(This is part of a series. Start with Narration and Titling, Part One.)
Evidence and Drama in Early Sound Films
Housing Problems (1935) by Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey deals with the “problem of the slums” and uses audio narration to set up sequences of evidence in support of its message. Introducing segments of images with phrases such as “here are some pictures of ...” and the more specifically negative “here are examples of sheer neglect...” in a male upper-middle-class voice that seems to fit the bill for delivering an official viewpoint, the film begins with this “voice of God” style narration. Yet this is counterpointed with the working class dialect of the film’s subjects, who give the details of their situation (and their feelings about that situation) in their own words decades before this would become common practice in documentary film.
Night Mail (1936) by Harry Watt and Basil Wright can be taken as celebrating efficiency and the British worker. Its poetic narration, by W.H. Auden, seems specifically designed to add a sense of dignity to the simple story of the delivery of the mail. Referencing the rhythms of the trains depicted in the film, this narration positions the importance of the image sequences we see into the unseen lives of those who depend on the mail. A second layer of sound consisting of the overdubbed voices of the workers serves to dramatize the process, asking questions such as “can we do it?” and counting down to the critical shots of netting the mail in the dramatic manner of a feature film.
Both of these films proved early on that audio narration could solve “problem areas” in a film by communicating needed information that was not provided in the visuals gathered or in interviews. This technique, however, would quickly become a crutch for many documentaries and the hallmark of the “educational film” as it was seeming easier and less expensive to script and record a “voice of god” narrator than to provide for the process needed to gather certain materials.
As well, propagandists would discover that such a technique would allow precise control of a desired message, and that where images could be misinterpreted or not show what was intended, narration could be crafted to present any message as true.
Next: Necessary Revelations in Social Documentary