on July 22, 2000
You know you're dealing with a serious achievement when you read a book and can't conceive how one person was able to write it. Eyman does some amazing things in this book. He covers the BUSINESS side of the talkie revolution. He covers the TECHNOLOGICAL side of it. He covers the ARTISTIC side of it. And he covers the HUMAN side of it. Moreover, he does this in the context of a flowing narrative that drops some stories here and picks them up there, juggles one aspect with another; sets them aside, traces another development . . . without ever losing the flow, without ever losing the reader. I've read a lot of film books, and the skill and the intelligence of this one just amazed me. This is a dazzling piece of work, and it reads like a really good novel. I couldn't recommend a book more enthusiastically.
on October 10, 2001
Scott Eyman's masterful research of the Talkie Revolution is a must-read for silent-film and early sound-film fans. He covers early unsuccessful sound-film attempts, some of the last great silent film classics like THE CROWD and SUNRISE, Warners' and Fox's different sound systems, and many other topics. The main scope of the book is the period from 1926-1930. The focus of the book is on how the business of filmmaking and the art of filmmaking was completely changed with the coming of the talking movie. Careers were born and destroyed overnight. Sometimes a performer's voice was a problem in sound films. In other cases, like John Gilbert's, the studio thought that he was too expensive and the type of film that was his forte became passe. For a couple of years, the sound-man was the most important person on a movie set.
Eyeman's book is comprehensive, but not comprehensive enough. Curiously, he gives short shrift to some comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Raymond Griffith. Except for a brief mention of the British change-over, the book focuses exclusively on Hollywood studios. He covers all of the bases such as legal wrangling over patents, financial profits and losses, the problems that studio artists encountered in making sound films, and the many poor films that were produced in the early sound era. If you like classic films, you will love this book.
on February 28, 1997
Following in the footsteps of his biographies of Mary Pickford and Ernst Lubitsch (his best book), Scott Eyman tells the story of how an industry changed in spite of itself. We are all familiar with Jolson's outburst of speech and how sound ruined many careers, but this book tells about how it had to be. Sound came in not because of any artistic desire (that wouldn't happen for a few years) but because one man (Sam Warner) at one studio wanted to make his company more than it was and somehow knew that the public would be ready for something new. That it succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and changed an art form forever is what Eyman illustrates with this magnificent history. Some of the familiar is here (the decline of John Gilbert, the opening of THE JAZZ SINGER amidst the death of one of the brothers Warner) mixed in with the making of the silent era's greatest films (SUNRISE, THE CROWD) and the recollections by artists and technicians of how crazy it really was-the pages instructing projectionists how to splice films with sound on discs is almost too funny to believe. Profusely illustrated and with an exhaustive bibliography, THE SPEED OF SOUND is a welcome addition to both film lovers as well as those of us fascinated by a time when it seemed that every day something new was about to happen
on January 16, 2007
This book goes above and beyond the call of duty in writing about, primarily, the very turbulent years of 1926-30 in the American film industry, during the transitional period between silence and sound. It covers everything--the technology behind these new innovations and the technology of silent film-making, the business and financial aspects, the artistic angles, and the human aspects. Most people who aren't familiar with this era in cinema tend to believe a lot of myths and clichés about it, all of which Mr. Eyman destroys in his quest for the truth about this era. For example, while a lot of people seem to believe that talking pictures didn't exist until 1927, the truth is that there had been experiments ever since the 1890s, though none of them caught on, and most of them had very crude and impractical technology. Many people also seem to believe that after 'The Jazz Singer' (which is actually about 75% silent, with most of the sound being songs instead of dialogues), the entire industry turned to sound overnight. Such a massive sea change did not and could not have happened overnight. Most people believed it was just a novelty and that before long films would go back to being silent, or perhaps would only use sound selectively, as in the transitional period of the late Twenties, or there would be films that were both sound and silent instead of all one or the other. This new technology developed by William Fox (Movietone) and the Warner Brothers (Vitaphone) happened to come about at just the right time for it to finally not only be a lot more practical than the various systems invented previously, but also at just the right time for the public to be ready for it. Other stories include both famous ones, such as the one about how poor Jack Gilbert did NOT have a high-pitched voice and was NOT laughed offscreen after his first talkie, and lesser-known ones, such as how there were still a fair number of theatres not wired for sound by 1930, the stories behind the creation of some famous early talkies and late silents, the slow progress on improving the primitive sound recording technology, how most silent stars actually had hugely successful talkie debuts, if only because their fans wanted to hear their voices, how film-making took a big step backwards in time when sound came in and took awhile to recover (and as many people who were there felt, the romance of making films came to a crashing halt when these sterile foreboding sound stages came in, together with how movies became less subtle and artistic in ways), and how silent actors were saying actual lines in an actual script and usually had good voices, contrary to the modern-day myth of how they just said any silly thing that came to mind because the audience couldn't hear them, and how they all had these horrible voices.
Mr. Eyman really knows his subject, and pays respect to the silent era instead of treating it like some silly embarrassing clunky inferior relic of a distant past, as well as treating the early sound era in a balanced way, pointing out all of its shortcomings as well as the good things about it, how sound did make possible films that could have never been as good in the silent era. He almost puts one in the mindset of someone who was there when it happened, when all of these amazing changes, not all for the better, were taking place seemingly overnight, and when all of these historic films, such as 'Don Juan,' 'The Jazz Singer,' 'The Crowd,' 'Sunrise,' and 'The Lights of New York' came out, seeing the art of silent film-making at its greatest heights and then replaced by transitional hybrids that encorporated sound at certain points, and finally all of these crude clunky early talkies that nevertheless thrilled the audiences because they'd never heard and seen movies at the same time before. My only complaints about the book are that it kind of perpetuates the decades-old rumor about Marion Davies only having her career survive because of her association with William Randolph Hearst (not mentioning how she probably would have had an even more successful career if she hadn't been his consort, since non-Hearst owned papers also gave her great reviews, and it was actually due to his mismanagement of her career that she wasn't as successful as she could have been, since he insisted on putting her in serious costume pictures and dramas instead of recognising her proven forte of light comedy), and that, as other reviewers have noted, it does give a surprisingly short schrift to comedy, barely even mentioning people like Harold Lloyd or Charlie Chaplin, and not even mentioning a lot of other hugely popular comedians, like Lloyd Hamilton or Charley Chase, at all.
on September 19, 2004
A history of the transition from silent cinema to sound, this book was much better than I expected, mostly because Eyman spends a lot of time on the technical details, which of course I enjoy. My work in film/video production from the time I was a teen to the digital technology I use no for my class Websites, make me very aware of the most complex and troublesome of issues--synchronization. Eyman's book does of course go into the personalities of the transition, from the movie Mongols like Fox and the Warner brothers, but the book never sinks into gossip. I was most impressed with Eyman's grasp and appreciation of the film art form and how that was forever lost, replaced with talking that often explains rather than do. That criticism is true right up to today's Hollywood movies that spend so much of their time explaining!