The Sounds—And Silence—Of “All Quiet”

It’s my pleasure to be filling in for Robert Osborne this week on Turner Classic Movies, but the highlight for me is Wednesday’s tribute to films restored by the Library of Congress. My guest for the evening portion of the salute is Dr. Patrick Loughney, chief of the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpepper, Virginia. We have a chance to discuss four movies playing tomorrow night: the long-unseen The Constant Nymph (1943), the uncensored Baby Face (1932), an oddity from 1934 called Two Heads on a Pillow, and a most unusual version of the 1930 Academy Award-winning classic All Quiet on the Western Front.

Lew Ayres and a nearly-hidden (and unbilled) Raymond Griffith, as a French soldier, in All Quiet on the Western Front.

Bruce Goldstein debuted the so-called silent version of this famous early talkie at Film Forum in New York a year ago, but until I started working on this TCM gig I didn’t have a chance to see it for myself.

In a word, wow!

Veteran film buffs have seen silent versions of early talkies which were prepared for theaters that weren’t yet wired for sound. These often contain long—

—scenes of actors reciting dialogue, punctuated by too few—or too many—title cards. We’ve also seen silent versions of films that were subsequently remade for sound, notably Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger. But this is another animal altogether.

This print of All Quiet is a carefully synchronized silent film, complete with music score and meticulously crafted sound effects, including crowd voices. (In modern terms it would be referred to as an “m&e” track—music and effects—but that kind of separation wasn’t possible in 1930.) There are even snippets of actual dialogue, as when Yola D’Avril and the other French farm girls speak to Lew Ayres and his American buddies. Credit for “synchronization and score” go to David Broekman, a composer who worked at Universal during the transitional years from silents to talkies and wrote music for the 1929 reissue of The Phantom of the Opera.

The question that no one can answer is why Universal would have spent time and effort preparing this synchronized soundtrack, when any theater equipped for sound would have simply shown the talkie.

If it were intended for foreign release, why go to all this trouble when each country would have had to cut out the title cards and replace them with translations? (Bruce Goldstein did point out to me that Universal was using sound-on-disc at this time, which would have made the process much easier.)

There is another, even more intriguing, aspect of this hybrid: it benefits greatly from Broekman’s music score, which is absent from the talkie. Like so many early sound films, All Quiet on the Western Front has virtually no music after its main title sequence, only an arid soundtrack. That, and the sometimes stilted dialogue scenes, dates the film for some audiences.

Film scholar Richard Koszarski told me he actually prefers the silent version for just that reason. I find it difficult to disagree: it retains all the dramatic value of the talkie and the impact of its most famous dialogue sequences. The pacing of some scenes is

The synchronized silent version cites Walter Anthony for his titles—a credit obviously not found on the talkie print.

actually brisker in the silent, for which the dialogue has been boiled down to a series of well-written title cards. Compare the establishing scene in the schoolroom where a teacher exhorts his male students to fight for the Fatherland: it’s a full minute shorter in the silent version. (And yes, a different editor worked on the silent version, under supervising editor Maurice Pivar. Editing talkies was still a matter of trial and error, while the fluidity of silent filmmaking had reached its peak. At the same time, I can’t think of another early talkie with so much camera movement—a tribute to director Lewis Milestone’s visual sense and cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s enormous skill.)

I didn’t have a chance to compare both versions side by side, but it seems to me that the justly-famous battle scenes are identical, and use the same thundering sound effects.

Now, don’t misunderstand: I’m not trying to denigrate the familiar talkie version of All Quiet on the Western Front, which remains a great movie by any measure. I am just puzzled and intrigued by the existence of an alternate version and have to file it under subjects for further research. (Film scholar Janet Bergstrom, of UCLA, tells me that she is similarly curious about a synchronized silent version of Frank Capra’s Rain or Shine which has some marked differences from the talkie.)

This is just the sort of thing that gets me fired up. I look forward to finding other examples from this fertile period of Hollywood history and learning more about them.

And, of course, I’m grateful to the Library of Congress for locating and preserving this print. I mustn’t neglect to credit longtime staffer James Cozart, who spent untold years trying to make the talkie All Quiet “whole” again.

P.S. For years, we’ve read that when All Quiet was first previewed, audiences laughed when they saw ZaSu Pitts as Lew Ayres’ fragile mother, so the filmmakers reluctantly reshot all her scenes with Beryl Mercer. Pitts does not appear in this print, which was apparently prepared after the final talkie version was locked.

All Quiet on the Western Front airs at 12:45 a.m. Eastern/9:45 Pacific Time on Wednesday night on TCM. The 24-hour tribute to the Library of Congress begins at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific with The Constant Nymph and continues into Thursday. For the TCM calendar click HERE.

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June 2024