Great news, classic film fans! The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, Scott Eyman’s definitive 1997 chronicle of Hollywood’s changeover to sound, has just been reissued in paperback and Kindle.
I can’t rave enough about how much I enjoyed this book. It’s bursting at the seams not just with facts, but insights, revelations and evocative snapshots, all adding up to an illuminating portrait of one of the most fascinating and pivotal periods in Hollywood history.
Not many people realize the lengthy gestation period that talkies had. The phonograph actually preceded the invention of cinema; attempts to wed sound and motion pictures were present from the very first. The problem was that those early experiments (three decades of them) were tentative and imperfect. There had been so many false starts that both audiences and producers had concluded that sound was a dead end, that it couldn’t be done, or at the very least wasn’t worth doing.
Think of 3-D after its brief initial heyday in the 1950s. Audiences tried it a couple of times, said “this sucks” and threw away their cardboard blue and red glasses, coming to the erroneous conclusion that 3-D was a blind alley. It wasn’t until a half century later that 3-D came back with better technology, and at last became what seems to be a permanent, if tributary, part of cinematic exhibition. Interestingly, as Eyman recounts, for the first several months (1926-1928) the revolutionary new sound systems that did emerge were strictly a novelty within the industry, a sideshow, much as 3-D is today. Thus, we erroneously still think of 1927’s The Jazz Singer (which was only a partial talkie anyway) as being the pivotal moment, but in reality it really wasn’t. It did booming business in New York, where Broadway fans lined up to see local boy Al Jolson, but in Hollywood itself, not so much. For months, the competing systems of Vitaphone (Warner Brothers’ synchronized disc method), and Movietone (Fox’s sound on film technique) competed for a niche, specialty market, with the majority of the industry treating it as a fad that wouldn’t effect the permanent supremacy of the silent picture. Eyman paints a wonderful portrait of this period of transition, spending a good bit of time on the silent masterpieces that were created AFTER the advent of sound by artists like F.W. Murnau and King Vidor.
It wasn’t until Bryan Foy’s all-talking Lights of New York, released in July, 1928, that the entire industry took notice, a panic was on, and the entire industry scrambled to convert to sound with bewildering — some might say reckless — speed. It was a period of experimentation, of upheaval, and of change. For some, it was a time of opportunity. Minor studios Warner Brothers and Fox became mighty players by getting the jump on their bigger, more cautious, competitors. Many stage actors, directors and playwrights became big wheels in Hollywood practically overnight. And for a brief window, sound technicians (of ALL people) were calling the shots in Hollywood. Yet, for others it was a time of a catastrophe. Some (but hardly all, as is sometimes implied) former silent stars and directors were left in the dust, often unfairly. (Eyman doesn’t mention this in the book, but one major producer, Mack Sennett, was essentially finished by talkies, although Eyman does talk quite a bit about how his competitor Hal Roach flourished in the new regime).
To everyone’s shock, by 1930 silent pictures were considered a thing of the past. I say “considered” because nothing ever dies completely. Converting 100% to sound was a business decision. The market for silent films had gotten much smaller, but it’s not like it has EVER been zero. Though silent films were no longer produced, it’s not like the major classics of the silent cinema ceased to be screened. In recent years (a time of equally rapid technological change), people are even producing silent films again. To me, it was short sighted of the studios to have completely closed a valve that might have continued to have its own market. Comedies especially might have continued to do fine, if given the opportunity. Buster Keaton, on the international market? C’mon! But that’s 20/20 hindsight, innit.
The headfirst plunge into talk brought about some interesting experiments such as revue films like The Hollywood Revue, Show of Shows and Paramount on Parade, and the rare willingness to risk an all-black cast in King Vidor’s Hallelujah! And willingness to try further experiments in widescreen and Technicolor at the same time, although after a brief spurt in 1929 both were pretty much shelved, with Technicolor to begin its return almost a decade later, and wide screen enjoying its comeback in the 1950s.
I diverge most from Eyman in his characterization of a lot of the early talkies as bad, i.e. the “Belasco” style of acting in Mary Pickford’s Coquette or the odd hodgepodge of personages in those revue films. I find myself flat-out riveted by this period of Hollywood cinema, and find some of the products of this time to be downright avant-garde, not to be reviled but emulated. But not everyone shares my weird predilections. But Eyman knows how to turn a phrase and that’s how he makes this period live before your eyes with his writing. Jolson, writes Eyman “had the soul of a racetrack tout”. That’s some kickass writing. I may never think of Jolson again without thinking of that phrase.
I admit there were some paragraphs where Eyman gets into the details of technology where my eyes glazed over, but that’s truly my own inadequacy. I guarantee that I have a long list of friends who will be most attentive at those passages. Anyway, I’m a firm believer in getting what you want out of a book. My eyes glaze over at Leviticus, too, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to throw my Bible away.
You may purchase this Bible of the Talkie Revolution here.