The State of the Art - 1928 - Part 5
Motion Picture Sound Recording In Its Infancy
Ed Bernds was a pioneer of production sound recording in the first days of the "talkies." He worked with legendary Hollywood figures from Douglas Fairbanks to D.W. Griffith. He recorded the sound on virtually all of Frank Capra's films, then went on to a successful career as a director. At the C.A.S. Banquet on March 6th, Ed Bernds was honored for his pioneering work in the infancy of sound with the C.A.S. President's Award. This is the fifth and final in a series of excerpts from his just published book, "Mr. Bernds Goes to Hollywood," courtesy of Scarecrow Publishing
In Hollywood during those days, every production manager and assistant director tried to provide a "cover set," an interior set that served to keep production moving when a troupe on location was driven indoors by rain. During the filming of "Dirigible," some of our work was to be filmed in the Navy's enormous hangar at Lakehurst, a structure so lofty that it created its own weather, with clouds forming and actual rain falling. To Columbia it was a valuable production asset. It was our cover set.
Rain came to Lakehurst in mid-afternoon one day, and we moved into the hangar. I was spotting our sound truck where it would be needed when I was jolted by a hard blow to my shoulder. I turned; it was Jack Holt, drunk, angry and incoherent. He was angry at sound - and therefore at me - and not without reason. On a film with Jack earlier that year, my boom operator had been a little slow in his reactions. On two occasions, Jack, seated, rose quickly and cracked his head on the heavy CTA microphone. Jack gave me another strong push - the traditional invitation to "put 'em up" - to fight. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Capra, concerned, wondering whether to intervene. One more push; Jack had done the scene in many films. If the coward wouldn't fight, hit him; make him fight. It was time for action, and I went into action - verbally. I recited an entire litany of mea culpas. I touched all the bases. I said I had been negligent, careless, didn't do my job well and deserved his righteous anger. I begged his forgiveness; promised that I would perform better in the future. Jack listened, befuddled by my torrent of apology.
"All right," he growled, "you just watch it." With that he turned and walked away, square jaw, square shoulders, square everything. He was so drunk he couldn't talk straight, but he did walk straight - the exaggerated stiff walk of the veteran drinker. Capra came to me. "You did the right thing," he said. "You handled it just right."
After the action and excitement of "Dirigible," I was again given a slow-paced make-work assignment in the dubbing room. Russell Malmgren was now solidly established as Columbia's top rerecording mixer. Russell was a needler; he had been even when we were fourteen-year-old schoolboys. Sometimes it annoyed me, but I knew there was a solid foundation of friendship beneath his sometimes heavy-handed needling. He told me about Columbia's newly hired mixers, Lodge Cunningham and Glenn Rominger. They were excellent mixers, Russell assure me; if I considered myself Columbia's number one production mixer, he said with mock concern, I had better be aware of my new competition.
In the studio, several of our sets were on our newer stages there I was released from the infamous upstairs monitor booths. When the Columbia people built the new stages, they knew that the upstairs booths were expensive to build and inefficient in operation; and so old camera booths were pulled out of Columbia's scene dock; cleaned up and equipped as monitor booths; to be used on the stage floor. It was a big improvement; I could pop out of my booth and in afew seconds view a rehearsal; instruct my mike man; or, if necessary, confer with the director. And, from time to time, I did confer with the director. I felt that I was gaining acceptance with Capra, and even, on occasion, ventured an opinion; diffidently, of course.
My next assignment was on odd kind of film, "Africa Speaks." Some film historians refer to it as a documentary film but it was far from being one. A cameraman/promoter/adventurer named Paul Hoefler raised money in Colorado and went to Africa to make a film; he called his venture "The Colorado African Expedition."Hoefler shot a great deal of footage of African wildlife and African natives. He had a story in mind, but the film was not well-organized and needed connecting scenes to give the material a coherent storyline.
Hoefler sought to market his film, and entered a partnership with a producer, Walter Futter, who brought the deal to Columbia. It was a low-cost, low risk project; Columbia bought it, agreed to shoot connecting scenes and to provide for finishing costs, including scoring, dubbing and editing. There was no script. Hoefler and Walter Putter had notes outlining what we were to film.
I was assigned a new boom operator for "Africa Speaks." Bus Libott had been a mike man for only a few months, but in those few months he had become a skilled one. Bus didn't have the Mole-Richardson boom to work with on "Africa Speaks," because on low-budget films there was no room for the large, heavy clamdigger on the grip truck, nor was there enough manpower to move the top-heavy boom over rough ground.
To solve the mike-boom problems, Bus, with the help of our maintenance shop, rigged a makeshift boom. His contraption consisted of an old camera tripod fitted with a counter-weighted wooden arm. The camera legs telescoped out to about six feet, and the tripod head could pan and tilt. Makeshift though it was, it was better and more stable than the boom Carpenter and I had to use at Lakehurst. Bus called his creation a "Goldberg," in honor of Rube Goldberg, a famous cartoonist of the day who drew cartoons of weird, wildly complicated machines that performed simple tasks.
"Africa Speaks" was an odd kind of project, and the filming was odd; with no script it was an ad-lib kind of production. We shot on location, in Sherwood Forest, so called because Douglas Fairbanks filmed his silent film classic, "Robin Hood" there, in what is now an area of million-dollar homes, Westlake Village.
Futter and Hoefler would consult their notes, confer, then set out to find "lion country." The entire troupe would follow; a caravan of sound truck, grip truck, camera truck, and a truck acquired to match the one Hoefler used in Africa. It bore the lettering "Colorado African Expedition," and the entire procession bumped over the rough terrain. When we found "lion country," we filmed connecting scenes that made no sense to us, and then we were off again, in search of "gorilla country." For a long time afterwward, when a director on location was searching for a setup, someone who had been on the "AfricaSpeaks" crew would say, "he's looking for gorilla country."
We crew members regularly went from one film to another, but stars usually did not. Our next assignment, however, was "No More Orchids," starring Carole Lombard; she had the same interval between films that her sound crew did: five days. My mind was not wholly on "Ochrids," however. My thoughts kept going to B-day -- Baby day -- about October first, the doctor had told me and my wife.
On September 29, 1932, there was a downpour of rain in Los Angeles. The nurses at the hospital, my wife told me later, said "There's nothing like a big storm to bring out a lot of babies. My Scottish brother-in-law rushed my wife to the hospital, and our wonderful baby daughter, Elsa, was born there.
The heavy rainfall did bring out the babies. Three babies were born on that day to members of the "More Orchids" crew. Carol Lombard shrieked when she heard about our tripleheader; and when Carole shrieked, wine-glasses shattered and wine bottles were at risk. "Three kids!" she screamed. "Three kids the same day!" And, referring to the long hours we spent on the job, "When did you bastards find time to do it?!"
Index of Film Sound History
dedicated to the art and analyses of film sound
|Star Wars Sounds||Film Sound Clichés||Film Sound History||Movie Sound Articles||Bibliography|
|Questions & Answers||Game Audio||Animation Sound||Glossaries||Randy Thom Articles|
|Walter Murch Articles||Foley Artistry||Sci-Fi Film Sound||Film Music||Home Theatre Sound|
|Theoretical Texts||Sound Effects Libraries||Miscellaneous|