Thursday, February 11, 2010

Talking Pictures and Silent Drama

This article, by Epes Winthrop Sargent, a regular columnist for the Moving Picture World on advertising and screenplay writing, evaluates the threat of Edison's Kinetophone to the future of the silent film. Sargent sees the Kinetophone as playing a niche role in moving picture exhibition and thinks it will be more of threat to live vaudeville than to the silent drama. He also notes that the Kinetophone rights as well as those of other talking picture systems have been purchased by vaudeville interests rather than those with specific interests in motion picture exhibition.

Talking Pictures and Silent Drama

Ever since the announcement that the Edison Talking Pictures had become a commercial possibility, there has been coming into the office of The Moving Picture World a storm of letters from the exhibitors of photoplays, most of whom seem to argue that the appearance of the talking play means the end of the silent drama. The expressions of opinion run all the way from a slight note of dread to a revelation of abject fear for the future of the photoplay today.

Without in the least seeking to detract from the undoubted value of the Talking Pictures as an important contribution to amusement devices, this writer, after a careful survey of the photoplay, vaudeville and dramatic situations, is not inclined to believe that the talking pictures will in any way interfere with the prosperity of the silent drama. He has discussed their value with leading photoplay men, with important vaudeville factors and men of moment in dramatic affairs, and the consensus of opinion seems to agree with his own belief that the talking picture will find a niche of its own and will not to any marked degree interfere seriously with the filmed drama without words.

Those most concerned over the appearance of the talking picture are the vaudeville men. They have suffered long from the superior attraction of the photoplay. They have sought to counteract the effect of the cheaper and more popular form of amusement, and they have hailed with delight the supposed appearance of a stronger attraction; and while one powerful body of vaudeville managers have made a long time contract with the Edison company, others have trafficked with John Cort for his device and with the promoters of a foreign scheme, but practically none of the leading photoplay managers have sought the rights to the talking pictures, for they, of not the lesser managers, realize that the place of the talking picture is and probably always will be, in the vaudeville theaters; not so much those houses that mingle pictures with cheap vaudeville, but the better class of places where the single reel shown ends the performance and even those who would gladly sit through three or four reels in a picture theater, troop out when the picture is announced.

The talking picture belongs to the talking stage, just as the silent drama thrives best in its own house. Vaudeville booking agents resent the appearance of the device because they know that it will cut down their commissions, but they seem to be about the only men in the amusement world who have a reasonable excuse for hostility against the talking picture.

To take a concrete example; the other day the Edison company filmed and phonographed Miss Cecelia Loftus, one of the highest priced single entertainers in vaudeville. Miss Loftus was paid handsomely for the service, a sum that would represent several weeks of professional engagements in the vaudeville houses, but now the smallest vaudeville theater may announce Miss Loftus where before her single salary would represent a sum in excess the cost of the entire bill. And the pictures of Miss Loftus will replace a “headline” feature for which some agent would have received a commission.

But the appearance of Miss Loftus in a city does not appreciably hurt the business at the photoplay houses, and it is difficult to perceive that the appearance of the talking pictures of Miss Loftus in the smaller towns will to any great extent lessen the takings of the photoplay theaters. The vaudeville manager may be able to advertise Miss Loftus instead of some three hundred dollar act or a thousand dollar act, but will he hurt the photoplay theater to any great degree? Personally we think not. We know the Palace Theater, London, and the Orpheum theater, San Francisco, and unless we are greatly mistaken we think that the talking pictures, once the keen edge of novelty is worn off, will not draw ten dollars from the photoplay theaters.

It is true that the photoplay has drawn many patrons from the vaudeville theaters, but not as many as is popularly supposed, and they are not real vaudeville lovers but photoplay patrons who merely waited for the arrival of a better appreciated form of entertainment. The photoplay audiences have been drawn largely from the galleries and balconies of the dramatic houses and not a few of the orchestra patrons as well.

They find in photoplay the vaudeville of the drama. Instead of the twenty minute sketch, unfolding but a single point, there is the eighteen minute drama complete in itself or an act or a two, three, or four part play. Vaudeville’s greatest charm always has been the diversity of the performance that the brevity of the individual acts made possible. Photoplay has done the same thing for the drama. It has done more than this. It has made possible the actual showing of scenes that in the dramatic play must be alluded to, because of the impossibility of making numerous sets. It has given to the smaller towns and the smaller houses of the large cities a grade of acting that is five or ten times the price of admission could not command.

It has done more than this. It has presented the old play favorites in a new and delightfully compact form. “The Prisoner of Zenda,” for example, offers a more complete story in less than one half the time required by the dramatic version and does this in a wealth of stage settings that would be an absolute theatrical impossibility. The production is made but once and is not moved from the studio. Instead of the long explanations of events occurring off the stage these events are shown in addition in appropriate settings. The action is retained. The tiresomeness of the dialogue is eliminated. Given the talking pictures, the dialogue would be replaced. It would be interesting if we could get Mr. Hackett’s fine voice as well as his spirited action, but not at the cost of an additional two hours of time.

To regard it from another angle, the silent drama makes possible much that must be avoided in stage versions. As one competent commentator put it the other day, “I like to watch the western plays, but I’d hate to have my wife hear the dialogue that would go with some of that stuff.” Talking pictures can never supplant the silent drama if for no other reason than the impossibility of supplying the fifty to one hundred plays required each week. There are not a sufficient number of dramatists in the world to supply this demand adequately. Plays of a sort could be written, but not plays with the proper sort of dialogue, for it is the absence of dialogue and the lack of necessity for technical skill in the handling of dialogue that makes possible the success of the photoplay. Each season scores of dramas are withdrawn from the stage for no other reason than that the dialogue is not commensurate with the plot.

From whatever angle the situation is viewed, the intelligent observer arrives at but one conclusion. The talking pictures are an entertainment idea admirably suited to vaudeville. They may, in a sense, aid the silent drama, just as the publication of the phonograph record has not seriously damaged the popularity of records of the popular songs, nor will the combination of film and phonograph ever overset the popularity of pictures without dialogue.

The photoplay is a distinct and, we think, a lasting form of amusement, not to be deposed by the newer device nor even threatened by the combination of voice and view.

For a third time Mr. Edison has contributed importantly to the entertainment of the amusement lover, but he has not supplanted his earlier devices by the third. He has merely augmented the sources of amusement.
Source: Epes Winthop Sargent, “Talking Pictures and Silent Drama,” Moving Picture World 22 February 1913, 756.