Movies that talk, and pictures from a box in your living room? What is the world coming to?
Three new mechanical marvels—television, color cinematography, and talking movies—broke into the headlines almost simultaneuously. Ultimately each may figure as conspicuously in the every-day life of the American citizen as the radio has come to do; the last already has its place on Broadway. We, however, should have learned before now that invention is not always an unmixed blessing and there are good reasons for doubting that either the moving-picture industry or the general public has cause to he glad that the irrepressible technician has at last succeeded in teaching shadows to talk. Edison let us in for a good deal when he made the movies possible by bringing the perforated film and the “star and camb” sprocket wheel together, but his ingenious contrivance assaulted only one of the five senses; only the imagination can guess what the ear may henceforward be compelled to endure.
The stock if not the earnings of the Warner Brothers corporation (owners of the Vitaphone patents) has gone soaring, but Hollywood sees only trouble ahead for an industry which was doing very nicely indeed before the new invention threatened complications which cannot possibly be solved for a long time to come. If the “movies” should actually be replaced by the “talkies” it would mean, first, that the international market upon whose existence the real prosperity of the industry depends would of necessity be destroyed and, second, that an entirely new technique of production would have to be evolved.
The stars of the screen do not know how to speak and the scenarists do not know how to write dialogue. Nor can the latter difficulty be overcome by the purchase of successful dramas. Plays intended for the stage cannot be photographed as written for the simple reason that the narrative form of the movies with its rapid changes of scene is entirely different from that of the stage where events are revealed in a different order and where everything that is represented to the eye takes place in only two or three places. Adaptation involves a retelling of the story in such a way that, for instance, many things merely reported on the stage are acted out in the cinema, and this means that the stage dialogue is unsuitable for a talking movie. Actually to prepare a play for the talking movies requires a rewriting almost as complete as that involved in the dramatization of a novel and even after the technique for doing so has been perfected the mere time required will be very much greater than is now needed for the preparation of a simple narrative sequence without words.
Nor is it, on the other hand, pleasant to imagine what the public will be called upon to endure. Silence imposed certain definite and very fortunate limitations upon the silliness of cinemetographic dramas. The infantile sentimentality and abysmal vulgarity of those who make them expressed itself only in gestures and they suffered from a blessed inability to suit the word to the action. Occasional sub-titles gave us a hint of what they would have said had they been able, and the memory of this hint is far from reassuring. Moderately literate people shuddered and even the naivest audiences frequently tittered when the intelligence and the taste behind a silent drama was suddenly revealed in the words of a caption. What will the movies be like when every gesture is accompanied by some audible “came the dawn”?
It is a notorious fact that ninety-nine out of a hundred of all the original stories written for the movies are artistically upon the level of the cheapest magazine fiction and that an equal proportion of those based upon other works are reduced to the same level in the course of the process of adaptation. The mechanical perfection of the cinema already furnishes the most violent contrast to its artistic immaturity and the makers of the photo-play can already say more completely than they ought to be able that they know nothing which is worth the saying. The last ten or fifteen years has shown so little improvement in any important direction that there is no good reason for hoping that any such improvement would ever take place, but at least it may reasonably be maintained that under the circumstances every limitation was an advantage and that to accord them a new means of expression before they had begun to make any good use of those which they had is to curse them with a new curse.
Each new mechanical contrivance is greeted in the newspapers by some editorial writer who recalls the first message sent across telegraphic wires: “What hath God Wrought?” Each time it is used the question seems less and less a rhetorical one.