“Well of course we talk. Don’t everybody?” – Theoretical Criticisms of Early Sound Cinema

This was originally written for a Film and TV History course at The University of Queensland in Semester 2, 2016

What makes a film a film? With the advent of synchronised sound in the 1920s, theorists, press, and the industry were trying to understand this. Despite the fact that sound was welcomed with a great deal of excitement by the movie going public and industry, praised as a movement of cinema into heightened realism, the reception by scholars and critics was more divided. Critics and journalists concerned themselves with the quality and characteristics of spoken dialogue, putting actors out of work due to their strong accents or lisps, which is satirised with the character of Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen) in Singin in the Rain (Donen & Kelly, 1952). But scholars concerned themselves with the placement of sound within the perception of what film is as an art form, and whether it added to or detracted from the medium. In 1938, theorist Rudolf Arnheim said that the addition of spoken dialogue was “a diminution of the medium’s unique aesthetic capacities”, to quote Lea Jacobs in Film After Sound (2). Through considering primary sources such as reviews, articles, and advertisements, readings, and secondary sources, the intricacies of this frequent criticism amongst critics and theorists of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s will be explored. I will first consider how common this view was and the different versions it had, before exploring what critics believed were film’s “unique aesthetic capabilities”, and finally considering what supporters of sound believed it enhanced. How this argument repeats itself in other technological advancements since the widespread adoption of sound will also be considered.

Arnheim’s 1938 essay “A New Laocoon: Artistic Composites and the Talking Film” (published in Film As Art 1957) speaks of a critical culture hesitant to discuss whether the presence of spoken dialogue in film was appropriate or not, saying that “to bring up this question was considered by now offensive, defeatist, reactionary” (199-200). It is an apprehension that caused him to raise the issue. Arnheim’s view is that the presence of spoken dialogue undermines film’s success as an art form and draws the audience’s attention “in two directions”, as well as narrowing the world of the film and “paralyzing visual action” (199). He says that it does not succeed in making film a more realistic experience, a view that opposed the dominant perspective in the press, and that the less speech, the more “disturbing, alien, and ridiculous will the speech fragments appear” (211). Using the presence of dialogue and image as a fundamental part of theatre to compare differing reactions, he says of film “we react differently because we are not used to finding in the real world the kind of formal precision that in the work of art presents —by means of the sensory data—the subject and its qualities in a clearcut, expressive way” (200). In theatre, he says, there is “a tendency to attain more elementary and in a certain sense more immediately striking effects through pure visual action or pure dialogue” (202), rather than complicated by special effects.

Critics and filmmakers like René Clair, Abel Gance, and Fritz Lang, as well as a multitude of Russian filmmakers held views similar to Arnheim’s (423). Balazs, however, argued in his book Theory of the Film that the use of natural sounds could result in a more realistic film, one that could recover

The acoustic landscape in which we live, the speech of things and the intimate whisperings of nature…The meaning of a floorboard creaking in a deserted room, a bullet whispering past our ear, the deathwatch beetle ticking in old furniture, and the forest spring tinkling over the stones. (116)

Russian filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein also sound was an essential element of the montage of a film, known in his 1931 essay A Dialectic Approach to Film Form as “the nerve of cinema” (2). In a manifesto titled Statement On Sound penned by Russian filmmakers Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigori Alexandrov in 1928, they said that

Only the contrapuntal use of sound vis a vis the visual fragment of montage will open up new possibilities for the development and perfection of montage. The first experiments in sound must aim at a sharp discord with the visual images. (In Christie & Taylor 2012 234-5)

Eisenstein, like Arnheim, stressed the tendency for sound to fracture the film, placing importance on single images rather than the relationship between them as a whole (12). To focus on film as a series of images rather than as a moving whole would be to deplete it of some of its unique capabilities (Carroll 271).

Of course, each theorist, filmmaker, critic, and journalist had different concepts of what the aesthetic capabilities of film were depending on their interests. In his 1928 essay Sound Film (published in Film Essays and Criticism 1997), Arnheim says that he believes that the uniqueness of film is grounded in the “double game” between picture and movement. He says that:

A major and particular appeal of film lies in the fact that a film scene consists of the competition between division of the picture and movement within an area, and three-dimensional body and movement in space. Sound film does away with this aesthetically important double game almost entirely. (30)

Giving film sound, he argued, took it closer towards “other forms, such as theatre, and toward realism” (Crafton 540). It was a view shared by Eisenstein, who saw the image and sound eternally at war with one another, and that film

Derived artistry from polyphony (as in musical counterpoint) and synesthesia (using one sense to stimulate another), rather than from simply exploiting the mechanism’s ability to replicate sounds (Crafton 540).

Of course, people like Eisenstein were filmmakers as well as theorists, and their writings and comments on the advents of sound were influenced by his experiences in both mediums. It was a shifting market culture shaping what films he would be able to make and what audiences would watch, making it harder to produce what he wanted in the manner he wanted to. Sound was a mechanism that was drawing audiences to the theatres, and studios were scrambling to conform, despite the high cost putting many smaller studios out of business (Ballio 260). But sound also posed the issue of language barrier for European filmmakers like Eisenstein as well as once-powerful producers. Their films could no longer be easily played around the world, with only intertitles translated into another language, now needing expensive dubs in another language.

While theorists like Balazs and Arnheim weren’t filmmakers, they had experience in other fields like perceptual psychology (Arnheim) and poetry (Balazs). Writing mostly for themselves and therefore not obligated to anyone, they were able to project their knowledge and understanding of these disparate topics to the emerging and changing one of film, considering how a naïve public might perceive it based on their work in other fields (eg. Arnheim’s experience in perceptual psychology leant to his extensive writing on the audience’s attention being split by image and sound on a screen. Their views diverged from the populist and industrial viewpoints of the time, which were influenced by finances and celebrity culture.

Despite criticisms about the sound quality of the dialogue and the derision of actors who were found to have strong accents or lisps that resulted in them being unemployable, the popular press was vehement supporters of sound and believed that it could enhance films, making them more realistic and immersive. This could be because critics and journalists had an interest to participate in the feverent celebrity culture run by studios that resulted in money. If there was a new technology that bred celebrity news and good stories, this was it. New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall saw sound cinema as a liberation of the medium to the masses that held greater capabilities to transport the wonders of cinema around the world. In the August 7, 1926 edition in a review of Don Juan starring John Barrymore (Crosland, 1926), he wrote that

The future of this new contrivance is boundless for inhabitants of small and remote places will have the opportunity of listening to and seeing grand opera (7).

Sound’s supporters argued that it extended the world of the film beyond the screen, encouraging the audience to imagine what may be happening (Lastra 93-4). The addition of sound and subtraction of intertitles meant that films were able to employ more dialogue to express situations, allowing for more complex narrative structures (Lastra 94) and for characters to be more deeply fleshed out by using accents, timbre, vocal qualities, speed, and speech problems, intricacies that silent film didn’t allow for. As previously mentioned, while they didn’t support sound as a naturalistic enhancement of a film, as it would stress the meaning between individual images rather than a completed work, Russian filmmakers like Eisenstein did support the use of asynchronous sound (Crafton 540), as they believed that it could result in “complexity and dimensionality” (Apprich 6), instead of merely reproducing a polished version of reality (Crafton 540). Scholar Alexandrov Pudovkin was more favourable towards sound than Eisenstein, seeing the use of asynchronous sound as an enhancement instead of neutralization, saying in a 1929 essay that it is “a more exact rendering of nature than its superficial copying” (6).

The argument between scholars and critics of whether spoken dialogue undermines the very concept of what a film is meant to be is one that has repeated itself in film history. With the advent of 3D, a technology aimed at offering a film experience that cannot be replicated at home in the 1950s, theorists criticised it for being schlocky and sensationalistic (Baranowski, Keller, Newman, & Hecht 2016) and unsuccessful in replicating reality. It’s a debate that carries on today even as technology has become more advanced, with film critic Mark Kermode saying in 2010 in response to the film Avatar (Cameron, 2009) that he believes 3D doesn’t “add much” to a film, and that what he appreciated about the film had nothing to do with the 3D.

It’s an argument that has continued with the advent of IMAX, virtual reality, computer animation, motion capture, and more advanced camera technologies that allow for things like films being shot at a higher frame rate, which delivers an extremely smooth and ‘real’ image (eg. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [Jackson, 2012] used 48 frames per second (fps) instead of the standard 24 [Cardinal 2013] and the upcoming Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk [Lee, 2016] is in 120 fps [Desowitz 2016). Like theorists and critics that opposed sound also argued in the 1920s, these advances take film further out of the hands of humans and more into technology, questioning whether film is meant to replicate reality. They continue to blur the lines of between mediums and what cinema is meant to be, and position cinema as not art but a product, commercialised and sold around the world.

The criticism of sound as “a diminution of the medium’s unique aesthetic capacities” (Jacobs 2) is one that was frequent amongst critics and theorists of the 1920s-40s, but had a number of intricacies, including Russian filmmakers defending the use of asynchronous sound as a montage element to “open up new possibilities for the development and perfection of montage” (Pudovkin & Alexandrov in Christie & Taylor 2012 234.5). This statement was investigated by first considering how common the view was and its intricacies, before exploring what critics believed were film’s “unique aesthetic capabilities”, considering what supporters of sound believed it enhanced, and finally considering how this argument has repeated itself in other technological advancements. Film is a medium that will continue to evolve according to technological change, ideas and perceptions of what it constitutes changing with it, just like theorists like Arnheim did back in the 1920s and 30s. What is film? That question will never be answered.


Apprich, Fran. “Born into Sound.” 2016. Web.

Arnheim, Rudolf. “A New Laocoon: Artistic Composites and the Talking Film.” Film As Art. University of California Press, 1938. Print.

Arnheim, Rudolf. Film Essays and Criticism. Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1997. Print.

Balazs, Bela. Theory of The Film. DENNIS DOBSON LTD, 1952. Internet Archive. Web. 6 Sept. 2016.

Balio, Tino. The American Film Industry. Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1985. Print.

Baranowski, A. M. et al. “Genre-Dependent Effects of 3D Film on Presence, Motion Sickness, and Protagonist Perception.” Displays 44 (2016): 53–59. ScienceDirect. Web. Contains Special Issue Articles – Proceedings of the 4th Symposium on Liquid Crystal Photonics (SLCP 2015).

Cameron, James. Avatar. N.p., 2009. Film.

Cardinal, David, and 2013 at 10:38 Am. “Why Movies like The Hobbit Are Moving from 24 to 48 Fps.” ExtremeTech. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.

Carroll, Noel. “Lang and Pabst: Paradigms for Early Sound Practice.” Film Sound: Theory and Practice. Ed. Elisabeth Weis and John Belton. Columbia University Press, 1985. Print.

Christie, Ian, and Richard Taylor. The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896-1939. Routledge, 2012. Print.

Crafton, Donald. The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931. University of California Press, 1999. Print.

Crosland, Alan. Don Juan. N.p., 1927. Film.

Desowitz, Bill. “‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ from Ang Lee Is a Game Changer.” IndieWire. N.p., 26 Aug. 2016. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.

Donen, Stanley, and Gene Kelly. Singin’ in the Rain. N.p., 1952. Film.

Eisenstein, Sergei. “A Dialectic Approach to FIlm Form.” Web. 6 Sept. 2016.

Hall, Mordaunt. “Don Juan.” The New York Times 7 Aug. 1926: 7. Print.

Jackson, Peter. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. N.p., 2012. Film.

Jacobs, Lea. Film Rhythm after Sound: Technology, Music, and Performance. Univ of California Press, 2014. Print.

Kermode, Mark. “BBC – Mark Kermode’s Film Blog: How to Enjoy a 3D Movie.” N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.

Lastra, James. Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity. Columbia University Press, 2012. Print.

Pudovkin, Vsevolod. “Asynchronism as a Principle of Sound Film.” N.p., 1929. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.


One thought on ““Well of course we talk. Don’t everybody?” – Theoretical Criticisms of Early Sound Cinema

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s