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

“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.

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