Talkie Terror: The Transition From Silents To Sound

Everybody knows that talkies destroyed the careers of silent film actors... but is that the whole truth?

“I hope to Christ it was the sound stages!”

That is supposedly what It Girl Clara Bow cried out when she heard about a major fire on the Paramount lot in 1929. Her exasperated quote sums up the reaction many silent film stars had to the encroaching threat of the talkies. That transition shook Hollywood to the core, led to an outbreak of what the gossip magazines called “Talkie Terror,” and gave us the basic drama that serves as the backdrop of the immortal classic Singin' In The Rain, but how many stars were truly ruined by the arrival of microphones on studio lots? As is so often the case, reality is far more nuanced than the myth, which has dozens of actors suddenly unemployable overnight, their squeaky voices or Brooklyn accents rendering them obsolete.

The talkies were a long time coming. Thomas Edison always intended to marry images to sound, and as far back as 1885 was trying to get his phonograph and his kinetoscope to work together. That was one of the big problems keeping sound out of film - synchronization. Beyond that there was a problem modern audiences wouldn’t even consider; while projecting onto a screen enabled an entire theater to watch the movie, pre-electric amplification just couldn’t make the sound loud enough.

The Jazz Singer was famously the film that changed Hollywood, but that change didn’t actually come overnight. And The Jazz Singer wasn’t even technically the first ‘sound’ movie; Warner Bros had released their first feature length Vitaphone film, Don Juan, the year before. Don Juan had music and sound effects on its soundtrack (at the time a phonograph), but no dialogue. The Jazz Singer broke that barrier… and then it took six years for everybody else to really catch up. Studios were still releasing silent films into the 30s, and they would often release silent and talkie versions of their movies side by side. The reality for the studios is that not every theater in the country was wired for sound, and the upgrade process took a while.

But by 1929, when Clara Bow prayed for the destruction of Paramount’s new soundstages (and she was right, by the way, it was a stage for sound that was burning), the writing was on the wall. And not every actor who had prospered in the silents would make it through the transition. The reasons were varied, though.

Many actors with foreign accents found their fortunes changed. In the silent era no one knew that cowboy actually spoke with a thick German accent, but once the movies started talking opportunities for actors like Reginald Denny changed. Denny’s career was based on playing corn-fed American boys, something the British actor found harder to do when he was required to speak. The microphone was, in many ways, their enemy.

But for other actors the talkies were simply the nudge out the door they needed. Mary Pickford had been in the business thirty years, and her transition was so successful she won an Oscar for her first talking role, but she soon retired. Lillian Gish made some moderately successful talkies but decided that she’d rather work in the theater. Later she had an acclaimed television career.

For these older actors the problem wasn’t that their voices were squeaky or accents were wrong but that the entire medium had changed. The way they worked had to be totally rethought; in silent films the director would be shouting directions, but in the talkie era sets needed to whisper-quiet. The technical issues that came with early sound recording - wonderfully lampooned in Singin' In The Rain - meant that physical actors like Fairbanks had to adjust to a stiff, motionless style. Everybody needed to be talking right into a hidden microphone, which meant the pictures were barely motion anymore.

More than all that the aesthetics of motion picture acting changed. Performers who could tell audiences so much with their eyes were forced to adjust to a new world where they couldn’t play as big, couldn’t be as expressive. These older actors had a way of working, and that way of working slowly disappeared.

Other actors, like Wallace Beery, found themselves the victims of sound as an excuse. Studios used the new talkies as a reason to cut actors from contracts or to sideline them. There were tons of new acts - anarchic verbal talents like the Marx Brothers and singers like Ethel Merman - ready to take advantage of sound, and the studios wanted to get rid of the (perfectly serviceable) expensive stars. Some, like Beery, would make comebacks in the years to come, refusing to be held back by talkies.

If there was an actor whose career was legitimately, definitely destroyed by the talkies it’s probably Raymond Griffith. The name today is all but meaningless, but he was one of the biggest comedians of the silent film era. Griffith made only one talkie appearance, and sound ended his career. Griffith had, as a boy, suffered an injury to his throat - either from an illness or from too many nights shouting on stage - and could only speak at the level of a hoarse whisper. In the silents his ragged voice was hidden, but that microphone demanded more than Griffiths could give. He eventually went behind the scenes and co-founded 20th Century Fox. If his throat ended his career it also ended his life - Griffiths choked to death at The Masquers Club, a social club for actors.

As for Clara Bow, who wished destruction on the soundstage? Her career kept chugging along in talkies; she remained a top draw at the box office, talking and singing in her Brooklyn accent. Audiences liked it, but she wasn’t happy. "I hate talkies," she told Motion Picture Classic magazine in 1930, "they're stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there's no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me. [But] I can't buck progress. I have to do the best I can."

This article originally appeared in the September issue of BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH. See Singing In The Rain at your local Alamo Drafthouse this month!