Silent Cinema

The transition from silent to talking movies

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The most intensely creative and inventive period in the history of cinema was probably from 1927 to 1933, during the traumatic transition from silent to talking movies. At the end of the 1920s silent movies had achieved their highpoint of aesthetic perfection. The art of the photogenic, together with the language of light and shadows, had made cinema a highly mature visual art form. Warner Bros managed to impose the success of the talking movies with the musical The Jazz Singer, which premiered in New York in October 1927, using gramophone records synchronised with the images. Its commercial success led to a revolution for the movie industry, commerce and arts, as well as great uncertainty. The studios had to soundproof their walls and buy new audio equipment, while cinema theatres had to add audio amplifiers and loudspeakers. And Hollywood faced the challenge that in the majority of its markets the audience didn’t understand English, whilst those actors lacking an “audiogenic” voice had to give up the cinema. Initially these traumatic changes gave rise to a serious aesthetic decline – brilliantly evoked in the retrospective film Singin’ in the Rain (1952)-, with the camera having to be enclosed in heavy soundproofing that reduced its mobility and the previous freedom allowed in designing the scenes being subordinated to the length of the dialogues. The result was the predominance of pedestrian, paralysed, “filmed theatre”.

However some talented directors, like René Clair, King Vidor, Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg and Carl Dreyer, did know how to discover the “poetry of sound”, treating it as more than a mere accompaniment to, or illustration of, the images. In the first years of the talking movies  this, to a certain extent, helped to reinvent the aesthetic of cinema, which had been converted into an experimental laboratory. It was necessary to learn new techniques and new strategies in order to tell stories. As a reaction to the pedestrian immobility and the verbosity of “filmed theatre” protest talking films appeared, that reproduced music and noises, but deliberately lacked dialogue. The most famous example of this style is given by the film Ecstasy (1933), which is included in this series.
Román Gubern


Sessions in this series