Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Advent of Sound

from a promotional still for Queen Kelly

With the advent of sound in American cinema came the advent of censorship. The Production Code first reared its head in 1930, the first year dominated by "talkies;" in 1934, it became standard practice.

Perhaps it was because the movies were too real now; they were no longer merely aesthetic objects. Silent films had been distant enough from life to fall under the umbrella of "art" and therefore escape heavy censorship--the people who complained were "moralizers," maybe a tad self-righteous. "Someone might be offended, but it's not like they have to watch," the logic went. A taboo suggested or "portrayed," after all, was merely scandalous (and, after all, scandal sold). But to hear it said (by real people, no less!) was downright subversive (and to see a woman disrobe is not the same when you cannot hear her clothes rustling).

Censorship seemed natural with the introduction of sound cinema: movies ceased to be simply flickers on a screen--they could stand on their own two feet without the help of an organist or a pianist to keep the audience's ears amused. It made movies dangerous. It made them potent. Sound cinema is a medium with extreme immediacy. For all of the power of their images, silent films couldn't compete with even weak talkies. Images are merely pictures, just a step up from photographs, but when those images spoke and sang and made noises as they walked around the set, they became something much more. Sure, they are powerful (even still images, with which we'd done very well until the 20th century rolled around), but can the people in ordinary images compete with the people who seemed to be able to do everything but breathe?

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