Thursday, February 18, 2010

100 Blog Posts: How About 101?

When I started writing Classic Movies Digest last spring, I had no idea I would eventually write 100 posts. I had no idea how many posts I would write, I just wanted to share my love of classic movies with anyone who wanted to read what I had to say and share that love with me. Well, I am happy to say the response has been tremendous and I have enjoyed meeting a wide variety of fellow classic movie enthusiasts. To celebrate the milestone, I requested your input, what readers wanted to see for the 100th article, and based on comments, e-mails and various messages and requests, the following is the response of the masses. Thanks to everyone who participated and to all readers of CMD.

Silent Transition: Can You Hear Me Now?

"Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!" Those were the first words spoken in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first "talkie" movie, partially anyway. It was the first feature film that bridged the gap from silents, the only films the world had known, to the sound era of filmmaking. Released by Warner Brothers in fall of 1927, the studio would release Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature film, the following year and with that, there was no turning back. Audiences flocked to the new kind of movie and box office takes were too profitable to ignore, even by those who at first called the concept a "fad". It was a transition famously ~ and creatively ~ lampooned in the classic musical Singin' in the Rain (1952), but the conversion to sound didn't come without its casualties. Talent went to the wayside in droves, some, superstars of their time.

Many of the most celebrated stars of the silent era were of foreign birth and thick accents were given as the major reason for their fall from box office grace. Pola Negri, notable paramour of Chaplin and Valentino, was one such case. Her Polish accent apparently so thick it was deemed practically inaudible. Poor sound technology didn't help these situations surely, nonetheless, Paramount declined to renew her contract. Swedish icon Greta Garbo, on the other hand, not only made the transition successfully but thrived in sound films. Her Anna Christie (1930) actually heralded her sound debut with banner headers screaming "GARBO TALKS!" to movie-goers. Her reign at MGM was only strengthened, and her famed low profile only caused audiences and fans to want to hear her talk all the more.

As for paramours, Garbo's lover and would be husband, John Gilbert, was one of the sound era's most beleaguered victims. Once rivaled only by Rudolph Valentino as the ultimate male sex symbol of the silent period, the problems with his post silent career went far further than mere sound mechanics. As the story goes, his predicament began with his proposed marriage to the elusive Miss Garbo. In 1926, he and Greta were to take part in a double wedding ceremony with director King Vidor and actress Eleanor Boardman. Garbo was a no show. MGM head honcho and Gilbert and Garbo's boss, Louis B. Mayer, attending the nuptials, made a nasty crack about John's bride-to-be and Gilbert socked him. According to Miss Boardman, Mayer swore to wreck the actor's career. There was no love lost between these two men even before the incident, so the skirmish only brought to a head the tension between them. When Gilbert made his talking debut in This Glorious Night (1929), his voice came across as too high pitched to make him a viable screen lover. Also, his constant use of the phrase "I love you" was sniggered at by audiences and parodied in the afore mentioned Singin' in the Rain. Legend is that Mayer had the sound manipulated in the film to make Gilbert's voice less than suitable. Lack of support from his studio, heartbreak over his failed romance and alcohol all played a part in his demise.

Others who didn't withstand the test of time were superstar Clara Bow (above). The "It" Girl had a Brooklyn accent which supposedly the public didn't readily identify with their beloved sex goddess. Bow's voice actually wasn't much different from any of her contemporaries who also came from the New York borough, Barbara Stanwyck for instance, and time has shown that her career problems stemmed more from her personal demons than public acceptance. Some, like Bow, crossed over but didn't sustain their stardom. Ramon Navarro, Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson to name a few (Swanson would gloriously mock her own decline in her classic "comeback", Sunset Boulevard (1950) ). Chaplin didn't even bother until 1940.

Then there were those who, like Garbo, crossed over and blossomed in the age of talkies. Joan Crawford (left), everybody's favorite flapper, not only made the successful transition but reinvented herself numerous times to sustain her career for decades to come. She went from 20's flapper, to 30's working girl, to 40's noir dame to 50's hardcore queen bee to 60's campy horror icon. Norma Shearer, Ronald Colman and Janet Gaynor are great examples of those who excelled on both sides of the celluloid fence. But with the onset of sound, the time was right for change regardless. Stage actors came on the scene, those who had both faces and voices that they knew how to use. Of this crop, those who moved in to stay included Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and a slew of others. The chase was on and the newbies were ahead of the game.

Whether he knew he was being prophetic or not in The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson was right, we hadn't heard nothin' yet. Paging Lina Lamont.


  1. As someone who is slowly closing in on his 1500th post, I have to say getting to even the 100th post is hard! Congratulations

    I think the conversion to sound is fascinating in the actors that fell by the wayside and the ones who prospered in the new medium. Indeed, in many ways Singin' in the Rain nailed it on the head.

  2. Congratulations on your 100th, my friend! Time to start thinking about what to write for #200 ;-)

    Excellent article. It's amazing to me, that something like an accent, be it Polish or Brooklyn, could ruin someone's career like that. The pitch or timbre of a person's voice is one thing, but accents can be overcome with a little work. Ah, the fickleness of Hollywood... But you're right, often the introduction of sound was just the excuse the studios needed to do some housecleaning. It's a shame. It would have been fun seeing Clara Bow's career extended. I think she had a few good years of "it" left in her.

  3. Congrats on your 100 post milestone - and the terrific essay on your 101st!

    The voice quality and non/accent requirement of the early talkies makes me wonder how recent stars like Melanie Griffith, Penelope Cruz, Marilyn Monroe, or Arnold Schwarzenegger would have made out.

  4. Congratulations on the milestone! And great post!! I love learning when I read blogs. Fascinating how the appeal of certain performers changed with the addition of sound.

  5. Highly deserved congratulations on reaching this milestone. Thoroughly researched, well written, you never disappoint. This transition era is one of the most fascinating in Hollywood history to me. For John Gilbert fans, I would recommend the talking picture "Downstairs" shown on TCM as an example of a fading star shining in an unsympathetic role, taking the "Great Lover" image in a new direction. Sadly, as Rupert points out, due to Mayer's vendetta against him, Gilbert didn't stand a chance to regain lost ground.

  6. Congratulations on your 100th post! I still have a while to go until mine. Great post by the way!

  7. You are an amazing writer, Rupert. I loved this article. It addresses areas of the golden age that fascinate me immensely.

    When I think of actors like Clara Bow and Ramon Novarro who were unable to sustain their careers after the advent of talkies, I have to believe that many of them would have been unable to sustain their careers anyway. There were other issues at play most of the time.

    As for Joan Crawford (an actress I rarely can tolerate outside of "The Women"), she seems rather like the Madonna of her day...the ability to reinvent her image consistently and effectively kept her on top for a very long time.

  8. Congratulations on reaching this milestone, and looking forward to reading your next 100 posts! I was very interested to read this article about the changeover from silents to talkies - fascinating stuff. Gary Cooper is another of those who made the crossover successfully - I've recently seen a couple of his silents - but of course he had a good voice.

  9. Congrats Rupert, my awesome friend, what a great post. They are always great though but silent films are one of my all time faves. oh and can you imagine that Ronald colman's voice. he was wonderful in silent films and he didn't even use his beautiful enriched voice till later. People must of swooned when they heard it.

  10. Rupe, congrats on reaching the 100 milestone! Loved the article.

  11. Well done on your 101 great items Rupe!!!!

  12. “One man who saw through his own eyes and thought with his own brain. Such men may be rare, they may be unknown, but they move the world.”~Gary Cooper, "The Fountainhead," (1949)~ YOU ARE THAT MAN!



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