In loving memory of John Lennon, who was taken from this life 37 years ago today.
As discussed in Part X, very few actors’ careers were ended due to the coming of sound. There were many complex, complicated factors at play.
But just who made a longterm, successful transition from silents to talkies, for longer than a few years of coasting on earlier laurels?
1. People already trained in stage acting. This includes actors like John and Lionel Barrymore, whose background included vocal acting, not just pantomime. They knew how to use their voices, and were familiar with memorizing lines.
Left to right: John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, 1904
2. People who were just starting to become big names. In this group are actors like Anita Page, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, and Barbara Kent. They’d become popular, but not for long enough to have become associated with the “old-fashioned” types of characters or way of making films.
3. Huge superstars who had a great deal of freedom to continue making pictures on their own terms. The foremost example of this kind of actor is Charlie Chaplin, who was his own boss and had the luxury of making silents till 1936. Harold Lloyd also continued regularly making films, though neither of them were as popular as they’d been in the silent era.
4. People who hadn’t yet graduated from extra and minor roles. These were actors like Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Boris Karloff, and Clark Gable.
5. People who’d been around for awhile, but either hadn’t made much of a real impression yet, or hadn’t had their true potential revealed with the right kind of roles. This group includes actors like Myrna Loy, W.C. Fields, William Powell, Marlene Dietrich, and Fay Wray.
6. People whose talent and appeal was such it enabled them to have successful careers in both eras. These lucky people include Laurel and Hardy, Norma Shearer, Ronald Colman, Rod La Rocque, Bebe Daniels, and Greta Garbo.
7. Foreign imports who couldn’t hack it in English-language films, but did just fine with speaking roles in their native languages after going home. This group would include Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt (who later successfully broke into British and U.S. films after mastering English), and Lars Hanson.