The End of an Era: From Silent Film to Talkies
By Sheza Naqi
The transition from silent film to the “talkies” in the mid 1920s transformed the face of the American film industry and of mass entertainment. “Going to the picture show” was a wondrous experience that for 25 cents, gave Americans in large cities an escape from their tedious lives and offered an evening of “crystal chandeliers, marble fountains, gilt inlay and richly upholstered seats” (Miller n.d.). They went to enjoy the “silent” film, which is not an entirely accurate statement considering that all silent films were accompanied by live music, and were therefore not silent at all. Full symphonic orchestras accompanied some silent films, while others had sound effects added by organ, and smaller movie houses used the piano to add sound. Without dialogue, the actors had only body language and expression to tell the story. As an intensely visual medium, the silent film was accessible to all audiences and in areas where there were large immigrant populations and English was not the first language, the intertitles would be translated into Yiddish, Russian or Italian as the live music accompanied the film (Miller n.d.). Thus, the silent film negotiated a space for illiterates.
In his book, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound 1926-1931, Donald Crafton identifies a change in audience tastes as one reason that pushed Hollywood to modify its traditional silent film practices (Crafton 1999). Audiences described their first experience with the new sound technology of the Vitaphone as “great”, “more real” and “miraculous” (Crafton 1999). The Vitaphone, endorsed by Warner Brothers was used to make the first half-silent, half-talking musical, The Jazz Singer in 1927, which was met with great success. The Vitaphone technology recorded sound on a separate wax disc that the projectionist then had to synchronize with the film (Miller n.d.).
Crafton attempts to debunk the legend that it was a swift and abrupt revolution in American cinema that came about as a result of the talkies. “The transition was years in the making and in the finishing… the motion picture industry did not turn topsy-turvy because of the talkies. No studios closed on account of the coming of sound: most increased their profits” (Crafton 1999). He uses research conducted by historians in the 1970s and 1980s to explain the changes in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s as deliberate and rational rather than confusing and speared by hotheadedness (Crafton 1999). The transition was spurred by the dominant studios’ needs to respond to the physical expansion and experimentation with sound technology by the competitors Warner and Fox (Crafton 1999). The response from the industry unfolded in three stages leading to an eventual transition from silent film to talkies: Invention, Innovation and Diffusion (Crafton 1999). “Invention” covers the period up to 1925 when the synch-sound apparatus was in its developmental stages until Warner Brothers picked it up as the Vitaphone. The “Innovation” phase can be understood as the time when all of the studios experimented with the various methods of applying sound (i.e. hybrid films, musicals) until 1928 when the majors made a conscious commitment to go forward with sound technology. “Diffusion” describes the release of talkies nationally and internationally as well as the wiring of theatres for the new sound technology (Crafton 1999).
Despite how neatly packaged this three phase transition may sound it was not so smooth. Crafton’s book opens with a critique of the 1952 musical Singing in the Rain, which looks at this transition period in cinema with whimsy, portraying it as a romanticized event in the history of film. In Singing in the Rain, the Jazz Singer opens as the first talkie and the studio easily wires its stages for sound and the film is shown across the country despite the fact that most theatres would not have been able to accommodate sound. The film also follows a director as he shoots his first talkie with the same ease as the old silent film (Crafton 1999). But the transition was not executed with such grace and not everyone welcomed the new technology with open arms.
While many moviegoers had initially been excited by the idea of hearing their favourite actors’ voices, they were disappointed when the image of the actor and the voice did not match their preconceptions. This came to be known as “Talkie Terror” amongst long-time silent film stars whose careers ended along with the silent film era as a result of this phenomenon (Doyle 2010). In the December 1929 issue of Photoplay, an influential magazine in the film industry, the cover read “The Microphone – The Terror of the Studios” with another tagline, “You Can’t Get Away With It In Hollywood” (Doyle 2010). The issue dealt with the introduction of the new sound technology as it created a division between Old and New Hollywood. An actor had to be more than just beautiful to thrive in New Hollywood; so the new talkies starred stage actors who had more experience with dialogue (Doyle 2010). Many actors left their film careers due to voice issues due to the new technology, including Colleen Moore, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and others were pushed out by studios using their voice as an excuse to demote or fire them (Doyle 2010). The silent-to-sound transition did not only affect the stars; it ushered in a new breed of directors who had experience working in theatre and thus had a better understanding of the power of voice; it gave great importance to newly-hired, all-powerful sound technicians who shushed the Old Hollywood directors as they shouted orders to actors on set; and cameramen found themselves cramped in soundproof booths that did not allow for the same fluidity that silent films were loved for (Doyle 2010).
During this transitional phase, Hollywood produced several hybrid films like The Jazz Singer, which were both silent and had dialogue. The studios also experimented with sound on film by adding only music and sound effects using the new technology. Another hybrid version that came to exist was a process called “goat glanding” where existing silent films were re-mastered with sound effects and dialogue in some key scenes (Miller n.d.). Another way that studios ensured their success while they gambled with the new sound technology was to continue to release silent versions of their talkies. This was a tactic to ensure box office sales, and ideal for smaller movie houses that had not yet been wired for sound (Miller 2010). When the last silent film was finally made, not only did the art of the silent film die but it also marked the end of the art of intertitle writing. Musicians who had played accompaniment to silent films also found themselves out of work and replaced by what the American Federation of Musicians referred to as “canned music” (Miller n.d.).
The musical, Footlight Parade released in October 1933, starts with a declarative farewell to the silent film era: an electric billboard announcing the death of the silent film (Miller n.d.). The six-year transition period is an indication that silent films did not go silently. The 2011 release of the Academy Award winner The Artist, a French silent film about Hollywood, has brought silent-cinema back into the spotlight and, at the same Academy Awards, Martin Scorsese was nominated for Hugo, a film that celebrates the beginnings of French silent film. The silent-cinema era is certainly not forgotten and judging by the popularity of the recent Academy Award winners, perhaps it will even enjoy a revival. As Crafton says of the transition from silent films to talkies, “It was a complicated and messy business, owing in no small part to the vicissitudes of mass audiences” (Crafton 1999).
Crafton, Donald. (1999). The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931. California: University of California Press.
Doyle, Jack. (2010). “Talkie Terror, 1928-1930.” PopHistoryDig.com. Accessed October 20, 2012. Retrieved online from http://www.pophistorydig.com/?p=7281
Miller, Francesca E. (n.d.) “Silents to Talkies.” FrancescaMiller.com. Accessed October 20, 2012. Retrieved online from http://francescamiller.com/talkies.html