Music, Sound, and the Moving Image

'The Plasterers' and Early Sound Cinema Aesthetics

Music, Sound, and the Moving Image (2010), 4, (1), 55–75.

Abstract

Scholarly accounts of early sound cinema (of the period roughly 1926–31) have sometimes bemoaned the ineptitude of films in this period, criticising especially their static narratives, aesthetic impoverishment, and failure to maintain classical style and narration. Unfortunately, such criticism has been influenced by retrospective knowledge that the classical style and narration of the late silent era would again emerge as the dominant practice in the early 1930s. Rather than defining the period negatively vis-à-vis prior and subsequent representational practices, scholars need instead to attend to the range of aesthetic practices on display in the period. Focusing on vaudeville's intersection with film, this article examines the sound and image strategies in The Plasterers (1929) and other early sound films to argue for the emergence of an alternative aesthetic in the early sound period that showcases physical agility and 'multiple-performer coordination'. The article argues that such early sound restrictions as a lack of sound mixing and the use of multiple-camera shooting encouraged this aesthetic to emerge, demonstrating that contrary to received wisdom, early sound technology had a productive as well as a repressive effect on film content and style during the period. While not the dominant practice after the transition to sound, this aesthetic nevertheless remained an option during the studio years, particularly in song-and-dance performances.

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Slowik, Michael