This essay was published in Cabinet magazine, #46, Summer 2012, where I benefited from extraordinarily precise and intelligent editing. They also found fantastic visuals.
It’s a variation of the "words on walls" discussion, with words that flash on screens, instead of stone words embedded in epigraphic walls.
Thanks to UCLA's collection of old movie business journals, I was able to piece together a strange tale of sound technology, worldwide economic crisis, and the rise of Fascism.
At some future date the full text will be available at the Cabinet website (only the footnotes are there at present), but here’s the beginning ...
An audience of readers sits in the dark as words flash on a screen. It’s a strange situation: reading together as a group, listening by reading, reading a translation of foreign sounds into English characters. How did we get here? The movies developed synchronized sound at a time of global depression unstable exchange rates, and economic and ideological protectionism. Many in the movie business viewed the introduction of spoken dialogue as an unwelcome additional impediment to international distribution. Their complaints constitute most of the content of this chronology. Of their quick fixes and long-term solutions, only superimposed subtitles and dubbing survive to the present day. If these sometimes seem annoying, consider the alternatives. ...
... Just a few months into the sound era, film professionals were looking for a way to regain the fungibility of silent film, when “it was possible to produce pictures of universal appeal which, by simply changing the subtitles, could do nearly as well for France as for the United States.” Hollywood veterans such as Douglas Fairbanks were already referring to “the good old days” before talkies, but in a New York Times article titled “Queer Talking Film Idea” also excitedly discussed early experiments in dubbing:
Fairbanks spoke of the wonderful work a young German named Selnik has been doing in Hollywood lately. This clever linguist, he says, translates the lines spoken by the actors into half a dozen languages. These translations run the same length as the original lines, so that they synchronize perfectly with the actor’s gestures. A good elocutionist is then requisitioned from Germany, France, Spain or China to speak the lines. The foreign movie public sees the American actor, but hears the voice of one of its countrymen.
“Thanks to the successful experiments Selnik has already made,” Mr. Fairbanks continued, “we can be sure now of keeping the foreign market. Did you know that American films do more business in China than in any other single country to which we export?”