The Coming of Sound, and Vice Versa

1927! The coming of sound sends sonic shockwaves through Hollywood. When Al Jolson throws open his hideous face and emits the words, “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” the screen’s first audible double negative shatters box office records as the public rushes to hear the rules of grammar nakedly flaunted by a charcoal-smeared buffoon.

Rival studios rushed to compete with Warner Bros’ twin innovations of synchronized sound and discoloured actors. MGM tries painting Norma Shearer with a kind of luminous wode and filming her in pitch dark sets to save money, but the experiment is judged a failure and Shearer gets an unpleasant rash; at Columbia, they go one step further and paint everything black, actors and sets alike, or so the publicity goes. An expose reveals that the cameras were loaded with black leader and that no sets were built at all.

A sound.

Stars who had been happily moving their lips attractively without a care for dialogue, suddenly had to undergo terrifying sound tests to ascertain their suitability for the microphone. “In the old days, we used to just say ‘Elbow elbow elbow,'” recalled Charles “Buddy” Rogers, “Because lip scientists had ascertained that the word ‘elbow’ creates the most attractive lip movements of any word in the English language. Of course, poor old Lars Hansen had to say ‘armbåge’ because he was Swedish, which didn’t look half as good. For my part, I’d gotten so used to elbowing that I found it hard to quit. I’d be looking into Clara Bow’s eyes and I’d say ‘I’m absolutely elbow about you,’ and then next thing you know William Wellman’s coming at me with big stick, and that’s how the mic boom was invented.”

Of course, as the legitimate cinema moved to sound, the nascent porn industry had to follow suit. Promoters raved about the slapping and squelching sounds that could now be enjoyed for the first time, and THE JIZZ SLINGER was advertised with the slogan “You ain’t heard fuckin’ yet!”

During the silent era, adult movies had enjoyed steady popularity, often following the hits of the day with pornified versions, like ORPHANS OF THE SPERM starring the Gash sisters, Lillian, Dorothy and Jenna, LITTLE ANAL ROONEY with Mary Prickford, and ROBIN NUDE with Douglas Bareflanks. With the coming of sound it was found that John Gal-butt squeaked like a dormouse at the moment of climax, ending his career, while the heavily accented pantings of He-male Jannings in the “grunty” remake of THE LUST COMMAND sent the star packing back to his native Milwaukee.

For a time, film production was dominated by the demands of the sound man. On set, soundproof booths constrained the camera, the director, and the actors. Screenwriters were forced to contrive scenarios which convincingly explained why everybody was in their own individual fridge-like box, staring helplessly from the window and enunciating at one another. William Powell played Philo Vance in THE INDIVIDUAL SOUNDPROOF BOOTH MURDER CASE in which the dapper sleuth had to explain how a prominent business magnate had been stabbed to death inside an individual sound-proof box (the solution involved little person Billy Barty in another, much smaller box) and musicals were frankly a pain in the ass.

Inventive directors got around the problem by starting early, before the sound man came to work, and shooting the cast with their backs to the camera to obviate the need for lip-sync. The popular college musical FACING AWAY was shot in its entirety with the cast’s back to the camera. “All singing, all dancing, all looking the other way!” raved the publicity, and studios began giving long-term contracts to the actors with the most attractive craniums. Phrenologists were in demand.

In porn, this innovation proved restrictive on the variety of sexual positions and camera angles achievable: porn musical genius Jizzby Jerkeley’s spectacular overhead shots helped, and everyone agreed that it was better than a porn movie with everyone in individual soundproof booths, helplessly smearing their features, facial and otherwise, against the glass. The only such film made, I’M HERE FOR YOU, BILLY (1930), was not a hit.

9 Responses to “The Coming of Sound, and Vice Versa”

  1. In every way!

  2. Simon Kane Says:

    Brilliamt, brilliant. So happy to see the return of this

  3. bensondonald Says:

    No mention of the Fleisdown Brothers and their Ruttoscope process? Or Walt Diddle and his popular Oswald the Physically Blessed Rabbit? Oswald was taken over by Wotta Lance, later famous for Obnoxious Bird (Lance reportedly wanted to name the character Woody Woodpecker, but the Hayes Office threatened discipline).

  4. Well, that’s probably a whole other piece, if I may use the term.

  5. La Faustin Says:

    Suppose one combined the Visser soundtrack with a certain short subject featured in NATAN?

  6. You’ve found a way to make two extremely painful short films even more so!

  7. ariane pouchkine Says:

    Brilliant! Thanks for the laugh!

  8. You’re welcome!

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