy because it relies almost completely on visuals, utilizing only one title card in the whole film. In 1926 he created another feast for the eyes with his version of Goeth’s Faust legend. This was the last film he would ever make in Germany.
By 1926 many filmmakers from Central Europe were heading across the Atlantic to the promise land of Hollywood. The lure was unmistakable. The U.S. economy was booming in the 1920’s and Hollywood studios could offer superior production faculties and lots more money. Directors such as Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, Joseph Von Sternberg and Michael Curtiz would thrive in California, as would actors like Emil Jannings, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Soon Murnau would join them when William Fox, the head of the Fox Film Corp. (the precursor to 20th Century Fox) offered him the chance to work in Hollywood.
His first film for Fox was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. To describe the plot is almost laughable. It takes place in a small, lakeside community. There’s a Man (George O’Brien) and his Wife (Janet Gaynor). Their names are never given. Nor are any of the other characters in the film. They live in a small cottage that doesn’t appear to have any electricity. Like the films he and others made in Germany, the contours of the cottage are very asymmetrical and askew. They appear to be poor, yet they live with an older woman who’s identified in the credits as “The Maid” (Bodi Rosing), so they apparently aren’t that bad off. They also have an infant.
The cottage looks like it could be in the 19th century, but then we meet “The Woman From the City” (Margaret Livingston). She looks every bit the modern-day flapper. She whistles for the Man and he comes and joins her. They seem to have been carrying on an affair for some time. The Maid knows about it and probably the woman does too, judging from the forlorn look in her eyes.
The Flapper then suggests that the two of them should run off to the city together. As for his wife, the Mistress asks, “Couldn’t she get drowned?” This question is asked in the form of a title card. Murnau didn’t like title cards. Indeed, he all but abandons them half way through the film. Given that we quickly dissolve to a shot of the woman in a boat that capsizes it’s safe to say that the title card is superfluous. And yet Murnau had the cards graphic designer animated the word “drowned” so that it looks like it’s sinking to the bottom of the screen.
The mistress then takes him to the lake and into the bull rushes, makes two bundles of reeds for him, then hides them in his sailboat. He is to take his wife out on the lake, capsize the small vessel and use the bundles of reeds as a floatation device for himself while she drowns.
Though clearly conflicted, he takes his wife out on the lake the next day. All is still and silent until they get out into the middle of the lake, then he begins to approach her. The Woman is terrified. She doesn’t put up a fight. Instead she clasps her hands and begs for forgiveness. Admittedly, the acting is performed in a sort of larger-then-life pantomime that by 1927 was growing stale as more subtle, naturalistic acting became the order of the day. Indeed, for some modern audiences it may be hard to take seriously, at least at first. But if you’re willing to surrender to it then you’ll almost certainly become enthralled.
Ultimately, the man can’t kill his wife. He rows the boat ashore, his shame written all over his face. As soon as they dock she runs away. Though they appear to be in the middle of nowhere a streetcar line appears to run through their lakeside community. She boards the car. The Man catches up and pays their fair. He kneels down and begs for forgiveness.
They arrive in “The City”, a metropolis that was clearly created on a backlot. They go and eat at a modern, art deco restaurant. Next they go into a church and witness a wedding. Then they get their portraits taken at a photography studio. At one point they walk across the street. The urban landscape dissolves and is replaced with the bucolic countryside where they live. But it’s only a brief respite. Soon they’re in the middle of a busy intersection with honking cars and carriage drivers yelling at them.
This effect of moving from the country to the city while the Man and Woman are in the foreground is one of the many optical effects that Murnau helped pioneer. At the time there were no optical printers, let alone CGI. The effect was achieved through double exposure. In other words the exposed film had to be rolled back in the camera while the second element was photographed. When printed the two images appear together as one. In order to achieve this effect the cameraman had to measure EXACTLY where the original exposure began. Parts of the camera lens would have to be matted off and so as only to expose part of the frame, then matted off again to photograph the reverse. Even more amazing is that many of the double exposure shots that Murnau achieved in this and earlier films also had the camera move! It would be fifty years before George Lucas and his special effects team on Star Wars would perfect the motion control camera system, allowing them to shoot multiple elements of spaceships, planets, etc. and seamlessly blend them together. Murnau and his cinematographers, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, had to meticulously keep track of their exact camera angles in order to achieve these effects.
The two of them go to an amusement district, clearly modeled on Coney Island. Later, Man and Wife are back on the lake, riding on that same sailboat back to their cottage. That’s when a storm hit. The boat capsizes and the man swims ashore. A search party boards their row boats and armed with lanterns go out and try to find the woman. The grief-stricken husband is sure that he’s lost her forever. But alas, she survived thanks to those bundles of reeds that were still strategically hid in the boat.
Again, a plot synopsis hardly does the film justice. Sunrise, as its slightly pretentious subtitle suggests, is a visual tone poem. It’s a film about emotions, not ideas. It’s told purely through beautiful imagery and close-ups. If at any point one of the characters uttered a single word it would completely kill the illusion.
Sunrise wasn’t exactly a “silent” film mind you. In fact, it’s in some ways one of the first films to truly integrated music, sound effects and image. While Warner Brothers was developing the Vitaphone, Fox was working on a sound-on-film system called the Movietone Sound System. Vitaphone was a sound-on-disc system that recorded the sound on a record, which was subsequently synchronized with the projected image. The obvious problem was that if was easy for the sound and picture to get out of synch. Whereas Movietone, on the other hand, recorded a soundtrack that was optically printed on the edge of the film print, thus guaranteeing proper synchronization. Warners may have been the first studio to produce a talking feature with The Jazz Singer, but the Vitaphone soon proved too unreliable to become the industry standard. Movietone and other sound-on-film systems were much more reliable.
Sunrise boasts a beautifully evocative score by Hugo Riesenfeld and Emo Rapee. The film also does a fine job utilizing sound effects, particularly in the urban scenes. A year later Fox launched Movietone News. The longest running newsreel series, Fox continued producing them until 1963, long after television became the main source for electronically delivered public affairs info.
Sunrise also had the distinction of being released in the year that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences began giving out their annual Academy Awards. For this year and this year only, the winning actors took home Oscars not for individual performances but for their entire body of work for the year. Janet Gaynor won not only for Sunrise but also the films Seventh Heaven and Street Angel. The films two cinematographers, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, won the Oscar for Best Cinematography. The film also won the award for “Best Unique and Artistic Picture”. This was one of two prizes that were awarded to what the Academy voters felt was the finest cinematic work of the year. The other was “Outstanding Picture”, which went to the airplane film Wings. Quickly realizing the futility of having two different top prizes, the latter award became today’s “Best Picture” category. The other was dropped all together.
Both O’Brien and Gaynor were lucky. They both possessed good speaking voices and continued to work well into the sound era. O’Brien went on to star in numerous Westerns and became part of John Ford’s unofficial stock company. Gaynor also did well in the thirties, appearing in the original versions of both State Fair and A Star is Born. Her popularity began to wane by the end of the thirties but she continued to work well into her seventies, frequently appearing on television series ranging from General Electric Theater to Love Boat.
Murnau made two more films, 4 Devils and City Girl, neither were very successful. He left for the South Pacific where he began to shoot a documentary about Tahiti. Originally it had some sound interviews but were later edited out. The film was censored because it contained shots of bare breasted native women.
Murnau didn’t seem to be interested in making the transition to sound, although it was starting to look like he might not have a choice. Alas, we’ll never know if he could have made the transition. He died in 1931 at the age of forty-two when his chauffeur, a fourteen year old Filipino boy, crashed his Rolls Royce. Avant-Garde film maker and author Kenneth Anger claimed in his celebrated book Hollywood Babylon that Murnau was actually performing fellatio on the young man, a rumor that may be just that. In 2000 John Malkovich played the director in Shadow of the Vampire, an odd film that suggests that Max Schrek, played in the film by Willem Dafoe, was actually a vampire. Less than two years ago it was reported that his skull was stolen from his family plot in Germany.
Today, the only kinds of silent films, that is movies without any synchronized dialog, are either relegated to such avant-garde films like Godfrey Reggio’s Koyoniskatsi or used as a gimmick as in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie and Michael Hazanavicius The Artist, 2011’s Best Picture winner. To make a film entirely visually would be an awesome challenge for a filmmaker today. Would the public go for it? It would be a hard sell for sure. But maybe if we lived in a more film-literate society and more people were exposed to silent films at an early age then perhaps they’d be willing to watch a picture where no single person makes a sound.