Cast & Crew
Trace the history of sound in the movies featuring snippets from early sound pictures
The Voice That Thrilled the World
And last, but far from least, it's an extended commercial for the studio that made it: Warner Bros., which earned a place of honor in the sound film hall of fame by investing big money in the Vitaphone sound system in 1926 and using it to produce three landmarks in the field: Alan Crosland's 1926 romance Don Juan, the first feature with a synchronized music and sound effects track; Bryan Foy's 1928 melodrama Lights of New York, the first "all-talking" movie with dialogue throughout; and between those largely forgotten films, Crosland's legendary The Jazz Singer, a part-talkie blend of drama, music and schmaltz that debuted in 1927 and made synch-sound production the industry standard forever.
Declaring that it took a hundred years to make high-quality sound recording a reality, The Voice That Thrilled the World illustrates its case with reenactments of key moments in that process, starting with Édouard-Léon Scott's invention of the phonautograph in 1857. As scientists hunt for further breakthroughs, the screen shows glowing tubes, smoking retorts, crackling electric arcs, primitive telephones, the works. How wonderful it would be, narrator Art Gilmore says, if technological progress had happened earlier and today's listeners could actually hear George Washington bidding farewell to his troops, or Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, or Theodore Roosevelt orating on the stump, or even Jesus preaching to the faithful.
Zooming in directly on motion picture production, The Voice That Thrilled the World exhibits a model of Thomas A. Edison's pioneering studio nicknamed the Black Maria because it was covered with tarpaper. Then, we see footage of silent movies being shot and eventually we get to the advent of sound demonstrated by a variety of clips. John Barrymore emotes as the hero of Don Juan and chomps the scenery as Richard III in a snippet from John G. Adolfi's 1929 The Show of Shows, a cavalcade of acts by Hollywood performers. The renowned Italian tenor Giovanni Martinelli sings an aria from the 1892 opera Pagliacci and the New York Philharmonic plays strains of Richard Wagner.
Never forgetting its basic mission of promoting Warner Bros. and its products, The Voice That Thrilled the World includes a lingering shot of Sam Warner's tombstone-the mogul died at age 40, a day before The Jazz Singer premiered-and later it shows children in a classroom raptly watching a 1938 movie in which the Declaration of Independence is signed, implying that Warner Bros. films are invaluable education aids. There's also a good deal of footage from Michael Curtiz's 1942 musical Yankee Doodle Dandy, a Warner Bros. hit that won Academy Awards for its music, for James Cagney's bravura acting and for Nathan Levinson's sound recording. The latter category doesn't usually generate much excitement on Oscar night, but for a few moments it's a center of attention here.
The Voice That Thrilled the World was made during World War II, which Warner Bros. took with extreme seriousness, so it isn't surprising when the movie takes time to celebrate the heroic work of combat filmmakers. Most of the picture is straight-out entertainment, though zipping with ease from one clip to another. Gary Cooper offers folksy thoughts on war in Howard Hawks' 1941 Sergeant York- speaking in his native English, then dubbed into French and Italian-and Bette Davis exudes charisma in Alfred E. Green's 1935 Dangerous. Bathing beauties form kaleidoscopic patterns in a splashy production number. The great African-American actress Ethel Waters sings "Am I Blue" to perfection. Paul Muni displays his biopic skills in moments from William Dieterle's The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and George Arliss does the same in Green's Disraeli (1929).
All this and more in a squeak over eighteen minutes! Movie magic indeed!
Director: Jean Negulesco
Producer: Gordon Hollingshead
Screenplay: James Bloodworth
Cinematographer: Sidney Hickox
Film Editing: Thomas Pratt
Art Direction: Roland Hill
Music: Howard Jackson
With: Art Gilmore (narrator)
by David Sterritt