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ESSAY #8: SOUND FILM AND GENRE CRITICISM Copyright Frank Scheide, 2003 ESSAY OBJECTIVES: Examine the history and development of the “talkies”, identify the “film genre”, and consider the evolution of the movie musical. I. The Invention of the “Talkies” As we noted in an earlier essay, Thomas Edison was initially interested in making talking pictures in the 1890s, and actually exhibited some early sound films, but the results did not make this pursuit commercially feasible. Synchronizing the Edison phonograph with the Kinetoscope was complicated, demanded more maintenance than a silent version of this peepshow device, and these early talkies were not popular enough to go to the extra expense. When films began to be projected in 1895 amplification problems provided an additional obstacle in exploring the possibility of developing talking pictures for a commercial market. The development of the audion tube in 1907 by the inventor Lee de Forest (1873-1961) would eliminate the problem of amplification. A variation of Edison’s light bulb, the audion tube had a metal filament that was made to vibrate after an electromagnet translated sound into electrical impulses. These amplified electrical signals, in turn, were redirected from the audio tube through a speaker as amplified sound. The invention of the audion tube would enable inventors to develop the media of radio and television as well as the talkies. However, the talking picture would not become a commercial reality until after 1926. Silent movies were seldom shown silently. One aspect of their appeal was the live musical accompaniment. Even the smallest theaters would provide live piano music and larger theaters a Wurlitzer organ. The very biggest movie palaces would have a full orchestra. When a person went to the movies she or he was also going to a concert. In 1926 the Warner Brothers Studio wondered if it might not be possible to duplicate this full orchestra experience in smaller theaters through the use of synchronized phonographs. Warners recognized the novelty of talking pictures, but was initially interested in providing a musical alternative to silent movie audiences.
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The first feature with sound that was released by Warner Brothers was Don Juan, a silent costume drama with an orchestral score and sound effects, starring the actor John Barrymore (1882-1942) – the grandfather of Drew Barrymore (b. 1975). Don Juan had synchronized sound , but no lip- syncing. “Synchronized sound” refers to the precise matching of sound to image while “lip-syncing” matches the sound of a person’s voice to the movement of that individual’s lips. While Don Juan was a silent picture with synchronized music, Warners did release some short subjects with “lip- syncing” as part of the program. Adding a synchronized orchestral score to this silent feature did not have
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This note was uploaded on 04/17/2008 for the course FILM LECTU 1103 taught by Professor Student during the Spring '08 term at Arkansas.

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