Did Thomas Edison’s invention of the Kinetophone actually bring about the demise of The Silent Era in filmmaking and film production? Was it so revolutionary an invention that silent films would soon give way to films that captured sound? Were the “talkies” just inevitable after that?
Around 1894, Thomas Edison, along with William Dickson, one of Edison’s most brilliant proteges, fashioned the idea that sound could somehow be added to what was called, at the time, moving pictures or “movies.” The Kinetophone they devised combined a cylinder-playing phonograph with a Kinetescope. The Kinetescope was a device that was being used at the time to actually show these moving pictures. People would stick a coin in the machine, bend over the viewing device, and watch still pictures move rapidly to simulate real life motion. They were hugely popular and, soon after, the giants who would create Hollywood would begin to create a revolutionary industry that survives, and thrives, to this day.
While the new Kinetophone was hardly a state of the art sound system, it did, however, send proverbial shockwaves throughout the then infant film industry. What was know in film history as The Silent Era would reign supreme for another thirty years into the new 20th Century, but the advent of sound and sound production may very well have marked its demise. The Kinetophone may have marked the beginning of the end for that legendary era.
Here is the remarkable film made by Edison of the first time the Kinetophone was put into action. The film is believed to have been produced in 1895:
A wax cylinder recorded the sound of the film through a huge sound-amplifying horn. The challenge, eventually, was that it really didn’t end-up being an actual and practical sound system. It seems the two inventors just could never get the actual hang of being able to synchronize the sound with the movement and action in a particular film. It seemed rather remarkable that Edison, the man who had actually invented the motion pictures in the early 1890’s, could not really get a synchronized sound system to work.
The idea of adding sound to a motion picture persisted, however, into the first decade of the 20th Century. Great strides were made toward trying to perfect the technology. It wasn’t until the advent of the Vitaphone technology, around 1908 or so, that being able to synchronize sounds and dialogue to the moving pictures was finally realized. It was kicking around in England until the first film considered to be a talkie, The Jazz Singer, was produced and released to worldwide acclaim and popularity in 1927. That film, it seems, represented the true death knell for The Silent Era.
Movies were hugely popular all over the world in those heady early days. People often went to the new movie theaters several times a week to watch the latest and the greatest from The Silent Era. The Vitaphone system was pioneered by the Western Electric company which was, in the early 20th Century, breaking new ground for both sound in films and sound on discs. The Vitaphone, basically, was an analog system that wasn’t actually incorporated into the film itself. Instead, it was recorded on a disc, or record, and turned at 33 1/2 RPM’s. While the film played on screen, the 16 inch record would be attached to the film projector via its turntable.
Edison’s idea of the Kinetophone certainly broke the ground but it was really the advent of the Vitaphone that brought The Silent Era to its eventual demise. Not everyone in Hollywood was happy at the prospect of “talkies,” however. Charles Chaplin once remarked that his hugely popular, and richly iconic, Little Tramp character would never speak. While Chaplin did, indeed, go on to make “talkies,” he kept his word and the Little Tramp never did speak on film.
The dashing heartthrob movie star of the time was Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Everyone around the world knew who he was and flocked to his pictures. The usually affable and loquacious Fairbanks once remarked to Chaplin: “Who wants to hear me talk?”
The advent of sound to motion pictures caused the end of many a fabled career in Hollywood. The problem was that many Silent Era star’s voices were just not as melodious as may have been hoped. In addition, many of them retained their regional accents which would make it quite impossible for much of the country to understand what they were saying if, say, using a Boston or Brooklyn accent. Many actors, and even stars, balked mightily at the idea of talking pictures. Such stars of the time struggled, like the popular “It Girl” Clara Bow, because of her Brooklyn accented roots.
The legendary and prolific film producer and director D.W. Griffith staunchly opposed the advent of the “talkies.” The creator of such vivid early silent masterpieces as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerable once remarked that: “We do not want now, and shall never want, the human voice in our films.”
It was in the middle of the 1920’s, however, that talking pictures really began to take off and become the eventual mainstream form. The reason for this was the visionary genius of the four Warner brothers. The brothers had opened their first movie theater in 1903 and, by the early 1920’s were, of course, looking for a way to increase their profit margins. They decided that the infant “talkies” just might be the calculated risk they needed to take. The rest of America followed their lead and the rest, as it has been said many times, is history.
It was, in the end, Thomas Edison’s groundbreaking Kinetophone that would eventually lead the way to what the film industry has become today. One thing that never changes, it seems, is change. The change to sound, however, launched a revolution that still reverberates to this day.
-Written by Kevin Sawyer
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