It’s a common understanding among silent film fans that something beautiful and inherently cinematic was lost when sound took over at the end of the 1920s. Silent film had reached great heights of visual splendor, highly complex ways of conveying story, psychology, and mood by visual means, and innovative ways to use the camera, editing, and actors within the frame.
The coming of sound meant learning how to make cinema all over again. Technological limitations meant that the camera was no longer free to roam about the frame – that would have interfered with the sound recording. Similarly, shooting on location became difficult, because ambient sounds were difficult to avoid, so filming moved back onto studio sets (where they would largely stay for the next twenty to thirty years). Cousins points out things that I’d never really thought of or seen mentioned before in his clip of Bing Crosby singing – a two camera shoot ran live, like live television eventually would, to record the sound unbroken. This meant framing was limited; shots couldn’t be restaged for different angles, nor could lighting be reset for different shots, lending everything a flatness. These were all challenges that filmmakers had to learn to overcome to figure out how to use sound cinematically.
But creatively thrives on challenges, and as Cousins mentioned in his introductory interview with Robert Osborne, filmmakers quickly learned to use sound creatively, using it to help set mood, or even undercut the visual for ironic purposes. As early as 1932, Rouben Mamoulian used the everyday morning sounds of Paris waking up as a kind of symphonic overture to his film Love Me Tonight, and used tricks like substituting yapping dogs in for society ladies chattering. Sonic trickery becomes possible, and sometimes even more effective than the visual trickery of the silent era. It’s interesting that I tend to forget Mamoulian directed Love Me Tonight, because it reminds me so much of the Lubitsch films of the same era (several of which start Love Me Tonight‘s Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald), but with Cousins’ praise for Mamoulian’s innovation, I’m excited to rewatch it with Mamoulian in mind.