Sound film changed many ideas and experiences of watching motion pictures; certain aspects that concern the use of songs, musical story lines and content of films from 1930 are evaluated here.
Author O’Brian selected a corpus of roughly 500 feature films (including musical films) from France, the US, England and Hollywood’s greatest rival at that time, Germany.

Therefore, the book “is directed by the expectation that a comparative study of American and German musical films will provide insight into transnational trends in film style, as demonstrated by the role of German and American film industries in shaping sound cinema in other countries in the early 1930s.”
At the same time, it “…. delineates a new transnational context for understanding the Hollywood musical, and it examines in detail an important and neglected corpus of films, the German operettas of the early 1930s.”

Sound film revolutionized also the technology in use at theaters, since in 1930 only approximately 1,500 European movie theaters (out of 25,000) were wired for sound; while in general the European film industry was technically more advanced than their American counterparts.
Audiences and especially movie theater owners had to get used to the new media for a certain period well into the 1930s. Generally, critics argued, electrification would clearly deprive the cinema of many aesthetic techniques. Electric sound seemed to decrease “… the range of options for how films were edited, sets constructed and lit, actors’ movements blocked, and lenses and camera positions deployed seemed instantly reduced. Dissolves and superimpositions, extreme close-ups, slow- and fast -motion images, and other cinematographic hallmarks of the mid-1920s quickly became rare in sound movies. Sound cinema seemed inherently less expressive than silent….”

American studios released silent editions of their productions for distribution worldwide together with sound version of the same films, while the technology for talkies had priority for all current projects. As movie export was one of the studio’s main sources of income, for some years the identical movie was shot again in a number of other languages, before in 1931 US studios produced the movie just once. It then was dubbed with foreign voices, while its music was produced separately and pasted into the respective version.

The majority of the German films of that time (compared to contemporary American films) were musical films like the Operettenfilm; masterpieces such as M or Der Blaue Engel – that contains many musical scenes, by the way – were rather exceptions. Since the musical content of such movies in the sound-conversion era, namely particular songs and their singers, could be marketed separately, this led to sales in sheet music, radio airtime and concerts by the singers. “A case in point concerns the role in conversion-era cinema of song performances as ‘product placements’ for sheet music and recorded discs. To understand how the films promote music sales requires investigating media-industrial forces and conditions, but in the analysis in the book, the latter are important not for their own sake but insofar as they help illuminate a specific textual attribute: the quasi-independent song sequence.”

To provide valid information for the study, O’Brian, Associate Professor of Film Studies at Carleton University, viewed and evaluated several hundred movies and used a rather uncommon tool in, namely statistical analysis of film style. Here, this made sense, as we learn interesting results, such as the average time of a scene shot (around 20 seconds) and the number one particular song was either sung in part, whistled or alluded to in short melodic episodes (sometimes more than ten times) and so forth. German and American directors employed very different strategies to include songs into the plot; one fascinating chapter goes into details here.

The introduction of sound film also had other – severe – effects on certain fields of entertainment. Suddenly, not only the live musicians who accompanied a silent movie and would provide not just music, but also sound effects were no longer needed (and would not cost the theater owner.) Simultaneously, the jugglers, acrobats, dancers, magicians and comics that had their amount of stage time during a silent film screening time disappeared; alone in the US more than 10,000 musicians lost their jobs for that reason. (And thus, by the way, leading to the new usage of the expression “live” as in “live music” in 1930).
This at first caused a lot of critique from theater customer, who would feel cheated out of the common live music experience, as the sound movie then had music reserved for performances of climatic story events. And so far, audiences were used to music in a silent film from beginning to end.

The few conversion years then saw a number of expensive movie productions that dealt with a related feature of the “old” entertainment industry, namely, for example, former top acts in circus shows and vaudeville that became protagonists of sound movies. (The same entertainment branch that with the new talkies was losing audiences on a huge scale). With the effect, that the movie-goer in a way could not tell the old media from the new one.
This merger seemingly came to benefit both entertainment lines; which was simply wrong. The talkies with massive musical content suddenly could be produced at a comparatively low price. Which meant that the stars, the musicians and the overall arrangement of a large and expensive Broadway performance could now be captured on film and showed in any theater thousand of miles away from New York.
Thus offering audiences previously unknown experiences and an “almost” live entertainment. “The idea that the film’s performers ought to share the same space as the movie-theater audience informs the many films of the period that mimic the live-music ambience of the silent-era picture palace.”

Again, statistics with that approach prove that singers would get much more movie time and singing shots frequently ran longer. Even the fresh “actors,” in reality professional singers or stage acts that could provide years of experience, were actually somewhat ill-equipped for their new challenges. One aspect of his particular attention to the singers were shots when the singer looks out toward the camera, addressing the theater audience directly; a very unusual behavior which manifests the singer’s extraordinary role as primarily a successful singer, and an actor rather by accident. (As O’Brian remarks, this also coined or formed the new genre of the “crooner,” who would sing rather at low level voice capacity, in contrast to the opera singer of the theater artist who would sing very loudly to be heard all over the stage and by all audiences. The crooners used a more intimate address). This also changed songwriting, that became more euphemistic and playful, as with electric recording and modern microphones lyrics now could end with any sound, and not necessarily a vowel (and the easily understood rhyme that went along with it) like before.

Movies, Songs, and Electric Sound is an insightful study in the beginning of cinema’s  sound era. The conversion era instigated here influenced many features of the cinema for the next decades, altering camera angles, audio editing, concert simulations, playback technology and even plots forever. Compared to the technology and filming routines of the silent era much was reinvented or at least redesigned to match what audiences in the early 1930s expected.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2019

Charles O’Brien. Movies, Songs, and Electric Sound: Transatlantic Trends. Indiana University Press, 2019, 240 p.