The Sound of Monsters

Seeing as how we’re between the Dracula post and the upcoming Nosferatu / Shadow of the Vampire post, let’s talk about talking.

Something I didn’t realize until I started preparing for these posts was how close we came to not having the silent film era. For as much as the silent era is disregarded in most current discussions of movies, I want to explore an alternate history with you.

(The extrapolations I’m making here have their root in the history of movie technology from the fourth edition of James Monaco’s How to Read a Film. That book provides the factual basis for where I’m about to go.)

Why didn’t we have talking movies in the first place? Sound recording was possible through phonographs and other techniques by the 1870’s. In fact, phonograph-based recording was so popularized by the 1890’s that Dr. Seward in the Dracula novel keeps his diary by phonograph. Motion picture cameras had also been developed by the 1890’s. However, among other issues, keeping a phonograph – with its playback based on a mechanism and disc unconnected from the film reel – synchronized with the picture proved very difficult.

The eventual solution depended on the shift away from mechanical recording devices like the phonograph to electrical audio recording that could be more easily synchronized with film and more easily amplified. Monaco suggests that, had electrical recording received the early attention that mechanical recording did, the “talkies” might have arrived much earlier, or perhaps simultaneously, in the history of commercial movie production.

This is not an outlandish possibility, either. After all, audio transmission by electrical means was spreading after the work of Alexander Graham Bell and others in the mid-1870’s. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that, had mechanical recording via phonographs and similar techniques not emerged at the same time, the energy that went into further developing mechanical techniques may have instead gone into electrical recording.

This is where the real extrapolation begins.

In our timeline, we get a generation of silent films, including significant work on the non-textual parts of movies. Movie production is essentially a new development in photography, and the people making movies put lots of energy into adapting existing photographic techniques and developing new ones. The influences of other arts, including the production elements of the stage, are brought in as well, but the art of performing on a silent screen is by necessity very different from the art of performing on stage.

Particularly notable for our purposes is the work of the German expressionists on films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, which drove huge advances in production design, effects work, and cinematography. Many of the people who worked on those films wound up in Hollywood in time for the early days of the talkies, and they brought the knowledge they’d gained from the silent era with them.

Now imagine a timeline where audio recording keeps pace with motion picture development. Rather than being an art form that requires the development of entirely new visual storytelling techniques, film now allows us to replicate the world’s best stage performances and bring them to any community with a movie theater. Movies allow for the democratization of the stage.

A parallel from our real timeline, also described by Monaco, becomes relevant here. Once still photography became practical, one of its dominant uses became portraiture. Where personal portraits had historically been almost entirely exclusive to the wealthy, who could afford to commission a painter to spend hours on the piece, now they became much more affordable. Experimentation with photography was possible, but much of its commercial use went into replicating and democratizing an existing art form.

Or think of the primary commercial uses of audio recording, which allowed anyone a modest income a chance to hear the world’s greatest music performed by the world’s best musicians.

The same logic could have led to a world where the primary focus of movies was to record stage performances and bring them to the masses. No longer would access to the best theater be limited to those with money living in a handful of large cities. Instead, the greatest plays, musicals, and operas of New York, London, Paris, Vienna, and Venice could come to a theater near you.

In that timeline, developments in cinematography, lighting, and makeup would be those that best served the recording of a stage play. Direction for the camera would still happen primarily in the context of the stage. Actors’ performances would remain calibrated for a live audience.

Sure, eventually someone would probably get around to staging productions without an actual audience, the better to allow for close-ups and more nuanced performances that often come across as faintly ridiculous when the actor is performing for the balcony rather than the camera. People might experiment with compositing performances, taking the best renditions of key moments or songs from multiple stagings (as is sometimes done with stand-up specials in our timeline).

Yes, in our actual timeline, some great stage performances are recorded and brought to movie theaters. However, movie production as an art form today differs greatly from theatrical production. I would argue that a key factor contributing to our reality is that movies had to spend a couple decades having to figure out how to tell stories in an entirely new way. Then, once sound became a real possibility, it was integrated into the existing framework built during the silent era.

Dracula illustrates this well. Bela Lugosi had been a stage performer, and had in fact performed the Dracula play from which the movie was adapted. A stage performer’s skill set was very valuable in the early days of the talkies, when most screen actors were not used to delivering their lines for a listening audience. Lugosi’s nonverbal performance remains very broad, reflecting years of performing for a stage audience, but there’s no question that his line delivery and embodiment of the character are distinctive, and indeed, definitive of the character in the popular imagination.

Beyond the actual performances, the movie takes nearly full advantage of the fact that it is in fact a film rather than a stage show. The cinematography, by Karl Freund, was clearly informed by his formative work in Germany, where he had done cinematography for Fritz Lang’s tour de force, Metropolis, among other films. For example, Dracula features several instances where the camera moves toward a character or around the set, an area where Freund had worked to develop not just techniques, but also the necessary physical tools.

(The previous paragraph uses “nearly full advantage,” as there are still some areas where the movie Dracula steers clear of the full potential of a talkie. Notably, it does not have a real score, using music only over the credits and as diegetic sound at a symphony performance. You can read more about music, movies, and studios’ concern that audiences would be distracted if music played “from nowhere” while actors spoke in this article.)

In our alternate timeline, one can still imagine a version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, but there’s a good chance it would have been a recording of a stage performance rather than the more original work we have in our timeline.

Just some interesting thoughts to ponder before we dive into Nosferatu and Shadow of the Vampire in a couple days….

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