Rudolf Arnheim on “The Singing Fool”

"The Singing Fool”

Rudolf Arnheim on “The Singing Fool”

Rudolf Arnheim, in: Arnheim, Kritiken und Aufsätze zum Film, ed. Helmut H. Diederichs, Munich/Vienna, 1979, p. 65-66

After the Berlin critics, roused by the fire alarm, came running excitedly with bells and whistles, the birth of the sound film in Germany quite suddenly took place. The midwives had wrangled long and hard over which forceps were the best and who would be allowed to handle the mother, and even now, they"ve just brought the child into the world real quick so they can carry on the battle over their rights without further disturbance.

The child who"s been delivered to us has its stature from theater and its cheerful nature from film, and now the great education shall begin.
Whoever came up with the superstition that just because sound film represents a technical novelty, it must also mean an art form sui generis? They"ve let loose all the hounds to sniff out the special artistic qualities of the speaking image, but it seems to me that the best nose here belongs to the one who"s not on the trail at all. Al Jolson"s “The Singing Fool” shows very clearly where this development is headed. Above all, this film shows that no fixed form has yet been found. And not because the dialog is rendered in part acoustically and in part in intertitles—for, as is apparently a little-known fact, this is the result of the German adaptation, in which the English dialog has been left only in the most important spots, while in the rest of the film, the chatty mouths have been cut out and replaced with German titles. No, there is no fixed form insofar as, for example, no one has yet realized that no frame changes should be allowed to take place during an acoustic sequence: Al Jolson sings a love song for our eyes, and our ears hear it too; but in the middle of a line, the picture jumps to the girl for whom the song is meant, and the melody is torn away from the mouth and hangs there in the dark void. There is no fixed form insofar as no one has yet realized that musical accompaniment—as paradoxical as this may sound today—belongs not to sound film, but to silent film.

Musical accompaniment, whether or not it is necessary on technical grounds, makes the sound film into a melodrama and thus muddies the artistic purity of its medium unbearably. If sound film is to have any significance at all, it will have to account for its acoustic portion purely by means of reproduced sound. Only when the shift is this dynamic will it emerge that the power of the localized sound to generate space imposes, by necessity, a stable and realistic spatiality within the image as well—which makes something like a leap from a close-up to an establishing shot within the same scene into a painful monstrosity. If all the qualities inherited from silent film and schlepped along by inertia are gradually stripped away in this manner, it will prove to be the case that no new art form has crystallized. Instead, a very old one shall manifest itself: the theater. Sound film is technically perfected theater. It gives the theater, above all, the possibility of lightning-quick scene changes. One of the most impressive scenes of the Al Jolson film shows the hero in a bar, speaking on the telephone with someone whom he believes to be his wife when, as it suddenly becomes clear, it is the maid on the line. This scene is pure theater, with the ideal revolving stage! The Storm-and-Stress dramas, such as the “Ur-Götz” or works by Lenz, assembled together from a mosaic of little scenes, are written for sound film.
The technical solution is still quite imperfect. Certainly, we applaud when Al Jolson sings, for we see and hear him there before us large as life; and when the delicate little voice of the child speaks to the father, the sound of the gramophone disc is startlingly full of life. But when the blonde vampire opens its mouth, we hear the shrill tones of a signal whistle, and the noise of the dance club sounds like a vacuum cleaner. There is still much work to be done here.
As far as the content of the spoken text, one shouldn"t be so critical. At a time when the theater handles the primacy of the word with so little dignity; when the poet often delivers little more than a libretto—an occasion for the performers to hee-haw and kick each other"s behinds under the direction of some resourceful director and to otherwise exercise themselves in various feats of parterre acrobatics and disguise—and all this to the cheers of the public, one should not suddenly decide to be so strict with sound film.
But let us thank the new invention for enabling the guest performance of the great actor Al Jolson. This face, on which real pain lids the eyes and furrows the mouth; this intelligent voice; this marvelous mixture of earnestness and irony, with which a wise man tells his beloved child stories about the hare and the frog; these tender caresses; this youthful delight in success—this man makes a silly, sentimental melodrama into a tear-jerking tragedy.