Friday, 23 August 2013

The History of Sound Motion Pictures

Before looking more closely at Harold B Franklin's book I thought it might be a good time to learn a little more about the author himself.

Franklin's IMDb page carries the following biographical information:

New York native Harold B. Franklin entered show business as a booking agent for vaudeville acts in 1910, becoming a theater manager four years later. He joined Famous Players-Lasky as director of its theater operations, but left several years later to head Fox-West Coast Theaters. He worked for various companies in movie theater operations until 1933, when he and playwright Edgar Selwyn joined in a venture to produce stage plays. Two years later he went to work for Columbia Pictures as a production executive. Although he did produce two films, his main focus was in the exhibition end of the business. While on a business trip to Mexico to survey their theaters, he died suddenly in Mexico City.

From this it would seem that it was Franklin's background in movie theatre operations which best qualified him to write about the early sound systems employed in cinemas. Certainly his background as a booking agent would have been unlikely to furnish him with the sort of in-depth knowledge on sound evidenced in the book. 

Sound Motion Pictures Acoustics Sound Absorption Cinema History Talkies

This sort of information is more likely to have come from those he thanked at the end of his introduction: 'the enginners of The Bell Telephone Laboratories, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, and the technical departments of the Fox West Coast Theatres'. This stuff, although a bit over my head, is certainly an eye-opener and shows the level of detail cinema technicians had to consider when installing the new sound equipment. Absorption rates of seating materials in theatres is not something I'd ever considered with regards to the history of cinema, but it stands to reason that if the studios were investing heavily in the technology for production (which would of course have similar issues to contend with) that they'd want to reap the maximum benefit at the presentation stage.  

With regards to the processes which came prior to this, it has to be said that, at first glance, Franklin's narrative of sound in the movies seems a little too American-centric. In particular there's a definite bias towards the achievements of Thomas A Edison. Although maybe that shouldn't be a huge surprise. One thing that I've learned about researching anything communications related is just how ubiqutous Edison is in this field. He was, undoubtedly, a remarkable man but Franklin's assertion, in his opening chapter, that 'In 1894 Edison invented the cinematograph' did set some alarm bells ringing and left me wondering whether the writer had perhaps fallen under the spell of the 'Wizard of Menlo Park'.

The history of cinema's early days is complex and contentious with much debate about who invented what, and when. There isn't the space to cover much of that here but one thing of which we can be reasonably certain is that Edison did NOT invent the cinematagraph. That device (whose own genesis is subject to much debate) was essentially European in origin with the Lumiere brothers being among those credited with its invention. Edison, and his team, did however have the Kinetescope, Kinetograph and Vitascope to their...or rather his name. Perhaps this entry was an oversight or a generalisation, and perhaps it isn't worth dwelling on, but it did rankle a little that Franklin failed to acknowledge the contributions of so many others who played their part in the invention of cinema.

Franklin was of course correct to further expand upon Edison's contributions to the advancement of sound in cinema, which began in 1887 with the inventor's statement of intent to create 'an instrument which would do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, and that by the combination of the two all motion and sound could be recorded ad reproduced simultaneously'. All things considered, the author does later redeem himself by delving a bit more into the contributions of numerous inventors of various nationalities who developed early sound systems with such exotic sounding names as the Cameraphone (the first such use of the term?), Chronophone,  Chronophotophone and the Photocinematophone. At this point Franklin's chronology bounces about a bit but there were names (and inventions) listed here that I'd never heard of and probably worthy of some deeper digging. However, it isn't long before this is all brought back and neatly packaged as work which basically built on the foundations laid by a certain American inventor : 'it is apparent, from the foregoing, that the development of sound pictures is based on the earlier efforts of Mr. Edison'. Which of course may well be entirely true. 

Before leaving the history of sound in motion pictures to focus on the technological/theory side the book offers a fairly conscise run-down of some of the earliest sound films. Noting that:  'In December, 1926, the DeForest Phono-Film Company produced a one-act melodrama called Retribution... To my knowledge it was the first entirely talking picture ever made', Franklin's book reminds us that although the success of talkies depended much on the commercial triumph of The Jazz Singer, many others had blazed a trail before this and helped prepare cinema audiences for what was to come.

The link below is for an interesting and detailed documentary about this period of transition and well worth a look. The Dawn of Sound: How the Movies Learned to Talk (1hr 25 mins)

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