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  • Writer's picturematthewstokoe

The Speed of Sound – Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926 – 1930

Just finished Scott Eyman’s The Speed of Sound – Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926 – 1930

The notion of adding sound to motion pictures had been bubbling under the silent surface of Hollywood for a decade or two before 1927’s part-silent, part-talkie watershed, THE JAZZ SINGER. Before Al Jolson’s voice changed everything, however, the handful of earlier attempts at film with sound had been judged to be little more than a fad. Certainly they didn’t threaten the dominance of silent films, either financially or artistically.

Much of this, of course, was due to the poor sound quality of the earlier sound systems and the cost of exhibiting film with sound (cinemas had to have the necessary equipment installed). More interestingly, though (for me at least), moviegoers and cinema critics didn’t seem to be terribly interested in the potential of these primitive attempts. Silent films were enough. The public had learned their syntax, their tropes and their style. They had their favourite actors to dream about – dreams made all the more potent as they demanded so more of the dreamer’s imagination. Who knew what these celluloid gods even sounded like? Pre-1927 cinema audiences were not fighting a gnawing sense that something was missing from the films they flocked to.

Scott Eyman’s book charts how this changed. He examines the competing processes that jockeyed for dominance in those early years – sound recorded directly onto film vs sound on a disk synchronised to the image on screen. We see how sound changed not just the mechanics of filmmaking but also the narrative impact of its product, a product that many at the time thought of not as an evolution of silent films, but as a totally separate form of entertainment.

The book is aptly titled. The speed with which an entire industry, employing 42,000 people at the time, moved to a markedly different model is one of the more astounding aspects Eyman chronicles. In 1927 there were 25,000 cinemas in the United States. By 1932, 14,500 had been wired for sound, most of the rest had closed.

Eyman, too, does not neglect the sine qua non of any good Hollywood book – an occasional aside or lesser known anecdote about a big-name director, actor or studio owner. The book is a serious history, though, and despite some sparsely sprinkled humour, sticks to its purpose. The research involved must have been staggering - the only surprise in learning that it took him four years to write the book is that it didn’t take him longer.

In reading The Speed of Sound, I was struck (not for the first time), by how lucky we are as a race to have men and women who are willing to gamble years of their lives on the knitting back together of the more obscure strands of history’s frayed weave.

All in all a wonderful book for anyone interested in the evolution of the way films are made.

Matthew Stokoe 28.04.2024

The Speed of Sound – Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926 – 1930

Scott Eyman

Simon & Schuster

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