Music, Sound, and the Moving Image

Tearing Speech to Pieces: Voice technologies of the 1940s

Music, Sound, and the Moving Image (2008), 2, (2), 183–206.

Abstract

The Voder and the Sonovox were voice technologies that had a significant impact on radio and film production during the 1940s. In this essay, I examine the cultural life of these mid-century talking machines, with a focus on the use of the Sonovox in radio advertising and the Hollywood 'women's films' Possessed (1947) and Letter to Three Wives (1949). An examination of these devices, the discourses that surrounded them, and their use in media texts can add to our understanding of the cultural history of sound recording and vocal performance, the use of sound in film melodrama, and overlaps between radio and film sound production in the 1940s. Because of its ability to make recorded sounds take on the qualities of human speech, the Sonovox found success in the relatively new area of radio spot advertising, where it could make consumer products 'speak' to a largely female audience. In Hollywood films, the Sonovox made objects speak the unconscious thoughts and anxieties of female characters. Operated by women, with the goal of speaking to a female audience, gender was thus a determining factor in shaping the cultural life of voice technologies of the 1940s. Acknowledging the female operators behind these voice technologies helps us to understand some of the factors that shaped their use in media production, and also represents a small gesture towards redressing the larger erasure of female labour in the cultural industries.

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Altman, Rick (1994) 'Deep-Focus Sound: Citizen Kane and the Radio Aesthetic', in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 15 (3), pp. 1–33 Google Scholar

Altman, Rick (2004) Silent Film Sound, New York: Columbia University Press Silent Film Sound Google Scholar

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Brady, Erika (1999) A Spiral Way, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press A Spiral Way Google Scholar

Chion, Michel (1999) The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman, New York: Columbia University Press Google Scholar

Christian Science Monitor(1939) 'Going to Golden Gate Fair', February 4, p. 4 Google Scholar

Christian Science Monitor (1941) 'Talking Soapsuds on Air? Blame It on the Sonovox', September 2, p. 9 Google Scholar

Cohen, Lizabeth (2003) A Consumers' Republic, New York: Knopf. A Consumers' Republic Google Scholar

Davies, Lawrence E. (1939) 'Machine That Talks and Sings Has Tryout; Electrical Voder Will Speak at Fair Here', New York Times, January 6, p.1 Google Scholar

Dickinson, Kay (2001) '"Believe"? Vocoders, digitized female identity and camp', in Popular Music, 20/3, pp. 333–47 Google Scholar

Doane, Mary Ann (1987) The Desire to Desire, London: Macmillan The Desire to Desire Google Scholar

Donnelly, Antoinette (1932) 'Woman's Voice Reveals Charm or Lack of It', Chicago Daily Tribune, September 16, p. 21 Google Scholar

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 Google Scholar

Elsaesser, Thomas (1972) 'Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama', from Monogram, no. 4, pp. 2–15 Google Scholar

Feaster, Patrick (2006) A Talking and Singing Machine, unpublished manuscript Google Scholar

Gettysburg Times (1944) 'Radio Programs', January 22, p. 8 Google Scholar

Green, Venus (2001) Race on the Line, Durham and London: Duke Univ. Press Race on the Line Google Scholar

Gudis, Catherine (2004) Buyways, New York: Routledge Buyways Google Scholar

Harrison, Paul (1940) 'Paul Harrison in Hollywood', Burlington (N.C.): Daily Times-News, June 5, p. 9 Google Scholar

Hilmes, Michele (1997) Radio Voices, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Radio Voices Google Scholar

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Hopewell Herald (1940) 'Versatile Daddy of Pedro the Voder "Goldarnedest Thing You Ever Heard"', February 28, p. 3 Google Scholar

Johnson, Erskine (1947) 'In Hollywood', Walla Walla Union Bulletin, March 27, p. 4 Google Scholar

Lastra, James (2000) Sound Technology and the American Cinema, New York: Columbia University Press Sound Technology and the American Cinema Google Scholar

Marx, Karl. (2000 [1867]) 'The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret', Das Kapital Ch.1, Section 4, in Juliet B. Schor and Douglas B. Holt (eds.) The Consumer Society Reader, New York: W.W. Norton and Company Google Scholar

May, Elaine Tyler (1988) Homeward Bound, New York: Basic Books Homeward Bound Google Scholar

McCracken, Allison (2002) 'Scary Women and Scarred Men: Suspense, Gender Trouble, and Postwar Change, 1942–1950', in Michele Hilmes and Jason Loviglio (eds.) Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio, New York: Routledge Scary Women and Scarred Men: Suspense, Gender Trouble, and Postwar Change, 1942–1950 Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio Google Scholar

Nebraska State Journal (1939) 'Newly Invented Talking Machine Creates Speech', January 6, p. 7 Google Scholar

Newman, Kathy M. (2004) Radio Active, Berkeley: University of California Press Radio Active Google Scholar

New York Times (1939a) 'Preview is Given at Phone Exhibit', April 28, p. 20 Google Scholar

New York Times (1939b) 'Machine Tears Speech to Pieces And Remakes It in Various Forms', May 17, p. 24 Google Scholar

New York Times (1939c) 'A Perfect Back-Talker', July 2, p. X4 Google Scholar

Newsweek (1942) 'Talking Cows', Vol. 20, July 20, p. 60–1 Google Scholar

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey (1977) 'Minnelli and Melodrama', Screen, 18.2, Summer, pp.113–19 Google Scholar

O'Neill, John J. (1942) 'The "Voder" Learns to Sing', Washington Post, February 22, p. L6 Google Scholar

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Russo, Alexander (no date) On the Spot: The Spatial and Temporal Flow of Spot Broadcasting, unpublished manuscript Google Scholar

Scha, Remko (1992) 'Virtual Voices', Mediamatic, vol. 7, number 1, Fall Google Scholar

Scheuer, Philip K. (1939), 'Town Called Hollywood', Los Angeles Times, July 2, p. C3 Google Scholar

Scheuer, Philip K. (1940) 'Town Called Hollywood', Los Angeles Times, December 15, p. B3 Google Scholar

Sjogren, Britta (2006) Into the Vortex, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press Into the Vortex Google Scholar

Solomon, Matthew (1995) 'Adapting 'Radio's Perfect Script: "Sorry, Wrong Number" and Sorry, Wrong Number', Quarterly Review of Film & Video, Vol. 16 (1), pp. 23–40 Google Scholar

Sterne, Jonathan (2003) The Audible Past, Durham: Duke University Press The Audible Past Google Scholar

Time Magazine (1939) 'Sonovox', 24 July, pp. 45–6 Google Scholar

Tucker, George (1940) 'Man About Manhattan', Salamanca Republican-Press, November 18, p. 4 Google Scholar

Washington Post (1905) 'The Voices of American Women', January 9, p. 6 Google Scholar

Williams, Greer 1940,'The Graphic Laboratory of Popular Science', Chicago Tribune, July 21, p. G8 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Yoder, Robert M. (1943) 'How To Talk Like a Cow From Boston', Saturday Evening Post, vol. 215, June 5, p. 11 Google Scholar

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Author details

Smith, Jacob