Sound Came to Film 27 Years Before The Jazz Singer
Note: This is the eighth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1900 film, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, directed by Clément Maurice.
Sound in film is believed to have begun in 1927, with THE JAZZ SINGER. And, to be honest, that’s much more right than it is wrong. It was the first full feature length talkie; even though synchronized sound effects, music, and yes, even dialogue had been experimented with since the beginning of film itself, it deserves the distinction of being a true technological innovation that started a revolution. In a much smaller, perhaps less significant way, so too does CYRANO DE BERGERAC, released 27 years prior in 1900.
Even by the time CYRANO DE BERGERAC came around, sound films had been tried. Thomas Edison had produced THE DICKSON EXPERIMENTAL SOUND FILM (1894), directed by the titular William K.L. Dickson, six years earlier. It showed Dickson playing a violin into a recording horn while two men dance for a whopping seventeen seconds, even though over two minutes of sound was recorded. It’s a fascinating discrepancy, seeing how far along sound recording technology already was compared to film, and how long it would still take for the two to be married together seamlessly.
However, the technology CYRANO utilized wasn’t much different than what gave THE DICKSON EXPERIMENTAL SOUND FILM its audio. Sound was recorded on a wax cylinder, which had to be manually synchronized and cranked to the film. As you might imagine, this results in a lot of syncing idiosyncrasies and, over 115 years later, warping of the sound that was originally recorded onto the aforementioned wax cylinders. Even still, the sound may not have been so perfectly complementary to the visuals when the films were brand new; as we know, this technology didn’t take off for quite a while.
CYRANO’s director, Clément Maurice, had worked at the Lumière family factory, and was friends with the film pioneer brothers. Allegedly, he even booked the famous (if not mislabeled) first public film screening in 1895 for the brothers. Maurice worked as a camera operator for a few years and, eventually, directed his own films…almost all of which were shown at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition. Besides CYRANO, Maurice made LE DUEL D’HAMLET (1900) and ROMÉO ET JULIETTE (1900), among lost others.
Near as we can tell, they all used pre-recorded voices on wax, which the actors would lip sync while filming. And as mentioned with THE DICKSON EXPERIMENTAL SOUND FILM, this wax cylinder would be manually played alongside the film. All of these sound films were made through the “Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre,” which was not the only group that was showcasing sound films at the Exposition. Nevertheless, Maurice’s choices in subject matter, some big names, and of course, a certain degree of luck (a couple of films escaped destruction over the many, many years) mean we can enjoy his work today.
Unlike HAMLET and ROMÉO, which were adaptations of timeless and famous Shakespeare plays, CYRANO wasn’t based on a sure thing. Well, I guess it was based on a less sure thing. The play of the same name, loosely based on the man of the same name, had debuted only three years earlier, in 1897, and leading man and French theater star Benoît-Constant Coquelin reprised his role for this brief, two-minute adaptation of the incredibly popular play’s duel scene. It was his only film role.
Indeed, as with most films of the time, CYRANO views like a shot of the play. However, the film’s less showy success, its hand-tinting, adds another, less obvious layer of magic. While it had been done in film for some time, especially by Méliès, CYRANO’s colors only add to the strange, distorted, canned sound of the dialogue. And yes, the sound isn’t quite what you might expect. It’s very strange, honking, and high-pitched, and yet it contributes to a feeling of novelty and a time long since past, simultaneously.
I felt chills the first time I watched CYRANO, and I’ve gotten them on repeat viewings since then. Its narrative isn’t a complete one, although it is entertaining to see Coquelin’s arrogant performance, and its status as the earliest color sound film is qualified by its short length and the limited scope of its innovations. But I think it, quite literally, speaks for itself. Perhaps more so than many other films from this era, CYRANO DE BERGERAC calls your attention to the fact that the people you are watching were alive in a world that was different in nearly every way, one that existed (at the time of this writing) 117 years ago. It subverts your expectations of what a film from 1900 should be like (for example, being silent), and that alone is a powerful and valuable feeling the film imparts. On a larger scale, CYRANO DE BERGERAC is an incredible testament to an incredibly important thread of filmmaking, years before anyone thought the crucial sensation of sound could be integrated into the craft.
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