In 1931 Universal Pictures released Dracula and Frankenstein, two films that inaugurated the horror genre in Hollywood cinema. These films appeared directly on the heels of Hollywood's transition to sound film. Uncanny Bodies argues that the coming of sound inspired more in these massively influential horror movies than screams, creaking doors, and howling wolves. A close examination of the historical reception of films of the transition period reveals that sound films could seem to their earliest viewers unreal and ghostly. By comparing this audience impression to the first sound horror films, Robert Spadoni makes a case for understanding film viewing as a force that can powerfully shape both the minutest aspects of individual films and the broadest sweep of film production trends, and for seeing aftereffects of the temporary weirdness of sound film deeply etched in the basic character of one of our most enduring film genres.
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About the Author
Robert Spadoni is Associate Professor in the English Department at Case Western Reserve University.
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THE COMING OF SOUND FILM AND THE ORIGINS OF THE HORROR GENRE
By Robert Spadoni
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS
Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
THE UNCANNY BODY OF EARLY SOUND FILM
There are uses of sound that produce a desirable effect; on the other hand, there are uses that disgust people. "Facts about Talking Pictures and Instruments-No. 4," Harrison's Reports, 8 September 1928
The coming of sound fueled a number of genre developments in Hollywood cinema. One obvious example is the film musical. Less obvious is how the horror genre also dramatized and explored potentials that synchronized sound brought to Hollywood films. Where do we situate this outgrowth of the sound transition in relation to others of the period? We can start by noting that some genre developments were inspired by impressions, widespread at the time, that the coming of sound marked a huge forward leap in cinematic realism.
Signs of this impression appear everywhere in commentaries on the new films. Many noted that human figures in particular now seemed more excitingly present than before. Of a 1927 Fox Movietone short featuring George Bernard Shaw, Photoplay wrote that "it is the first time that Bernard Shaw ever has talked directly and face to face with the American public. What a voice and what a face! Although over seventy years old, Shaw is built like an athlete. He moves as gracefully as Jack Dempsey. And he has so much sex appeal that he leaves the gals limp." Another commentator, considering sound films generally, wrote that "now, when a great singer opens his mouth in song we feel the thrill of his voice and his personality." Alexander Bakshy, one of the most perceptive critics writing about film at the time, agreed, noting that "the popularity of the talkies is not wholly a craze for novelty. Their success is much more due to the warmth and intimacy which has been given the picture by the human voice and which is so unmistakably missing in the silent picture as this comes from Hollywood." How this new warmth and intimacy was to find immediate application within the character-centered narrative tradition of Hollywood cinema was suggested by the exhibitors' weekly Harrison's Reports when it explained the success of The Jazz Singer: "It was the talk that Al Jolson made here and there, and his singing of his 'Mammy' song, chiefly the singing of 'Mammy.' It was so successfully done that people were thrilled. The sight of Mr. Jolson singing to his mother, sitting in the orchestra, stirred the spectator's emotions as they were stirred by few pictures; it brought tears to the eyes of many spectators."
If filmmakers could tug harder at viewers' heartstrings than before, they also could aspire to new heights of intellectual achievement. A journalist writing in 1928 gleefully predicted that now "the sparkling epigram, the well-turned phrase, even the cadences of Shakespeare will make their appeal." Bakshy, although also critical of the period's stage-bound film adaptations of plays, felt that Hollywood definitely had something to learn from the theater's "relatively superior intellectual approach to the material of life." Striving for these heights more ambitiously than most other Hollywood films of the period was Strange Interlude (Leonard, 1932), MGM's adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play. In the play the characters speak their thoughts aloud to the audience; in the film their thoughts can be heard on the sound track while the characters' lips do not move. This technique, though it may remind viewers today of a television soap opera, impressed the film's first critics. Screenland called the film "restrained, highly intelligent, beautifully directed." Variety called it "a natural for discourses on academic analyses of the contemporary 'art of the cinema.'" Film Daily called it "a class picture finding the talking film in its highest form."
With sound, then, came new opportunities to arouse the intellect, stir pathos, and elicit sensations of realism. Hollywood took advantage of these impressions by adding sounds to the same kinds of films that it was already making and also by developing some new kinds. One existing film type was the topical newsreel. Popular during the period, these shorts were constructed, as Donald Crafton notes, to maximize impressions of "being-there-ness." A new film type, also popular and also energized by the perceived realism and immediacy of sound film, was the social problem film, especially the cycle of gangster films that began with Little Caesar (LeRoy) in 1930.
Social problem films led a trend that capitalized on impressions of sound films as open windows on the world. Not just the crisp reports of machine-gun fire or the slangy talk of the street persuaded viewers that these films held a special purchase on the real thing; also validating the producers' assertions was the resonance of these films with stories then in the news. A movie could be based on current events, or it might be built out of their very material. The Motion Picture Herald noted that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy, 1932) was "written by a man who is himself still a fugitive from just such a chain gang as is here delineated. It is a tremendous selling point. That man wrote of his experiences and a motion picture has been woven from it." Another critic jokingly reported that a prop used in Scarface (Hawks, 1932) was highly authentic: "The corpse flung from a taxi in one scene is no dummy but a remnant actually procured from some convenient morgue." The same nouns and adjectives pepper the reviews of these films. The Public Enemy (Wellman, 1931) was "raw and brutal with that brutality flung to the front," "a grim and terrible document," and a film that "will get you, with its stark realism." Also singled out was the films' stylistic leanness. Of The Public Enemy, one reviewer wrote that "there's no lace on this picture" and that "there doesn't appear to be a wasted foot of film. That means speed." These films, then, were less like paintings or poems than like crime scene photographs or court transcripts. These were documents struck unfussily on newsprint, the output of a cinema freshly ventilated by the bracing effects of synchronized sound. The special capacity of the medium to render in fine detail the sordid realities of the present day earned the gangster cycle detractors as well as fans. One of the former complained in a letter to Picture Play: "I can't understand why people like these underworld pictures. It really hurts me to see one of my favorites in gangster films, because movies seem so real to me."
Another spur to genre innovation during the period stemmed from a very different experience of sound film, one in which viewers now felt greatly distanced from the world outside the movie theater. To get a sense of this other experience of the medium, picture a horizontal scale for measuring the relative strength or weakness of the perceived realism and transparency of sound film, with perceptions growing stronger as we move to the right. Now bisect this scale with a vertical line and place the disembodied, "intellectual" appeal of Strange Interlude's voice-overs at the top. The result is a simple grid for imagining some of the evocative potentials of sound film (Fig. 1). On this grid, the bottom-left quadrant stakes out a zone of sensation in which the unreal and the bodied nature of sound film come across the most forcefully. This zone contains what I call the uncanny body modality of early sound films. Out of this zone the classic horror cycle emerged near the close of the sound transition period. We can gather some initial clues to the existence and source of this reception phenomenon from critics of the day who voiced their dissatisfaction, often in vague and grasping terms, with the touted realism of the first sound films.
THE SHRINKING OF PERSONALITY
Synchronization of music and movement was perfect. It left nothing to be desired and created an illusion of reality-almost. Ruth Russell, "Voice Is Given to Shadows of Silver Screen," Chicago Daily Tribune, 16 September 1926
Within the chorus of praise for the realism of the new films were indications that sound simultaneously was getting in the way of viewers' sensations of the figures speaking and singing on the screen. In 1929 Fitzhugh Green, in his book The Film Finds Its Tongue, recalled a 1926 sound film-one in the premiere program of Vitaphone shorts-in which Will Hays delivered a brief speech. Green wrote that Hays "seemed to be present, and yet he did not seem to be present." In 1932 technical sound expert H. G. Knox remembered that "the early sound pictures required the exercise of considerable imagination to actually feel the actor's presence on the screen before you." Of the partly talking film Tenderloin (Curtiz, 1928), Variety wrote that "another angle is whether the voice on the screen does not suggest something missing, with that missing element the physical self. This is undeniably felt." And in what was perhaps the most in-depth articulation of this potentially troubling quality of the new films, Bakshy-who, as I noted, also championed the human warmth of the films-reflected on his dissatisfaction with recent films in which such stars as George Arliss and John Barrymore led the casts. In a piece titled "The Shrinking of Personality," he wrote:
As I now try to recall my main impressions I am struck by a rather puzzling fact. None of the popular actors I saw stands out before me as a personality with whom I had a direct and all but physical contact. I know that on the stage some of these actors and others of equal gifts were and are able to escape the shell of the characters they represent and to fill the entire theater with their own beings, so that one feels as if one almost touched them. More phantom-like, but no less expansive and penetrating, were the personalities of the famous stars that radiated from the silent screen.... There can be no question of the success of the producers in establishing their screen stars not merely as favorites with the public, but as personalities that somehow ... transcended their screen characters and came into a direct contact with the audience. The appeal of Chaplin, Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, or Jannings in the old days of silent films had that quality of expansion. The situation with the talking pictures seems to be paradoxically different. The personal magnetism of the actor has lost its force. His entire personality has shrunk to something that is only a little more than the character he represents. This does not necessarily mean that his personality is completely submerged in the character. More often than not the reverse is actually the case, and the same George Arliss, for instance, will be seen in a number of characters that differ but little from one another.... But I doubt that his failure to loom as large from the speaking screen as he does from the stage, and as he probably would from the silent screen, is due to any lack of magnetism in his acting personality. The reason, I am inclined to think, lies rather in the curious effect that the addition of mechanical speech has had on the relationship between the screen actor and the audience.
Bakshy goes on to blame the theatricality of the current cinema, specifically its strong reliance on stage techniques and sources, combined with the cinema's capacity to present scenes unfolding in "natural surroundings," for this effect of remoteness. While he definitely has a point, I believe we can discern a deeper source of the trouble than the decisions of any individual producers regarding this or that source or setting. A Variety reviewer of a 1927 program of Vitaphone shorts came much closer to grasping this deeper cause:
An hour of mechanical sound production, together with its flicker accompaniment, is a pretty severe experience. There is something of colorless quality about the mechanical device that wears after so long a stretch, not because the reproduction is lacking in human quality, for it has extraordinary exactitude and human shading. It must be that the mere knowledge that the entertainment is a reproduction has the effect of erecting an altogether imaginary feeling of mechanical flatness such as one gets from a player piano.
The root of the problem was, as this critic intuited, viewers' renewed awareness of the mechanical nature of cinema. This awareness stemmed from two sources: the temporary coarsening of film style that accompanied the transition to sound film production, and the initial sensational novelty appeal of synchronized sound films.
THE RETURN OF THE MEDIUM-SENSITIVE VIEWER It would doubtless seem strange if upon a screen a portrait (head) of a person were projected, and this picture slowly became of an animated character, opened its mouth and began to talk, accompanied by an ever-changing countenance, including the formation by the mouth as each peculiar sound is uttered. Claude Friese-Greene, 1889
During the earliest years of cinema history, viewers were aware of qualities of films that most later viewers would tend not to notice. They were medium-sensitive viewers. I take this term from Yuri Tsivian's book Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception, in which, following observations made by Eileen Bowser, Tsivian notes instances in which commentators during the early cinema period write vividly about such seemingly mundane events in films as a train or other object coming into the foreground, a bush trembling at a water's edge, waves breaking on sand and bursting into rivulets, and the faintest unsteadiness in a card player's fingers. Viewers then also might notice elements of the cinematic discourse that later viewers would find unremarkable. These elements could include a close camera distance, a camera tracking forward or backward, the edges of the frame, the flatness of the image, and the monochrome color of the film. Tsivian's observation of this phenomenon of early cinema reception is important for our study of early sound cinema reception because the coming of sound triggered the first major return of medium sensitivity to ordinary viewing in thirty years.
A number of practical and technical realities of production during the early sound period imprinted themselves on the finished films in ways that help to explain why viewers now were suddenly much more aware of films as manufactured objects. The addition of the recorded voice alone went a long way toward producing this result. Most obviously, there could be synchronization problems, which continued to occur in sound-on-disc film presentations until Warner Bros. phased out the technology in 1930-and later in theaters that continued to show sound-on-disc films. Every synchronization mishap served to remind viewers that the bodies speaking on the screen constituted whole entities only tenuously, ones that had been pieced together in a movie studio and that could come apart quite easily once inside the movie theater. But even perfectly synchronized voices could heighten medium awareness in several ways.
To begin with, the voices could sound unnatural to viewers' ears. The technology was derided as "the cold, rasping Noisytone inventions." Harrison's Reports reminded its readers: "You are well aware of the fact that the voice can under no circumstances be made to sound natural through a megaphone. And the horn is a megaphone." At the end of 1930, Knox recalled "how queer some of the first talking pictures sounded.... Actors and actresses often sounded as though they were lisping and voices were quite unnatural." A history of film published in 1931 noted that "by 1927, talkies had lost nearly all of their early squeaks and squawks and were delivering to audiences reliable reproductions of music and of the human voice." Whether the problem was solved by 1927 or later depended as much on the acclimation of individual viewers to sound film as it did on the ongoing improvements in the technology itself. At any rate, locating a precise line of demarcation to characterize the before-and-after experience of most viewers is less important than is simply recognizing that, initially, the voice on sound film could strike a viewer as patently unreal.
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Table of Contents
Introduction1. THE UNCANNY BODY OF EARLY SOUND FILMThe Shrinking of PersonalityThe Return of the Medium-Sensitive ViewerThe Complexion of the ThingShadows in Three DimensionsA Modality2. LUDICROUS OBJECTS, TEXTUALIZED RESPONSESFilms as Mirrors of Viewer ResponseThe Hollywood Revue of 1929Two Ventriloquism FilmsSvengali3. THE MYSTERY OF DRACULAReal Emotional Horror KickThe Mystery of Dracula?The Vampire’s Hiss and the Madman’s Laugh4. DRACULA AS UNCANNY THEATERFigureGround5. FRANKENSTEIN AND THE VATS OF HOLLYWOODStrong Meat and Monster FoodFrankenstein and the Uncanny of Early Sound FilmFrankenstein and the Uncanny of Silent FilmFrom Modality to MonadConclusionNotesBibliographyFilms Cited
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"Rich, insightful book. . . . A poetic and clever analysis, presenting impressive historical scholarship with panache."Choice
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"Contributes substantially to the history of film sound as well as the history of classic horror cinema. . . . Lucid, accessible prose."Hist Journal of Film, Rad, Tv