Speaking Up For the Talkies in 1929: ‘Silent Movies Are History’

The Oscar-nominated film The Artist shows how much silent movie actors disliked the arrival of sound to cinema. But it wasn’t just the silent actors and actresses who disliked the ‘talkies.’ As Wesley Stout reported in his Post article “Beautiful, But No Longer Dumb,”

There are several hundred thousand, perhaps several million, moviegoers of all kinds and flavors in the United State who continue to protest in this late spring of 1929 that they do not like talking pictures and will not have them.

Though grousing and whining about the end of silence in movie theaters reminded Stout of a movie theater he visited as a boy. Each night, a small audience would gather, slump into the seats, and snooze through the night while the projectionist changed reels and showed the same movie over and over. “The only comment from the house was a contented snoring,” Stout said.

[I suspect] the outcry against talking pictures is being led by those patrons who have found the dim cathedral light, the overstuffed upholsteries and the easily ignored entertainment to be the perfect soporific. They resent having their sleep interrupted.

Technicians move a microphone boom closer to Renee Adoree.

Stout admitted that some Americans disliked ‘talkies’ because they’d only seen the first productions, which had been filmed and shown on inadequate equipment. Other just disliked change, or enjoyed adopting a fashionable opinion. He was particularly surprised the complaints that rose from newspapers’ drama critics—

A majority of whom, until recently, rarely have had a kind word to say of pictures… [Now they] look upon the least silent celluloid as the Ark of the Covenant about to be profaned by vulgar hands.

Not that long ago, Stout reminded readers, silent movies arrived with images of the world without sound.

When pictures first were shown, audiences felt this lack. Lips moved, traffic flowed, shots were fired, horses galloped, pies were thrown, and the Empire State Express flashed through Tarrytown in a world suddenly become stone deaf.

In the course of years we adjusted our ears to this unnatural silence and, creatures of habit that we are, it is the returning sound that now offends our senses.

Now, Stout declared, American audiences would adapt again.

Freed from the constraints of silent filming, studios began producing lavish musicals.

Here is a prediction:

The silent picture will be as dead as the souvenir teaspoon within a very short time, and none but professional adopters of lost causes will mourn at its tomb…

Talking pictures will produce better entertainment for considerably less money.

When the hisses and the catcalls have subsided, we shall proceed…

The addition of speech, music, and sound-effects to moving pictures has expanded their entertainment and artistic possibilities beyond anything the most farsighted can foresee today.

Talkies wouldn’t just offer talk, they’d bring along their own musical accompaniment— and not just a theater organ or piano, but full orchestras, famous singers, and choruses.

Millions have never seen a real musical comedy or revue. Such entertainment has been confined for years to the larger cities and played at prices prohibitive to John and Mary. Shortly they will be available at movie prices to any town large enough to support a wired movie house.

In Stout’s experience, the sound quality of movies already surpassed the best theatrical production. In 1927, he had seen “Show Boat” performed onstage at New York’s Ziegfield Theater. Even though he sat in the tenth row, “I distinguished no two consecutive words of Helen Morgan’s song “Bill.” Then he saw a film version of the play.

I again saw Miss Morgan, just as on Sixth Avenue, New York, except that I saw her more clearly… And I heard every word of the lyrics of “Bill” — lyrics very well worth hearing.

She was in New York and I in Salt Lake, but, the illusion being complete, I forgot that at her first note.

The arrival of talkies, Stout continued, would let comedies move beyond the limits of sight gags. And in drama, the ability to speak lines would enable movies actors to add depth to their performances, and touch audiences as never before. A theater manager had recently told Stout,

Mary Brian prepares for her voice test. She was one of the actresses who successfully moved from silents to sound.

“[in silent movies] the story was unimportant because the real drama went on in [the viewers’] own imaginations.

“All they asked was a push to start them off, and the regulation clinch at the end… They identified themselves with the stars.

“The screen reached them only with images; the actors had no more reality than the watcher invested them with.

“But once an actress spoke, the real woman broke through. Her personality reaches out and shakes the audience out of its private dreams. They are forced to take note of character now.”

The added dimension of speech, according to this manager, would have a “profound effect on daily life.” Movie-makers would be forced to write intelligent dialogue. And youngsters would stop imitating the shallow characters they’d seen in movies because they would see true personalities in movies.

As a prediction, it contained a large dose of wishful thinking. Sound didn’t force movies to become more intelligent and youngsters didn’t stop mimicking insipid role models they saw in movie melodramas. But the potential for sound pictures was still immense— so immense that Stout himself was tempted into making a rash prediction.

Sound recording was soon moving out of the studio onto elaborate backlot stages like this one for "Hearts in Exile."

Very probably the stage —musical, vaudeville and legitimate—oh, yes, legitimate! —will not survive the new competition long.

No pencil can figure how the stage of Shakespeare and his successors can compete with them, even under the highly special conditions of Broadway.

Stout fell into the trap that has swallowed up many other prophets. He believed that the latest innovation in entertainment meant the extinction of any older style.  Radio was supposed to bring the death of newspapers. Television would kill radio. The internet would bury television. E-books will replace books in print. And ‘talkies’ meant the end of live theater.

Americans, however, are hungry for entertainment, and never fully abandon any diversion. In a culture where long-playing records continue to survive amid CDs, no medium ever disappears.