Anxiety over the Advent of Synchronized Sound

While doing research for a chapter on the Third Annual New York Exhibitors Ball of  1913 for Inventing the Movies, I had a sudden insight.

The New York Exhibitors Ball of 1913, third of its kind, was an event of extraordinary liminality, a crossroad between the old and new worlds of the cinema that even the thousands of film manufacturers and fans were probably not aware of at the time.

The Ball took place on Monday,  December 15, at the Terrace Garden, a space that was often hired out for big parties, situated on Fifty-Eight Street between Lexington and Third in Manhattan. Advertisements promised "The Manufacturers, The Distributors, The Photo-Players, The Exhibitors and 5000 Motion Picture Fans." (Motion Picture News, Vol VIII, December 13, 1913, Number 23,  p 6.)

The real event, at least in the mind of the exhibitors, was the business session of the executive committee of the New York State organization, held at the Hotel Imperial. The delegates discussed ventilation of theaters, better fire prevention, "a higher grade of pictures"  (that was a code for a battle then raging over censorship boards) and the need for uniform state laws. 

Of more interest to us is the fact that the delegates were filmed, first at two in the afternoon on the street near the hotel, then entering the building, then leaving the building.  These films were shown at seven o'clock that night in the Terrace Garden, as a commencement to the festivities. ("New York Exhibitors Ball a Great Success," Motion Picture News, Vol VIII, December 27, 1913, Number 25,  p 18)

The filming of the delegates is clearly a nod to one of the earliest silent films: in June of 1895 Louis Lumière filmed an excursion of the participants of the Congress of French Photographic Societies as they disembarked from an excursion on the River Saône. The next day, he screened the resulting footage for the assembled delegates. For the delegates in NY to render such an hommage to the Lumières clearly links the film manufacturers and exhibitors of 1913 to the earliest days of cinema.

But something else linked them to the future of cinema, though most people present were not aware of it.

Who was present? Mayor Kline and Mayor-elect Mitchel, several judges and other notables were among "the laity" present at the ball. What brought in 5000 fans, however, was the promise of seeing "Photo-Players" in the flesh. These included some actors whose names are still familiar to us today: John Bunny, Clara Kimball Young, Owen Moore and of course, Pearl White.

King Baggot was supposed to lead the procession of photo-players along with Mary Pickford, but in the end he escorted Mary Fuller.

What caught my attention was the following exchange:

King Baggot, who made the crowd laugh when he said that he had come to the stage on a bet with General Manager Graham, of the Universal, that he would make every work he uttered "heard distinctly in the Universal box (it seemed to be the belief of the audience that the president of the Screen Club had won).(Moving Picture World, Vol 18, No. 13, December 27, 1913, p. 1551)

What was that bet really about? Of course, there was always the competition between theatrical players, who could make themselves heard on the Broadway stage in the era before microphones, and photo-players, who relied on pantomime.

But by 1913 Gaumont's chronophone and other synchronized sound systems had already made their presence felt in NY. So part of this bet is the studio head challenging the actor to prove he can make himself heard as well as seen. These systems were post-synchronized (the actors lip-syncing to their own images, or the images of others), but they were everywhere, redolent with the promise, and the threat, of synchronized sound.

The whole article has an emphasis on performers who can make themselves heard: Len Spencer, the emcee, and two singers were complimented on being completely audible to the thousands of people in the room.


We aren't told for sure who won the bet between the head of Universal and King Baggot. But the fact that the Moving Picture World focuses on this story (the Motion Picture News focused more on the business side of things in their coverage) speaks volumes about the anxiety photo-players were already starting to feel about the sound era which they knew was right around the corner.