Steve J Wurtzler. Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media. Columbia University Press, 2007.
Film studios and theater owners had clashed throughout the silent film era over the speed at which local exhibitors and projectionists presented films. While some film producers and cinematographers sought to standardize camera speeds (an admittedly difficult task given the use of hand-cranked cameras), projectionists, often at the prompting of theater managers who sought to fit an overly long program of films into a predetermined schedule of starting times, operated film projectors at a much faster rate. Some period accounts suggest that while camera speeds were “standardized” around 60 feet per minute, projection speeds varied between 45 and 70 feet per minute. This practice of “over-cranking” or “film racing” could have unintentionally comic results. According to one period account, “In the Passion Play [the projectionist] can make Peter act the part of a jumping jack and he can turn a horse race into a howling farce, by over-speeding and under-speeding…. Imagine the figure of the Savior carrying the cross at a gallop.” While it is doubtful that any projectionist who transformed Peter into a jumping jack or theater manager who insisted that Christ gallop with the cross to Calvary would have maintained his employment for long, disparities between the speeds at which films were exposed and were projected attest to an essential technological instability of the silent film text and to the absence of standardized exhibition practices.
For some time, revisionist film histories have begun to address this instability of the cinematic text, exploring a series of local exhibition and film accompaniment patterns. Tim Anderson, for example, examines the manner in which the film industry identified as a problem sound accompaniment for nickelodeon-era silent films and sought to move toward the standardization of the performative aspects of film exhibition. Examining the trade journal Exhibitors Herald-World, Anderson tracks attempts to discipline musical and sound-effects practices in nickelodeons. Local exhibition practices threatened more than a film’s status as a stable, nationally distributed commodity, however, and Anderson notes that “the popularity and prevalence of inappropriate, ‘jackass’ music among some audiences existed because it yielded other sets of semantic pleasures that were not sanctioned by the dominant narrative.” Nickelodeon music reformers addressed both a perceived threat to the admittedly precarious social standing of the cinema and concerns that some performance practices undermined the ability of film texts to circumscribe textual meaning and ways of viewing.
Hollywood’s conversion to synchronous sound held the promise of eliminating locally divergent, often idiosyncratic film exhibition practices by standardizing the acoustic accompaniment of films and by “synchronizing” the rate of film projection with that of film exposure. However, in the short term at least, the conversion to synchronous sound obstructed the industry’s drive toward standardization and exacerbated the possibility of local variation in motion picture presentation. The conversion to synchronous sound transformed the motion picture projectionist into a performer of sound, displacing live acoustic performance from the orchestra pit to the projection booth. For a brief period in the history of American cinema, the projectionist became an active and audible performer in motion picture theaters across the country.
He approaches his task, not from the standpoint of a worker who is to receive a monetary consideration in the form of wages for a given number of hours of service, but rather from the standpoint of an artist, mechanically etching upon the silver screen a series of beautiful photographic images that are unfolding to his movie audience a visual impression of a beautiful story told with the aid of his mechanical pen. (William F. Canavan, November 1929)
Such glowing descriptions of cinema artisans were typically reserved for the film director artfully orchestrating the combined talents of cast and crew, or less often for the cinematographer who, “painting with light,” skillfully used the motion picture camera as his “mechanical pen.” Surprisingly though, the film artist described above was in fact the movie projectionist, anonymously practicing his craft out of public sight in the projection booth. William F. Canavan, at the time president of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees and Moving Picture Operators (IATSE), sought in November 1929 to reinforce an increased importance for projectionists within the U.S. film industry. In the midst of the industrywide conversion to synchronous sound, Canavan glowingly emphasized the projectionist’s daily contribution to the cinema. Canavan labeled the projectionist both an artist and a showman, claiming that “real showmanship is one of the most essential qualities for the real projectionist. He must be show-minded in all that the term implies, with a background of theatrical experience which will imbue him with that inherent theatrical spirit,—’The Show Must Go On,’ no matter what may happen.” Not surprisingly, the president of the projectionist’s union also emphasized the professionalism of the membership he represented. Canavan described an army of under-appreciated projectionists actively preparing themselves for the conversion to sound through “intensive training and study” despite inconsistent technical support from equipment manufacturers. IATSE’s members were embracing technological change despite the inherent inadequacies of both laboratory-developed equipment and “far from perfect” installations of that equipment in movie theaters. In Canavan’s words, “the projectionist is more of an idealist than a working man. He looks upon motion picture projection as a ‘Specialized Art’ and is ever striving to improve the quality of screen entertainment even though it entails a personal sacrifice.”
Canavan’s depiction of the motion picture projectionist as a skilled artisan might be readily dismissed as an example of relatively transparent self-interest and self-promotion: the president of a powerful union celebrating that union’s membership. Yet contemporary labeling of projectionists as skilled professional artisans was far more widespread than can be explained away as simply self-aggrandizing rhetoric. Instead, the period surrounding Hollywood’s conversion to sound exhibited an industrywide concern with both the labor and the identity of the motion picture projectionist.
While sync-sound technology promised increased standardization in motion picture presentation, at least during the period in which the industry adopted the new sound technology, such standardization of reproduction could only be approximated rather than achieved, and even then approached only through careful supervision, management, and control of the labor of motion picture projectionists. In the gap between the film industry’s desire for standardization and the realities of both sound-recording and sound-reproducing technology, the identity of the projectionist and the nature of his labor became a site of rhetorical struggle. Such a rhetorical struggle involved attempts both to shape the identity of the emerging technology and to discipline the industry employees operating it. Technological change within U.S. film, like any other technology-intensive industry, required not only shifts in “manufacturing” processes but also the negotiated adaptation of the workforce to new conditions of labor. During the conversion of movie theaters to recorded film sound, not only did local musicians lose their employment, but also film projectionists suddenly took on increased responsibilities for the successful presentation of films. For a time, at least, motion picture projectionists became more than operators of machinery, and a discourse of professionalism and responsibility sought to encourage these historically elided laborers to inhabit a new workplace subjectivity.
Before the full-scale diffusion of sync-sound technology, motion picture projection practices were defined as a problem because of a perceived lack of performance standards, an apparent absence of an implicit code of conduct for projectionists and consequent fears of irresponsible behavior, and a resulting pattern of inadequate film presentations to the public. Frequently citing the lack of standardization in film presentation, representatives of film production companies and advocates of “better” film exhibition called for an industrywide concern with the labor of projectionists. Among the most active advocates for projection reform, F. H. Richardson, technical editor of the trade publication Moving Picture World, argued in a series of public presentations and trade press articles for careful attention to the often overlooked work of the projectionist. Citing such improper practices as inadequate or careless maintenance of projectors, damage to release prints through both routine carelessness and excessive lubrication, inattention to the dimensions of the projected image and the effects of auditorium lighting upon the screen image, and the waste of electricity through inefficient operation, Richardson cautioned the industry about the need to enforce standards for public presentations of films. Calls for reform by Richardson and others invoked both economic and artistic damage done to the industry through inattention to the role of the projectionist in presenting films to the public. Period accounts frequently cited not only under-motivated and unskilled motion picture operators but also a resulting damage to films, to projection equipment and, most importantly, to the box office revenues of theaters.
Proposed solutions to the “problem” of projection hinged on fostering a sense of professionalism among these anonymous theater employees. In addition to providing consistent and well-informed oversight of their labor (through, for example, establishing a “Supervisor of Projection” within theater chains), industry voices suggested the formation of projectionist societies or educational committees by union locals. But the most frequently cited solution for projection reform involved cultivating a new identity for the projectionist. Before the conversion to sound, some argued loudly for a reconceptualization of the projectionist from a “mere” operator of machinery to an active participant in the production of entertainment. “If we wish to secure the best possible results, we must raise the standard of projection. To raise the standard of projection, we must raise the standing of the projectionist.” The quality of projection could be improved and the presentation of films standardized, some claimed, by inculcating projectionists with professional attitudes about their labor.
For Richardson, the projection problem extended beyond individual projectionists to the larger attitudes of the industry as a whole. Noting “the almost total lack of any sort of publicly expressed appreciation of the work of the projectionist” as well as the tendency to label them “operators,” Richardson argued that the attitude throughout the industry was “acting to stifle all pride in work and incentives to excel in it.” Richardson even went so far as to advocate a publicity campaign to educate the public about the importance of film projection—a campaign that would include movie stars’ testimonials to the important work being done by projectionists.
The film industry’s adoption of synchronous-sound technology exacerbated these preexisting concerns about projection and rendered more urgent the accompanying rhetorical appeals. The introduction of new technology into the projection booth caused such urgency precisely because the goal of standardizing the presentation of motion pictures became even more elusive as the tasks of projectionists underwent dramatic change. With the new technology came new responsibilities for the motion picture operator and, implicitly, new power within the industry. Many of these new procedures remained essentially inaudible and largely dissimulated, unless something went awry. Besides routine maintenance and troubleshooting of the new acoustic equipment, projectionists checked and successfully cued soundtracks recorded on disks as well as prepared to improvise should the sound-on-disk system fall out of synchronization with the projected images. For the sound-on-film system, operators exercised increased care to keep the film itself clean as any accumulated dirt or oil could clog the delicate reproducing slits necessary for converting the encoded soundtrack into electrical signals. Projecting sync-sound films sometimes involved installing a new aperture mask when showing films with the Movietone sound-on-film system. The location of the soundtrack alongside the image required a mask to prevent the on-screen projection of the photographically encoded soundtrack. The soundtrack’s presence on the celluloid consequently changed the aspect ratio of the film. In addition to changing this aperture mask, projectionists also often changed lenses to restore the on-screen image to its “proper” size. Among the most difficult tasks initially involved successfully navigating changeovers from one projector to the next during reel changes. Until cues for such changeovers were standardized on release prints, projectionists developed a variety of individual strategies to guarantee smooth shifts from one reel to the next. These strategies extended from careful rehearsals to even punching holes in release prints.
Period accounts of these new responsibilities often invoked the financial interest of theaters as well as the industry as a whole. Noting that poor or inconsistent projection detracted from the labor of all who worked on a film, calls for a new attitude of professionalism addressed not only the projectionists themselves but also, importantly, theater managers and owners. Warren Nolan, a publicist for United Artists Corporation, emphasized the urgency of improved projection standards in light of technological change: “The gentlemen in charge of projection of sound pictures—to say nothing of those who record them—have been constituted individual showmen by this new form of presentation. They have been given power, and they have been given responsibility. Timing and tone are in their hands, and artists on the screen and audiences in the seats are at their mercy.” The conversion to sound was held up as not only an opportunity to improve the knowledge and skill of the projectionist, and thereby institute improved projection practice, but also as an opportunity for the industry as a whole to reexamine the importance of improved standards of showmanship.
Ongoing economic consolidation and an increased emphasis on standardizing the product offered to consumers formed part of the industrial context within which Hollywood converted to sound. Technological change promised, on the surface, both to cut theater owners’ operating expenses and to standardize the presentation of films. Writing in 1929, Harold Franklin, president of Fox West Coast Theatres, noted the musical benefits of sync-sound technology: “Music, as synchronized, is in closer unity with the situations pictured than was the case in former times. There is not, moreover, the distraction caused by the close proximity of musicians to the screen. The small towns, where inadequate orchestras used to render their ineffectual accompaniments to the silent pictures, have reaped the special benefits of musical synchronization. Music of the best calibre becomes available to every type of theatre.” Because of their potential to eliminate idiosyncratic live musical accompaniment and with it the employment of musicians in individual movie theaters, synchronous soundtracks promised both economic savings in the long run and greater standardization of exhibition practices.
This desire for standardized film presentations directly clashed with some of the design features of the initial sync-sound-reproduction devices. The technology initially installed in projection booths presumed that the operator would be a performer of reproduced sound. This conception of sound reproduction as a performance originated in some of the components of film sound projection devices. Western Electric’s initial Vitaphone system incorporated developments from public address devices designed within the Bell System and introduced and refined during the early 1920s. Not only were individual components of the public address systems reapplied to motion picture sound projection, but so too were the assumptions surrounding the role of the public address sound engineer in performing electrically mediated sound. Western Electric’s public address system provided the sound engineer with flexibility in operating the device since many public address circumstances required that the system be readjusted during performances. Especially in outdoor presentations, the public address engineer had to respond to changing conditions by varying the system’s performance, such as increasing or decreasing the acoustic output of multiple loudspeaker horns. As a provision of system design, AT&T’s engineers were dispersed throughout a large crowd for the purpose of monitoring sound levels and signaling the system’s operator to make volume adjustments as needed during that presentation. Public address sound projection was thus conceptualized as a live technological performance with volume adjustments used to maintain a consistent, audible “broadcast.”
AT&T conceptualized sound reinforcement and acoustic projection as not fully automated processes but instead as the product of ongoing monitoring and adjustment, a live performance undertaken by appropriately trained engineers. In the Vitaphone sound-on-disk system, volume was controlled in the projection booth through a fader that attenuated the power in the circuit between the reproducing device and the main amplifying system. In period descriptions of the Western Electric sound projector, manipulations of volume during the course of a sync-sound film presentation (called “riding gain”) were described as a matter of course. These accounts cited four reasons for projectionists to “ride gain” during a show. Sound volume levels had to be modulated, first because of variations in sound energy requirements in the theater and, second, owing to variations in the size of the audience at any given time during a performance. While these first two reasons for riding gain emphasize the projectionist’s response to changing acoustic conditions in the performance space (much like the public address apparatus designed and marketed by Western Electric), the other two reasons for volume variation during a film anticipated that the projectionist would contribute to the aesthetics of the motion picture. Projectionists were to ride gain in response to variations in the levels of recorded sound and, finally, it was “necessary to have some means of varying sound level in theaters because of … the desirability of level control during reproduction for the purpose of emphasis.” Volume adjustments during a performance required that the projectionist both compensate for deficiencies in the recorded soundtrack and introduce acoustic effects.
RCA’s competing Photophone sound-on-film system also assumed that “the control of volume level is the chief concern of the projectionist during the operation of sound-reproducing equipment,” and consequently the system provided a fader between the projector’s pickup circuit and the first stage of amplification. Period descriptions took volume manipulation for granted during the presentation of a synchronous-sound film as “few pictures are so recorded that they can be run through at a single fader setting.” Cue sheets, either provided by the film distribution company or developed autonomously by the projectionist after appropriate rehearsal, indicated when and how the necessary changes to volume should be performed during a presentation. The Projectionist Cue Sheets for Paramount’s 1928 baseball film, Warming Up, instructed the projectionist to vary sound volume throughout six of the film’s eight reels. Indicating a “normal” fader (volume) setting of “11,” the cue sheet directed projectionists to adjust the “Fader up one point at Baseball Scenes [and] after Baseball Scenes back to 11.” In addition, at several points during the film, projectionists were to adjust the “Fader down two points at singing—then back to 11 after singing.” This practice of scripting volume changes during the projection of films continued at least as late as the 1933–34 film season. In its exhibitor’s pressbook for Golddiggers of 1933, Warner Bros. instructed exhibitors to “tell your operator—for best results move Fader up two points for the musical production numbers on ‘Golddiggers of 1933’ and also on the Trailer.”
Throughout the early sync-sound era, projectionists labored to establish and then maintain appropriate volume levels during sound reproduction. In Richardson’s words, “To [the projectionist] the ‘fader’ is literally the ‘throttle.'” That task was not as simple as it might at first appear. In describing the maintenance program provided to theaters by Western Electric’s subsidiary Electrical Research Products, Inc. (ERPI), Coke Flannagan informed the Society of Motion Picture Engineers that, as of 1929, deficiencies in the operation of projector and sound systems posed a greater threat to performances than mechanical failures. According to the ERPI engineer, the weak link in Western Electric’s sound-film system was the projectionist—specifically in terms of volume levels.
Operation [of Western Electric projectors] and showmanship are so closely related as to be inseparable, the operation of the equipment presents a greater problem than is presented by apparatus failures. Although the system may function perfectly the effect in the theater can be unpleasant and unnatural because of improper sound level. In fact undistorted sound when too loud is at times more objectionable than distorted sound at proper level.
Sound reproduced with too much volume exacerbated any acoustic flaws of a particular theater. Excessive reverberation became “further aggravating” when the system was operated at greater energy—sounds were sustained longer, reflecting from surface to surface before being absorbed to inaudibility. Excessive volume led to “unpleasant effects” and inaudible dialogue. ERPI’s engineers cautioned projectionists to operate the Western Electric system at the minimum power level to insure “comfortable audition.”
In October 1930, H. M. Wilcox, operating manager of ERPI, suggested that one of the greatest current obstacles to nearly perfect reproduction was a tendency to keep the volume too loud. Warning against establishing projection volume levels by starting out too loud and then lowering the fader to an appropriate setting, Wilcox suggested that volume levels be determined by starting the fader too low and then raising volume until an appropriate setting was reached. Establishing the “proper” volume thus ultimately became an imprecise matter resolved by the judgment of the theater manager, the projectionist, or both. (In fact, the Cue Sheet for Warming Up indicated that, “The fader markings shown herein were made at sound test in a fair-sized Reviewing Room, where fader setting ’11’ proved satisfactory. This setting will possibly have to be changed to suit acoustics and other conditions at various theatres. This should be watched.”) Wilcox further cautioned against adjusting volume to achieve adequate results for the worst seats in a house, such as in the rear of the balcony. The resulting excessive power would both increase surface noise and reproduce at a volume too loud for the majority of seats in a theater. In addition to establishing appropriate volume levels, the sound-film projectionist had to modulate volume and the system’s output energy in relation to the size of the audience at any given time, especially when audience size changed during a specific performance. Audience members functioned as acoustic absorbing material, and different fader settings had to be determined for empty, half, or full houses.
Although technical and trade journals of the time indicate that manipulation of sound volume became a necessary component of the projectionist’s tasks during the early sync-sound era, the rhetoric of professionalism and showmanship surrounding sound projection sought to limit “riding gain.” Shifts in volume were to serve larger aesthetic purposes and not occur simply at the whim of a projectionist or house manager, no matter how well meaning. In November 1929, Haviland Wessells cautioned against every theater manager or projectionist attempting to become his own musical conductor. Wessells described an anonymous house manager rushing back and forth to the monitor button to lower the volume of the music whenever the “action of a picture pepped up and music became a bit louder,” and then increasing the power “when the music dropped down with a slowing of action.” The same manager, claimed Wessells, “raises a whisper to a shout,” effectively ruining planned diminution of volume during dramatic scenes. Such apocryphal cautionary tales suggest that, when possible, prevailing standards of showmanship dictated that house managers and projectionists should defer to the recording levels encoded on the soundtrack.
The active manipulation of sound volume described above was often intended to guarantee the audibility of recorded soundtracks. But volume control involved more than merely insuring comfortable audition and/or minimizing the potential deleterious effects of excessive reverberation. Despite the concerns expressed by Wessells, period accounts indicate that operation of sound apparatus frequently involved careful monitoring and the introduction of acoustic effects intended to enhance the aesthetics of recorded sounds. Both conditions of sound recording at the time and representational protocols then currently undergoing formulation constructed sound reproduction as potentially a compensatory activity. It was through the performance of reproduced sound that inadequacies in the recorded soundtrack could be disguised. In addition, both “realistic” effects and acoustic embellishments could be added by projectionists to the synchronous-sound film. “Serious attention is being directed to the importance of controlling sound level of music and speech to insure naturalness and to augment the effect of the action or dialogue upon the emotions of the audience” (my emphasis). Such acoustic augmentation included not only volume effects but also frequency attenuation and compensation in projection for acoustic defects introduced during recording.
During the period surrounding Hollywood’s conversion to sound, film industry trade publications featured advertisements for acoustic equipment like the Samson Qualpensator, a device offering not merely volume control but also the ability to accentuate or diminish different acoustic frequencies. Acknowledging differences in acoustic taste, advertising copy noted that, “Some like the bass notes emphasized; others prefer them softened. Still others prefer the treble, others both treble and bass notes, or even the middle register notes modified to their taste.” The Qualpensator could vary acoustic output “to please in any one of these ranges” and, further, “[it] will do much to compensate for the poor acoustical properties of a room.”
RCA’s Photophone system included in its normal amplification circuits a variable low-frequency attenuator, called a “compensator,” that was designed to diminish low-frequency signals and thereby accentuate the higher-frequency sounds of any recording. Through listening tests at the time of installation in movie theaters, RCA’s engineers established a normal setting for the “compensator” using a test recording, but thereafter, the “compensator” could be varied at any time by the operator. The device allowed projectionists to compensate for so-called “boomy” recordings (those in which lower frequencies predominated) and thus “with this device it is possible to increase the intelligibility of reproduced speech which for any reason is lacking in high frequencies.” Devices like the Samson Qualpensator or RCA’s “compensator” allowed sound-film projectionists to accentuate or to diminish the range of audible frequencies reaching the film audience.
Besides adjusting the frequency response of sound-film projection systems either to suit the public and their supervisor’s tastes or to improve the reproduction of so-called “boomy” recordings, the appropriately disciplined film projectionist also manipulated volume to compensate for acoustic problems encoded onto recorded soundtracks. “Only half the mixing is done in the studio … the projection room must do the rest,” or so announced a January 1930 advertisement for Hardwick, Hindle volume faders published in motion picture industry trade publications. In December 1929, J. Garrick Eisenberg, sound recording engineer at Tiffany Studios, explicitly outlined a series of instances in which the projectionist’s showmanship responsibilities included careful acoustic performance to disguise a variety of deficiencies in recorded soundtracks. Eisenberg claimed that the projectionist was “responsible also to a large degree for the artistic rendition of the sound accompaniment.” Among the specific recording deficiencies cited by Eisenberg were abrupt differences in volume level from one reel to the next and problems in scale matching such that “when the close-up of an individual player is shown, quite often the sound level is not increased proportionately, with the result that the close-up illusion is destroyed.” He also described inadequate differentiation of recorded volume levels for special effects. In this latter case, Eisenberg noted that recorded levels for sound effects might be either too loud or too soft:
Sometimes when some loud, terrifying noise is intended to accompany the action, the relatively small difference in recording levels allowed enfeebles the effect: one hears loud, raucous conversation, commands, shouts, then a supposedly huge explosion goes off with only a slightly louder “pop.” The result is ludicrous. Equally bad are such effects as footsteps approaching along a gravel path which sound like a herd of pachyderms trampling down a forest of young bamboo, in comparison to the dialogue level.
Again, the Projectionist’s Cue Sheet for Warming Up reveals a trace of early sound-era projection practice. In Reel 8, the projectionist was instructed to increase volume in step with narrative developments. “At scene where Tolliver strikes out McRoe bring fader up one point at each strike—and hold till end of baseball scene—then back to Fader ’11’ for indoor scene.” Here, the projectionist manipulated volume to accentuate the increasing tension of narrative events.
Under conditions like those described by Eisenberg and codified by the instructions for Warming Up, the projectionist literally became a performer of sound, carefully attending to the presentation of recorded sound so as to disguise recording errors and manipulating the volume of reproduction either for the sake of realism (achieving approximate acoustic matching for shifts in shot scale, diminishing unduly loud footsteps) or for the sake of dramatic effects (acoustically accentuating the abrupt sound of an explosion or increasing crowd noise at baseball game). Although often assisted in these representational tasks by cue sheets provided by film distributors, the projectionist also had to be guided by, in Eisenberg’s words, “some sense of artistic appreciation.” An appropriately disciplined projectionist of the early sync-sound era necessarily combined electromechanical proficiency with aesthetic judgment. The professional identity projectionists were encouraged to inhabit combined the routine labor of attending to a machine with the creative performance of sound reproduction.
Period accounts by Eisenberg and others described the production difficulties surrounding sound recording and the irregular and inadequate sound levels that resulted. Such deficiencies in production practice were consistently framed as temporary aberrations caused by hurried production conditions in Hollywood or by the ongoing development of recording technique. While projectionists were thus charged with compensating for recording inadequacies, those inadequacies were nearly always carefully framed as temporary in nature with refinement and standardization of production and reproduction techniques the inevitable goal. In Eisenberg’s words, “Meanwhile the burden of carrying on under present conditions falls largely upon the projectionist, and if he is at all worthy of his salt, he will make every effort to cover up by skillful handing of the gain controls, the present limitations of the art.” In the short term it fell to the motion picture projectionist to perform sound reproduction and actively contribute to industry standards of showmanship. Such professionalism was indeed a short-term solution. Far more efficient in terms of the goal of standardization would be the eventual refinements to both recording technology and practice so that the performative labor required of projectionists in the early sync-sound era could instead be successfully encoded into the recorded soundtrack. Such a process would increase standardization of film presentations and also “de-skill” the projectionist workforce, providing leverage for theater owners seeking more restrictive and exploitative contracts.
Although standardization of film performances was a goal expressed within the film industry, variations in theater acoustics, the design of sound-projection equipment, the quality and volume of recorded soundtracks, and recording practices all made such a goal initially unattainable. In a 1930 editorial of the recently inaugurated trade journal Projection Engineering, Donald McNicol clearly described both the desire for standardization and obstacles to accomplishing that goal:
If all theatres were alike in acoustics, if all projection equipment was in the same first rate condition, and if all projectionists were equally familiar with the artistic effects desired in a given picture, there would be little complaint in regard to lack of uniform results. That such variations do exist signifies that every exhibitor should take all reasonable precaution to compensate for irregularities or inaccuracies peculiar to the auditorium and his projection facilities.
Into the gap between standardization as an industry goal and the realities of equipment, theater acoustics, and recorded soundtracks, professionalism arose as an alternative way of framing and disciplining the labor of the motion picture projectionist. This rhetoric of professionalism invoked standards of education and training as well as renewed pride in one’s work, and it framed the labor of the projectionist as an artistic contribution to the industry, in some ways equal to the contributions of those engaged in film production. The projectionist was, for a time, categorized as a motion picture performer, instrumental in the creation of aesthetic effects.
A closer look at the technology of motion picture projection and the labor of projectionists in the early synchronous-sound era illustrate that the soundtracks for these films were not finally and ultimately determined by Hollywood’s recording engineers, but were instead acoustically contingent on a number of factors, not the least of which was, in the words of the literature of the period, the level of professionalism and showmanship exhibited by long-forgotten projectionist-performers. Volume adjustments for the sake of audibility of dialogue, for example, compensated for sound technology’s and sound recording engineers’ inability to serve perceived narrative needs while volume adjustments for the sake of “creating effects” supplemented and indeed usurped the signifying potential of the synchronous-sound film by often emphasizing the spectacular qualities of recorded sounds.