Soundification – Making Silents Heard?

Lately I’ve been seriously into just about everything on TCM, scanning the lineup a week in advance so I’m sure to program the DVR to grab movies I’ve either not seen before or haven’t seen in ages. In the past few months this has given me such gems as The Sugarland Express, directed by Stephen Spielberg, and The Magnificent Anderson’s, by Welles. In addition there has been a treasure trove of early studio comedies, from W.C. Fields all the way back to the true comedic masters of the silent era.

Everybody knows about the great silent comedians of Chaplin and Keaton, and to a lesser extent Harold Lloyd, but sadly, as a person who fancies himself a cineaste, I was marginally familiar with this group at best. I’d seen the usual suspects from Chaplin – The Gold Rush, particularly – but until recently had only seen The General by Keaton, and couldn’t have picked Harold Lloyd out of a lineup. TCM has aided my cause by showing a veritable cornucopia of their films and I’m slowly working to catch up.

Amazing, while Chaplin is the most well regarded of the group – at least in the public consciousness – his silents are easily the least of the three. Keaton is much more of a gifted craftsman and physical comedian and even though I’m not particularly fond of Harold Lloyd I do enjoy that little jig he does to introduce himself to his classmates in The Freshman (see clip below) and am grateful that he eschews much of the sentimentalism that tends to bog down Chaplin’s films, even the darker, nasty ones like Monsieur Verdoux.

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A lot of the reason I’ve fallen behind on the silents is because of what they are: silent films. Because they provide no audible dialog and only a minimal amount of noise on the soundtrack to really help you understand the film and follow the story they require a certain level of focused ocular attention that I can’t always bring to a film. Certainly I pay attention but I also like to do other things when I’m watching – like write posts for this blog – and because silents and foreign films alike punish viewers who look away for even as little as a moment the attention required is sometimes too much.

Sadly, I know I’m not alone in this. While I watch a fair number of silents and foreign films, it is less than it could be, but even my meager attempts are far more than what my wife does, which is watch none.

“I don’t want to read a movie,” is a common complaint and while she’s talking about foreign films, it could easily apply to silents and really, even though it sounds a little ignorant it actually makes sense. Most people go to movies to escape and just be entertained and being forced into some rigorous state of attention isn’t exactly entertaining. It’s something akin to Alex being forced to watch those movies while undergoing the Ludovico Technique in A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps this is why my wife is addicted to the Food Network. While it’s interesting and entertaining, it also isn’t very challenging, even if there is a show called Challenge. Unfortunately, because she won’t watch a movie she has to read, or fill in the dialog for, she misses a lot of movies. This particular prejudice lead me, in a circuitous route, to consider the process of colorization.

Colorization was a big deal when I was kid, back in the halcyon days of the 80s, when the Baby Boomers and Hippies decided free love was for idiots and greed was the way to go. Back then a little man named Ted Turner owned the rights to a whole bunch of movies – B&W movies, mostly – that he wanted to make some money on. Unfortunately, as with my wife’s prejudice against subtitles, many people are prejudiced against B&W films and wouldn’t watch one even if the reward was eternal life. The solution: colorization.

Despite the uproar from cineastes – or would be cineastes, like myself – and despite the fact that the colorization doesn’t exactly produce a color film, colorized movies gained some traction, so much so that I distinctly recall owning a colorized copy of It’s a Wonderful Life. Fortunately, colorization proved less than cost effective and was eventually abandoned, as was my colorized version of It’s a Wonderful Life, replaced by a beautiful DVD of the film in glorious B&amp;W.

Nevertheless, despite the hatred, I can see some value of Ted Turner’s idea. Sure, he colorized films with an explicit profit motive but at the same time he opened up some very good movies to people who would not have otherwise seen them and if slapping on some color is what it takes to get people to enjoy classic films, then maybe the idea isn’t all bad.

This, of course, leads me back to silent and foreign films. My wife has an aversion to them, like many others, which is why very few silents play regularly today in any form, and is why foreign films tend to be overlooked. Only rarely will a foreign film register in this country – at least in its own language – and in most cases, those that are remembered suffered from dubbing from the original language to English. Sometimes the dubbing is awful – just look at any chop-socky flick – but sometimes the dubbing is marvelous, as with Das Boot. And while I am generally not a fan of dubbing, because it seems like a bastardization of the original film, I can’t help but wonder if maybe any action meant to make a film more accessible can be a bad thing.

Silent films have not had the ‘dub or not to dub’ problem because that is generally reserved for films that need only the vocal track replaced, but maybe it’s time to consider such a thing for a silent. If one of the main complaints about silent films is that, as the stories are told entirely by visuals which require a certain level of attention that many don’t want to give and therefore become tiresome to the modern viewer, why shouldn’t they be dubbed? If the lack of a true accompanying soundtrack is the gateway that turns back the audience from hundreds of wonderful films – from Chaplin eating his shoe in The Gold Rush to Keaton collecting firewood for the train in The General – perhaps it’s time to rectify the situation.

The idea to soundify movies sounds like the rantings of a lunatic with an idea and no money to put it into action, but there is some precedent for it. After all, many of the scores accompanying silent films are replete with bells standing in for phones, crashes for windows breaking, sirens for fire trucks, and ten kinds of what have you. If it’s acceptable to use a little bit of sound-design to enhance the films in the accompanying score, why not take the next step and dub in the dialog and other missing sound effects over the original films as well?  Indeed, even Chaplin himself seemed to accept the idea of Soundification with a reissue of The Gold Rush in 1942 that included not only a new score, but also narration by the great man himself.  (See clip below).

Certainly, some silent films wouldn’t lend itself to the practice, but silent comedies seem like a perfect use for such an approach. After all, Keaton’s films were hardly wordy – he is the great stone face, after all – so dubbing wouldn’t be too tall an order and might make these films more readily apparent. And if all it took to get the sublime, charming film like The General of Steamboat Bill Jr. back into the public’s consciousness was to dub in some dialog, wouldn’t that be better than wasting money making another awful Transformers movie?

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