History Of Dialogue In American Film

The history of film dialogue starts with the silent era. Speech sometimes literally accompanied silent films—some exhibitors hired lecturers to narrate silent films and local actors to speak lines for the characters. As the industry moved toward standardization, film producers found it desirable to include printed dialogue and expository intertitles. Silent film historian Barry Salt ha¿ found dialogue intertitles as early as 1904; Eileen Bowser has recorded that from 1907 to 1915 producers experimented with finding the exactly right placement and format for such titles. After 1915, with feature-length films, title writing became a specialty, and dialogue intertitles were used for humor, to convey important information, and to individualize characters. The critical reverence of the few films that torturously managed to avoid intertitles, such as F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), should not be taken as indicative of the typical practices of the silent era. After all, in silent movies the characters were not supposed to be mutes. The characters spoke to one another; the incapacity was on the side of the filmgoers— we were the ones who were deaf.

The transition to sound in the late 1920s was complicated for American studios and theater owners, demanding great outlays of capital and entailing negotiation between competing technologies and corporate strategies. Equally upsetting for some in the film community was the wrenching shift in their approach to their craft caused by the possibilities of sound. The apprehension that sound would be the death of the visual artistry of silent film was initially abetted by the limitations of early microphones and recording apparatus, which restricted camera movement. From a historical perspective, what is remarkable about the conversion to sound is not that it was bumpy, but that the technical and aesthetic problems were solved so quickly and successfully, so that by the early 1930s the use of dialogue, sound effects, and music betrays none of the restrictions, tinniness, or fumbling of the transition films.

Immediately after the incorporation of sound, Hollywood began a wholesale importation of East Coast writers. The newspapermen, playwrights, and vaudevillians who went West in the early 1930s brought with them new sensibilities, novel stories, and a fresh approach to language.

In addition, sound instantly altered the balance of genres. Film musicals burst forth, as did literal adaptations of stage plays, which now could retain not just plot points, but much of the original stage dialogue. Verbally based comedies, featuring performers such as the Marx Brothers or W. C. Fields, expanded the contours of film comedy. Moreover, genres that had been established during the silent era underwent sea changes because of the new aesthetic capabilities. Each genre developed its own dialogue conventions, such as the street argot in gangster films or the dialect in westerns, conventions that turned out to be just as important to genre dynamics as their visual iconography.

A third event of the 1930s was the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code, written in 1930 and more stringently enforced by the Hays Office after 1934. One of the reasons why this formal practice of industry self-censorship was put in place at this time is that verbal transgressions of prevailing standards were now possible. Although much of the Code deals with overall plot development, moral attitudes, and what viewers might learn about illicit behavior, several of the tenets deal specifically with language. For example:

• Oaths should never be used as a comedy element. Where required by the plot, the less offensive oaths may be permitted.

• Vulgar expressions come under the same treatment as vulgarity in general. Where women and children are to see the film, vulgar expressions (and oaths) should be cut to the absolute essentials required by the situation.

• The name of Jesus Christ should never be used except in reverence.

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