Did Britain Really Invent Film Sound?

Geoff Brown, De Montfort University

29 May 2018


Did Britain really invent film sound? This question – for which a quick answer would be ‘I’m afraid not’ – landed in my lap during my work for the research project British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound, 1927-1933, funded by Britain’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, and channelled through De Montfort University (in Leicester) and Stirling University. Officially, work on the project has now finished, though the topic is so fascinating and encompassing that I suspect that,  like a friendly octopus, it will never let me go.

During my trawlings through Britain’s trade papers and the general press covering the years on either side of the emergence of British talking features in 1929, many interesting phenomena came my way. One of them was the 1927-8 craze for electrical reproducers like Brunswick’s Panatrope, disc-playing machines that inched British audiences towards sound cinema with recordings of assorted music and sound effects; inched cinema musicians towards unemployment as well. The Magnatone, cheap and cheerful, was another one, apparently known as Maggi to the theatre staff, according to the burbling text of an August 1928 advert in the Kinematograph Weekly: ‘The orchestra may go on strike, get tired or all die, but Maggi will be there – always ready, always singing at her work.’[i] One month later, it was Al Jolson’s singing (and talking) that brought crowds flocking to The Jazz Singer, The Singing Fool and other Warner Bros. Vitaphone films at London’s Piccadilly Theatre in London. After that, Maggi’s own unemployment was only a matter of time.

Other phenomenon of the period crept upon me more insidiously. It was so with the subject of this blog, the patrimony of film sound. At first the topic manifested itself in a roundabout way. I was reading the Daily Express columns of G. A. (George) Atkinson, Britain’s most notable, patriotic and forthright film critic of the period, and this came along on 25 June 1928:

Extraordinary efforts have been made by interested propagandists to persuade the world that the moving-picture, as we know it today, originated in America. The truth is that the first real motion-picture was produced in England by William Friese-Greene, an Englishman, “the father of film”, and his claim to that honour was upheld in the United States Supreme Court. American newspapers please note (which they will not).[ii]

That last line could almost have come from a Trump tweet. There is also something Trumpian about the blurring of facts, particularly regarding the 1910 Motion Picture Patents Company case in America, where Friese-Greene swore a defence affidavit for Carl Laemmle’s Yankee Film Company. Dodgy words in Atkinson’s paragraph include ‘Supreme Court’, ‘upheld’, ‘first’, and ‘real’. I’m not convinced by ‘father’, either. But the key point is that Atkinson here is being just as much of an “interested propagandist” as his opposites across the Atlantic.

William Friese-Greene

Five months later, on 5 November, in an Express column headed ‘A Peep at the Origins of the Cinema’, he hailed Friese-Greene again as the inventor of cinematography, though that was only the preamble to fifteen patriotic paragraphs about Eadweard Muybridge and his 19th century experiments in photographing motion.[iii] Atkinson was incensed because Muybridge, born just outside London in Kingston-upon-Thames, had been claimed by some as an American citizen on the grounds that his key experiments had been conducted in America, where he lived for most of his adult life.

Why this determination to push British filmic precedence in 1928? Admittedly it didn’t take much to get Atkinson waving the Union Jack at any time, but it’s clear to me that he and others in Britain were using Friese-Greene as a gambit in a wider war then being fought against America’s invasion of the country’s national life and cinemas. When Atkinson began promoting Friese-Greene, the British film industry was adjusting to the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act and its provisions for countering American imports with increased local production. In its wake, every possible opportunity was taken to champion the Britishness of British films – something easy enough with the rural setting of the 1928 silent Widecombe Fair. ‘A lesson to Hollywood,’ proclaimed the flag-waving Daily Sketch; ‘a film of which one can say with pride: this is a British production.’

But another part of the wider context is surely the looming presence on the horizon of the biggest upset faced by British film production since the industry’s formation: the coming of sound. Atkinson’s fanfares for Friese-Greene rang out exactly when this new American invasion was getting under way: an invasion of American talkie films, an invasion of American sound systems. You can tell that a war was going on when a disgruntled exhibitor from Leicester, A. S. Whittaker, implied in a Kine Weekly article from April 1929 that America had concocted the talkie revolution solely as an act of revenge on the Brits in the wake of the 1927 Act.  The American thinking, Whittaker said, was: ‘These English are getting on too well. They are dangerous. How can we destroy them? Talkies. We have the patents, studios, and all the paraphernalia. England has got to have Talkies.’[iv]

With Friese-Greene enthroned as the “father of film”, the next step in nationalist film propaganda was to try to trumpet Britain’s key role in the invention of film sound. Atkinson played a part in this too, though his was not the only voice heard. Significant support came from the technical expert of the Kine Weekly, R. Howard Cricks (son of the pioneer film producer George Howard Cricks), in a Kine article published on 14 November 1929, ‘Technicalities of the Talkies’.[v]  This is his key sentence: ‘With the exception of Edison, the leading inventors in this sphere were British, or at least worked in this country.’  You note that convenient addition – exactly the same get-out clause that Atkinson complained about when Americans claimed Muybridge as an American.

Cricks’s little roll of honour started with Cecil Hepworth, the creator of the Vivaphone, up and running by 1908, and perhaps the most successful of British devices from the days when multiple inventors and showmen around the world tried to synchronise footage of performing artistes with the sounds of gramophone discs or cylinders, usually recorded by other artists entirely. Digging deeper, Cricks might also have mentioned Walter Gibbons, the theatrical proprietor behind the cylinder-accompanied Phono-Bio-Tableaux, on view at the London Hippodrome from November 1900. Or the Cinematophone, marketed by the Walturdaw company; or the Warwick Trading Company’s seductively cheap Cinephone, the work of Will Barker and William Jeapes, advertised in December 1908 as ‘the Acme of Simplicity and the Limit of Perfection’.[vi] If that was so, why did later inventors bother?

Cricks did however alight on one other significant British pioneer in the field of sound-on-disc (or cylinder). Francis Thomassin, now a hard man to document, was still working in the disc-and-film business in 1929, when he helped to develop Naturetone, a reproduction system installed in embarrassingly few venues (I have only found details of two). Matters were different 20 years earlier, the heyday of his disc-based Animatophone, featured in August 1910 in the opening programme of the Picture Theatre at Kingston, Muybride’s old haunt. The films specially produced for the system sometimes had cultural ambitions beyond the usual renditions of popular songs: there were potted versions of operas, including an eight-scene mash-up of Gounod’s Faust. When projected in Exeter, also that August, it ran for 45 minutes. After surveying Thomassin’s past in 1929, the Nottingham Journal observed: ‘British enterprise is not so dead as the recent scares concerning American talkie domination would have us believe’.[vii]

Musing on talkies in his 1929 article, Cricks surmised that disc-sound would eventually be ousted by sound-on-film, but not for another five years. The forecast was optimistic. In any event, the acid test for Britain’s importance in the field of film sound necessarily lay with those who pioneered optical sound tracks and the more precise synchronisation this development brought. In this area the person widely picked as a crucial, if not the key, pioneer was Eugène Augustin Lauste (1857-1935). Here is Atkinson in the Express, gearing up for battle in a round-up of readers’ comments in June 1928:

E. S. of Lonsdale Square, Barnsbury, and other readers claim that Eugène Lauste, said to be an Englishman, invented and patented present talking film notions as far back as 1906. The story of England being outwitted by America in cinema enterprises is nothing new.[viii]

Hang on a minute – this man was French! Indubitably French; though following work in America for Edison, his researches admittedly reached a climax in London, where he lived roughly from 1903 to 1916, latterly in the Brixton area. In 1907 he was granted a patent that laid the groundwork for building a working apparatus for recording and projecting film sound. It was all there, somewhere: the sound waves electrically transmitted, then photographically registered on film alongside the moving images, then converted back into sound by roughly the reverse method. Lauste, we’re told, made many thousands of feet of film experiments, now shrunk to a few surviving frames and photos, some of them stored at the Library of Congress. In his autobiography, George Pearson wrote about seeing one film of a woman singing, projected on a bedsheet in Lauste’s garden.  A surviving photograph may represent two of the surviving frames, clearly showing the needle-like soundtrack, half the width of the celluloid strip.

Another images features Lauste on the right, supposedly humming to the record he’s listening to through the gramophone’s petal-shaped horn.

Now Lauste is undeniably important in the evolution of sound-on-film; otherwise, in 1929, in old age and ill health in America, he would scarcely have been given a retainer by Western Electric and the Bell Telephone Lab, who wanted his knowledge and data for themselves.  But can he be called a British inventor? Only by an enormous stretch.

Another of Cricks’ British treasures was the maverick and wayward Harry Grindell Matthews (1880-1941). He came to films from wireless telephony research, and by 1921 was shooting and recording in optical sound at premises just off Oxford Circus in London, using a variant of the technology used by Lauste.

Harry Grindell Matthews

Where Lauste’s films served only as experiments, some of Grindell Matthews’ output, on paper at least, might have had commercial potential as topical novelties. On 16 September 1921 he shot 300 feet of Ernest Shackleton talking, one week before explorer embarked on his final and fatal Antarctic expedition. On 22 October, up on the premises’ roof, he filmed stage performers Roy Royston and Joyce Barbour in Elizabethan dress enacting a number from their West End show, Now and Then, before they rushed off for the Saturday matinée.[ix]

A few weeks before, the press had been invited to observe and wonder, resulting in headlines like ‘The Film That Talks’ andSpeaking Films: British Inventor’s Device’. It wasn’t a device, however, that stirred any interest from the British film industry, and Grindell Matthews quickly moved on to other inventions, including the notorious ‘death ray’ of 1924 – an electronic beam supposedly capable of igniting gunpowder, stopping motorcycles, and killing a laboratory rat and worse. Hepworth made a two-reeler about it. Thereafter, until his death, Grindell Matthews was rarely identified in the popular press as an inventor of ‘speaking films’. Instead, he was always ‘the Death Ray man’.

In 1928 he briefly returned to movie fame because of an American legal battle over apparatus using a selenium-based photo-electric cell, a feature too of his own system as well as the Phonofilm technology used by Lee de Forest (another inventor on Cricks’ British list, possibly because of the activities of the De Forest Phonofilm company’s London offshoot). The publicity, some fanned by Atkinson, brought at least one concrete result for Grindell Matthews: late that year, he was hired as a consultant by Warner Bros., just as Bell Laboratories tucked Lauste under their wings as a precautionary measure.

Does all of this this make Grindell Matthews a viable British pioneer in the reams of film sound?  It certainly did so for Atkinson, Cricks, the inventor himself, and his devoted biographer Ernest Barwell, who wrote in 1942 that Grindell Matthews had made talking films a reality, and removed ‘the curse of silence’ from the screen.[x] But at this distance, it’s hard to be quite so sure about someone far better at thinking up devices than making them flourish in the real world, and a man whom Barwell also referred to as ‘the stormy petrel of science’.

Did this propaganda push to boost British, or quasi-British, film pioneers of any stripe actually have any effect? One possible way of gauging this is to look at the photos opposite the title pages of British film books in the 1930s. Who is the frontispiece pin-up in Bernard Brown’s rigorously technical Talking Pictures of 1931? Eugène Lauste and deservedly so, though not because he’s English (because he isn’t).  What is the choice for G. R. Doyle’s Twenty-Five Years of Film from 1936? William Friese-Greene. And for Low Warren’s The Film Game of 1937? William Friese-Greene. Ten years further on, after the world war, it is also obviously Friese-Greene who gets the slot in Muriel Forth’s romanticised 1948 biography Friese-Greene; Close Up of an Inventor, written under the name Ray Allister, and later turned into the film The Magic Box (1951).

In between book and film, however, the chipping away at Friese-Greene’s status began, launched in the journal British Kinematography by the previously flag-waving R. Howard Cricks, subsequently employed as the technical consultant on The Magic Box, presumably for a comforting fee. In his article ‘The Place of Friese-Greene in the Invention of Kinematography’, Cricks allowed the inventor some temporal advantage concerning key components in motion pictures, but still concluded that his contribution to kinematography’s practical development was ‘not important’.[xi]

This was in 1950: over 20 years after the talkie revolution, and a revolution that the industry, for all the initial chaos, trauma, and financial costs, easily survived, even if Naturetone, Magnatone, and many cinema musicians hadn’t. American sound systems conquered studios and cinemas, but British films still found popularity; indeed they had been through something of a golden age in the 1940s. The world had moved on; compared to the situation in 1929, the British industry didn’t have so much to prove. Questions too over what pioneer came first, and what passport he held, weren’t so important after the Second World War: a war that told all who would listen that waging nationalistic battles carries a terrible price. It’s not too fanciful I hope to feel that realisation lurking somewhere behind this telling sentence from Brian Coe’s article of 1955, ‘The Truth About Friese Greene’ in The British Journal of Photography, and one applicable to all sound pioneers, real or imagined. ‘Cinematography’, Coe wrote, ‘was not invented; it appeared, the product of its time, as the result of a number of advances in photographic and mechanical technology over many years.’[xii]  And, he should have added, over countries and continents too.

[i] Kinematograph Weekly, 30 August 1928, 59.

[ii] Daily Express, 25 June 1928, 9.

[iii] Daily Express, 5 November 1928, 13.

[iv] Kinematograph Weekly, 4 April 1929, 21.

[v] Kinematograph Weekly, 14 November 1929, ‘Ideal Kinema’ supplement, 43.

[vi] The Stage, 3 December 1908, 30.

[vii] Nottingham Journal, 24 April 1929, 5.

[viii] Daily Express, 17 June 1929, 8.

[ix] The Times, 24 October 1921, 7.

[x] Ernest Barwell, The Death Ray Man (London, Hutchinson), 1942, 79.

[xi] British Kinematography, May 1950, 163.

[xii] The British Journal of Photography, 1955, 448.

Geoff Brown, film historian, classical music critic and former film critic for The Times, was Chief Researcher on the AHRC-funded project British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound, 1927-1933, and is a Research Fellow at the Cinema and Television History Research Centre, De Montfort University. He has written on the early sound period, multi-lingual filmmaking, and the British film industry’s continental connections in The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Journal of British Cinema and Television, Film History, and the book collections Destination London (2008) and Ealing Revisited (2012).  The current blog is based on a paper delivered in April at the 2018 British Silent Film Festival Symposium, King’s College, London.

Contact: geoffbrown17@aol.com

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