From Broadway to Hollywood - The Evolution of Sound in Film Musicals

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

18 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)


From Broadway to Hollywood

The Evolution of Sound in Film Musicals

“Everybody comes to Hollywood; they wanna make it in the neighborhood. They like the smell of it in Hollywood (…)”, lines of a famous Madonna song from last year. Hollywood, the purpose-built dream factory at the West Coast of the United States and the filmic center of the world produces countless films and movies every year. The unprecedented success story of the Californian film industry is a summary of work, imagination, hopes, and dreams of many talented and gifted human beings. The HOLLYWOOD sign atop of Mount Lee was erected in 1923. Originally, it read HOLLYWOODLAND and intended to draw attention to new housing developments in the nearby Hollywood Hills. Nowadays, the sign symbols the world’s gateway for fantasies and dreams. In the United States, the film industry started to emerge in New York City and was later joined by steadily growing and stronger forces in California. Over time, the center of the industry moved across the country and set foot in Los Angeles. Films started out with static, silent pictures and without sound. In 1928, sound was added to movies for the very first time, in that way giving birth to the film musical. Film musicals further encouraged fantasies and became one of the industry’s largest and most successful genres at the beginning of a new era.

In the following paragraphs, I want to explain the formation of the talkies by means of one of its most successful divisions – the film musical. Altogether, when things happened, where, why, and in which order is not clearly recognizable any more. For these causes, I want to develop a strongly intertwined scheme of a cycle of histories as well as analyzing sociological, political, technological, ideological and other relevant factors of the time to describe the evolution and outstanding success of the Hollywood musical.

First, technical advancements at the beginning of the last century and the birth of Hollywood have to be given a close look to examine the entertainment industry which grew rapidly around and after the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. The reason for this shift towards more time for leisure activities went hand in hand with the fewer hours workers had to spend for their duties, tasks and responsibilities. Originally intended to save labor capacity, industrial innovations like the assembly line and other new, time-saving technologies passed their ways through in the employment market. As a consequence, more and more people had more and more time for recreational activities at their disposals. Of course, many workers still spent more than half a day or even more at work (employees in sweatshops or steel mills for example). But overall, the average working time was cut down from sixty-six hours in 1860 to less than sixty in 1890 and further down to forty-seven hours per week at the beginning of the second decade in the 20th century (Norton et al. 555). Hand in hand with more time to use on one’s own choice, leisure and spare time activities of all kinds gained new weight in the lives of many Americans. Sports, circuses, and shows of all different kinds offered visitors and spectators unseen before possibilities of escapism from their usually hard and uneasy lives. Primarily enjoyed in urban areas first, rural areas were soon to follow, too. Early forms of entertainment production included the minstrel show and vaudeville performances, popular drama and musical comedy. Along with the establishments and erections of theaters - a theater was usually the second public building to be constructed in a city after a church - these premature forms of entertainment offered viewers new possibilities of spending their pastime and were thus highly successful. Vaudeville shows included different forms of performances like “jugglers, dancing bears, pantomimes, storytellers, puppeteers, acrobats, comedians, and, of course, singers and dancers” (558). Along with “innovations” in the viewer and spectatorship sector, the radio as a new medium was born. Sound and music, especially “American popular music had dominated the entertainment industry through sales of sheet music and the live performances of its songs, both by professional artists and by people playing and singing in their homes” at the turn of the century and was, via the new medium, now available for more people and listeners than ever before (Mundy 32). Sound as such grew more and more important and the innovation of the short- and long-waves further spurred this tendency all across the country. Over time, even little villages in rural areas far away from big cities were able to enjoy the amenities of tunes and lyrics via the new-born network. Sale numbers of pianos for example rose continuously from 1870 on whereas the sale of sheet music even tripled during the two decades around the year 1900. This tremendous intensification in the demand of sound and music was one reason for the later success of the Hollywood film musical. Another basis for the soon to be emerging mass market of film musicals were the numerous, technical innovations that surfaced everywhere and across all branches. In 1891, Thomas Alva Edison invented and patented the motion picture camera. This mechanism, with its continuous tape-like film, made it possible to take, reproduce, and project motion pictures for the first instant in olden times (Internet I). Five years later, on April 16th 1896, the first film in history was shown in New York City. A few years later (1905) and with the beginning of Nickelodeons, the success story of the entertainment industry was further fostered. As contemporary witness Joseph Medill Patterson stated in 1907: “Three years ago there was not a nickelodeon, or, five-cent theater devoted to moving-picture shows, in America. To-day there are between four and five thousand running and solvent, and the number is still increasing rapidly” (Internet II). As a final point, in 1912, while having spent many previous years in its general development and perfection, Edison introduced the Kinetophone or talking motion picture and he thereby additionally paved the way for the film industry.

Still, the main reason for the up-and-coming triumph of the filmic (and musical) entertainment production was the birth of the film industry in California. The undeveloped film industry had its original seat and center at the East Coast in New York City and other big cities there. In 1909, Edison and the Biograph Company founded the “Motion Picture Patents Company” (MPPC) as a trust with the intention to bundle patents on film material and technical equipment. The MPPC tried to create a monopoly among film makers and the film industry as a whole. This attempt to monopolize a whole branch failed shortly after its installation as independent film companies and producers rallied against the trust and fled from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Not only did these small entrepreneurs met the taste of many immigrants (a main target audience and interesting point that I will discuss in following passages) more these days, they also had the ability to react more flexible to the dramaturgy and the instrumentations of the movies they produced and were therefore highly successful. To flee the influence sphere of the trust, many of these corporations set food in a formerly sleepy village called Hollywood outside the city limits of Los Angeles. There, in sunny California, the weather was usually better than at the East Coast and the topography was more diverse. Natural place mats posed ideal conditions for the film industry (the snowy crests of the Sierra Nevada or the endless beaches of the Southern Californian Seacoast – just to name a few), and when in 1911 the first film studio of the “Nestor Company” opened its gates at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Goer Street the course was set for the success story of the film industry as we know it today. Later that year, 15 more independent production enterprises settled their businesses in the periphery of Hollywood and when in 1917 a court decision[1] declared the trust illegal, increasingly more companies dealing with the film business moved to the promising venture in the West (Internet III). Consequently, the film industry emerged on a broad scale level and even though studios in the western ventures expanded already before the First World War, the companies had their big rise during those years. The reason for this unilateral distribution lay on the one hand in the insufficient quality European movies had to offer (plots were not as ‘breath-taking’ as American ones and the story lines of European films also failed to match the taste of many Americans), while on the other hand – and this was the main cause – European films (especially German films, of course)[2] were banned from the US market. Thus, the stage was set for the big rise of the film industry and the incoming money and financial rewards helped the industry to become a really big player. This in turn, enabled the existing studios to produce to an even greater extent and so the upward spiral of success for the companies and the ever growing entertainment factor for the moviegoers was revolving. Last but not least, the studio system was established in Hollywood. A film production, unlike a play or a stage performance, contained hundreds of people working for it. With the establishment of the studio system, production processes were cut into pieces and both, behind and in front of the camera, workers, writers, dancers as well as actors and performers were hired and paid for what they especially did and no longer (compared to classical theater or Broadway shows) did their wages depend on the success of their representations and on paying and visiting theatergoers. Together with the establishment of the studio system, all participants now had the advantage of clear cognizance for all parties concerned. In addition, with stern and fixed hierarchies every man and every woman knew his and her place in the studio. Sequentially, the growing film companies were able to work more efficiently than ever before and thereby shot very successful movies (plus musicals of course) the public wanted to see (Wersich 483).

Vertical integration of a whole industry was the final and last step to be completed by the ever growing Hollywood studios. “The dismantling of the Trust paved the way for the surfacing of the classic ‘Big Five’ studios of the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ ”, a group which included Twentieth-Century Fox, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), Warner Brothers, RKO[3], and Paramount” (Internet IV).[4] In the early years of the studio system, vertical integration was not the norm. The cinema and movies, and more important in this aspect, the movie theaters and cinemas themselves, were a very new form of entertainment in the very two first decades of the 20th century. Hence, they lacked adequate technologies and often had to deal with only ill-equipped theaters and cinemas and so together with the far-reaching blindness to the ongoing changes in the poorly developed amusement industry, new structures were necessary for success. Adolph Zukor of Paramount pioneered a system of vertically integrating the three major stages of film making; namely: production, distribution, and exhibition and gathered these processes under one company, a structure which was to be copied at once by the others. Formerly, sovereign exhibitors were free to decide which ‘background music’ or plays were to accompany the films they showed in their halls[5]. But with rapid changes going on these days, their independence was counted and “in 1921, Paramount owned and operated already 303, cinemas and the days of the independent exhibitors were numbered (…). This movement towards vertical integration was in many ways a prerequisite for the full commercial introduction of synchronized sound in the cinema in the mid- to late 1920s” (Mundy 37).


[1] William Fox, an independent operator, filed an antitrust suit later joined by the Department of Justice. The suit eventually reached the Supreme Court and ruled against the Trust.

[2] The isolated Germany was the only European country that was able to establish a big production company and film corporation. The UFA, as it was named, grew second largest to Hollywood after the First World War was over.

[3] The only studio no longer in existence; its downfall began 1948 when the company was split into several unities.

[4] Originally, and as sources vary, eight studios were ‚big’ in the 1920s and so the studios of Universal, Colombia, and United Artists have to be mentioned here, too.

[5] Film was never silent. Although screened without sound, a theater always provided its audience with some kind of background music. Whether it was a gramophone playing in the backdrop or a whole orchestra in mega movie theaters that already existed from the beginnings.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


From Broadway to Hollywood - The Evolution of Sound in Film Musicals
LMU Munich
1,7 (A-)
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ISBN (eBook)
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From, Broadway, Hollywood, Evolution, Sound, Film, Musicals
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Christian Simon (Author), 2004, From Broadway to Hollywood - The Evolution of Sound in Film Musicals, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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