“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

September 21, 2007

This week we moved on into the sound age, the “talkies” and all the beauties and difficulties thereof. True, none of the “silent” movies were really silent. Every theatre had at least a piano or organ, and the bigger ones featured a live orchestra. But it wasn’t until 1927 that audiences could actually hear the actor’s voice coming from the screen (or speakers behind the screen). At first, studios thought this might be a passing fad. But millions flocked to see Al Jolson in the Jazz Singer and his immortal line, “Wait a minute… wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” So the rest of the studios joined in and embraced the new technology.

Download the worksheet here: music and sound handout

The answers are as follows:

As we saw in a clip from “Singin’ in the Rain,” this was a tricky transition. Performers had to huddle around microphones hidden in plant pots. Noisy cameras had to be placed behind glass in an immobile soundproofed booth. Crosscutting was all but prohibited by the difficulties of matching sound and vision. Not to mention many of the actors whose voices didn’t match their appearance. “The subtle imagery of the silent era had been replaced by illustrated radio.” (-John Naughton) You probably won’t see many more boring films that those made in 1928-29 (except the few that were still silent, like Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Check it out, y’all, it’ll blow you away.)

But by 1930 the technical hitches had largely been ironed out and the masterpieces began to flow. If you’re curious, check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, or Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel.

For the most part, the sound effects in these early movies were pretty straightforward. They used whatever sounds were made on set during production. But in 1933, with King Kong, sound designers started getting more creative. They used their imaginations for what a dinosaur and a giant gorilla might sound like. And not just what they might actually sound like, but what they should sound like, what sounds would add the best effect to their movie. Rather than recording a real gorilla, they used sounds of a lion for King Kong’s voice, and used another lion played backwards for the T-rex. When Kong breaks the dinosaur’s jaw, we don’t hear a real bone breaking, but more like a tree trunk cracking. Thus was born the classicist tradition of sound effects.

See, with classicism, we don’t want the actual sounds, we want heightened impact, we want what it should sound like. We don’t want to hear real punching sounds during a fistfight. You can’t hear real punches, they aren’t loud enough. We don’t want to hear real laser sounds in star wars. Real lasers don’t make any sound. We want the ideal sound for the moment. And we want the sounds recorded in a studio where there’s no airplanes or trucks or babies crying in the background to distract us.

Realists on the other hand are happy to use the sounds of real life. If you’re filming an interview in a backyard, and the neighbor is mowing their lawn, no problem, it adds to the environment. Realists want to show how it actually sounds

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5 Responses to ““You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.””

  1. Matt Thomas Says:

    It was noted at the Chaplin screening on Friday Night that l’il Charlie made essentially “silent” movies (no talking, just a soundtrack which he composed) for something like 14 years beyond the end of the exclusively silent era. No one would distribute his movies because of the lack of talking, but he made a huge ammount of money renting his own movie houses in big cities to show films to sold-out audiences. Also mentioned was the fact that sound could have been matched to picture on a wider scale mich earlier than ’27, but people just didn’t like it. In support of this point, you should have heard the sound of the sold-out Capitol Theater audience laughing–no, screaming and howling–during the boxing scene in City Lights. Who needs talking and punching sounds?

  2. Matt Thomas Says:

    It was noted at the Chaplin screening on Friday Night that l’il Charlie made essentially “silent” movies (no talking, just a soundtrack which he composed) for something like 14 years beyond the end of the exclusively silent era. No one would distribute his movies because of the lack of talking, but he made a huge ammount of money renting his own movie houses in big cities to show films to sold-out audiences. Also mentioned was the fact that sound could have been matched to picture on a wider scale much earlier than ’27, but people just didn’t like it. In support of this point, you should have heard the sound of the sold-out Capitol Theater audience laughing–no, screaming and howling–during the boxing scene in City Lights. Who needs talking and punching sounds?

  3. filmhistory Says:

    Right on. We watched “Modern Times” made in 1936 and probably the only silent film made that year. And there are some sound effects and talking (by record players and “big brother” type screens), but mostly silent and beautiful.

    In the words of James Agee:

    “To put it unkindly, the only thing wrong with screen comedy today is that it takes place on a screen which talks. Because it talks, the only comedians who ever mastered the screen cannot work, for they cannot combine their comic style with talk. Because there is a screen, talking comedians are trapped into a continual exhibition of their inadequacy as screen comedians on a surface as big as the side of a barn.”

  4. Matt Thomas Says:

    Doing comedy in the era of the talky (“talky-times” as I like to think of it) has been a major problem. Which is kind of interesting because, as a genre, comedy was so dominant during the years of the big 3. I think the best Talky Times film comedies have been made by guys who deeply understand the language of silent film, and that’s a pretty elite group, including maybe the Marx Brothers, early Woody Allen, early Steve Martin, Christopher Guest, maybe Brad Bird, and a few others like that who find a way for the talking to rival and enhance the absurdity of the physical action.

    Although I find the films of a contemporary comedic filmmaker like Judd Appatow sort of amusing and a little enlightened, all they are is “talking”–they really could exist as radio programs, and I bet they would be even funnier in that format. That’s not really an insult to the filmmaker–Mike Nichols grew up doing comedy on the radio and records, and The Graduate is another film which I think might even be better as a radio program. These guys are just working the wrong medium.

    I love that Agee quote because I’m always longing for the contemporary movies I go to to be like those good ones–as happy and sad as Chaplin–but comedic filmmakers’ failures these days are so frequent and massive that I almost always end up really disappointed. Where are the contemporary filmmakers who love the silent guys as much as we do?

  5. filmhistory Says:

    And let’s not forget Msrs. Charles M. Jones and Tex W. Avery. They were raised on the great silent stuff and it shows in their work.

    Who is still doing great modern comedy? It doesn’t seem to stick with any particular director or actor, but there are masterpieces here and there. “Dumb and Dumber”, “Groundhog Day”, “Elf”. And I think you’re right on about Brad Bird, Lassetter, and Co. That’s who the class nominated as the current holder of Chaplin’s torch. You’ve seen Ratatouille, I hope?


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