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SOUND DECISIONS

THE SPEED OF SOUND
Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-30
By Scott Eyman
Simon & Schuster 413pp $30

To those of us still thumbing anxiously through Windows 95 for Dummies, life in the '90s often seems dominated by techno-nerds. So it was in Hollywood in 1928: Talkies had arrived, and anyone with even a self-professed affinity for microphones, amplifiers, and speakers was in a position of great power. Warner Bros.' gamble on the first major part-talkie, The Jazz Singer, had paid off big. It also begat a revolution that toppled careers, made and broke studios, and tore through show business.

Fans of Singin' in the Rain--with its adenoidal stars and seat-of-the-pants solutions to technical riddles--may think they already know this story. But it's not the whole saga, as chronicled by Scott Eyman in The Speed of Sound. As the author shows, the quest for talking pictures began far earlier, and primitive specimens go back to at least 1907. Poor sound projection, however, made most early systems impractical. And studios had little incentive to pursue innovation: With silents earning millions and actors' ugly voices or thick accents under wraps, why rock the boat?

Then came the Warners. Harry, Sam, Jack, and Abe saw talkies as a vehicle for leapfrogging their small studio past mightier rivals. They faced a sturdy adversary in William Fox, whose studio had been experimenting with its own sound technology. There ensued a battle strikingly similar to the IBM-vs.-Macintosh skirmish of the '80s. Warners' Vitaphone, a sound-on-disk system, was unwieldy and apt to fall out of sync; Fox's Movietone, with sound on film, was costly and prone to background noise. But Vitaphone had a secret weapon: Al Jolson, whose The Jazz Singer electrified audiences of 1927 and propelled Warner Bros. to an early lead in the sound sweepstakes.

Eyman deftly documents the chaos that followed. The camera, which was soaring to new heights of eloquence in silent classics, was suddenly encased in a tiny, immobile booth. Audiences' mania for anything that talked resulted in several years of films marked by visual drabness, verbal excess, and dramatic feebleness. Studios' need for capital to build soundstages and rig theaters for talkies sent them to the big banks, whose suspicion of anything new slowed the transition. Actors found themselves at the mercy of soundmen, who could render any voice ridiculous. Studios took advantage of this to chasten or sabotage temperamental or overpaid stars. Masterful silent directors who opposed sound ended up at Poverty Row studios or drank themselves to death.

As Eyman shows, it's an entertainment era perhaps unrivaled in its rapid upheaval and reshuffling of power. And although the author makes occasional foolish errors, such as referring to MGM's Broadway Melody when he means Universal's Broadway, he has clearly done his homework. There's even a happy ending of sorts: Movietone eventually won the war, studios got the hang of sound, and relative normalcy prevailed as the sound experts lost their exalted status. Techno-nerds, it turned out, were not gods--a comforting thought to us techno-dummies of 1997.

BY MARC MILLER



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PHOTO: Cover, "The Speed of Sound"

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