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Sound Movies:
Past, Present and Future

by El Sayed Hassan Gomaa

El Sayed Hassan Gomaa

These days people talk of nothing but sound films. Some are in favour of it, defending it with all their might and predicting for it a wonderful future. Others are pessimistic and foretell its doom, accusing its supporters of madness.

We cannot stand on the side of either. Sound movies have not spread sufficiently in our country for us to judge objectively on either opinion, or to determine whether they will succeed or fail.

But this will not deter us from discussing the effort that scientists are making in the field of the sound movie, and the stages it passed through to reach the state in which we see it; or rather, we hear it.

The First Step

Some people might think that the sound movie was invented yesterday, or is a recent invention. But the facts are different. Those who have been following the development of the cinema since it was invented until this day see the story differently, and say that from the very beginning – when films were being shown in lowly taverns and were watched by the basest of people – efforts were being made to combine cinema and sound.

The first time the sound movie was heard was 17 years ago. So says Edward Wood the English cinema writer. He had heard, at that time, two sound films, one of them a tune by a singer and the other a musical piece by a violinist. The sound was not recorded on the film itself, but on a photographic cylinder connected to a machine called the Photofilm, so that sound would be transmitted at the right time to match the scene that was being shown on the silver screen.

The result was reasonably good, but not satisfactory enough. So scientists continued introducing important improvements to arrive at perfection. Each had his own method and went about his improvements in his own way, so that in the end there were several names of different machines whose inventors had managed to combine sound and picture. These were Vitaphone and Movietone, from which branched out other machines such as Photophone, Phototone, Filmaphone and so on.

The concept of the Vitaphone is the same as the old Photofilm. It contains a wax cylinder on which all the different sounds are recorded and which are synchronized with the film when it is screened. But with the Movietone and the machines that branched from it, sounds are recorded on the side of the film. They are converted into fluctuations of light and shadow, which are converted once more into sound when light reaches it from a special projecting machine, as we have seen with The Show Boat which was recently shown in Alexandria and Cairo. At the beginning of the film a piece of music was projected for ten minutes, during which we saw the light and shadow fluctuations from which the sounds were transmitted in such a way that it was easy for the spectator to understand the way sound was being conveyed with the film.

The Vitaphone

Warner Brothers, the American company, was the first to use Vitaphone and own its monopoly. It tried out the invention for the first time in 1926, and transferred through it musical pieces sung by Martinelli (of the New York Metropolitan Opera) for the film Don Juan starring John Barrimore. At the beginning of the film there was an oral introduction given by Paul Hayes, the general supervisor of cinema companies in Hollywood. This experiment was so successful that Warner Brothers produced a number of musical films using the Vitaphone, each one of which was hugely successful.

The company then thought of producing sound movies in which the actors actually spoke. Its managers looked for an actor who could star in their first “talking” film, and they decided upon an actor who used to act on the American stage: Al Jolson. This film, The Jazz Singer, is about the life of the actor, who sang some of the songs that had made him famous on stage. The film also included some short dialogue that led to the success of the film and of Al on the silver screen.

Warner Brothers was thus convinced that the audience favoured sound movies, and made arrangements to produce a large number of them. One of the earliest sound films was adapted from the story The Terror which was put on stage by the English writer Edgar Wallace. London and New York critics declared it a failure from the acting point of view, but it brought much financial gain for the company that produced it.

America’s Mania for Sound Movies

This amazing invention caused a stir in America. Directors observed its enormous success and the mania for sound movies. The old system was turned upside down, and new halls were created for the filming of sound movies. And so everything changed, and now many stars who acted on stage were able to venture into an area that had till then been closed to them, for they had always been denied roles in the cinema, regardless of how minor those roles were. The way was also opened for those who were not so good looking. They became rivals of the stars of the silver screen because they had voices that were suitable for sound movies. Competition increased between companies regarding sound movies, so that each adopted its own way of directing its films and none now produced silent movies.

But were these sound movies successful? No. A great deal failed and the cinema was almost destroyed. It was only because the audience loved new spectacles that it went on flocking to cinemas to see and hear sound movies, which guaranteed enormous gains for these companies. However, critics declared a bitter war on film directors, while the theatre threatened the annihilation of this new fad, called sound movies, which was competing with the theatre, if directors continued to disregard proper craftsmanship in their work when it came to projecting clearly audible sounds. Cinema critics were unanimous that sound was making the cinema lose its magic and beauty, as well as the stars who had led to the rise of this art.

Production companies finally woke up. Each one began to pay full attention to the production of sound movies. Directors were no longer content with actors whose voices were simply suitable. They moved on to stars with unsuitable voices and hired elocution specialists to train their voices to become suitable for recording. This idea had great results. If it so happened that a box office star had an unsuitable voice, another actor would be brought in to record his voice and that would be played during the film, and the audience would imagine that this was the voice of the star acting in front of it.

This trick worked perfectly. This was proven to us when we saw and heard Laura in The Show Boat. In one of the scenes she had to sing, but as hers was not a singing voice, it was replaced with the voice of a singer. Many must have noticed that her voice was softer in song than it was in speech.

Thus directors managed to protect a lot of actors from failure, and guaranteed a future full of success for the cinema, after it had been threatened with total collapse.

Sound Movies and Languages

Production companies were not satisfied with producing films in only one language. They realized that if it was limited to one language, the film would not be distributed all over the world. So they started training the actors to act in other languages. Soon actors were able to act in several languages, whereas previously they had known only one.

Directors also started preparing to direct films that spoke Esperanto, a language that aspired to be a universal language. So they did all they could to save sound movies. They also produced sound cinema newsreels, so that the world would not be deprived, for instance, of hearing a speech given by Signor Mussolini, or a lecture delivered by Bernard Shaw. This was not limited to speech; you could also hear the sound of aeroplanes and ship horns and so on. So that as you sat in the cinema watching the film, you would imagine you were sitting with the people whose voices you heard and living in the same place that you were watching and listening to.

The Future of Sound Movies
In the face of all this, and of the flood of sound movies produced by American and German companies, critics had to admit the success of sound movies, though some still think this is a temporary victory that will be followed by a horrible failure.

When all is said and done, it is difficult to determine anything now. All new inventions go through terrible difficulties at first, in addition to all sorts of people who make fun and gloat. Only time will tell. Neither silent movies nor any other invention will ever be safe from attacks and criticisms in the beginning.

If silent movies are based on strong foundations, they will succeed like any other invention, but if they are founded on something ephemeral, then they will surely fail.

El Helal Magazine. December 1929.

El Sayed Hassan Gomaa

( ? - circa 1957 & 1959)
El Sayed Hassan Gomaa belongs to the earliest Alexandrian generation of film critics; in fact, he is considered the first cinema critic in Egypt and the Arab world.
After El Sowar el Motaharika, the first cinema magazine, was no longer issued in Cairo, he decided along with a number of amateur friends, such as Mohamed Abdel Latif and Abdel Qader Baraka to start a magazine, Ma‘rad el Cinema, in 1924. It was established in Ramleh Station Street in Alexandria. Gomaa took part in editing this magazine and he and his friends published their articles in it. It is considered the first specialized cinema magazine in Alexandria and the second in Egypt, as the first cinema magazine, El Sowar el Motaharika, was issued in Cairo in 1923. This magazine was only issued 3 times: on 17 December and 24 December 1924, and on 18 April 1925. After its disappearance, he issued a low-budget one, Kawkab el Cinema, in the school he was working in. He used to approach the production and distribution companies in Alexandria for news and photos which he could incorporate in his magazine.

After that, he issued a newsletter called Al’aeb el Cinema in Alexandria. He also took an active role in founding Mena film, which was a club for the lovers of cinema in Alexandria. It was established in 1926 in Alexandria and it issued a newsletter.

After the establishment of Condor film in Alexandria by Ibrahim and Badr Lama, Gomaa contacted them and took part in the shooting of their first film A Kiss in the Desert (Qoublah fi-l-sahrâ’). He sent news about the progress of the film to El Balagh el Esbou‘i. He also worked as an assistant in their second film A Tragedy on the Pyramid (Fâgui‘ah fawq el haram). After Condor film moved to Cairo, he became the editor-in-chief of ‘Alam el Cinema which was issued in Alexandria in 1929.

His professional career began in 1930 when he joined Dar el Helal in Cairo. He started supervising and writing in El Kawakeb which was established in 1932 as a supplement to El Mossawer, and assisted Fikri Abaza, the editor of El Mossawer. Though the move to Cairo signaled the beginning of his professional career, it made him leave Alexandria, his native city.

His professional career began in 1930 when he joined Dar el Helal in Cairo. He started supervising and writing in El Kawakeb which was established in 1932 as a supplement to El Mossawer, and assisted Fikri Abaza, the editor of El Mossawer. Though the move to Cairo signaled the beginning of his professional career, it made him leave Alexandria, his native city.


Marei, Farida. Tourath el Nouqqad el Cinema’yîn fi Misr. Part 1: 1924-1929. Cairo: Ministry of Culture, 1997.
Marei, Farida. Tourath el Nouqqad el Cinema’yîn fi Misr. Part 2: 1930-1934. Cairo: Ministry of Culture, 1998.
Marei, Farida. Tourath el Nouqqad el Cinema’yîn fi Misr. Part 3: 1935-1936. Cairo: Ministry of Culture, 1998.