The end of silents

For Scottish cinema-goers, the death of the silent picture was sudden and unexpected. The readiness of audiences to sit, as did their counterparts in the theatre, listening to extended exchanges of dialogue was doubted even as city centre halls in Glasgow prepared to install sound equipment. Yet within a year of the first screening in Scotland of Warner’s The Singing Fool with Al Jolson, the take up of sound was sufficiently widespread for the trade press to regard the talkie as ‘commonplace’. Small exhibitors either fell into line or, like the Hamilton Picture House Co. Ltd. in 1931 opted to close, due to ‘the dearth of silent pictures of the type that appealed to their clientele’. A mature and self-confident art form, the silent film, had been all but obliterated in a matter of months.

There is a sense, however, in which the silent had for long lived on borrowed time. From cinema’s earliest days, the sense that silence limited the realism on offer, rendering the entertainment incomplete, stimulated attempts to add sound. Such attempts assumed varied forms, with live voices often used to provide a ‘soundtrack’ of sorts. Lecturers were employed by early showmen to navigate audiences around programmes that comprised many and varied subjects. Voices could also be used to explain and enliven the longer narratives developed in the years up to the outbreak of war in 1914. In the latter year, the newly-opened Palace Cinema in Edinburgh offered the Clarendon Speaking Pictures, in which an unseen speaker recited lines from a literary work depicted on the screen, including Robert Williams Buchanan’s poem ‘Phil Blood’s Leap’. In Aberdeen, noted local elocutionist Dove Paterson commenced the practice, taken up by Bert Gates of the Aberdeen Picture Palaces Ltd. of using two speakers, one male and one female, to deliver dialogue from behind the screen that was appropriate to the pictures being shown. The practice of ‘speaking to pictures’ lasted at the cheaper houses located in the city’s east end until 1926, having ceased at more central venues some six years earlier.

Alongside bespoke performances such as these, attempts to marry the images on the screen to sound that was mechanically produced were many and varied in the years to 1914. Most often, these took the form of filmed performances of song, the whole piece capable of being accommodated on a single disc. Popular performers such as Harry Lauder made several recordings that were intended to be seen as well as heard. The success of such films rested on the effectiveness of synchronisation between picture and gramophone and devices designed to provide this were wide publicised, including one in Scotland, the work of a mechanic at the Royal Naval Torpedo Works at Greenock and marketed by the Glasgow-based Vocal Cinema Co. Ltd. The careers of this and other sound systems attempted before 1914 were fitful. The lack of available films limited the take up of among others the Chronomegaphone at Glasgow’s Royalty Theatre in 1908 and the Edison Kinetophone at several Edinburgh cinemas in 1914 to short seasons.

Experiments in sound appeared to be less prominent after the Great War, as the drive for larger auditoria complicated problems of amplification: live orchestras filled the halls to better effect. Renewed attempts to persuade cinema-goers of the merits of sound came with the development of De Forest Phonofilms, a system that incorporated the soundtrack on the film strip itself, rather than conveying it via physically separate discs. In 1926, a series of Phonofilms were offered at Poole’s Synod Hall in Edinburgh, and included a 45 minute production of a sketch of Victorian Scottish life, entitled When the Bells Ring, by Graham Moffat and Co., presented it was claimed ‘For the First Time in Any Cinema’. Advance publicity also made clear the additional demands made on audiences by the new medium, so that ‘Patrons are particularly requested to refrain from entering the Auditorium within 45 minutes after the above times [4.00, 6.15, 7.15, and 9.30], so that the dialogue may not be interrupted’. Whatever the appeal of Scottish subject matter, the injunction to both punctuality and silence may have limited the appeal of the Phonofilm and their screening appears to have done little to alter perceptions as to the commercial potential of sound films. Over a year after the release in the United States of The Jazz Singer, the cinema correspondent of the Evening Times in Glasgow remained convinced that the contribution of sound would be confined to ‘the provision of “turns” as interludes, effects in presentation’ and only in extremis would encompass the depiction of spoken dialogue. Contemporary surveys indicated no overwhelming desire among cinema-goers for sound, although exposure to the talkies did enhance their appeal. Even then, some regular patrons still required convincing. The Glasgow picture-goer, Kitty McGinniss, aged 20 when the talkies debuted in the city, saw several sound films across 1929 before admitting to her diary in late November after a screening of the First National musical Broadway Babies, ‘Liking talkies better now’. A difference in gender was also caught by broader surveys. One undertaken by Sydney Bernstein of the Granada chain found that while were men were equally divided for and against sound, there was a marked majority among women of 70: 30 against. As this suggests, decisions to install sound and to bear the higher costs associated with maintenance of equipment and the more expensive hire of films were rarely driven by popular demand. More significant was the move by producers to cease the production of silents. A month before the talkies arrived in Edinburgh, Jesse Lasky of Paramount was declaring silent films to be ‘Dead for All Time’.

The cost of mounting sound pictures effectively excluded the few Scottish producers who had survived into the late silent era. Although Scottish Film Productions (1928) Ltd. announced talkie versions of Rob Roy and The Lady of the Lake a month after The Singing Fool introduced sound to Glasgow, nothing further was heard of either production. More successful were more local initiatives, such as that by J.S. Soutar of the Picture House, Elgin, who in June 1929 produced films of the ‘refined and original’ humourist and wireless favourite, Dufton Scott, making use of his own sound system. Otherwise, sound confirmed the dominance of Scottish screens by British and American productions. That preponderance extended to the means by which the talkies were projected. A few enterprising managers installed equipment of their own devising, including George Renouf of the Central Picture House, Musselburgh, and a system of Scottish manufacture, Bestalk, was developed by Scottish Film Productions (1928) Ltd. By early 1930, this was present in 12 halls, including the Regent where it was back-up to the Powers Cinephone installation. Quality of reproduction remained paramount if sound was to win over audiences, while effective after-sales service would best ensure continued operation. Many judged that was achieved by adopting major American (Western Electric, RCA Photophone) or British (British-Thomson-Houston) systems. The coming of sound thus did little to boost the Scottish voice.