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Seventeen Seconds in New Jersey – The Premature Birth of Sound Film

October 12, 2017

Dickson-Experimental-Sound

If you were surprised to find that Thomas Edison reciting “Mary Had A Little Lamb” wasn’t the first thing in the first mix, you may also recollect that sound film started in 1927 with The Jazz Singer. But here we are 32 years earlier, and what do you know, here’s the first example of someone combining moving pictures with recorded sound.

Of course this makes sense when you think about it. If you’ve got a gramophone and an experimental film camera around, why not try using them at the same time? William Kennedy Dixon, one of the more important people in the invention of film, had two men dance while another played the violin, with a fourth man making a brief appearance in the final seconds.

Vito Russo posited that this was the first piece of gay cinema, but I’m afraid that’s probably just wishful thinking – these were different times, when it was also quite common for men to dance with men without any homosexual overtones. It’s also not a good example of either dancing or violin playing, of course.

What I do find fascinating about the clip, though, it is the picture it gives of Edison’s Black Maria Studio, especially the gigantic recording horn, suspended on a wire from the ceiling. The ugliness of the work uniforms the men wear is also very interesting – a reminder that the photos we rely on for a sense of the Victorian age are usually their Sunday best, and not a real representation of everyday life

So here it is then, sound and vision, married together as awkwardly as two studio workers forced to dance a waltz.

From → 1895

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