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Bioscope en l'an 1900
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Barnier, Martin. 2002. En route vers le parlant. Histoire d’une évolution technologique, économique et esthétique du cinéma (1926-1934). Liège: Éditions du Céfal.
Sirois-Trahan, Jean-Pierre. 2002. « Le mur du son. Les débuts du cinéma parlant au Québec entre 1894 et 1915 ». Dans Réal La Rochelle (dir.), Écouter le cinéma, p. 68-88. Montréal: Les 400 coups.
In the minds of many, talking pictures began in 1927. In the musical The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927), Al Jolson performed in blackface in the tradition of minstrel shows. After singing “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face”, he addressed the public and said: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Synchronized to a record disk using the Vitaphone process, Alan Crosland’s “talkie” was a hybrid film consisting of two minutes of dialogue and intertitles. While paving the way for the sound revolution, the film was, above all else, the outcome of a long line of inventions that eventually provided cinema with an adequate sound dimension.
In fact, attempts were made from the very beginning to synchronize sound and moving pictures. The poet Charles Clos, co-inventor of the phonograph, also registered a patent for moving pictures. As for the phonograph’s other inventor, Thomas A. Edison, his ultimate objective in creating the Kinetograph (a motion picture camera) was to combine his two inventions in order to depict opera on film. From late 1894 to early 1895, Edison’s assistant William Dickson attempted to synchronize the two technologies in a short film entitled Dickson Experimental Sound Film (the sound cylinder for this film was recently found and contained an opera piece played on violin). Shortly thereafter, Edison introduced the Kinetophone, a single device that combined the Kinetoscope (image) and phonograph (music). However, the synchronization was mediocre at best and the invention unsuccessful. The main challenge inventors had to overcome in matching film with sound devices such as Edison’s phonograph (which used a wax cylinder) or Berliner’s gramophone (which used a recorded wax disk with a layer of shellac, a sort of resin) were defects that inevitably disrupted the sound-image synchronization. It wasn’t until 1927, with the little-known film Seventh Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927), that a permanent solution emerged – placing the sound track directly on the filmstrip next to the image track. This innovation was made possible by the development of an optical sound track and by the invention of the photoelectric cell.
In the meantime, countless other methods were attempted. In the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, several “talking picture” devices were exhibited, such as the Phonorama and the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre. In the latter device, one could hear the great tragic actress Sarah Bernhard. The reason there were so many inventions and patents related to cinema and sound was because viewers during this period did not like the screen’s silence (they were also bothered by the black and white and two-dimensional properties of film). When the Lumière Cinématographe made its Montreal premiere in June 1896, one journalist from La Presse expressed the general mood: “Only colour and a phonograph providing sound were missing to complete the illusion.” Every inventor from the period wanted to create the effect of “total cinema” and achieve “the perfect illusion of life.”
In Canada, several noteworthy devices made appearances. Evidence of the great popularity of cinema in Quebec, in 1907 Montreal had two of the biggest cinema theatres in the world, Georges Gauvreau’s Nationoscope and Léo-Ernest Ouimet’s Ouimetoscope. The seating capacities of these theatres were over a thousand each. Competing for the same audiences in east-end Montreal, they both made use of “novelties” to gain an advantage. It should be noted that films from the period sometimes lacked diversity and originality, encouraging exhibitors to find novelties of their own to make the shows unique and attractive. Sound was one such novelty. Hence, in August 1907 the Nationoscope announced an extraordinary premiere, “talking views.” Ouimet immediately responded by travelling to New York to buy a Cinemato-Gramo-Theatre, an invention of little-known French producer Georges Mendel. Among the films Ouimet projected with this device was a “singing” film of Enrico Caruso, one of the most decorated tenors in history. Gauvreau, overtaken by Ouimet, inaugurated his talking machine – Gaumont’s famous Chronomegaphone – several weeks later for technical reasons. However, both sound devices were limited to accompanying songs and opera pieces, which were easier to synchronize than dialogue.
Unfortunately, these novelties did not last beyond one season for either Ouimet or Gauvreau. In December 1908, the American-made Cameraphone opened in a theatre on St. Catherine Street. Montreal journalists reported that the show offered “the illusion of a real stage” and that the “arrival of famous Scottish actor Harry Lauder in Montreal provides an opportunity to compare the original with the marvellous copy of the Cameraphone.”
In 1911, Montreal-based Emil Berliner presented a new novelty, an opera piece that used the “simultaneous operation” of a Cameragraphe and an Auxetophone (whose powerful pneumatic amplifier allowed for the momentary correction of volume problems found in other systems). Berliner was a German businessman who had invented the disk record and gramophone (turntable). When Edison sued him, he immigrated to Montreal and founded a gramophone factory in the St-Henri neighbourhood (where the Berliner museum is still located today). In early 1913, a “palace” (a massive, luxurious theatre) for animated views opened on Bleury St. in Montreal. With a seating capacity of three thousand (according to journalists of the time), the Imperial is still running today. In May 1913, Edison presented his Kinetophone there, finally a satisfactory version of his invention. It was a resounding success! The show lasted two months and was also presented in Sherbrooke. Other than those mentioned, no other “talking picture” devices are known to have passed through Montreal before the arrival of the “talkies” in the late 1920s.
Though films from this era may have been “silent”, they were not mute: in addition to “talking picture” devices, there were other ways sound was added to images, such as musicians playing during screenings, sound-effects engineers providing timely sounds, and lecturers explaining the films. On other occasions films could literally “talk,” with actors behind the screen speaking the dialogue. In any event, even if moving pictures were projected in total silence, one could still count on early viewers and their habit of talking during films. “Silent” cinema is a lost world of sounds ready to discover!