Happy heavenly 99th birthday to my favorite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn! May his memory be for a beautiful, eternal blessing.
So much was lost, due to the film industry’s rush to follow the new at the expense of the old. While I’m glad sound-on-film technology exists, a middle ground would’ve been better.
Moviemaking took a huge step backwards when talkies became the law of the land. Cameras could no longer move as far; microphones picked up every little thing; actors couldn’t move far from the microphone; and most films became like stage plays, limited to a very small set, with nonstop (often bad) dialogue.
Sound was a huge boon for actors with great voices. Some, like Ronald Colman and William Powell, had been successful in silent pictures, but took their careers to a whole new level with their voices.
Other actors, like W.C. Fields, had started in silents, but needed sound to rise to success, with a trademark voice giving their characters a whole new boost.
Sound also was a huge boon for my belovèd Laurel and Hardy. Their voices matched their characters perfectly. I mentally hear their voices when I watch their silents. No other voices would’ve felt right on them.
Other actors never could’ve succeeded in silents, regardless of their talent. Can you picture the Marx Brothers as silent comedians? Even Harpo’s character only works when everyone around him speaks. Watching the lost Humorisk (1925) would be a very surreal experience!
Many actors who rose to stardom in the sound revolution came from Broadway and vaudeville. Actors like Cagney and Bogart needed to use their voices to fully bring their characters to life, and couldn’t have been as successful with just pantomime. Their voices made them who they were.
Sound enabled genres like gangster movies and musicals. While both ended up kind of overdone, to the exclusion of other worthy genres, those kinds of stories couldn’t have worked in silence. These genres were also just what Americans in the Great Depression needed for escapist entertainment. They certainly could no longer relate to things like flapper stories.
Sound also made necessarily dialogue-heavy stories more practical. Sometimes a story can’t be properly, fully understood without reliance on dialogue to convey important information and establish characters. I dislike silents with too many intertitles, esp. when they’re huge chunks of text.
However, a longer transitional period could’ve alleviated some issues. If more time had been spent working out the technological kinks, while still making hybrids and silents, the switch-over would’ve gone so much more smoothly.
In general, people who waited a few years, instead of jumping right in to play with the shiny new toy, had better début talkies. There’s less of a “Look, we can talk!” vibe. Most early talkies are so dated and creaky next to the aesthetically superior silents of the late Twenties.
Early talkies are hit and miss for the same reason so many 1910s feature-length films are. It’s a new medium still finding its voice, without years of history to fall back on for help. Even talented actors can’t save some of these films.
Many great late silents bombed, or were critically panned, because talkies were more in demand, no matter how poor the quality. Yet many late silents have aged far better than most early talkies.
Intertitle writers and accompanying musicians lost their jobs; directors could no longer speak during filming; and playing mood-setting music during filming had to stop.
So many filmmakers have forgotten how to tell a good story without constant talk. Just picture one of your favorite cinematic battle scenes. Can’t you easily understand what’s going on without the soldiers stopping to chat? Isn’t there greater emotional intensity because it’s all conveyed without words?
Many good horror movies also create a creepy, foreboding mood without saying a word. It’s all about visuals and atmosphere, not people gabbing about a monster on the loose, or how scared they are.
If TJS hadn’t been the catalyst, another film would’ve done it eventually, perhaps with the same results. It’s impossible to say if a later revolution would’ve allowed room at the table for both types of films, or if sound would’ve been dismissed as just another trend after a few years.
Hollywood still doesn’t have the greatest track record of accurately depicting religious Judaism, but TJS represented an important, positive step forward (in spite of falsely calling Judaism a “race”).
TJS represents a poignant, simultaneous ending and beginning, a mixing of excitement and uncertainty. “That’s all there is to life, just a little laugh, a little tear.”