It is one of the great conundrums of trying to teach anything that sometimes people just have to take your word for it. It’s frequently the case that there are elements of the lesson which are only fully comprehensible after long experience which students, by definition, don’t have. This comes up (with great force) when discussing the introduction of sound technology to the process of filmmaking.
The typical narrative of film history in most people’s heads is pretty straightforward. Movies are silent, creaky and primitive. Then The Jazz Singer is released. Now movies have sound (and are SO MUCH BETTER). The problem is not only that this is oversimplified, but it’s also basically hogwash at every level. The hinge point is The Jazz Singer which persists as a recognized technological linchpin, though most people have never actually seen it. It’s mutual notoriety and invisibility makes it a consistently difficult film to discuss, since it’s (a) not remotely the first sound film, (b) barely qualifies as a “talkie” itself, given that most of it is silent with a synchronized musical score and (c) a huge hit which has been popularly promoted as an important turning point in making films better despite the fact that it brings about a painful period of regressive filmmaking among major producers.
It can be made fairly obvious to the uninitiated that silent films are far from primitive, but it’s also apparent that such films are “different”. They’re just enough outside our conventional experience that unfamiliar viewers approach them as something “historical” which requires a different set of viewing skills. When we discuss sound films, however, there’s a general sense that we’re on familiar ground. Even if it’s not in color, we still know how it’s supposed to work, because it’s pretty much the same thing we see in a movie theater on a Saturday night. There’s a picture, synchronized sound, sound effects and maybe a background score. Except that from 1928 to 1932, none of that quite means the same thing.
I loathe using clips of things, because I think it’s frequently unfair to selectively excerpt, and it promotes biases and misreadings (one way or the other). This week, however, I show excerpts from two significant films, The Jazz Singer and Lights of New York. The former can’t be ignored, but the clip I use demonstrates why its popular reputation is historically inappropriate (the clip begins with a sync score, switches to sound dialogue as Jolson sings “Blue Skies” to his mother, then reverts to the sync score). Mostly it doesn’t talk. Point made. Lights is the first “100% Talking” film, and the scene we watch demonstrates most of the major technical issues which hampered early talkies (e.g., the camera doesn’t move, the acting is awkward, the dialogue is delivered like an elocution lesson, and everyone clusters around a prominently placed telephone which contains the microphone). These two clips take up maybe ten minutes, after which we move on to Applause, a Rouben Mamoulian film from 1929 which is partly noteworthy because it manages to avoid so many of the pitfalls of early talkies, despite being slightly creaky in other ways.
Here, however, is where the conundrum lies. I do not show Lights of New York or any other pedagogically appropriate early talking film in its entirety because they are so different from (yet just similar enough to) what students know that I might reasonably expect to be tarred and feathered. Even the most hardened film historians sometimes quail before a screening of the 1929 Lionel Barrymore/Ruth Chatterton version of Madame X or the jaw-dropping 1930 Oscar Hammerstein musical Golden Dawn, so a roomful of people in an introductory class can hardly be blamed for having little patience with some of these films. But without watching one, they just have to trust me when it comes to commenting on how relatively good or bad any such film might be – and that hinders a full understanding of the overall point.
I’ve considered showing something that might feel more “modern” such as Cecil B. DeMille’s Dynamite (1929), F. Richard Jones Bulldog Drummond (1929) or William Wyler’s A House Divided (1931), but they’re actually too modern in their technique to make the point. Instead I’m left with a balancing act, trying to find something awkward enough to demonstrate the difficulties of a hard transition, but not so awkward that it discourages anyone from investigating the whole period further – or encourages them to start a fire to heat up the tar. It’s the kind of imperfect trade-off that keeps teaching interesting, but it’s a constant concern that I might do a whole period irreparable wrong, or that the ultimate point might not quite go over. Trust me.