Our latest blog comes from stipend holder Laraine Porter, Reader in Cinema History at De Montfort University. Laraine explores the world of cinema in 1929 through our collections.
In November 2023, I spent a delightful few days in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum courtesy of a researcher stipend, examining paper artefacts from the year 1929. Why 1929? Well, it was arguably the most momentous year in British cinema’s history as it transitioned from silent to synchronised sound film. The arrival of the talkies engulfed the entire industry from production to distribution and exhibition in a revolution the likes of which we have not seen since.
Sound films made a limited debut in British cinemas from autumn 1928 with Al Jolson musicals like The Jazz Singer (1927) and The Singing Fool (1928) while films like Don Juan (1926) with synchronised orchestral tracks had arrived in a few metropolitan cinemas slightly earlier. But in late 1928, the demise of the silent film was by no means certain. Many producers felt that talkies would co-exist happily alongside silent films, as a parallel art-form. And audiences were content with silent cinema with its live music, powerful cinematography and its universal language of mimetic storytelling. But the momentum of the talkies, once they arrived, became unstoppable.
I’ve been researching the transition between silent and sound cinema in Britain as it rolled out between 1927 and 1933, for almost a decade now, but I was interested in taking a snapshot of its apex in 1929 by examining whatever had been deposited in the Collection and what this material might tell us about the wider repercussions of the arrival of sound. Inevitably, there’s an element of serendipity here, but that’s the joy of research and I was particularly lucky in that the Collection holds a substantial amount of fascinating material from 1929 which has much to reveal. The following is just a small sample, looking at technology, cinema music and cinema programming.
Cinema sound technology
In 1929, the manufacturers of new sound technologies were competing for lucrative contracts to equip British studios and cinemas. These were broadly divided into sound-on-disc and sound-on-film systems, both of which had significant traction in early 1929. A telling find was a brochure for the Edibell sound-on-disc system which promised to be ‘all British’, despite being a conglomeration of the American Edison and Bell Telephone companies with offices in London’s Wardour Street. Edibell’s advertising boasted ’30 years of experimentation‘, with ruthless testing’ and referenced Thomas Edison’s reputation as selling point. But this was a period of anti-American sentiment in Britain, over the domination of Hollywood talkies and American technology with the ruthless tactics of the Western American company ruffling feathers in Britain and Europe. Hence, Edibell’s emphatic assertion to ‘Remember that Edibell is British. It is a British invention, British designed, and British made, and has Edison Bell’s generation-old tradition of British craftsmanship behind it’.’ So far, so good - if not entirely true. But tucked away in the middle of Edibell’s brochure is a tell-tale sentence declaring that Edibell was not proceeding with their sound-on-film system due to patent issues. Sadly, the mighty Edison and Bell Telephone Companies had backed the wrong horse and gone down a technological cul-de-sac with their shellac discs and record players installed into projection booths. During 1929, different sound technologies were still jostling for dominance, but the clunky sound-on-disc system proved difficult for projectionists to maintain synchronisation particularly if the discs jumped or got scratched. Edibell vanished from the race leaving the field clear for their sound-on-film rivals and a system which endured until the arrival of digital cinema.
Edibell sound booklet
A vital, but often overlooked element of cinema’s transition to sound, was the music publishing industry that flourished during the silent period by supplying library music to cinema musicians. With over 4000 cinemas in Britain each playing around 60 hours of music per week, there was a massive demand for generic sheet music that could readily be fitted to a particular scene or mood and the Collection holds a substantial amount of music-for-cinema. One intriguing example from 1929 is ‘Villainy Triumphant’ designed for ‘sinister, dramatic tension’ which ran for 1.5 minutes and was published under The Hawkes Photoplay Series based in Denman Street, London. Described as a moderato agitato and arranged for the pianist-conductor, frustratingly we will never know precisely what films this particular piece was used to accompany, but it was intended for moments of heightened tension when villainy did indeed triumph, perhaps to underscore a mocking baddie. It’s short running time, (a couple of minutes was fairly standard for such pieces), indicates the amount of work involved in scoring an entire feature film combining light classical standards, other library music and improvised links. By 1929, music composition and publishing for silent films were doomed enterprises, but there were still ten different music publishing and licensing companies, clustered around London’s Soho district and represented in the Collection. Names like Boosey, Campbell Connelly, Keith Prowse, Lawrence Wright, Chappell and Berners, were all apparently flourishing and selling their film music from 6d to two shillings per piece.
Sheet music for ‘Villainy Triumphant’
Film-related sheet music speaks to the culture of silent cinema performance, allowing us to glimpse the ways in which the language of film music, its motifs and performative practices, developed in tandem with film form, style and narrative. It is also interesting to see how silent films developed music sell-through, a practice common to this day. An interesting example in the Collection is a British song-piece called ‘Chico’ published in 1929 and inspired by the popular 1927 Hollywood silent film Seventh Heaven directed by Frank Borzage and starring Hollywood favourites Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell as Chico. ‘Chico’ was an opportunist sell-through piece, written and composed by Brits Frank Eyton and Horace Shepherd, possibly played in cinemas, but it was not featured in the film and in America a different song, ‘Diane’ was released with the film. Another British 1929 waltz ballad in the Collection is ‘That’s All Love Means to You’ written by Pat Heale and Norton Greenop and ‘inspired by Isabel Jeans and Jameson Thomas in “Power over Men”’, a 1929 late British silent directed by George Banfield. The sheet music shows a picture of the film’s stars and priced at 6d, it is easy to imagine film fans being inspired into purchasing it with a view to entertaining friends and family by performing it at home.
Sheet Music for ‘That’s All Love Means to You’ from the film Power Over Men.
Many domestic pieces like these were arranged for the ‘banjulele’ or the banjo-ukelele, a popular instrument introduced from America and played by amateur musicians. The banjulele reached its peak in the 1920s and was later made famous by musical comedian George Formby. What all of this tells us is that in 1929, and before the talkies consolidated and fixed the music soundtrack, there existed a more fluid approach to cinema music. Theme songs loosely linked to, or ‘inspired by’ late silent films, offered composers, lyricists and publishers the chance to exploit the emerging domestic market for songs-from-the-movies, before producers took complete control over what music accompanied their talkies.
But in 1929 the bottom was inevitably falling out of the silent film music market and publishers needed to adapt by publishing songs from ‘singing films’. A whole new market opened up for the sell-through of sheet music featuring the work of Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, Arthur Freed and song books from Fox Movietone and Warner’s Vitaphone feature films all of which feature in the Collection. Many homes now had gramophone players and HMV also took advantage of the opportunities for sell-through by advertising their gramophone records of talkie songs. The Collection holds numerous examples of beautifully illustrated sheet music from 1929’s talkie hits with songs like ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, ‘Forty Second Street’, ‘If I Had a Talking Picture of You’, Give My Regards to Broadway’, etc. which have endured to this day.
Besides popular songs there are a couple of pieces of sheet music in the Collection from early British talkies which slid into relative obscurity. The first, ‘Miss Up to Date’, a jaunty homage to the modern young woman, is performed in the talkie version of Hitchcock’s Blackmail, filmed in both silent and sound versions in March 1929. I have written about this piece before, but I hadn’t had access to the full sheet music and lyrics as written, rather than as performed by Cyril Ritchard (Mr Crewe) in the film. Written by popular songwriters Frank Eyton and Billy Mayerl, the lyrics bemoan the negative attitudes of older generations to modern young women. Although ‘Miss up-to-date’ is ‘wild – a naughty child’, she’s no saint and stops out late and likes a ‘cocktail or two’, ‘there’s no harm in the cute things’ she does and she has a good heart. Ostensibly the song is a celebration of liberated young women, recently given the Vote and asserting their rights to a social life on equal terms with men. Women were also the majority cinema goers and would have enjoyed songs and representations that spoke to them in the new talkies. However, in Hitchcock’s film, the song is a prelude to a violent sexual assault as Crewe plays and sings it to Anny Ondra’s character Alice, who he has just lured up to his artist studio. The lyrics therefore take on a more sinister resonance as Alice is effectively punished precisely for being the ‘Miss up to date’ of the song– the inference being that she should not have been in Crewe’s apartment and should certainly not be cheating on her regular boyfriend. The song sheet of ‘Miss Up-to-Date’ is a highly significant object in British cinema history. It represents one of the first uses of a song performed in a British talkie and shows how Hitchcock was starting to use music and instrumentation at pivotal and violent moments in his films, a technique that would reach its apogee with the screaming violin strings played over Janet Leigh’s murder in Psycho (1960). It also shows how music in early talkies was starting to reproduce existing, and develop new attitudes to female sexuality.
Sheet music for ‘Miss Up-to-Date’ from the film Blackmail.
Another noteworthy piece in the Collection belongs to the lesser-known early British talkie; Thomas Bentley’s The American Prisoner, released a few months after Blackmail in September 1929. ‘I Wonder if You Will Remember’ is a love song performed by the film’s two main characters played by the popular Danish star Carl Brisson and a relatively unknown Madeleine Carroll, who would find greater fame in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). The film is an action-adventure about the eponymous American Prisoner, interned in Dartmoor Prison as an enemy of Britain during the American Wars of Independence and who escapes and falls for the woman who shelters him. The song sheet is a fascinating artefact for many reasons. It advertises the theme song as ‘sung by Carl Brisson’; a cinema heartthrob known for his boyish good looks and muscular physique who had recently played ‘One Round Jack’ the boxer in Hitchcock’s 1927 silent The Ring. A problem for Brisson’s producers was how to manage his Danish accent in his first talkie where his speaking voice is rather staccato as he attempts to mask his accent and master the unfamiliar microphone technology. But when Brisson sings, his accent is neutralised, and he had been a singer prior to his film career. Although the song is out of place in the film – it is not a musical, after all – producers still felt that audiences wanted to hear their favourite stars sing rather than talk, which partly explains the substantial collection of music from early talkies held in the Collection.
Sheet Music for ‘I Wonder if You Will Remember’ from the film The American Prisoner
Cinemas in 1929
If stars like Brisson struggled during the transition, it was the cinemas themselves that were at the forefront of a maelstrom of change with many wiring for sound before British studios. The installation of cinema sound equipment was by no means easy or cheap, and we have already seen the issues with competing and incompatible technologies like Edibell, described above. Many cinemas had installed the doomed sound-on-disc system in order to screen the first Warner Bros. Vitaphone talkies that required it. The Collection has some fascinating notices from cinemas alerting their audiences to closures while they converted to sound, which give insight into the level of disruption to their businesses. A letter from Darlington’s Alhambra Palace dated 29 November 1929, informed its patrons of such a closure, promising to reopen with ‘one of the greatest of the All talking pictures “KING - OF THE KHYBER RIFLES”’. The letter explained how this was an epoch-making occasion in the history of the cinema ‘which has always catered … for a very discriminating public’. But, in a more apocalyptic tone explains that ‘Nothing has developed so quickly as “TALKING” pictures … and ‘the vogue of the silent picture has gone’ – talking pictures can ‘no longer be ignored’ and ‘… no Force under Heaven can stay their progress and development’. The cinema reminded patrons that it would reopen on 2 December, with the ‘2’ later crossed out by hand and replaced by a ‘9’!
This letter speaks volumes. Firstly, Darlington’s Alhambra is rather late in installing sound equipment as many urban cinemas had transitioned earlier in 1929. Cinemas in London and Britain’s big industrial cities were among the first to wire. Secondly, the tone of the letter is rather regretful; the Alhambra’s audiences had been loyal to silent films but the talkies could be held off no longer. Presumably, the cinema’s orchestra had been ‘let go’ too. These musicians would likely have been local people with families to feed at a time of financial hardship, with the effects of the recent Wall Street Crash on 28 October rippling across the globe. The cinema prided itself on attracting discerning patrons, possibly not those attracted to the high-kicking Broadway musicals and pre-Code Hollywood talkies that had flooded British cinemas in 1929. And finally, the fact that once the letter had been typed and printed, the closure period needed to be extended by seven days, possibly because the work was more complex and time-consuming than previously thought. The Alhambra was a luxurious cinema, opened in 1913 with 1000 seats and part of the Gaumont chain from 1925, but sadly now demolished.
Empire Theatre cinema programme from February 1929. EXEBD 19639
Another find in the Collection was a sequence of cinema programmes from the Empire Theatre in London’s Leicester Square from January to December 1929 which show the progress of the transition in real time. On 12 January, the cinema welcomed the New Year with a continuation of the popular 1928 MGM production Our Dancing Daughters starring Joan Crawford. The cinema apologised for holding the film over for a second week when their usual policy was to change the programme weekly. Our Dancing Daughters was released in both silent and sound versions and here screened silent with live music as part of a full programme comprised of a short actuality film about sunsets called Glories of the Evening, a Fox Movietone newsreel, a 20min 1927 Hal Roach comedy called Never the Dames Shall Meet starring the popular silent comedian Charley Chase, followed by the Empire Orchestra playing Sibelius’s ‘Finlandia’ all before the feature film, and topped off by ‘God Save the King’. The programme advertised its next attraction The Cossacks, a 1928 silent drama directed by Clarence Brown and starring the Hollywood romantic heart-throb, John Gilbert. In mid-February, the cinema offered more Fox Movietone news, a 50 minute silent ‘B’ feature film called Fleetwing followed by The Empire Grand Orchestra and a violin solo; an ‘Empire Pictorial Magazine’; a newsreel edited for ‘entertainment and general interest’ enigmatically described as having a ‘psychological arrangement of salient features’. Special attention was called to the ‘musical settings’ which suggests the involvement of the Orchestra throughout the programme. The feature film that week was another silent romantic drama, The Latest from Paris (1928) starring Norma Shearer. Tea was included in the Empire’s admission price and patrons were reminded that tipping was forbidden as staff had agreed to refuse gratuities, and to offer would only cause embarrassment. We can only imagine what the staff thought of that policy at a time of economic hardship!
As the Empire screened sound newsreels, it was clearly wired for sound by January 1929, but the bulk of its programme remained silent until May when its feature presentation was Harry Beaumont’s Broadway Melody of 1929, which was the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Feature Film. The cinema’s programme had a new look to coincide with the arrival of its talkie features and patrons were encouraged to purchase the songs from the film including classics such as ‘You Were Made for Me’ and the popular ‘Wedding of the Painted Doll’ from the HMV store. The Empire reminded its clientele of its ongoing commitment to its deaf patrons through the use of discrete earphone sockets located in the expensive seats with the somewhat misleading announcement that ‘The Deaf Can Hear at the Empire’ with the caveat, ‘provided that their eardrums had not actually been destroyed’. This rather stark announcement may be a reference to the large number of WWI veterans with chronic hearing loss – a result of proximity to artillery fire, explosions and physical trauma.
Deaf and hard-of-hearing people lost out with the arrival of the talkies as they no longer had intertitles which had made silent films relatively accessible. Also, early sound technology was sometimes inaudible and dialogue hard to understand by British ears not yet attuned to the fast-talking American idiom. Nevertheless, the Empire sought to address the problem and clearly had the resources and scale of operation to do so.
Empire Theatre programme from November 1929 claiming that ‘The Deaf Can Hear at the Empire’.
The Empire also ‘made its own weather’, courtesy of its ‘own unique heating and ventilation plant’ which changed the air every three minutes. It’s weekly brochure was intended as a magazine echoing its clubbable ethos, with patrons encouraged to use it as a ‘sort of Club’ with its comfortable lounges, cafes, cloak and cosmetic rooms, all designed to bring a sense of luxury to ordinary people for the modest price of a cinema ticket. These Empire Theatre programmes indicate how radical the changes to cinema-going were throughout 1929. By 8 November the main feature was Greta Garbo starring in Wild Orchids, a 1929 MGM ‘sound synchronised picture’, the comedy short was the ‘ALL TALKING’ Dad’s Day (1929) starring Hal Roach and the Armistice commemorated by the Gainsborough sound film Armistice (1929) featuring the bands of the Coldstream and Welsh Guards playing tunes from the Great War, but there is no longer a live orchestra mentioned. Little by little, from January to December 1929, the Empire’s programme had shifted from almost entirely silent with the orchestra accompanying almost all of the programme, to entirely talkie with no live music. At some stage between August and November 1929, the entire orchestra had silently been dismissed with no acknowledgement to mark their passing. Tens of thousands of musicians employed by cinemas across the UK, lost their main form of income overnight. It is unusual to see a run of cinema programmes like this Empire series, as cinema programmes rarely survived, but what a story they have to tell us!
It was not all bad news for the art of the silent film and live music however, and the Collection holds a London Film Society brochure from 3 February 1929 for its gathering at the New Gallery Kinema. The eclectic programme includes films by ‘Mr Man Ray’, Percy Smith’s acclaimed ‘Secrets of Nature’ series and Pudovkin’s 1927 Soviet film The End of St Petersburg unabashedly described as ‘so badly printed’ that it is ‘to some degree, unpleasant for the spectator’. The music, arranged by Ernest Grimshaw in collaboration with renowned composer Edmund Meisel, would been a welcome distraction perhaps, but a bigger draw would have been the post-screening discussion led by Pudovkin himself reading from his paper ‘Types as opposed to Actors’. Despite issues with the quality of their film prints, the Film Society felt able to deter prospective members by stating categorically that ‘membership is now FULL and no further applications being considered’. Heady times indeed!
The above represents a tiny portion of the fascinating documents from 1929 held by the Bill Douglas Collection, each one offering a window into this most momentous of years. There’s plenty more research to be done here and I can’t wait to come back!
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