By Morgan Lefeuvre
Casting in the Tobis Studios in 1929 – The director communicates with the sound engineer using a telephone. Coll. Cinémathèque française.
‘Cinema speaks, but not for long! It’s too complicated, too scientific! […] Do you realise that if talking pictures were to last, we would all have to change jobs?’ (Pagnol: p. 18). This statement, addressed by a French producer to Marcel Pagnol in 1929 to dissuade him from trying the cinema adventure, illustrates how much the advent of talking pictures is perceived at the time as a real revolution. Beyond the soundproofing of the sets and the installation of new technical equipment, it is the whole functioning of the studios that is affected by the introduction of this new technology. In an extremely rapid and radical way, sound film imposes its law on all studio workers who, in a few months, must deeply modify their working habits, learn a new technique and a new vocabulary, become familiar with new practices, and integrate new professionals into their teams, in a word: ‘change their job’! The aim of this blog post is not to offer an in-depth analysis of this major technological and aesthetic breakthrough in the history of cinema, but rather to provide an insight into the climate of confusion, technical experimentation, but also enthusiasm and joyful fantasy that reigned in the French studios during this short and experimental period of transition from silent to sound era. This post is an invitation to immerse oneself, for the duration of a brief journey, in the bizarre and often funny atmosphere of the first French sound film shoots, which the actors and technicians of the time still remember with amusement and emotion.
From the summer of 1929 to the end of 1930, the French studios are in a state of perpetual renovation. From Nice to Joinville, from Billancourt to Épinay, new workshops and sets are built, the obsolete glass roofs removed, the sets soundproofed and new sound equipment installed. Everywhere the appearance of the sets changes, natural light disappears for good, the brick walls are lined with Celotex and new spaces are created to accommodate the sound engineers and their equipment with weird names (potentiometers, galvanometers, amplifiers, mixing tables, etc.). In most of the large studios (at Paramount in Saint-Maurice, in Billancourt or at Tobis in Épinay-sur-Seine) small rooms are built over the sets to accommodate the sound engineers and their equipment. Equipped with large, double-glazed windows, these mixing rooms allow the engineer to make the necessary adjustments to the sound recording while following the progress of the shooting on the set. In other installations (notably in the Joinville studios), the equipment is installed in heavy mobile cabins that the grips move according to the needs of the shots and changes of set. As a new central figure in the studios, the sound engineer is paradoxically invisible, isolated from the rest of the team, as described by a sound engineer in Pour Vous: ‘I am the forgotten one, the obscure worker whose domain is a small cabin lost in the depths of the studio […]’ (March 1937: p. 8). In addition, in order not to disturb the sound recording, the cameraman and his equipment are equally enclosed in a second, smaller wheeled cabin, which the stagehands are trying to move painfully to carry out dollies or panoramic shots. These new devices, which profoundly modify relations within the team and the atmosphere on the sets, have raised the curiosity of journalists who are multiplying their reports on these new sound stages.
Far from the glamorous images of talking stars celebrated at Hollywood opening nights, the descriptions of early sound filming in the French press often seek to provoke surprise, even disappointment for the reader who discovers the chaos of a film set and the rocky nature of these early sound shootings:
Hey! What, is this what a studio is? […] a three-sided set, cabins that look like tanks, a fishing rod with a microphone as bait, men with sweaty faces, blue-collared, fiddling with controllers and jabbering behind the sets, […] artists who dare not move for fear of damaging their make-up and who wait, stunned by the light, for the magic trick that will make them come alive as if they were precious dolls…yes, that’s what a studio is!Cinémonde, April 1931: p. 213.
Sound tests in the Gaumont studios – on the right, the camera cabin covered with heavy curtains. Coll. Cinémathèque française.
The first element highlighted by all observers is the silence imposed on everyone on the set and the new modes of communication within the film crew. Whereas in the silent era, the set was an eminently noisy and animated space (hammering, grips whistling on the scaffolding, extras chattering and instructions shouted by the director into his megaphone), the sound film suddenly imposes total silence on everyone. The red lights, along with a loud beep, appears at the set doors and crews often find it difficult to comply with this new discipline. On the set of his first sound film, Sous les toits de Paris, René Clair is even called to order by the studio’s production manager, who asks him to discipline his crews so that they did not think they were ‘allowed to go in and out of the studio, make noise etc. while the red light is on’ (BNF, fonds René Clair, 4°COL 84 / RC 09). Locked in his booth and isolated from the rest of the crew, the sound engineer communicates his instructions via a telephone connected to a loudspeaker. His definitive advice ‘OK for sound’ or ‘no good for sound’, coming out of nowhere, freezes the whole team, who look askance at this new star of the sets. ‘The booth where he stands is like a fortress, no one questions his orders’, says journalist Jacqueline Lenoir in Cinémonde (May 1934, p. 380). Ordering silence, having the power to interrupt filming or to impose his demands on the actors as well as the director or the cinematographer, the sound engineer was generally little appreciated in the French studios at the beginning of the sound era. As this extract from a report in the Pathé studios in Joinville shows:
The studio bar is filling up with people…the lady in charge points out to me a few people who have been spotlighted by the talkies […] It’s the soundman. All directors fear him. M. Marcel L’Herbier in particular curses him. He exercises a real dictatorship over the studio […]Cinémonde, Feb. 1930: p. 88.
‘I never abuse this almost dictatorial power. I am content to demand perfect sound, voice and musical emissions’, adds Régy, the sound engineer, in an interview (Pour Vous, March 1937: p. 8). Most of the first sound engineers in the Paris studios come from the United States (more rarely from Germany) and do not speak French, bringing with them a whole Anglo-Saxon technical vocabulary which make them all the more exotic in the eyes of the teams. ‘With sound, an infinitely complex, infinitely fragile equipment entered the studio. Mysterious geniuses called microphones, amplifiers, galvanometers, photoelectric cells, fixed density and variable density suddenly appeared’, says the journalist Jean Vidal (L’Intransigeant, March 1933: p. 9). However, the studio workers are quick to reappropriate these new technical terms, transforming the ‘stageman’ into a ‘giraffe man’ and the ‘mixing room’ into a ‘sound shack’, which makes the first sound stages look like a Tower of Babel where a French-English jargon mixed with slang is spoken, much to the delight of reporting journalists. As Edwige Feuillère writes in her memoirs about her first sound experiences at the Saint-Maurice studios:
It was the international hustle and bustle of airports on the days of the big departure. All the languages were jabbered and in the work, on the sets, reinterpreted by our clever grips who understood quickly and translated immediately into Parisian or Marseilles according to their origins.Feuillères: p. 74.
Sound engineer in his mixing-room in the Tobis studios (1930). Coll. Cinémathèque française.
Beyond these new soundscapes, what strikes the visitor who enters the Parisian studios in 1930 is the tropical heat that reigns there, whatever the season. Hermetically locked to avoid outside noise, the French sets hastily redesigned for sound films were rarely equipped with an adequate ventilation system and the air was unbreathable. Moreover, the widespread use of incandescent lamps (arc lamps cause a lot of parasitic noise) increases the heat even more and it is not unusual for temperatures to approach 40°C on the catwalks where the stagehands and electricians work. Locked up in their hermetically sealed, cork-lined cabins, the sound engineers have to endure even higher temperatures. A Comoedia journalist who came to interview engineer Antoine Archimbaud in his booth said that the thermometer read 48°C (Nov. 1930: p. 8). As for the sound engineer Roger Handjian, he recalls the shooting of Marcel L’Herbier’s Le Parfum de la dame en noir, during which the temperature rose so high on the set that the automatic fire extinguishers – which are triggered above 68°C – went off, copiously drenching the actors, technicians, director and the hundred or so extras present on the set! (L’Écho d’Alger, June 1933: p. 4). In the suffocating heat of the sets, the most distinguished directors sometimes lose all sense of dignity and elegance, like René Hervil, whom a journalist from Pour Vous describes as follows on the set of his film Azaïs:
Under a light more dazzling and torrid than it can be in the worst Sahara, three hundred people in gala dresses are drinking and chatting in the lobby of a palace. […] Suddenly, in the middle of this sumptuous crowd, an individual dressed in a while painter’s coat, whose open flaps float over pants pleated at the calves by the sock fixers. […] The man in the pants is René Hervil. […] He has too much to do to wear trousers. Silence! Hervil thunders. Close the doors! […] It’s spinning!Pour Vous, Jan. 1931: p. 2.
Once the scene is set, the director wipes his forehead, ‘with a towel around his neck and shoulders, like a boxing trainer’. In order to prevent the crews from suffocating completely, the doors of the set are opened wide between takes and the air is stirred with powerful fans placed in front of the doors. In winter, this causes sudden drops in temperature and the actors complain about the cold!
Shooting of La Fleur de l’Oranger, Pathé studios in Joinville, May 1932 – Coll. Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé.
But it is above all the vagaries of the microphone and the difficult control of sounds that cause visitors to be amused. Once the sets have been soundproofed and hermetically sealed, it is still necessary to hunt for parasitic noise and to try – with an often rudimentary level of equipment – to capture the voices of the actors and the various sounds necessary for the scene as well as possible. The first parasitic noise, already mentioned above, is that of the cameras themselves, which are initially enclosed in a soundproof box with the operator. This is how Marcel L’Herbier described them while shooting his first talking film, L’Enfant de l’amour:
It was quite ludicrous this ‘first one hundred percent speaking’. In the Joinville studio, which had been hastily set up for sound, I only had the noisy cameras of the late silent era. They had to be muffled so that the microphones could not hear them. But how? Our ingenious engineers thought they had found perfection by constructing a sort of bathing cabin like the ones that were rolled out to the waves for the first baths in Dieppe or Trouville. Locked inside with their ‘zinc’ [camera], my cameramen Arménise and Lucas, who were not allowed to wear a swimming costume, sweated profusely in these mobile carts. […]L’Herbier: p. 192.
In other cases, while waiting for the blimp to appear, the operators simply cover their cameras with a heavy woolen blanket, which, as one can imagine, does not help to bear the tropical temperature of the sets! Then they must flush out all the parasitic noises that the microphones, which are still very imperfectly sensitive, amplify disproportionately. It’s the journalist who has come to see the shooting and is playing with his keys in his pocket, the newspaper leafed through by an actress whose paper makes a thunderous noise, or the young actor’s polished shoes that crunch and cover his voice. Sometimes the solution is simple – get the journalist out of the room, dampen the newspaper sheets or ask the young actor to act barefoot – but often tricks have to be found to remedy the situation. On the set of Il est charmant, actor Dranem’s new shoes caused a deafening squeal in the microphones with every step he took, so the soles had to be perforated in several places and oil injected in order to soften the leather and allow the shooting to continue. In summer, flies or bees infiltrating the studios are the bête noire of sound engineers, their incessant buzzing, amplified by over-sensitive microphones, interfering with the sound recording and causing a noise similar to that of an aircraft engine. In some studios built in a wooded environment, close to rivers or stables (such as those in Joinville, Billancourt, Saint-Maurice or Épinay-sur-Seine), the insects are so numerous that young assistants are responsible for chasing away the intruders by spraying Fly-Tox all day, which contributes to making the air on the sets particularly unbreathable! (Rochefort: p. 207)
During the very first sound shootings, all the sounds (voices, sound effects, music) were recorded live, which brought a host of new professionals to the sets and made the mixing particularly delicate, as sound engineer Régy explains: ‘During a fight in a bar […] Armand Bernard, Marguerite Moreno and Suzet Maïs had to restart their performance seven times in the middle of the fight, in the midst of growing irritation, because the perfect marriage of the various noises, broken furniture, smashed bottles, kicks and punches, exclamations and screams could not be achieved during the first rehearsal’ (Pour Vous, March 1937: p. 8). Although the presence of full orchestras and effects men of all kinds on the sets only lasted a few months (quickly giving way to prerecorded sounds and post-synchronisation), the unusual presence of effects men nevertheless left its mark on people’s minds and many articles were devoted to them in the press of the time. The image below ironically illustrates the hyperspecialisation of some of them, suggesting that with sound films it was quite easy to get paid to do nothing on the set!
La Cinématographie française, 27 September 1930, p. 42.
– What is this guy doing here?
– He is the one who in the orgy scenes imitates the sound of champagne bottles being uncorked!
Chaotic and often with limited results, the first sound shootings remain an inexhaustible source of surprises and amused memories for the technicians who lived through this crazy adventure. As Marcel L’Herbier, who despaired of being able to control the shooting of his film, wrote: ‘Finally, the moments of laughter at the surprises of the microphone and the dry bath cabin gave us back our morale’ (L’Herbier: p. 193).
Anon. ‘Les confidences du micro’, Comoedia, 15 November 1930, p. 8.
André Arnyvelde, ‘Dans le hall d’un palace en tournant Azaïs’, Pour Vous, n°113, 15 January 1931, p. 2.
BNF archives (Bibliothèque Nationale de France), René Clair collection, letter from Franck Clifford to René Clair, 22 January 1930, 4°COL 84 / RC 09.
Max Falk, ‘Studio ou l’on parle, studio ou l’on travaille’, Cinémonde, n°68, 6 February 1930, p. 88.
Edwige Feuillère, Les feux de la mémoire, Paris, Albin Michel, coll. Le Livre de poche, 1977.
F. Herlin, ‘Ciné-Échos’, L’Écho d’Alger, 1er June 1933, p. 4.
Jacqueline Lenoir, ‘Parlons un peu des gens de cinéma’, Cinémonde, n°290, 10 May 1934, p. 380.
Marcel L’Herbier, La Tête qui tourne, Paris, ed. Belfond, 1979.
Marcel Pagnol, Cinématurgie de Paris, Paris, ed. de Fallois, coll. Fortunio, 1991.
Régy, ‘À l’écoute… souvenirs d’un ingénieur du son’, Pour Vous, n°436, 25 March 1937, p. 8.
Max Renneville, ‘Cinémonde vous raconte… René Hervil au travail’, Cinémonde, n°128, 2 April 1931, p. 213.
Charles de Rochefort, Le Film de mes souvenirs, Paris, Société parisienne d’édition, 1943, p. 207.
Jean Vidal, ‘La parole est à l’homme du son’, L’Intransigeant, 4 March 1933, p. 9.