Related themes

Experimentation with Sound

Sound technology breaks the silence of the movies and revolutionizes filmmaking.


Murray Roth

1929. 35mm print, black and white, sound, 8 min..

The quips come fast and sharp in Lambchops, a vaudeville sketch translated to film. This eight-minute short stars George Burns and Gracie Allen as a young couple bantering flirtatiously about various topics, including that of its title: “Could you eat two big lamb chops alone?” Burns asks Allen as they dance sweetly. “Alone? Oh no, not alone,” she laughs, then, waiting a beat, resumes: “with potatoes I could.”1

Released by Warner Bros., Lambchops was made using the studio’s Vitaphone sound-on-disc system. Unlike The Jazz Singer, in which only two brief segments of dialogue were recorded, the entire exchange between Burns and Allen was captured on the waxed records that formed the core of this system. Though its sound quality continued to improve, the technology still imposed limitations on the performers. The graceful duo had to stay close to the static microphones that were set up (most likely suspended above them) to capture their talking and singing, requiring them to confine their movement. This becomes especially evident when they dance, lightly stepping to the left and right in the shallow space in front of the camera, making sure not to stray too far from this spot to the other areas of the set.

Burns and Allen were among the leading vaudevillians of their time and among the few who had staying power. The husband and wife comedic team came together in 1923 and drew large audiences to their shows. Their act was structured around Allen as the spirited and flighty partner, whose illogic carried the jokes and bordered on the surreal, with Burns playing it straight as her foil and prompter. In 1932, they took their act to radio, which increased their popularity and led them to television in 1950, for which they created a beloved sitcom series called The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.

George Burns and Gracie Allen, Lambchops, 1929, 35mm film.

A type of theatrical variety show, developed in the early 1880s in America, that remained the most popular form of entertainment until radio and film supplanted it in the late 1920s. It incorporated an array of short performances like singing, ventriloquism, plate-spinning, contortionists, dancing, performing animals, and, at its heart, comedy. Reflecting both the cultural diversity of early-20th-century America and its prejudices, vaudeville fused such traditions as the English Music Hall, minstrel shows of antebellum America, and Yiddish theater. Many of the big names in vaudeville became movie and television stars, including Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and George Burns and Gracie Allen.

A sound technology, first developed in the early 20th century, that became commercially viable in the late 1920s. In this system, music and dialogue were recorded on waxed records that were played in sync with the film via a turntable connected to a film projector through an interlocking mechanism.

A short film. Today, any film running for 40 minutes or less and therefore not considered long enough to be a feature-length film.

A person who directs or produces movies.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

The shape or structure of an object.

From Vaudeville to Motion Pictures
Vaudeville developed in the early 1880s, about a decade before the first motion pictures. A theatrical variety show, it incorporated an array of short performances like singing, ventriloquism, dancing, animal training, and, at its heart, comedy. It was the most popular entertainment in America—drawing audiences to theaters in small towns and major urban centers alike—before it was supplanted by radio and film at the end of the 1920s. But vaudeville was essential to early cinema, as filmmakers mined its form and material for their own work and tapped its stars (like Burns and Allen) to appear in their films.