The Jazz Singer at 90, Part XI (So who did survive the transition successfully?)

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.

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The Jazz Singer at 90, Part X (Common myths debunked)

Over the past 90 years, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about TJS, the end of the silent era, and the dawn of sound. While many have a sliver of basis in truth, the truth is a lot different and more complex than popular opinion suggests.

Myth #1: TJS was the first talking picture.

As discussed in Part VI, sound-on-film technology had a long history, full of fits and starts, going back to 1894 or 1895. TJS was merely the most popular and successful, due largely to Al Jolson’s star power and charisma. This is similar to the oft-repeated myth about BOAN being the first feature-length film.

TJS also wasn’t even the first all-talking feature. That was 1928’s Lights of New York. TJS is at least 75% silent.

Myth #2: The silent era immediately ended after TJS came out

As discussed in Part IX, the transition from silent to sound film was very long and slow. Even if the entire film industry worldwide had decided, right then and there, to make sound the law of the land, they couldn’t wire all theatres for sound overnight. They also needed to buy a lot of expensive new equipment and film.

China, Japan, and Korea were largely silent well into the Thirties. They didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken. Japan also had the tradition of the benshi, a narrator who accompanied film screenings and was a star in his own right.

Myth #3: Most silent actors had horrible voices, and thus had to retire

Many actors had wonderful or at least competent voices, though they weren’t always best-served by early sound recording technology. People were so enamoured of talkies, they flocked to see anything and anyone. They didn’t mind voices which weren’t professionally trained, such as Clara Bow’s Brooklyn accent. All they cared about was hearing someone talk during a movie.

Some actors genuinely had very thick accents or serious speech impediments which prematurely ended their careers, but this wasn’t the norm. Rare exceptions included:

1. Karl Dane (né Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb), a funny-looking character actor who became a comedian in his own right. His thick Danish accent soon relegated him to lesser and lesser roles, until MGM yanked his contract. He tried several other careers, but nothing panned out. Deep in depression, he finally took his own life.

2. Many foreign exports, like Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. They had heavy accents combined with poor English. However, their acting careers continued when they returned to their home countries. Other foreign actors, like Nils Asther, took voice lessons and were cast in roles where accents were expected.

The same thing happened with the large community of Russian actors in France. In that case, going home wasn’t an option if they valued their lives and freedom.

3. Raymond Griffith, a comedian whose voice was barely above a whisper due to childhood vocal chord damage (screaming every night in a stage play). His final acting role was a dying French soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which had extra poignancy with his natural voice.

True blame goes to factors including:

1. ALL stars have a shelf life! Even actors who’ve been successful for several decades eventually slow down or lose popularity to the new generation. These actors just happened to reach their expiration date in the early sound era.

2. Some actors were looking towards retirement anyway. Vilma Bánky, for example, had a thick Hungarian accent, but wanted to leave acting for the full-time role of Rod La Rocque’s wife. She retired in 1930, just as she’d announced she would.

3. Studio politics and personality clashes. Enough said!

4. Even big-name silent stars, and the types of characters they played, were increasingly seen as outdated and unfashionable, reminders of a bygone era.

5. Marriage (or lack thereof). Many women either chose to retire upon or shortly after marriage, or had husbands who insisted they stop working to be full-time wives and mothers. William Haines refused to enter a lavender marriage and dump his boyfriend (whom he was with for 47 years, until his death).

Myth #4: John Gilbert had a terrible, squeaky voice

Jack’s career was sabotaged by the vile, vindictive Louis B. Mayer. He had a lovely voice and well-received talkie début, but Mayer kept giving him sub-par roles. The wonderful Irving Thalberg gave Jack some great films, and ex-lover Greta Garbo chose him as her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), but the damage had already been done.

His depression with inferior films and long periods of unemployment led to increasing alcoholism, and Jack died of a heart attack at age 36.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part IX (About those creaky early talkies)

While TJS played a huge role in the talkie revolution and the end of the silent era, it wasn’t an overnight development, contrary to popular misconception. Many U.S. theatres still weren’t wired for sound as late as 1930. Thus, many Hollywood films were released in both sound and silent versions.

Even with growing access to both Vitaphone and Movietone sound-on-film systems, most studios remained slow on producing sound films. Silents continued to be made as usual, along with hybrids selectively using sound.

Warner Bros. released the first complete talkie, Lights of New York, 6 July 1928. It had a paltry budget of $23,000, with an extraordinary gross of $1.252 million. People wanted to hear talking pictures, regardless of quality.

In September, they released Jolson’s all-talking The Singing Fool, which more than doubled the profit made by TJS. Within nine months, its song “Sonny Boy” had sold two million records and 1.25 million sheet music copies.

As Warner Bros. continued going from strength to strength with their talkies, other studios followed suit by quickening their own production pace.

By 1929, all-talking pictures had become the industry standard, though many theatres still weren’t wired for sound. While sound theatres jumped from 100–800 between 1928–29, silent theatres increased too, going from 22,204–22,544.

Many studios still weren’t completely convinced talkies were the wave of the cinematic future. They were seen as popular novelties which would soon wear off. Charlie Chaplin famously held out until 1936. His last silent (albeit a hybrid), Modern Times, is a farewell not only to the silent era, but also the dear Little Tramp.

TJS premièred in Europe 27 September 1928, by London’s famed Piccadilly Theatre. The European film industry almost immediately embraced sound as the wave of the future, and their first hybrid, Ich Küsse Ihre Hand, Madame (I Kiss Your Hand, Madame), released 16 January 1929.

Most of Europe’s major studios began converting during 1929. The continent’s first successful talkie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, released 21 June 1929. It was filmed as a silent, then reshot with dialogue, sound effects, and a soundtrack.

Due to the rapid changeover, and technological limitations, many people had to go abroad; e.g., many French talkies were shot in Germany.

1930 saw the talkie débuts of Poland, Italy, the former Czechoslovakia, the USSR, Romania, Belgium, Greece, and Denmark.

Some countries converted quicker than others. By the end of 1930, about 60% of British and U.S. theatres were equipped for sound, while over half of French theatres were silent through 1932. As of May 1933, less than one in 100 Soviet theatres had sound capabilities.

Asia and the Pacific were silent much longer. While Japan began experimenting with sound films in 1926, over a third of their films were still silent by 1938. It was traditional to have a benshi (narrator) performing as accompaniment to film screenings, with voices, sound effects, plot summary, and evocative descriptions. Many were stars in their own right.

China’s first talkie came in 1930, but they remained largely silent through 1934.

India’s first talkie premièred 14 March 1931, and was so popular, cops had to control the crowds. Sound proved to be a huge boon for Indian cinema, and helped to bring the industry into its own.

Australia released its first talkie in 1930.

Korea was the final country with a major cinematic industry to make its first talkie, in 1935.

Show Girl in Hollywood (1930) is a documentary about sound filmmaking. It illustrates many of the problems plaguing early talkies, such as microphones dangling from rafters and multiple cameras simultaneously filming in soundproof booths.

Early sound cameras were very noisy, thus the soundproof booths, but this meant cameras couldn’t move very far. To compensate, multiple cameras were used. Actors also had to stay very close to microphones, or their speech wouldn’t be picked up.

Sing-Song Red Girl Peony, China’s first talkie

Many cameras were overcranked or undercranked, for dramatic effect or improving exposure. Many projectionists also ran too quickly to squeeze in more shows and shorten running time. However, this created improper synching and made sound unlistenable. An industry standard of 24 FPS was instituted.

Loud arc lights used in studios had to be abandoned, since microphones picked up every little thing. The quieter incandescent lights, while technologically superior, necessitated more expensive film.

Many early talkies are just that, talky. They’re little more than a nonstop stream of talk, so eager were people to play with the shiny new toy. Gone were the sweeping, panoramic shots, since cameras could no longer move that far. So many early talkies are like filmed stage plays, in the same small setting, held hostage to technological limitations.

While there were notable exceptions, like director King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), it took awhile for most filmmakers to start getting back to the same level they’d been at in the twilight of the silent era. In general, people who waited a few years to make their first talkies, instead of jumping right in to play with the shiny new toy, ended up with far superior sound débuts, both technologically and artistically.

WeWriWa—Enjoying a Thanksgiving feast

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a few pages after last week’s, when Cinni invited Harry to be her family’s Thanksgiving guest after he was thrown out of the soup kitchen for fighting with his thuggish older brother.

No one was home when they arrived at Cinni’s house, so Cinni went next door to her easily-annoyed neighbor Mr. Valli to ask for help with cooking. Cinni discovered her family went to the Vallis for Thanksgiving dinner.

Cinni’s mother is quite displeased she was out so long getting a turkey. She’s much happier after seeing all the food Cinni and Sparky won, but discovering there’s yet another guest to cook for upsets her again. Finally, she starts cooking before it gets any later.

This has been slightly edited to fit 10 lines.

Mrs. Filliard fumed as she hoisted the turkey out of the wagon and pulled the stuffing out of the refrigerator.  While she prepared the turkey and other food under the Smalls’ careful directions, Cinni, Sparky, and Harry went into the living room to read comic books and listen to the radio.

It was 10:30 when supper was called, wonderful smells wafting all through the house.  These were the kinds of smells which were supposed to permeate the air much earlier on Thanksgiving, but better late than never.

“This is the greatest thing anyone’s ever done for me,” Harry said as he took a seat. “Remember, Cin, one day I’ll pay you back for tonight.  Don’t think I ain’t thankful just ‘cause I ain’t in a position to do something so nice anytime soon.”

“Of course I know you’re thankful, Harry; unlike some people, you know what being thankful’s all about.”

The Smalls intoned a blessing over the feast arrayed before them, and then everyone dug in.  It was the sweetest, most delicious Thanksgiving meal Cinni had ever had.

WeWriWa—Inviting a Thanksgiving guest

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a bit after last week’s, when Cinni and Sparky won a 25-pound turkey, and a lot of other goodies, in a bingo tournament at the kosher butcher’s.

By the time the girls won, it had just started growing dusky. As they lugged their food home on two large wagons, they discussed whether they’d need to wait till tomorrow to eat the turkey, or if they’d just have a very late meal.

Then they ran into their friend Harold (Harry) Brewster outside of the soup kitchen, kicked out because his older brother R.J. started a fight with him. R.J. then taunted him from a window, and Harry was thrown out again after running back inside to respond to the challenge.

“Why not eat with us?” Cinni offered. “Turkey, carrots, eggs, potato gravy, beets, and yams, plus all the grub my mom’s making back at home, like cranberries, cornbread, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.”

“Are you kidding?  Of course I’d love to eat with you!  Your family looks rich next to mine, and now you’ve got all this grub for an even better feast.  Someday I’ll pay you back for this good deed, even if I don’t get a chance to do something so nice in return till we’re grownups.” Harry took Cinni’s wagon handle. “Let me pull yours the resta the way.  The Most Popular Girl shouldn’t have to work on a holiday.”

Harry finally has a chance to repay Cinni’s kindness in February 1985, by giving her his family’s old house when she’s been made homeless by the evil, powerthirsty general holding her husband hostage in Vietnam and pretending he was killed in action. A promise is a promise, no matter how long it takes to fulfill.