We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Click here for more information.

Unsoundies: The Caveman Impulse Behind Talking Pictures

Synchronized sound technology created Neanderthal Cinema, an aesthetic slouching and slack-jawed, a case of temporarily thwarted evolution.
David Cairns, Daniel Riccuito
Allen Jenkins. Illustration by Tony Millionaire.
We had a lurid fantasy life. And it was not pre-Code, it was prehistoric. Synchronized sound technology created Neanderthal Cinema, an aesthetic slouching and slack-jawed, a case of temporarily thwarted evolution.   
In a brief era with no accepted form and before industrial standardization, experimentation raged, and some of sound cinema's experiments were dumb, inept, or too far ahead of their time to have a prayer of working. So the exceptional and the clunking are both responses to a general ignorance about what will work. Take the split screen of sleeping sweethearts in Love Me Tonight (1932), with dream voice-overs singing on top: All we see is snoring people. 
Or the endless tracking shot in Cape Forlorn (1931) in which director E.A. Dupont hopes we'll be transfixed by the gradually transforming acoustics.   
Tod Browning is asleep in his chair for a reel of Dracula (1931) while the camera runs and actors recite in the middle distance of a static master shot: the audience feels its hair growing.  
And yet, a new phenomenon was born thanks to All Talking Pictures—one that absolutely required awkwardness to deliver lumpendivinity. One in which "lesser” stars learned how to schlump along with the masses in cinematic farragoes that belched and jeered. The nuances are easily overlooked, the beauty just as readily dismissed for its outward ugliness.
There were, perhaps, more startling and absurd examples to be found in the period’s great “beauties” than among its character actors: Dietrich springs to mind. Her back teeth removed to add to her cheek bones.  A stripe of silver paint down the bridge of her nose so that, seen full-on, it would seem straighter. Eyebrows plucked and then drawn on with a burnt match dipped in cold cream.  She embodied a kind of accidental surrealist form-making, as did the insane process by which she was presented to a horny public: the careful arrangement of lights: one burning the crown of her head to produce a blonde halo, one high in front to put shadows under those cheeks.  
But if strangeness were the deciding factor, the early Sound Era’s greatest exemplar would be a Hibernian from Warner Bros. His voice comes out of a secret hole between his eyes, that honking New Yawkese—built like a barrel of pickles that fell off the truck on Pearl Street—always avid to be abused in knuckle-headed sidekick roles. Meanwhile, audiences remain free to unconsciously admire that desperate toehold in the coveted world of jobs and three squares a day. For Allen Jenkins plays more than just a “good mug.” 
His on-screen persona could easily be confused for the epicenter of broad popular anxiety, the Crash itself—to fully grasp the slangy epistemological pizzazz with which he invested on-screen losers, one has to appreciate the crises that birthed Jenkins, one of which is strictly technical. Early Talkies relied on arrays of cameras filming the action from multiple angles with different lenses, the camera crews encased in soundproof booths, inhaling each other's farts. Because it was easier to cut film than sound. Each scene would be a single take filmed with three or four bulky, enboothed cameras, none of which would be in the optimum position as they all had to make room for each other.  
This meant that dramatic pauses died a slow death, as the lenses never caught the meaningful glances accompanying them. A man shooting a warning glance has no impact in a 3/4 back view. The cry went out: STOP THE PAUSES! And actors developed a rapid-fire delivery, stamping on each other's lines like flamenco dancers, desperately trying to keep the pace up, keep the film alive, by sheer breathless filibuster.    
So Allen Jenkins, and the jangled forces at his command, is due partly to this chaotic state of affairs. 
As one of many limpets on the skyrocketing career of James Cagney, Jenkins is privileged and condemned at once, the ideal stand-in for America’s ignominious splashdown. A titan posing under the guise of dull and beaten personas—that nose—like a doorman’s shoehorn in a closet at the Hotel Dixie. Oh Talkies; you were so young and unapologetic. Studios well knew that the minor was major then—we needed comic proxies that could reveal us where we lived. 
Enter our man Jenkins. Doomed to conceal lissome grace behind pratfalls and black eyes while playing odd man out in any Hollywood mise en scène. A hero’s comically beautiful head tragically made for taking lumps, he was born Alfred McConegal, a living compound myth whose body labored in shipyards before his shadow hit screens.
See him in Jimmy the Gent (1934) and glom genius flirting with Cagney’s own, a great manic-depression of exploding/imploding rotating choreography. As “Lou,” Jenkins falls backwards into our collective aspiration, the silent prayer that, one-day, we too will be kicked around by some boss. Spasms are synchronized with America’s general lurch, a new and unspoken genre—call it the “Job Movie”—in which steady work is normal, even funny.
Though we’re not sure whether to laugh or cry.
A whole caterwauling universe has lost its nerve, and Jenkins is there, taking lumps for all the schlumps. Cagney’s titular character plays jazz-drum on Lou’s head; it’s like watching two specimens of frustrated societal progress savagely jitterbug for a nation on the bum, entertainment worthy of “The Dirty Thirties.” Their dance symbolizes a period of time that produced enormous pain and, through its vital blend of languages and media, lyricism to match that pain.
Jenkins squawks like a dying pig on a kazoo. Amplified thousands of times by the Vitaphone, synchronized sound—“yaps,” “frails,” “pippins,” bromides,” “taxi dancers”—staggering ‘round his dome each time he’s knocked unconscious, like so many drunken stars. Our solidarity wells up to meet the poor slob, dodging blows aimed at his beezer, sly Punchinello whose true domain is cloaked in subterfuge.
Not to mention his gift for playing rage—the man can give himself a stroke on command. Apoplexy and an outsized melon, as if the zeitgeist imprisoned there might suddenly spew yachts, bassoons, and polar bears. Let us speak in classy nomenclature since Jenkins belongs to a “constellation” of stars—stars schooled not to soar but to lurch—strutting for a hot second, swacked-to-the-gills as Lord of Misrule, our communal wretchedness appearing momentarily in the shape of a person. Trumpeting a thousand inbred tongues, understood from margin to margin across the U.S.—a schlump is born!
He was, like the man said, ubiquitous.


Allen JenkinsLong Reads
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.