The history of film dialogue starts with the silent era. Speech sometimes literally accompanied silent films—some exhibitors hired lecturers to narrate silent films and local actors to speak lines for the characters. As the industry moved toward standardization, film producers found it desirable to include printed dialogue and expository intertitles. Silent film historian Barry Salt has found dialogue intertitles as early as 1904; Eileen Bowser has recorded that from 1907 to 1915 producers experimented with finding the exactly right placement and format for such titles. After 1915, with feature-length films, title writing became a specialty, and dialogue intertitles were used for humor, to convey important information, and to individualize characters. The critical reverence of the few films that torturously managed to avoid intertitles, such as F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), should not be taken as indicative of the typical practices of the silent era. After all, in silent movies the characters were not supposed to be mutes. The characters spoke to one another; the incapacity was on the side of the filmgoers—we were the ones who were deaf.
The transition to sound in the late 1920s was complicated for American studios and theater owners, demanding great outlays of capital and entailing negotiation between competing technologies and corporate strategies. Equally upsetting for some in the film community was the wrenching shift in their approach to their craft caused by the possibilities of sound. The apprehension that sound would be the death of the visual artistry of silent film was initially abetted by the limitations of early microphones and recording apparatus, which restricted camera movement. From a historical perspective, what is remarkable about the conversion to sound is not that it was bumpy, but that the technical and aesthetic problems were solved so quickly and successfully, so that by the early 1930s the use of dialogue, sound effects, and music betrays none of the restrictions, tinniness, or fumbling of the transition films.
Immediately after the incorporation of sound, Hollywood began a wholesale importation of East Coast writers. The newspapermen, playwrights, and vaudevillians who went West in the early 1930s brought with them new sensibilities, novel stories, and a fresh approach to language.
In addition, sound instantly altered the balance of genres. Film musicals burst forth, as did literal adaptations of stage plays, which now could retain not just plot points, but much of the original stage dialogue. Verbally based comedies, featuring performers such as the Marx Brothers or W. C. Fields, expanded the contours of film comedy. Moreover, genres that had been established during the silent era underwent sea changes because of the new aesthetic capabilities. Each genre developed its own dialogue conventions, such as the street argot in gangster films or the dialect in westerns, conventions that turned out to be just as important to genre dynamics as their visual iconography.
A third event of the 1930s was the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code, written in 1930 and more stringently enforced by the Hays Office after 1934. One of the reasons why this formal practice of industry self-censorship was put in place at this time is that verbal transgressions of prevailing standards were now possible. Although much of the Code deals with overall plot development, moral attitudes, and what viewers might learn about illicit behavior, several of the tenets deal specifically with language. For example:
No one quite had such a way with dialogue as Preston Sturges. As a screenwriter, he constructed plots that were far-fetched and sometimes incoherent; as a director, his visuals were competent but uninspired. But as a dialogue writer, Sturges was unparalleled.
Preston Sturges had an eccentric upbringing; his mother divorced his father and married a Chicago socialite, only to leave him for a free-spirited life in Europe, following dancer Isadora Duncan. He lived in Europe off and on from 1901 to 1914. Sturges studied in a series of private schools in the United States and Europe and began writing plays in the late 1920s—some of which were acclaimed, others spectacular flops. He was hired as a writer by Universal in 1932.
Sturges worked as a screenwriter for numerous studios, and several of his scripts—such as The Good Fairy (1935), Easy Living (1937), and Remember the Night (1940)—were turned into successful movies. In 1940 Paramount agreed to let him direct his own scripts. The Paramount years were his most productive, with Sturges turning out a series of sparkling comedies in quick succession. Then Sturges's career fell off dramatically in the late 1940s when he left Paramount for a disastrous venture with Howard Hughes; he could not regain his footing during his short contract with Fox, and developed a reputation for being overpriced, arrogant, and unable to bring a film in on budget.
Sturges's dialogue is never "realistic"; no real person ever talked like his characters. He created a made-up, nonsense language for his vaguely European gigolo, Toto, in The Palm Beach Story (1942), but the rest of his people—from rich socialites, to Texas millionaires, to constables, to card sharks, to film producers—speak with equal disregard of verisimilitude. Sturges moved back and forth between long, eloquent phrasemaking to abrupt, staccato interchanges, and he mixed in noises such as hiccups or barking dogs. He imagined characters from every social sphere and cast actors with a wide range of voices, from mellifluous to gravelly.
The words flying out of these characters' mouths are improbable, unpredictable, and funny. For instance, in Easy Living , J. B. Ball throws his wife's fur coat off the roof. It lands on Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) as she is riding on the top level of a New York bus. Surprised, angry, she turns around to the innocent passenger sitting behind her, asking, "Say, what's the big idea, anyway?" He calmly replies: "Kismet." In Sullivan's Travels (1941), studio head Mr. LeBrand recalls Sullivan's previous hit films: "So Long, Sarong," "Hey Hey in the Hayloft," and "Ants in Your Plants of 1939." LeBrand and his associate suggest that Sully's new project should be "Ants in Your Plants of 1941," and they offer him Bob Hope, Mary Martin, and, maybe, Bing Crosby. And in The Lady Eve (1941), when Jean hatches her plan to impersonate a British Lady and get her revenge on Charles, she remarks, "I need him [Charles] like the ax needs the turkey." Hollywood romantic comedies needed Sturges's wit to the same degree.
Christmas in July (1940), The Great McGinty (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
Curtis, James. Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges . New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges . New York: Knopf, 1987.
Sturges, Preston. Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges , edited by Brian Henderson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
——. Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Ursini, James. The Fabulous Life and Times of Preston Sturges: An American Dreamer . New York: Curtis Books, 1973.
Along with the Production Code, another key pressure on dialogue throughout the studio years was the star system. The famous advertising slogan for Anna Christie (1930)—"Garbo Talks!"—is representative of the public's interest in hearing its favorite movie stars. Scripts have always been specifically tailored for their stars' personae and verbal abilities.
Studio-era directors and screenwriters developed distinctive dialogue styles. Especially in screwball comedies, such as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), director Howard Hawks (1896–1977) would have his actors speak quickly and jump on each others' lines; his overlapping dialogue became a central element of his films' breakneck pacing. Billy Wilder (1906–2002), who had emigrated from Germany and taught himself English by listening to baseball games, often foregrounded his fascination with American slang. Orson Welles (1915–1985) put his experience with radio into the soundtracks of his movies, so that each character's voice is inflected by his or her spatial surroundings. Joseph Mankiewicz's (1909–1993) forte was depicting literate, urbane characters, such as Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) in All About Eve (1950), while Preston Sturges excelled at snappy comic dialogue.
The dissolution of the Production Code in the late 1950s, along with the gradual loosening of cultural restrictions throughout the 1960s, prompted a seismic upheaval in scriptwriting, allowing the frank treatment of taboo subject matter, the incorporation of street language, and the inclusion of obscenity. Changes in social expectations were also matched by technological developments, such as improvements in mixing and the invention of radio mikes, which led to more flexibility in sound recording.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s American movies, influenced by the breezy French New Wave, featured dialogue that was noticeably more colloquial, less careful about rhythm, less polished, more risqué, and marked by an improvisational air. The accompanying acting style was less declamatory, faster, and more throwaway; the recording of lines allowed much more overlapping and a higher degree of inaudibility. This more realistic, informal style of dialogue appears in John Cassavetes's (1929–1989) Faces (1968), which relies on improvisation; in the films of Robert Altman (b. 1925), who pioneered the use of radio mikes to allow multiple actors to speak at once in M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nashville (1975); and in Martin Scorsese's (b. 1942) Mean Streets (1973) and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974).
Since the mid-1980s, low-budget and independent productions have continued an adventuresome approach to dialogue. This stems partially from independent filmmakers' genuine desire to break new ground, but novel manipulations of dialogue have also moved to the fore because they are cheaper and more easily accomplished than extensive special effects or lush production values. Clear examples can be found in Louis Malle's My Dinner with André (1981), which confines the film to a dinnertime conversation between two friends; David Mamet's House of Games (1987), in which the characters speak in carefully polished cadences approaching blank verse; Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991), which literally mixes Shakespeare with prosaic speech; and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1992), in which characters speak in a Gullah dialect. Finally, Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino have made verbal dexterity downright fashionable.
Yet big-budget blockbusters, which depend so heavily on earning back their investments with overseas distribution, are less likely to prioritize their dialogue or to exploit the resources of language. An expensive release, such as Wolfgang Petersen's Troy (2004), incorporates speech only as necessary for narrative clarity, has the actors articulate each sentence pointedly (woodenly), and focuses audience attention instead on action sequences and special effects.
The issue of international distribution brings up the one aspect of dialogue that opponents were right to fear—the fact that inclusion of national languages restricts audience comprehension. Advocates of silent film felt that the cinema had discovered a universal language that would enhance international community. From one perspective, sound cinema has managed to continue that ideal: the international dominance of American cinema has been a tool of global English language dispersal. Audiences around the world have learned English, or accepted dubbing, or coped with subtitles. The isolating effects of national
Altman, Rick, ed. Sound Theory/Sound Practice . New York: Routledge, 1992.
Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen . Edited and translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Chothia, Jean. Forging a Language: A Study of the Plays of Eugene O'Neill . Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Devereaux, Mary. "'Of Talk and Brown Furniture': The Aesthetics of Film Dialogue." Post Script 6 (1986): 32–52.
Faulkner, Christopher. "René Clair, Marcel Pagnol, and the Social Dimension of Speech." Screen 35 (1994): 157–170.
Kozloff, Sarah. Overhearing Film Dialogue . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. "The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. In The Movies in Our Midst: Documents in the Cultural History of Film in America , edited by Gerald Mast. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982: 321–333.
Page, Norman. Speech in the English Novel . London: Longman, 1973.