Movies and Film: A Brief History of Sound in Movies

A Brief History of Sound in Movies

We all know that first there was silent film and then there was sound. But that's not the whole story. Before films talked they still made themselves heard through intertitles and musical accompaniment. And after the introduction of the microphone, there were still questions about how to use the technology. Here is a brief breakdown of the evolution of sound.

You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet: Before Sound

Short Cuts

Though intertitles tended toward the brief and explanatory, the writer or director could choose to be lush or poetic. Sometimes the poetry was positively purple, as in the following intertitles from Erich von Stroheim's The Wedding March (1928):

Then, nature mourned
The Birds were hushed
It rained, rained, and rained ….
Oh Love—Without the—Marriage is a sacrilege and a mockery.

Though Edison did not invent film, he always conceived that this visual medium and his phonograph would mesh to make sound film, and was busy trying to invent sound film almost from the birth of cinema—from about 1885—more than a third of a century before sound film became commercially feasible.

Inventors and entrepreneurs needed to overcome several problems before sound could be accepted. First, silent film audiences seemed perfectly happy with silent movies, perhaps because the movies were never completely silent, almost always accompanied by music of some kind: from a multipieced pit orchestra for big openings, to a single piano, or even a guitar if no one in a small town could play the larger instrument.

Early on, when film prints traveled from small town to small town in the American heartland, they were often narrated by a live raconteur, who would explain the action on-screen to audiences. "Intertitles"—those cards between moments of action—contained explanations of action, or important moments of dialogue, or even bits of poetry to set the mood.

Also, by the 1920s, silent film writing, acting, photography, and music had reached an aesthetic pinnacle: very subtle emotional and plot nuances could be conveyed without the use of any accompanying dialogue. In fact, as the era of sound film drew to a close, filmmakers were able to convey their stories with a bare minimum of intertitles.

Inventing Sound

Second Take

The Jazz Singer (1927) was not the first commercially released sound film. Warner Brothers and Vitaphone had earlier been releasing "shorts" in which people sang and told jokes, and released a feature-length film called Don Juan, which contained a musical score, in 1926, the year before Al Jolson sang "Mammy" on film. In fact, Jolson's talking was in large measure an accident: The film-makers simply couldn't shut the irrepressible entertainer up be-fore his musical numbers.

More important than audience satisfaction with silence, however, was the technological difficulty of matching sound and visuals in such a way that everyone in the audience could hear. In other words, the problems were synchronization and amplification.

Unlike the invention of film, the solutions to these problems were largely American, the result of the work of several American corporations: RCA, Western Electric, AT&T, and Warner Brothers. Two of those corporations formed a third, Vitaphone, which produced the first commercially viable sound system, essentially a very large phonograph platter hooked up to a film projector with large leather belts, like straps or harnesses. Soon this clumsy apparatus was replaced by the now-standard strip of celluloid prepped for sound that runs down the side of the film strip, so that the two modes remain in synch.


Al Jolson belts out "Mammy," and Warner Brothers becomes a major film studio.

Even after its invention, sound presented a host of problems. The early sound cameras and equipment were big and noisy, and had to be kept in their own soundproof room, called a "blimp." And it took a while for someone to figure out that you could move the microphone around by placing it at the end of a stick—called a "boom"—just above the range of the camera. So very early sound films tended to be very static because actors had to speak to a static mike, and cameras movement no longer had that graceful and supple fluidity it had been developing for 30 years. (Some of the problems with early sound film are hilariously portrayed in the MGM musical Singin' in the Rain [1952]).

Other nontechnological problems had to be resolved at the advent of sound: Some actors did not sound the way they looked on the silent screen.

It was difficult for silent scene writers to find the right balance in sound scripts between action and dialogue. Studios justifiably feared losing the international audience that silent film could automatically rely on. And so on. However, after these and other early problems with sound were solved, this technology became another element that filmmakers could play with to make filmgoing even more pleasurable than it had been.

Second Take

The clich assertion that silent film stars with funny voices could not take to the new microphones and so sank into oblivion is, for the most part, untrue. In fact, lots of very famous sound actors had perfectly successful silent careers: Joan Crawford, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Ronald Colman, and Gary Cooper, to name just a few. When silent actors did not succeed, it was not so much because of their voices as because they did not adapt well to the new kinds of roles demanded by sound film.

Director's Cut

It is rumored that the person to solve the problem of speaking into a static microphone was a woman—director Dorothy Arzner—who is supposed to have invented the "boom microphone" to get those actors moving, and to get the motion back into motion pictures.

Director's Cut

In the early sound era, the same film would be shot in two or three languages, so that they could still appeal to an international audience before subtitling and dubbing had been widely used. For example, after the shooting of the English version of Dracula (1931) and everyone went home, the night crew came in to shoot the Spanish version, with a different director and Spanish actors, which many horror film aficionados believe to be the superior version. Unfortunately, this solution proved cumbersome, and was not used very frequently. As a consequence, movies are no longer as international as they were, at least in the sense that American audiences are now less likely to watch foreign films because dubbing and subtitles just seem to most people like inefficient substitutes for plain speaking.

Look Who's Talking: Sound Changes the Industry

The addition of sound did not simply mean that actors could now talk; it meant big changes in the way that films were produced. Scenarists now had also to be dialogue writers. Literary types from the other arts were imported to Hollywood to help write the new talkies: Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway, for example.

Actors now had to be paragons of articulateness and fluency as well as pantomime artists. Certain exotic roles became far less fashionable, in part because foreign accents were harder to understand with primitive microphone and amplification technologies, in part because the fantasy of the Asian vamp or the Italian villain seemed more kitschy with the added reality of sound, and in part because some foreign types began to seem rather stereotypical and xenophobic. With the exception of Chico Marx, dumb immigrant Italians started disappearing from the screen, along with Jewish shyster lawyers. Native American stereotypes—monosyllabic grunts and all—persisted much longer, but finally began being scrutinized in the 1950s, and even satirized in such films as Blazing Saddles (1974) by the 1970s.

Some verbal kinds of comedy—most conspicuously typified by the Marx Brothers—was simply not possible until sound. A host of comedians came from vaudeville and the stage to help round off the new cast of talking characters: Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and so on. At least one new comedy genre sprang up at this time: screwball comedy, a combination of romantic comedy and some very silly behavior, that relied on sophisticated banter of the leading couple. The traces of screwball remain in our culture to the present day in films like Pretty Woman (1990) or When Harry Met Sally (1989), and in many prime-time sitcoms.

And, of course, at least one whole genre would not have been possible without sound: the musical. With a volatile history, going in and out of popularity very often, this genre persists in some form to the present day, from the "backstage musical" of the late 1920s, to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films of the Great Depression, to the big color MGM productions of the 1950s, to the MTV video, to the rockumentary, to the musical interludes of The Simpsons.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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