The Coming of Sound


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One of his major aims is to provide in the language of cultural history a reception study, though historians of technology will appreciate his analysis in terms of social construction theory. Gomery dismisses culture-based analysis, arguing that the implementation of sound technology was a top-down process determined by Hollywood executives, which resulted in a technological transition that was quick but orderly. Even though both approaches have their merits, historians of technology are likely to feel that Gomery's pays insufficient attention to well-established theories of technological change.

Something else should be mentioned about The Coming of Sound. My own approach to scholarly reviewing is to emphasize a book's contributions rather than dwell on the minor shortcomings that mark nearly every historical work. In this case, however, I feel compelled to alert readers that The Coming of Sound is riddled with typographical, compositional, and stylistic errors; sentences and entire paragraphs are repeated, and some passages are entirely unintelligible.

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The Coming of Sound: A History by Douglas Gomery

Without cookies your experience may not be seamless. In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content: The Coming of Sound. Project MUSE Mission Project MUSE promotes the creation and dissemination of essential humanities and social science resources through collaboration with libraries, publishers, and scholars worldwide. Contact Contact Us Help. The idea of combining motion pictures with recorded sound is nearly as old as the concept of cinema itself. On February 27, , a couple of days after photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge gave a lecture not far from the laboratory of Thomas Edison , the two inventors privately met.

Muybridge later claimed that on this occasion, six years before the first commercial motion picture exhibition, he proposed a scheme for sound cinema that would combine his image-casting zoopraxiscope with Edison's recorded-sound technology. The two devices were brought together as the Kinetophone in , but individual, cabinet viewing of motion pictures was soon to be outmoded by successes in film projection. These appear to be the first publicly exhibited films with projection of both image and recorded sound.

Three major problems persisted, leading to motion pictures and sound recording largely taking separate paths for a generation. The primary issue was synchronization: While motion picture projectors soon allowed film to be shown to large theater audiences, audio technology before the development of electric amplification could not project satisfactorily to fill large spaces.

Finally, there was the challenge of recording fidelity. The primitive systems of the era produced sound of very low quality unless the performers were stationed directly in front of the cumbersome recording devices acoustical horns, for the most part , imposing severe limits on the sort of films that could be created with live-recorded sound.

Cinematic innovators attempted to cope with the fundamental synchronization problem in a variety of ways. An increasing number of motion picture systems relied on gramophone records —known as sound-on-disc technology; the records themselves were often referred to as "Berliner discs", after one of the primary inventors in the field, German-American Emile Berliner. For some years, American inventor E. Norton's Cameraphone was the primary competitor to the Gaumont system sources differ on whether the Cameraphone was disc- or cylinder-based ; it ultimately failed for many of the same reasons that held back the Chronophone.

In , Edison introduced a new cylinder-based synch-sound apparatus known, just like his system, as the Kinetophone; instead of films being shown to individual viewers in the Kinetoscope cabinet, they were now projected onto a screen. The phonograph was connected by an intricate arrangement of pulleys to the film projector, allowing—under ideal conditions—for synchronization. However, conditions were rarely ideal, and the new, improved Kinetophone was retired after little more than a year.

Meanwhile, innovations continued on another significant front. In , as part of the research he was conducting on the photophone , the German physicist Ernst Ruhmer recorded the fluctuations of the transmitting arc-light as varying shades of light and dark bands onto a continuous roll of photographic film. He then determined that he could reverse the process and reproduce the recorded sound from this photographic strip by shining a bright light through the running filmstrip, with the resulting varying light illuminating a selenium cell. The changes in brightness caused a corresponding change to the selenium's resistance to electrical currents, which was used to modulate the sound produced in a telephone receiver.

He called this invention the photographophone , [13] which he summarized as: Ruhmer began a correspondence with the French-born, London-based Eugene Lauste , [15] who had worked at Edison's lab between and In , Lauste was awarded the first patent for sound-on-film technology, involving the transformation of sound into light waves that are photographically recorded direct onto celluloid.

As described by historian Scott Eyman,. It was a double system, that is, the sound was on a different piece of film from the picture In essence, the sound was captured by a microphone and translated into light waves via a light valve, a thin ribbon of sensitive metal over a tiny slit. The sound reaching this ribbon would be converted into light by the shivering of the diaphragm, focusing the resulting light waves through the slit, where it would be photographed on the side of the film, on a strip about a tenth of an inch wide.

THE COMING OF SOUND

In , Lauste purchased a photographophone from Ruhmer, with the intention of perfecting the device into a commercial product. In , Finnish inventor Eric Tigerstedt was granted German patent , for his sound-on-film work; that same year, he apparently demonstrated a film made with the process to an audience of scientists in Berlin. A number of technological developments contributed to making sound cinema commercially viable by the late s.

Two involved contrasting approaches to synchronized sound reproduction, or playback:. In , American inventor Lee De Forest was awarded several patents that would lead to the first optical sound -on-film technology with commercial application. In De Forest's system, the sound track was photographically recorded onto the side of the strip of motion picture film to create a composite, or "married", print. If proper synchronization of sound and picture was achieved in recording, it could be absolutely counted on in playback.

Over the next four years, he improved his system with the help of equipment and patents licensed from another American inventor in the field, Theodore Case. On June 9, , he gave the first reported U. On April 15, , at New York City's Rivoli Theater, came the first commercial screening of motion pictures with sound-on-film, the future standard: Although De Forest ultimately won the case in the courts, Owens is today recognized as a central innovator in the field.

Searle Dawley and featuring Una Merkel. Hollywood remained suspicious, even fearful, of the new technology. So is castor oil. By the end of , the Phonofilm business would be liquidated. In Europe, others were also working on the development of sound-on-film. In , the same year that DeForest received his first patents in the field, three German inventors, Josef Engl — , Hans Vogt — , and Joseph Massolle — , patented the Tri-Ergon sound system.

On September 17, , the Tri-Ergon group gave a public screening of sound-on-film productions—including a dramatic talkie, Der Brandstifter The Arsonist —before an invited audience at the Alhambra Kino in Berlin. In , two Danish engineers, Axel Petersen and Arnold Poulsen, patented a system that recorded sound on a separate filmstrip running parallel with the image reel. Domestic competition, however, eclipsed Phonofilm. By September , De Forest and Case's working arrangement had fallen through. The system developed by Case and his assistant, Earl Sponable, given the name Movietone , thus became the first viable sound-on-film technology controlled by a Hollywood movie studio.

The following year, Fox purchased the North American rights to the Tri-Ergon system, though the company found it inferior to Movietone and virtually impossible to integrate the two different systems to advantage. Parallel with improvements in sound-on-film technology, a number of companies were making progress with systems that recorded movie sound on phonograph discs.


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In sound-on-disc technology from the era, a phonograph turntable is connected by a mechanical interlock to a specially modified film projector , allowing for synchronization. In , the Photokinema sound-on-disc system developed by Orlando Kellum was employed to add synchronized sound sequences to D. Griffith 's failed silent film Dream Street. A love song, performed by star Ralph Graves, was recorded, as was a sequence of live vocal effects.

Apparently, dialogue scenes were also recorded, but the results were unsatisfactory and the film was never publicly screened incorporating them. On May 1, , Dream Street was re-released, with love song added, at New York City's Town Hall theater, qualifying it—however haphazardly—as the first feature-length film with a live-recorded vocal sequence. In , Sam Warner of Warner Bros. The tests were convincing to the Warner Brothers, if not to the executives of some other picture companies who witnessed them.


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Rich, a financier, giving them an exclusive license for recording and reproducing sound pictures under the Western Electric system. To exploit this license the Vitaphone Corporation was organized with Samuel L. Warner as its president. Accompanying Don Juan , however, were eight shorts of musical performances, mostly classical, as well as a four-minute filmed introduction by Will H. Hays , president of the Motion Picture Association of America , all with live-recorded sound. These were the first true sound films exhibited by a Hollywood studio. Sound-on-film would ultimately win out over sound-on-disc because of a number of fundamental technical advantages:.

Nonetheless, in the early years, sound-on-disc had the edge over sound-on-film in two substantial ways:. The third crucial set of innovations marked a major step forward in both the live recording of sound and its effective playback:. Over the next few years they developed it into a predictable and reliable device that made electronic amplification possible for the first time.

A Doubtful Sound EP 2 Coming Soon

Western Electric then branched-out into developing uses for the vacuum tube including public address systems and an electrical recording system for the recording industry. Beginning in , the research branch of Western Electric began working intensively on recording technology for both sound-on-disc and sound-on film synchronised sound systems for motion-pictures. The engineers working on the sound-on-disc system were able to draw on expertise that Western Electric already had in electrical disc recording and were thus able to make faster initial progress.

In , the company publicly introduced a greatly improved system of electronic audio, including sensitive condenser microphones and rubber-line recorders named after the use of a rubber damping band for recording with better frequency response onto a wax master disc [41]. That May, the company licensed entrepreneur Walter J. Rich to exploit the system for commercial motion pictures; he founded Vitagraph, in which Warner Bros. The new moving-coil speaker system was installed in New York's Warners Theatre at the end of July and its patent submission, for what Western Electric called the No.

ERPI , to handle rights to the company's film-related audio technology. Vitaphone still had legal exclusivity, but having lapsed in its royalty payments, effective control of the rights was in ERPI's hands. The patents of all three concerns were cross-licensed. The new year would finally see the emergence of sound cinema as a significant commercial medium.

In February , an agreement was signed by five leading Hollywood movie companies: The five studios agreed to collectively select just one provider for sound conversion. The alliance then sat back and waited to see what sort of results the frontrunners came up with. Fox and Warners pressed forward with sound cinema, moving in different directions both technologically and commercially: Fox moved into newsreels and then scored dramas, while Warners concentrated on talking features.

Meanwhile, ERPI sought to corner the market by signing up the five allied studios. The big sound film sensations of the year all took advantage of preexisting celebrity. These were the two most acclaimed sound motion pictures to date. Sunrise , by acclaimed German director F. As with Don Juan , the film's soundtrack consisted of a musical score and sound effects including, in a couple of crowd scenes, "wild", nonspecific vocals.

Then, on October 6, , Warner Bros. When the movie's star, Al Jolson , sings, however, the film shifts to sound recorded on the set, including both his musical performances and two scenes with ad-libbed speech—one of Jolson's character, Jakie Rabinowitz Jack Robin , addressing a cabaret audience; the other an exchange between him and his mother.

The "natural" sounds of the settings were also audible. The development of commercial sound cinema had proceeded in fits and starts before The Jazz Singer , and the film's success did not change things overnight. Not until May did the group of four big studios PDC had dropped out of the alliance , along with United Artists and others, sign with ERPI for conversion of production facilities and theaters for sound film.

Initially, all ERPI-wired theaters were made Vitaphone-compatible; most were equipped to project Movietone reels as well. No studio besides Warner Bros. Unlike Fox-Case's Movietone and De Forest's Phonofilm, which were variable-density systems, Photophone was a variable-area system—a refinement in the way the audio signal was inscribed on film that would ultimately become the standard. In both sorts of systems, a specially-designed lamp, whose exposure to the film is determined by the audio input, is used to record sound photographically as a series of minuscule lines.

In a variable-density process, the lines are of varying darkness ; in a variable-area process, the lines are of varying width. In March, Tenderloin appeared; it was billed by Warners as the first feature in which characters spoke their parts, though only 15 of its 88 minutes had dialogue. The film cost Warner Bros. Over the course of , as Warner Bros. Paramount, the industry leader, put out its first talkie in late September, Beggars of Life ; though it had just a few lines of dialogue, it demonstrated the studio's recognition of the new medium's power.

Interference , Paramount's first all-talker, debuted in November. In February , sixteen months after The Jazz Singer' s debut, Columbia Pictures became the last of the eight studios that would be known as " majors " during Hollywood's Golden Age to release its first part-talking feature, Lone Wolf's Daughter. Yet most American movie theaters, especially outside of urban areas, were still not equipped for sound: Points West , a Hoot Gibson Western released by Universal Pictures in August , was the last purely silent mainstream feature put out by a major Hollywood studio.

Dialogueless, it contains only a few songs performed by Richard Tauber. With an eye toward commanding the emerging European market for sound film, Tobis entered into a compact with its chief competitor, Klangfilm, a joint subsidiary of Germany's two leading electrical manufacturers. Early in , Tobis and Klangfilm began comarketing their recording and playback technologies.

During , most of the major European filmmaking countries began joining Hollywood in the changeover to sound. Many of the trend-setting European talkies were shot abroad as production companies leased studios while their own were being converted or as they deliberately targeted markets speaking different languages. One of Europe's first two feature-length dramatic talkies was created in still a different sort of twist on multinational moviemaking: In , the film had been released as the silent Der Rote Kreis in Germany, where it was shot; English dialogue was apparently dubbed in much later using the De Forest Phonofilm process controlled by BSFP's corporate parent.

It was given a British trade screening in March , as was a part-talking film made entirely in the UK: In May, Black Waters , a British and Dominions Film Corporation promoted as the first UK all-talker, received its initial trade screening; it had been shot completely in Hollywood with a Western Electric sound-on-film system.

None of these pictures made much impact. The first successful European dramatic talkie was the all-British Blackmail. Directed by twenty-nine-year-old Alfred Hitchcock , the movie had its London debut June 21, Originally shot as a silent, Blackmail was restaged to include dialogue sequences, along with a score and sound effects, before its premiere.

Additional Information

Blackmail was a substantial hit; critical response was also positive—notorious curmudgeon Hugh Castle, for example, called it "perhaps the most intelligent mixture of sound and silence we have yet seen. On August 23, the modest-sized Austrian film industry came out with a talkie: A Tobis Filmkunst production, about one-quarter of the movie contained dialogue, which was strictly segregated from the special effects and music. The response was underwhelming.

Conceived as a silent film, it was given a Tobis-recorded score and a single talking sequence—the first dialogue scene in a French feature. The production company had contracted with RCA Photophone and Britain then had the nearest facility with the system. Before the Paris studios were fully sound-equipped—a process that stretched well into —a number of other early French talkies were shot in Germany.

It was not "Germany's First Talking Film", as the marketing had it, but it was the first to be released in the United States. In , the first Polish talkies premiered, using sound-on-disc systems: Dziga Vertov 's nonfiction Entuziazm had an experimental, dialogueless soundtrack; Abram Room 's documentary Plan velikikh rabot The Plan of the Great Works had music and spoken voiceovers. Throughout much of Europe, conversion of exhibition venues lagged well behind production capacity, requiring talkies to be produced in parallel silent versions or simply shown without sound in many places.

While the pace of conversion was relatively swift in Britain—with over 60 percent of theaters equipped for sound by the end of , similar to the U. Crisp, "Anxiety about resuscitating the flow of silent films was frequently expressed in the [French] industrial press, and a large section of the industry still saw the silent as a viable artistic and commercial prospect till about During the s and s, Japan was one of the world's two largest producers of motion pictures, along with the United States. Though the country's film industry was among the first to produce both sound and talking features, the full changeover to sound proceeded much more slowly than in the West.

The rival Shochiku studio began the successful production of sound-on-film talkies in using a variable-density process called Tsuchibashi. The enduring popularity of the silent medium in Japanese cinema owed in great part to the tradition of the benshi , a live narrator who performed as accompaniment to a film screening. As director Akira Kurosawa later described, the benshi "not only recounted the plot of the films, they enhanced the emotional content by performing the voices and sound effects and providing evocative descriptions of events and images on the screen The most popular narrators were stars in their own right, solely responsible for the patronage of a particular theatre.

The end of silent film in the West and in Japan was imposed by the industry and the market, not by any inner need or natural evolution Silent cinema was a highly pleasurable and fully mature form. It didn't lack anything, least in Japan, where there was always the human voice doing the dialogues and the commentary.

Sound films were not better, just more economical. As a cinema owner you didn't have to pay the wages of musicians and benshi any more. And a good benshi was a star demanding star payment. By the same token, the viability of the benshi system facilitated a gradual transition to sound—allowing the studios to spread out the capital costs of conversion and their directors and technical crews time to become familiar with the new technology.

By February of that year, production was apparently completed on a sound version of The Devil's Playground , arguably qualifying it as the first Australian talking motion picture; however, the May press screening of Commonwealth Film Contest prizewinner Fellers is the first verifiable public exhibition of an Australian talkie.

Nineteen-thirty-one also saw the first Bengali-language film, Jamai Sasthi , and the first movie fully spoken in Telugu, Bhakta Prahlada. The next year, Ardeshir Irani produced the first Persian-language talkie, Dukhtar-e-loor. In the short term, the introduction of live sound recording caused major difficulties in production. Cameras were noisy, so a soundproofed cabinet was used in many of the earliest talkies to isolate the loud equipment from the actors, at the expense of a drastic reduction in the ability to move the camera.

For a time, multiple-camera shooting was used to compensate for the loss of mobility and innovative studio technicians could often find ways to liberate the camera for particular shots. The necessity of staying within range of still microphones meant that actors also often had to limit their movements unnaturally. Several of the fundamental problems caused by the transition to sound were soon solved with new camera casings, known as "blimps", designed to suppress noise and boom microphones that could be held just out of frame and moved with the actors.

In , a major improvement in playback fidelity was introduced: There were consequences, as well, for other technological aspects of the cinema. Proper recording and playback of sound required exact standardization of camera and projector speed. Before sound, 16 frames per second fps was the supposed norm, but practice varied widely. Cameras were often undercranked or overcranked to improve exposures or for dramatic effect. Projectors were commonly run too fast to shorten running time and squeeze in extra shows. Variable frame rate, however, made sound unlistenable, and a new, strict standard of 24 fps was soon established.

The switch to quiet incandescent illumination in turn required a switch to more expensive film stock. The sensitivity of the new panchromatic film delivered superior image tonal quality and gave directors the freedom to shoot scenes at lower light levels than was previously practical. As David Bordwell describes, technological improvements continued at a swift pace: By , rerecording of vocals by the original or different actors in postproduction, a process known as "looping", had become practical.

The ultraviolet recording system introduced by RCA in improved the reproduction of sibilants and high notes.

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With Hollywood's wholesale adoption of the talkies, the competition between the two fundamental approaches to sound-film production was soon resolved. Over the course of —31, the only major players using sound-on-disc, Warner Bros. Vitaphone's dominating presence in sound-equipped theaters, however, meant that for years to come all of the Hollywood studios pressed and distributed sound-on-disc versions of their films alongside the sound-on-film prints. In May , Western Electric won an Austrian lawsuit that voided protection for certain Tri-Ergon patents, helping bring Tobis-Klangfilm to the negotiating table.

As a contemporary report describes:. Tobis-Klangfilm has the exclusive rights to provide equipment for: All other countries, among them Italy, France, and England, are open to both parties. The agreement did not resolve all the patent disputes, and further negotiations were undertaken and concords signed over the course of the s.

During these years, as well, the American studios Warner Bros. While the introduction of sound led to a boom in the motion picture industry, it had an adverse effect on the employability of a host of Hollywood actors of the time. Suddenly those without stage experience were regarded as suspect by the studios; as suggested above, those whose heavy accents or otherwise discordant voices had previously been concealed were particularly at risk. The career of major silent star Norma Talmadge effectively came to an end in this way.

The celebrated German actor Emil Jannings returned to Europe. Moviegoers found John Gilbert 's voice an awkward match with his swashbuckling persona, and his star also faded.

Sound film

The career of Harold Lloyd , one of the top screen comedians of the s, declined precipitously. Studio heads, now forced into unprecedented decisions, decided to begin with the actors, the least palatable, the most vulnerable part of movie production. It was such a splendid opportunity, anyhow, for breaking contracts, cutting salaries, and taming the stars Me, they gave the salary treatment. I could stay on without the raise my contract called for, or quit, [Paramount studio chief B. Questionable, I say, because I spoke decent English in a decent voice and came from the theater.

So without hesitation I quit. Buster Keaton was eager to explore the new medium, but when his studio, MGM, made the changeover to sound, he was quickly stripped of creative control. Though a number of Keaton's early talkies made impressive profits, they were artistically dismal. Several of the new medium's biggest attractions came from vaudeville and the musical theater, where performers such as Jolson, Eddie Cantor , Jeanette MacDonald , and the Marx Brothers were accustomed to the demands of both dialogue and song.

The new emphasis on speech also caused producers to hire many novelists, journalists, and playwrights with experience writing good dialogue. As talking pictures emerged, with their prerecorded musical tracks, an increasing number of moviehouse orchestra musicians found themselves out of work. Hubbard, "During the s live musical performances at first-run theaters became an exceedingly important aspect of the American cinema. The American Federation of Musicians took out newspaper advertisements protesting the replacement of live musicians with mechanical playing devices.

Canned Music on Trial This is the case of Art vs. Mechanical Music in theatres.

The defendant stands accused in front of the American people of attempted corruption of musical appreciation and discouragement of musical education. Theatres in many cities are offering synchronised mechanical music as a substitute for Real Music. If the theatre-going public accepts this vitiation of its entertainment program a deplorable decline in the Art of Music is inevitable.

Musical authorities know that the soul of the Art is lost in mechanization. It cannot be otherwise because the quality of music is dependent on the mood of the artist, upon the human contact, without which the essence of intellectual stimulation and emotional rapture is lost. By the following year, a reported 22, U. In September , Jack L. Warner , head of Warner Bros. Sound film, in fact, was a clear boon to all the major players in the industry. Over sixty Hollywood musicals were released in , and more than eighty the following year. Even as the Wall Street crash of October helped plunge the United States and ultimately the global economy into depression , the popularity of the talkies at first seemed to keep Hollywood immune.

The —30 exhibition season was even better for the motion picture industry than the previous, with ticket sales and overall profits hitting new highs. Reality finally struck later in , but sound had clearly secured Hollywood's position as one of the most important industrial fields, both commercially and culturally, in the United States.

In , film box-office receipts comprised The motion picture business would command similar figures for the next decade and a half. The American movie industry—already the world's most powerful—set an export record in that, by the applied measure of total feet of exposed film, was 27 percent higher than the year before. In fact, the expense of sound conversion was a major obstacle to many overseas producers, relatively undercapitalized by Hollywood standards. The production of multiple versions of export-bound talkies in different languages known as " Foreign Language Version " , as well as the production of the cheaper " International Sound Version ", a common approach at first, largely ceased by mid, replaced by post- dubbing and subtitling.

Despite trade restrictions imposed in most foreign markets, by , American films commanded about 70 percent of screen time around the globe. Just as the leading Hollywood studios gained from sound in relation to their foreign competitors, they did the same at home. As historian Richard B. Jewell describes, "The sound revolution crushed many small film companies and producers who were unable to meet the financial demands of sound conversion. Historian Thomas Schatz describes the ancillary effects:. Because the studios were forced to streamline operations and rely on their own resources, their individual house styles and corporate personalities came into much sharper focus.

Thus the watershed period from the coming of sound into the early Depression saw the studio system finally coalesce, with the individual studios coming to terms with their own identities and their respective positions within the industry. The other country in which sound cinema had an immediate major commercial impact was India. As one distributor of the period said, "With the coming of the talkies, the Indian motion picture came into its own as a definite and distinctive piece of creation.

This was achieved by music. While the European film industries fought an endless battle against the popularity and economic muscle of Hollywood, ten years after the debut of Alam Ara , over 90 percent of the films showing on Indian screens were made within the country. Most of India's early talkies were shot in Bombay , which remains the leading production center, but sound filmmaking soon spread across the multilingual nation. In , Sati Sulochana , the first Kannada talking picture to be released, was shot in Kolhapur , Maharashtra ; Srinivasa Kalyanam became the first Tamil talkie actually shot in Tamil Nadu.

Already by , the majority of feature productions were in sound; two years later, of the Indian feature films were talking pictures. In the first, edition of his global survey The Film Till Now , British cinema pundit Paul Rotha declared, "A film in which the speech and sound effects are perfectly synchronised and coincide with their visual image on the screen is absolutely contrary to the aims of cinema.

It is a degenerate and misguided attempt to destroy the real use of the film and cannot be accepted as coming within the true boundaries of the cinema. In the opinion of many film historians and aficionados, both at the time and subsequently, silent film had reached an aesthetic peak by the late s and the early years of sound cinema delivered little that was comparable to the best of the silents. The first year in which sound film production predominated over silent film—not only in the United States, but also in the West as a whole—was ; yet the years through are represented by three dialogueless pictures Pandora's Box [], Zemlya [], City Lights [] and zero talkies in the Time Out poll.

City Lights , like Sunrise , was released with a recorded score and sound effects, but is now customarily referred to by historians and industry professionals as a "silent"—spoken dialogue regarded as the crucial distinguishing factor between silent and sound dramatic cinema. The other internationally acclaimed sound drama of the year was Westfront , directed by G. Pabst for Nero-Film of Berlin. Swiftly banned by Paris police chief Jean Chiappe , it was unavailable for fifty years.

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