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1930s: The arrival of sound

In 1931, the world was still in the midst of the Great Depression with mass unemployment and unrest escalating. In response to economic restraints and the Cinematograph act of 1927, British film quality suffered and many films from the period were referred to as ‘quota-quickies’ – films made on low budgets to fulfill distribution and exhibition quotas for British film. A British (and inferior) re-edited version of M was released in 1932 and audiences were able to see Peter Lorre’s first performance in English. The film was generally well received and praised by writer Graham Greene who compared it to “Looking through the eye piece of a microscope, through which the tangled mind is exposed, laid flat on the slide…” Aside from Fritz Lang’s creative direction and Peter Lorre’s disquieting performance, the film has been highly praised for its early experimentation with sound through its use of sound effects and dialogue.

western electric signBy the late 1920s there were two ways in which cinemas were attempting to combine sound and image. One method used records that were played in synchronisation with the silent film reels. The alternative method used sound recorded directly onto the edge of the film. For a time both systems were used by film production companies leading to complications for exhibitors. To solve this issue, the Western Electric company developed a universal projection unit that could run both systems and this became the standard at most first run cinemas.

Sound on disc Vs. Sound on film

There were many mechanical issues with the sound on disc system. For example if a film lost a frame or two, then it was necessary to add in opaque frames so that the accompanying disc would still play in sync as this could not be adjusted. Occasionally, one or all of the discs might arrive broken to the cinema and a replacement would have to be ordered and arrive before the film could be shown. Vibrations, from heavy-footed projectionists or a slammed door, could easily make the needle jump and disrupt the soundtrack. The Sound on film system, where the audio soundtrack was printed onto the filmstrip itself, was clearly a more reliable one and soon became the standard format.

the-singing-fool-al-jolson-1928-everettCinemas in Norfolk were relatively quick to adapt to sound or ‘talking pictures’. The Haymarket was the sixth cinema in the country to convert to screening sound films and introduced ‘Talkies’ to the region. The Haymarket screened Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool in 1929. Many early sound films like The singing Fool featured little dialogue and relied on songs and stars like Al Jolson. However, the experience of seeing sound and picture in near perfect synchronization for the first time had a real impact on audiences. Stephen Peart in his book The Picture House in East Anglia reports

‘One man remembered arriving late for a performance at the Haymarket and nearly jumped out of his skin on hearing voices emanating loudly from the screen’.

Installing new sound systems into cinemas, however, was expensive and many cinema owners were resistant to installing these new systems. The buildings, some ad hoc, had also not been built with acoustics in mind. As with other technological developments in cinema, owners were eventually faced with an ultimatum of investing in new sound systems and conversions or falling behind and perhaps being forced to close for good. The transition to sound, also had a big impact on the livelihood of the skilled musicians and composers that accompanied silent films. However, many of these musicians still found work for at least the next decade as cinemas at first showed a mixture of ‘talkies’ and sound films as well as variety until audience demand necessitated a complete shift to sound cinema.

The first purpose built cinema equipped with good acoustics and for sound in Norfolk, was the Carlton on All Saints Green in 1932. Second run cinemas like the Theatre De Luxe converted as and when they could afford to. By the mid 1930s, however, all of the cinemas in Norfolk, would have been alive with the sound of dialogue, music and sound effects, changing the art form and expanding our view of the wider world for good.


You can see the recently restored version of Fritz Lang’s M at Cinema City on Sunday 7th Dec




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