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The Great British Talking Picture Show

British Silent Film Festival, Barbican Cinema, 4.00pm Sunday 10th April 2011

Professor Robert Murphy and CATH Associate Research Fellow Geoff Brown will present new research into the period when British cinema moved from silent to sound between 1929 and 1931.

Their findings will be presented at the Barbican Cinema as part of the British Silent Film Festival on Sunday 10th April in a public presentation, lavishly illustrated with extracts from rarely seen feature films uncovered from the British Film Institute’s National Archive.

This is a fascinating and under-researched period in British cinema when new sound technologies meant the re-equipping of cinemas across the UK, the retraining of personnel, and mass unemployment for thousands of cinema musicians who had made their living accompanying silent films.

Unlike Hollywood, Britain had also developed strong bonds with Europe during the silent period, when films were distributed in different languages with the relatively simple addition of a new set of intertitles in French, German, Italian or Spanish.

'transition to sound, swift and brutal'

There was also a substantial amount of international collaboration between studios, production companies, personnel and stars. Film makers like Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Asquith had worked in Germany, while actresses like Betty Balfour worked in France.  But the transition to sound, swift and brutal, created new linguistic barriers between countries.

Many actors were unable to adapt their speaking voices to fit the new technologies. Some had regional accents, considered unacceptable at a time when the initial preference was for received-pronunciation.   [People like] Anny Ondra, who starred in Hitchcock’s Blackmail – made in both silent and sound versions – had her voice dubbed to hide her mittel-European accent.

The transition to sound was famously spoofed in Singin’ in the Rain with Debbie Reynolds singing behind the scenes while her voice was dubbed onto the tone-deaf platinum-blonde diva, silently mouthing her words in front of the camera.

The early sound period continues to get a bad press, with the lingering popular image of actors moving in and out of aural focus as they attempt to speak into microphones hidden in flower pots.

But there were some very successful experiments with sound: James Whale’s seminal adaptation of the stage play Journey’s End (1930), set in the trenches of WWI to a nightmarish soundscape of distant explosions; Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) with its famous subjective sound in the ‘knife’ sequence at the breakfast table, where the word becomes repeatedly emphasised in the mind of the heroine, who recently stabbed her male attacker.

For a time, attempts were made to maintain European distribution with pioneering multi-lingual productions like E.A Dupont’s Atlantic (1929), an early version of the Titanic story, filmed in three languages. Part-talkies were also a feature of this period, when the industry hedged its bets, unsure as to what audiences would accept: in 1929, 90% of respondents to a survey by the magazine Film Weekly wanted silent films to continue.

There was also a backlash against the upper-class, educated theatrical accents spoken by British actors in these early sound films and the lack of any working-class or regional accents; while Scotland voiced antagonism to the proliferation of English accents per se.

'coming of sound'

Murphy and Brown will examine the various responses by the British film industry to the coming of sound with examples of part-talkies such as The Flying Scotsman (1929), theatrical adaptations like the farcical Rookery Nook (1929) and the melodramatic To What Red Hell (1929), and British International Pictures’ weighty multi-lingual Cape Forlorn (1930).

Music played a major role alongside dialogue in the development of sound cinema.  Examples of the popular musicals and revue films will include Adrian Brunel’s Elstree Calling (1930), Walter Summers’ Raise the Roof (1930),  and Richard Eichberg’s  Let’s Love and Laugh (1931), which opens with a ‘spectacular’ in which  school pupils throw off their uniforms to sing and dance.

Sound cinema also embraced  Variety and music-hall talent.  From the long-forgotten Gilbert Childs, featured in The Co-optimists (1929), to Gracie Fields, the inimitable Sally in Our Alley (1931), they’re all part of the Great British Talking Picture Show.

Posted on Friday 1st April 2011

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