1998 Washington, D.C. Conference


The Sounds of Early Cinema

The Fifth International Domitor Conference was held at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and was devoted to sound and early cinema; performance, technologies, dialogue, sound effects, and sound theory were just some of the dimensions of this topic explored in this conference. Evening events included archival screenings, a magic lantern show, and a performance of “The Living Nickelodeon” from the University of Iowa Sound Studies Project.


The fifth international Domitor conference will be devoted to sound and early cinema. It will be hosted by the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., June 1-5, 1998. Conference activities will take place in the Madison Building of the LOC complex, especially in the Mary Pickford Theater. The Library of Congress will organize several programs of film screenings/sound demonstrations during the conference. If you have suggestions for particular events as part of those programs, please contact as soon as possible either David Francis or Patrick Loughney: write the Motion Picture Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. USA 20540 or call 202-707-5840 or 202-707-2371 (fax). A series of (pre-screening) programs devoted to sound and early cinema will be presented at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in October 1997. A world-wide search for relevant films and sound materials is now underway, coordinated by the Library of Congress. Ideas and suggestions are needed by the end of June 1997, at the latest. The program committee that will select presentations for the 1998 conference includes Richard Abel, Chair (Drake University), Rick Altman (University of Iowa), and Martin Marks (MIT). The program committee will work in close consultation with David Francis of the Library of Congress. Presentations can be proposed in two different formats: one lasting 30 minutes (15 pages), the other 10 minutes (summary presentations of 10-15 page papers). Conference participants must be members of Domitor.

The following is a list of potential topics dealing with sound and early cinema:

  • Specific sound practices (live and recorded music, live dialogue, synchronized recorded dialogue, narration, sound effects, etc.)
  • The relationship between different sound practices (e.g., the use of sound effects during narration or musical accompaniment)
  • Early sound technology (phonographs, noisemakers, sound effects machines, automatic pianos, organs, etc.)
  • Synchronized sound-on-disc (or -cylinder) systems
  • Silence as an early sound practice; sound practices as a component of the cinema program
  • The relationship of film sound to other contemporary sound practices (melodrama, vaudeville, illustrated songs, etc.)
  • Differences in national, regional, and/or local sound practices
  • Ethnic sound practices (e.g., in the USA: Yiddish, Irish, Hispanic, African-American practices)
  • Film sound personnel
  • Original scores and compilations for film accompaniment
  • Cue sheets
  • Producers’ attempts to influence sound practice
  • Genre differences in sound practice
  • Theoretical problems inspired by early film sound
  • Debates over sound practices in the trade press
  • The social or ideological function of different sound practices
  • Archival (and other) resources related to early film sound.

This list is broad but hardly exhaustive, and we encourage other ideas that will help all of us explore this relatively unexamined dimension of early cinema. The deadline for submitting proposals is July 28, 1997 (receiving date). Please use the abstract form included with this issue of the Bulletin and send four copies of your proposal to Richard Abel, 4816 Harwood Drive, Des Moines, Iowa, 50312 USA.


Popular Contexts for Sound in Early Cinema

Ian Christie (University of Kent) “Early phonograph folklore and cinema”

Richard Crangle (University of Exeter) “Next slide please: the lantern lecture in Britain, 1890-1910”

Tom Gunning (University of Chicago) “The silent sound of early cinema”

Lauren Rabinovitz (University of Iowa) “‘Bells and whistles’: the sound of meaning in train travel film rides”

Sync Sound Apparatuses/Systems (Europe)

Jens Ulff-Moller (Brandeis University) “‘Talking and singing movies’ in Constantin Philipsen’s Kosmoramas, 1904-1914”

Jan Olsson (Stockholm University) “Early Swedish sound films”

Michael Wedel (University of Amsterdam) “Synchronization and schizophrenia: audiovisual technologies in German film operettas, 1903-1929”

Sync Sound Apparatuses/Systems (North America)

Jeffrey Klenotic (University of New Hampshire) “‘The sensational acme of realism’: live dialogue as early cinema sound practice”

Pierre Véronneau (Cinémathèque québecoise) “Les vues pariées au Québec de 1908 à 1913”

Joseph Eckhardt (Montgomery County Community College) “‘The effect is quite startling’: Lubin’s attempts to commercially exploit the possibilities of sound movies, 1903-1914”

Scott Curtis (Northwestern University) “‘If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap’: Harry Lauder sings for Selig”

Sound Practices in Early Exhibition (North America)

Gregory Waller (University of Kentucky) “Sleighbells and mandolins”

Richard Abel (Drake University) “That most American of attractions, the illustrated song”

Martin Marks (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) “The Edison ‘music cues’ of 1909-1911 what did they mean, and how were they used?”

Herbert Reynolds (Columbia University) “Aural gratification for Kalem Pictures”

Sound and Ethnicity (North America)

Corey Creekmur (University of Iowa) “Sounds of blackness: African-American dialect in the context of early cinema”

Gary Keller (Arizona State University) “Representations of Spanish and Hispanicized English in US cinema before the sound era”

Louisa Ellen (University of Massachusetts) “Language, voices, faces and spaces: sound in Jewish early movie exhibition”

Recording live music for a Tonbild in 1913: Oskar Messter and his engineer Alfred Lewandowsky on the right, composer

Sound Practices in Early Exhibition (Europe)

Stephen Bottomore (London) “Sound effects: the missing dimension”

Tony Fletcher/Ronald Grant (Cinema Museum) “Talking to the picture: Britain, 1913”

Malgozata Hendrykowska (Adam Mickiewicz University) “Early Polish experiments with sound in film”

Martin Barnier (Université Lyon II) ‘‘Polemique à propos de l’invention du parlant entre 1894 et 1926”

Theory: Spectator’s Experience

Mats Bjokin (Stockholm University) “Public sounds: the politics of early sound practices”

Jean Châteauvert (Concordia University) and André Gaudreault (Université de Montréal) “Les bruits des spectateurs”

Jacques Polet (Université de Louvain) “Le spectacle cinématographique des premiers temps: fonctions des accompagnements sonores dans la réception des vues animées muettes”

François Jost (Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris III) “Les voies du silence”

Theory: Narrative 1

Bernard Perron (Université de Montréal) “Les transi-sons du cinéma des premiers temps”

John Fullerton (Stockholm University) “Sound acting and narrative development in early Danish comedy shorts”

Marek Hendrykowski (Adam Mieckiewicz University) “Karol Irzykowski’s ‘Death of the Cinematograph’: a pioneer theory of film sound”

Theory: Narrative 2

Isabelle Raynauld (Université de Montréal) “Sound in screenplays written before the talkies”

Dominique Nasta (Université libre de Bruxelles) “The use of sound elements in melodramas before 1915: diegetic and pragmatic considerations”

Amth van Tuinen (Netherlands) “Sound and textuality in early Griffith”

Theater and Early Cinema

Edouard Arnoldy (Université de Liège) ‘‘Le déclin du café-concert, l’échec du Chronophone Gaumont et la naissance de l’Art Cinématographique”

Rashit Yangirov (Moscow) “Talking movie or silent theatre: creative experiments by Vasily Goncharov”

Melodrama and Early Cinema

David Mayer and Helen Day-Mayer (University of Manchester) “Melodic interludes in early film melodrama reconsidered”

Jane Gaines (Duke University) and Neal Lerner (Davidson University) “The orchestration of affect: melodrama theory and Griffith’s epic scores”

Sound and Reception

Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan (Université de Montréal) ‘‘La réception des ‘vues parlantes’ dans le contexte de l’exploitation québecoise, 1895-1915”

Marta Braun (Ryerson University) and Charlie Keil (University of Toronto) “Sound, early cinema and local exhibition: a case study of Toronto”

Germain Lacasse (Université de Québec) ‘‘Le double silence de la ‘dernière guerre’”

Cobi Bordewijk (Leiden University) “Sound, silence and censorship: Leiden cinema performances in the teens”


Several Pre-1900 Films With Accompanying Sound
Jacques Malthete presents Faust aux enfers (The Damnation of Faust), Alison McMahan presents the Gaumont Chronophone, and Herbert Reynolds presents a selection of films by Kalem Co. accompanied by original piano scores.

Sound and Image Before the Cinema as Seen Through the Magic Lantern
Laura Minici Zotti presents a magic lantern show. David Francis and Helen Day-Mayer present Ostler Joe in lantern and Griffith’s film version.

The Living Nickelodeon
A recreation by Rick Altman, assisted by Laura Rabinovitz, Ann R. Lamond and Corey Creekmur.
Click here for The Living Nickelodeon Program Notes (PDF)

Messter, songs, and movies
1) Joseph Eckardt presents Lubin’s The Outlaw and the Bride
2) Sheet music and Cinema Merchandising by Ron Magliozzi
3) Oskar Messter films from the collection of the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek


As the President noted in his opening speech, when thanking David Francis, the head of the Motion Pictures, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress, for hosting this year’s Domitor Conference, the Conference was beginning twenty years almost to the day from the end of the 1978 F.I.A.F. Congress in Brighton, an event which more than any other spurred the growth in interest in early cinema that gave rise to Domitor, and an event also organized by David Francis, as curator of the National Film Archive in London. As members will be well aware, the theme of our Fifth Conference was “Sound in the early cinema”. A list of the papers presented is given below. In this review, I will concentrate on the events outside the panels at which papers were delivered, and also attempt to outline the areas of debate which emerged most clearly in the open discussion sessions that followed the formal panels.

The most powerful impression this reviewer brought back from the Conference is the variety of sound found in moving picture screening sites in the years before 1915. Of course, we all knew this-it is a cliché that the non-talking cinema was never a silent cinema, such a cliché that a revisionist trend, to be discussed in more detail below, has recently reasserted the importance of silence in the nickelodeon. However, the spectrum of sound we heard about, and even the more limited one we actually heard at the Conference, was still startling. Where synchronized sound systems were concerned, we saw the camera and projector for a sound-on-film system perfected by Eugène Lauste in 1913, recently rescued from crates in an asbestos-contaminated Smithsonian Institution warehouse. We heard modern restorations of sound films produced in the 1900s. Herbert Reynolds presented a programme in which Martin Marks played the piano scores published by the Kalem Company for screenings of Captured by Bedouins, The Siege of Petersburg, and other 1912 films. We heard papers on sound effects machines and sound-effects practices, and heard them performed by the Living Nickelodeon (of which more below). We heard papers on applause and other forms of vocal intervention by audiences. In a lantern-slide presentation by Laura Minici Zotti and David Francis, we heard recitations to lantern-slide series (“At the Level-Crossing Gates” and “Buy Your Own Cherries”, read by David Francis, the latter with songs sung and accompanied by Martin Marks), and related films (“‘Ostler Joe”, recited by Helen Day-Mayer to the 1908 Biograph film starring D.W. Griffith). We saw, heard, and joined in the choruses for song-slide presentations by the Living Nickelodeon, and heard Bob Kosovsky sing “Meet Me Down at Luna, Lena” and play “The Vitagraph Girl” in a presentation by Ron Magliozzi on the relations between the sheet-music industry and the early cinema.

Where synchronized systems were concerned, Alison McMahan presented videotapes of Gaumont’s restorations of a number of Gaumont Chronophone films, mostly café-concert songs, Richard Koszarski presented videotape reconstructions by Art Shifrin of two Edison Kinetophone films made in 1912, The Five Bachelors, a vaudeville sketch with most of its dialogue sung by a male-voice quartet, and The Deaf Mute,, one scene (out of four filmed) from a Civil-War play in the genre of The Warrens of Virginia, and Eva Orbanz sent from the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek a group of Messter Biophon subjects, some with restored tracks, some without, including opera and operetta arias and choruses, two stripteases, and one comic dialect monologue (Auf der Radrennbahn in Friedenau,). Unfortunately, these were all sound-on-film or -tape restorations reproduced with modern image and sound equipment, so we lacked the chance we obtained in New York in 1994 of seeing actual 1890s and 1900s projectors at work. The role of the synchronized film in the early film programme was perhaps another gap in the Conference’s coverage, but Karel Dibbets made an interesting point in response to Richard Abel’s paper. Abel had noted that in the American nickelodeon in 1906-8, when most of the films shown were French (usually from Pathé), the song slides represented the specifically American component, almost all of them being American popular songs. Dibbets suggested that in Germany the Tonfilm, (although, as the examples we saw and heard show, its repertory included the essentially international form of Italian grand opera) was usually in German and often a characteristically German song, and thus functioned like the song slide in the German movie house, also largely dominated by films made abroad.

A recurrent theme of the papers and discussions is what was dubbed at the Conference the “Altman effect”: attempts to corroborate, dispute, or otherwise come to terms with Rick Altman’s recently advanced thesis in “The Silence of the Silents” (see “Members’ Publications” in this issue of the Bulletin) that the music in early nickelodeons was not film accompaniment in the sense we are familiar with from film music performed by surviving veterans of the silent era and modern performances of the original scores for silent features. These practices are, according to Altman, characteristic of the later 1910s and 1920s. From 1906-10, films were often screened without music, which might be used only between films and for specifically musical parts of the program, like song slides; when music was played during the movies, it was cued directly by the picture, either as diegetic music, or as tunes evoked by the title or intertitles of the film, rather than by appropriateness of mood. Although the earliest music actually issued for performance with films in America, the Kalem scores of 1912, are like the later practice, as are the cue sheets issued by some companies and featured in music columns in the cinematic trade press from 1909-10 on, these, for Altman, represent pioneering attempts to move away from nickelodeon practice rather than norms of that practice. These controversial theses are supported by extensive quotations from contemporary sources. Altman did not present a paper at the Conference; instead, the troupe he founded and directs, the Living Nickelodeon (with Altman as the pianist, projection by Lauren Rabinowicz, sound effects by Corey Creekmur, and songs by Ann R. Lamond), presented an evening’s entertainment, consisting of four different types of possible nickelodeon programme, including films (in Library of Congress Paper Prints), song slides (with 35mm copies of original glass lantern slide sets from the John W. Ripley and Marnan Collections), and (as occasional background) marquee ballyhoo music as if from outside the theatre. Despite the pleasures of the performance, especially the visually and vocally gorgeous song slides, later discussions showed that not all sceptics were convinced. The predominance in the programmes of short, essentially pre-nickelodeon films, was noted, as was the fact that no other silent form of public entertainment at the turn of the century lacked musical accompaniment. Is it really conceivable that dramatic films approaching a quarter of an hour in length were projected to ambient sound alone? If they had musical accompaniment, would not legitimate-theatre and variety-theatre tradition have dictated mood music not dissimilar to that found in the later published scores?

Altman’s chronology neatly dovetailed with one offered by André Gaudreault and Jean Châteauvert in a discussion of applause at the nickelodeon, based on reports of such applause in the Montréal press. For them, these reports suggest that the silent spectator who became officially de rigueur in moving picture houses in the classical period was an innovation dating from around 1910; before that date, spectators applauded, commented out loud, and openly discussed the films they were seeing. Gaudreault and Châteauvert linked this shift to the now consecrated one pioneered by Gaudreault and Tom Gunning between a cinema of monstration or attraction and one of narrative integration, but they thereby introduced two significant shifts into that historical account. First, the date of the transition was moved up by three to five years to a point after most of the films discussed by Gunning in his account of Griffith’s development of narrative integration (whereas some writers have wanted to move it back into the early 1900s). Second, the opposition, which was always linked to Metz’s characterization of the classical spectator as a lonely voyeur, was now associated with the terms “public” and “private”, suggesting an attempt to correlate it also with Oskar Negt and Miriam Hansen’s conception of the nickelodeon (and the related kinds of early film theatre in Europe) as a “proletarian public sphere” tamed by the massified cinema of the classical period.

I may be putting too much emphasis on a single paper presented at the Conference, but the coincidence with the date Altman suggests for a shift from the “true” nickelodeon soundscape, and the frequency with which a 1910 transition defined in similar terms was mentioned in discussions, suggests otherwise. This chronological revision has several important consequences. First, by dissociating the transition from the development of devices of film narration, it shifts emphasis from text to context: monstration or attraction on the one hand, and institutional cinema on the other, come to depend more on the cinematic ambiance than on any stylistic features. Second, it encourages a view of the history of cinema as a development from a popular or even proletarian early cinema to a middle-class, middle-brow mass cinema in the classical period. This view is, of course, not a new one; it dominated film historiography until relatively recently, but seemed to have been displaced by more recent scholarship. The original opposition between the cinema of attractions and the cinema of narrative integration carried such implications only for a few scholars (notably Noël Burch, and in his case as part of a much more complex set of arguments). The cinema of attractions embraced projections for the Pope or the Tsar as much as those in penny gaffs or fairground booths. And, as several conferees remarked, during the transition to the institutional cinema, it was not necessarily the middle class that demanded a reverent silence resembling that at a symphony concert, while proletarians preferred the atmosphere of a saloon-it might be the cinema reformer who expected to talk aloud about the pictures just as he would discuss the newspapers at his Stammtisch, while the “shusher” could be a shopgirl wishing to be left in peace to enjoy her fantasies about her “moving picture boy”. Detailed work on the variety of venues in which early films were seen, and close stylistic analysis, have considerably nuanced if not completely overthrown previous simplifications; it would be a pity if “cultural-studies” approaches reinstated the old nostalgia.

As I hope this survey indicates, discussion at the Conference was sustained, cumulative, usually well-informed, and at any rate uninhibited (Herb Reynolds was grateful to be informed from the floor during his presentation that Gene Gauntier was a woman). This liveliness and continuity vindicated once again the decision to confine the Conference to plenary sessions, though some conferees complained that the many ten-minute papers required to squeeze presentations into a plenary format were too short for anything very significant to be conveyed (they also encouraged a tendency to gabble that made the sterling work of the simultaneous translators almost impossible).

The Conference was attended by 91 people, most of them Domitor members, from 11 countries, including sizable contingents from Britain, Canada (anglophone and francophone), France, the Netherlands, and the U.S.A., and smaller numbers from Belgium, Denmark, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Sweden. Unfortunately, no-one came from outside Europe and North America, and, perhaps more surprisingly, there was only one Italian conferee, none from any other country bordering the Mediterranean but France, and no Austrians, Germans or Swiss.

Richard Abel is investigating avenues for the publication of the Proceedings. Subject to satisfactory terms being secured, it seems likely that a selection will be published by Indiana University Press, while others may appear in Film History. Papers which are not published in hard copy may be made available via the Domitor web site.

I think Domitor can congratulate itself on another successful Conference. However, what was by all reports the most magical moment of the week was missed by many members who had already departed, including this reviewer. On the last evening, the master conjurer, David Francis, pulled the biggest rabbit from his hat: the remaining Domitorians saw and heard, resynchronized (by hand and eye) after more than a hundred years, the film well known without its soundtrack of William Kennedy Laurie Dickson playing the violin in a test for the original 1895 Edison Kinetophone. Who said it was a myth that the cinema could bring the dead back to life?

Ben Brewster