It’s still the biggest change ever to hit the film industry. The coming of sound changed the way films were made, and shown. It affected the livelihoods of actors, technicians, producers, musicians and cinema owners. This period of change, in which some filmmakers rose to the challenge and others struggled with the new technology is one of the most fascinating periods in cinema history. For the past three years, a research project led by British Silent Film Festival co-director Laraine Porter has been delving into this process of disruption and reinvention, as experienced by the British film industry.
Sound came a little later to Britain than to the US. The first fully synchronised sound film to be released in this country was horror film The Terror, in November 1928. The following year, studios and cinemas hurriedly mobilised to accommodate the “Talker Wave” and by the time Hitchcock had released his Blackmail in both silent and talkie versions, the industry knew it would have to enter the 1930s wired for sound.
Two years ago, the 18th British Silent Film Festival shared some of Porter and her team’s research, and several of the country’s first, occasionally faltering, sound films were shown. At this year’s festival, we’ll be finding out even more about the transition to sound. The five-day event opens with a one-day colloquium of papers and screenings, and then through the following days we’ll be showing some more assured early British sound films, which show studios and staff adapting to the new medium with greater confidence and more advanced technology.
The colloquium on Wednesday 13 September, which is open to the public, features papers on all aspects of the British transition to sound, including early experiments and musical accompaniment from the silent era. You can read the full lineup of papers and speakers here.
On Thursday 14 September we’re showing a full day of early British talkies (followed by the silent comedy Cocktails in the evening). After lunch, Geoff Brown, who is one of the lead researchers on the transition project, will provide some context for the screenings with his highly entertaining and hugely informative presentation ‘The Last Silent Picture Show’, which is illustrated by a variety of clips, some of which are very bizarre. Brown will explore:
the mixed artistic results of the industry’s frantic attempts to remodel silent properties with synchronised dialogue and music. Hitchcock achieved a triumph in Blackmail, but was the same true of the sentimental drama Kitty or the earnestly Germanic The Informer? And could the exotic Mona Goya in The Lady from the Sea manage to pronounce the word ‘bungalow’?
Brown’s talk will lead into a screening of transitional curio Such is the Law (Sinclair Hill, 1931), a drama about marriage, which repurposes footage from the same director’s unreleased silent film The Price of Divorce (1928). The old footage is used as an inserted flashback sequence with a voiceover narration. The fact that the silent film has an entirely different cast to the sound film seems not to have fazed the filmmakers. On the Saturday we’re showing another transitional film, the part-silent, part-sound railway thriller The Flying Scotsman (1929).
Brown will also introduce one of the finest examples of early British sound cinema on Thursday. Suspense (Walter Summers, 1930) is an eerie, nailbiting film set during the First World War. Without offering too many spoilers, a group of British soldiers are in a trench while a group of Germans work undergound beneath them. We’ll just say that the sound effects are essential for building the tension.
We’re also showing Rookery Nook (1930), an Aldwych farce transferred to the talkie screen, and an early British musical, Raise the Roof (1931), also directed by Walter Summers and starring our beloved Betty Balfour, alongside Maurice Evans and Jack Raine.
On Friday 15 September Laraine Porter introduces another Summers film, Men Like These (1931), in which a group of naval officers attempt to escape from a submarine. On Saturday morning, two presentations by Tony Fletcher and Dr Philip Carli will remind us of the technical challenges and early experiments of sound film. Fletcher will introduce a number of female variety performers, whose acts were captured on Phonofilm, and Carli’s presentation will cover some of the first systems for recording and reproducing movie sound.