On the Shoulders of Giants

In anticipation for a week of the grad seminar dealing with the transition to sound, I've been taking a closer look at Donald Crafton's The Talkies. Not to color what my students might take away from it, but I found it an impressive work of scholarship. I've used a number of the other volumes of the History of American Cinema series, most of all Tino Balio's Grand Design. (Thomas Schatz's Boom and Bust, oddly enough, wasn't as helpful for the dissertation as Balio's book.) But the narrow historical period and topic allow Crafton to organize the history around a more emphatic argument about sound historiography - that is to say, of the volumes in the series that I've read, The Talkies works the best as a stand-alone book.

His argument? Namely that a) there is a disparity between the popular understanding of the coming of sound and the historical scholarship on it; and b) that in correcting the popular understanding, film historians like Douglas Gomery may have themselves erred by presenting an Alfred Chandler-esque version of business history that sees studio decisions as planned. In the process Crafton might get a few things wrong (I noticed him using "macroeconomic" when he was referring to microeconomic conditions), but the historiographical sophistication of his argument is a welcome intervention. It's both a testiment to the strength of Gomery and Balio's scholarship and a suggestion of further avenue of inquiry and critique of the "revisionist" film historians.

The biggest problem with the volume might be its awkward organization. Crafton opts not to present material chronologically, instead focusing on developments and issues by chapter. This is fine as it goes, but makes a sense of timing hard for the reader to piece together and means that films, developments and even quotes repeat throughout the book. But even the introductory chapter provides a nice resource for those without the time to delve into the depth of historical detail the rest of the book offers.

Finally, I have to lament that so many of the films Crafton discusses are unavailable for general screening. Though it looks like Applause has a Kino Video release, so I will have to watch that soon.


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