Introduction of Sound to the Film Industry

Jan 10, 2020 | Film

In this lesson, we will explore the introduction of sound to the film industry. We will learn about the inventions that made sound in film possible, study the first movies with sound, and reflect on the changes that sound brought to the movie world.

The Silent Era

It’s 1925, and you’re at the movies, getting ready to watch a brand new Western with your favorite cowboy stars. The lights dim, the opening credits flicker across the screen, and the orchestra begins to play a rollicking introductory piece. That’s right, orchestra. Movies in 1925 were still silent films without dialogue or any accompanying music. Theaters hired live musicians to add music to films.

Small theaters typically featured a pianist or organist, but larger movie palaces could afford to provide a full orchestra. Sometimes films contained intertitles, printed cards between scenes that explained what was going on, but usually audiences had to rely on actors’ gestures and expressions to understand the subtleties of the film. This, however, was about to change with the introduction of sound in films.

Technical Difficulties and New Inventions

The idea of sound in film was not new in 1925. In fact, movie pioneers Thomas Edison and William Dickson had been playing with ways to incorporate sound since the 1890s. They kept running into technical difficulties, though. Pictures and sound had to be recorded on different machines, and it was extremely difficult to synchronize the two. What’s more, it was also hard to amplify the sound enough for everyone in the audience to hear.

Inventors kept trying to conquer these problems, but it wasn’t until the mid-1920s that they made any real progress. By this time, technology had developed enough to permit a phonograph to hook up to a movie projector. This sound-on-disc system, called the Vitaphone, allowed recorded music to accompany a film with relatively good synchronization, but it still wasn’t accurate enough for dialogue.

Soon, however, a new development changed the movie world forever. Inventors discovered that they could record sound information on a small strip of celluloid that ran down one side of a strip of film. This process, called sound-on-film, or Movietone, allowed the picture and the sound to play together in perfect synchronization, at least in theory. This new development encouraged filmmakers to incorporate sound directly into their movies, but it did not solve other sound issues, including recording and amplification difficulties. These would only be ironed out over time.

Movies with Sound

When filmmakers learned about the new capabilities for sound in film, they were excited to try them out. Warner Brothers Studios released the film Don Juan in 1926, the first feature length movie with a recorded music soundtrack played back using the Vitaphone system.

The next year, 1927, saw an even greater sound in film novelty with the release of Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer. This film also used the Vitaphone, but it featured six songs performed by actor Al Jolson, as well as snippets of dialogue improvised by Jolson as he introduced his songs, including the famous line, ‘Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!’ The Jazz Singer can be considered the first feature length talkie, or movie with synchronized dialogue, but really, it was only 25% talkie with a little over 350 words total. Nonetheless, it was a hit, and the movie world would never be the same.

The Jazz Singer was followed by all kinds of new developments in movie sound. No one seemed to want to go back to silent films. Talking movies made money, lots of it, and movie studios kept pushing straight ahead into the world of sound. New movies with sound included:

  • They’re Coming to Get Me (1927), the first short film made with the Movietone sound-on-film system that would soon become an industry standard
  • Lights of New York (1928), the first all-talking movie
  • Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie (1928), which was the first cartoon with synchronized sound
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), which was Great Britain’s first all-talkie film and advertised with the enthusiastic lines, ‘See & Hear It – Our mother tongue as it should be – SPOKEN! 100% Talkie. 100% Entertainment. Hold everything ’til you’ve heard this one!’
  • The Broadway Melody (1929), the first feature length musical on film
  • Warner Brothers’ The Show of Shows (1929), which was billed as ‘all talking, all singing, and all dancing’

A New Era

The advent of sound in movies, as popular and profitable as it was, brought a whole host of new challenges with it. First off, movie studios had to deal with the difficulties of recording sound. Microphones were stationary at first, which sharply limited actors’ range of motion as they spoke their lines. Soon, though, the boom microphone, a microphone on a long pole, allowed actors to move freely with the microphone following them. Directors and technicians also had to cope with regulating background noise on the set.

Writers and actors also faced many trials as they adapted to sound and dialogue. Writers, who were used to creating silent films that focused on action and expression, had to learn how to balance and incorporate just the right amount and right quality of dialogue. Silent film actors and actresses literally had to find their voices and learn how to speak fluently and articulately on film. Some, like Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Lon Chaney, and Gary Cooper, passed the test with flying colors.

Others, like Ramon Novarro, Clara Bow, Rod La Rocque, and Blanche Sweet, struggled with their thick accents or unpleasant voices and found their careers faltering and failing. Still others, including the incredibly famous Mary Pickford, simply couldn’t adapt to talkies and retired from the movies.

Still more changes occurred in movie theaters across the country, which now had to invest in sound systems to accommodate movies with sound. In 1927, only about 400 theaters had sound systems. By 1930, 40% of theaters could show the new talkies. Theater owners had to make a tough choice: pay for sound equipment or go out of business. Talkies were here to stay, and there was no going back. A new movie era had dawned.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Until the mid-1920s, silent films reigned supreme, and theaters hired live musicians to add music to films. Movie pioneers Thomas Edison and William Dickson had been playing with ways to incorporate sound since the 1890s, but they ran into technical difficulties, like synchronizing pictures with sound and amplifying sound for audiences.

By the mid-1920s, technology had developed enough to permit a phonograph to hook up to a movie projector. This sound-on-disc system, called the Vitaphone, allowed recorded music to accompany film with relatively good synchronization, but it still wasn’t accurate enough for dialogue. A short time later, inventors discovered that they could record sound information on a small strip of celluloid that ran down one side of a strip of film. This process, called sound-on-film, or Movietone, allowed the picture and the sound to play together in perfect synchronization, at least in theory.

Movie studios quickly began releasing movies with sound, including Don Juan in 1926, which featured a sound-on-disc musical soundtrack, and The Jazz Singer, the first feature length talkie with synchronized songs and dialogue. More movies followed, including full talkies, synchronized sound cartoons, sound-on-film movies, and musicals.

The new era of sound in film brought many changes to the movie industry. Studios had to cope with recording problems. Writers had to learn how to write successful dialogue. Actors and actresses had to adapt their voices and styles. Movie theaters had to invest in new sound equipment. But there was no going back. Silent films were a thing of the past, and sound was here to stay.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve completed this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Identify the early technical difficulties with adding sound to movies
  • Describe the first major technological advances in sound: the Vitaphone and Movietone
  • List some of the first movies with sound
  • Explain some of the challenges that the ability to add sound to movies brought to the industry
Influential American Filmmakers: Hitchcock to Spielberg
Early Film Directors & Techniques