Talking pleasures -- A change of eras

March 23, 1997|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Speed Of Sound: Hollywood And The Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930," by Scott Eyman. Simon & Schuster. 390 pages. $30.

Scott Eyman, author of books about Mary Pickford and Ernst Lubitsch, has written a scintillating book about that chaotic moment when talkies edged out silent movies. An indispensable and long overdue piece of film history, "The Speed of Sound" is also a page-turner of a story.

At the forefront of Eyman's book is a financial drama. Only two men were visionary - and megalomanical - enough to recognize the inevitability of sound: William Fox and Sam Warner. These men alone staked their fortunes on the talkie. In his purchase of the Loew's theater chain, Fox seemed to be the victor. Then he overreached, losing $50 million in the black October of 1929. Fox didn't help the case for his patent, which would have given him a monopoly on the projection of all sound films, when he tried to bribe a federal judge. He ended up in jail.

Failure and prosperity

The Warner brothers, "low-rent" from the start, prospered. Jack, Harry and Abe went on to reap millions that flowed from Sam Warner's decision to star Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer" and to make films with Vitaphone sound. But Louis B. Mayer, the head of M-G-M and the mogul who resisted sound the longest, but was a friend of President Herbert Hoover, prospered the most.

Eyman calls his book "a biography of a time." His descriptions of the evolving technology of sound are fascinating when they are not hilarious. From Thomas Edison's hand-cranked Kinetophone set off by the striking of coconut shells to the Vitaphone with its complex set of discs cued to the film strip, Eyman lucidly depicts the precarious early attempts to synchronize film sound. The camera is wrapped in blankets to muffle its noise; cameramen expire in closed boxes until a "blimp" is devised. Actors hit their heads on the microphones. The wrong set of Vitaphone discs arrive at a theater.

Meanwhile as audiences demanded sound films, favorites of the silent screen whose voices were squeaky, ill-educated or had the wrong accents disappeared. Rin Tin Tin is fired because "dogs don't talk." Vilma Banky and Clara Bow are gone. John Gilbert's nasal voice doesn't match the masculine ardor demanded of his screen characters and he too disappears from movies. One actor compares the arrival of sound at MGM to "the discovery of clap in a nunnery."

Mourning silence

Quite rightly, Eyman cannot help but mourn the passing of the visual sophistication which disappeared with sound. With those stationary microphones and sound which could not be edited, a great film art was reduced to "photographed radio drama." The great director Josef von Sternberg calls talkies "a visual skeleton clattering with voices." F. W. Murnau, after directing "Sunrise," among the last of the masterpieces of the silent cinema, embarks for the South Seas.

The last voice in Eyman's rich social history belongs to that great star of the silent screen, Douglas Fairbanks. On a visit to the soundstage of "The Iron Mask," one of those pictures where sound was added midway through production, Fairbanks turned one of the art directors and murmured, wistfully, "Laurence, the romance of motion picture making ends here."

Joan Mellen has written seven books about movies. They include "Women And Their Sexuality In The New Film," "Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity In The American Film" and "The Waves At Genji's Door: Japan Through Its Cinema." Her most recent book is "Hellman and Hammett." She teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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