Music, Sound, and the Moving Image

When Britannia Ruled the Sound Waves

Britain’s Transition to Sound in Its European Context

Music, Sound, and the Moving Image (2018), 12, (2), 93–119.

Abstract

This essay investigates the British film industry’s conversion to sound in 1929 in the context of the related conversions in Germany and France. Encouraged by the English language’s global spread, and bolstered by predominantly American sound technology, Britain’s industry took the lead, launching continuous production of talking features in the spring of 1929 with the talkie version of Hitchcock’s Blackmail. By the beginning of June, work had begun on Atlantic, the world’s first talking feature to be shot in two languages, English and German. Germany itself, its progress delayed by patent disputes, swung into action in the autumn with multi-lingual films made at Ufa’s newly converted Neubabelsberg studios. Held back by lack of industrial, financial, and technological muscle, France was the slowest to convert.

The essay also investigates the creative limits of Britain’s advance, and the relative caution of its exploitation of sound compared to the bolder, more rigorously designed sound features emerging from Germany and, eventually, France – countries with less domineering theatrical traditions and stronger traditions in cinematic experimentation. Britannia’s dominance over the sound waves turned out to be brief, and incomplete.

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Brown, Geoff