Silent Movie Myth: Silent stars had funny voices

Hooo boy, is this an old one. It is actually as old as talking pictures themselves. The myth goes like this: So-and-so (often John Gilbert) was a famous film star in the silent era but what people didn’t know is that he sounded like Mickey Mouse! Hilarious!

All of these beautiful people with one fatal flaw that is exposed by new technology… And the movie audiences finding out that their idols had feet of clay, or in this case, nails-on-chalkboard voices. Of course, films like Singin’ in the Rain only serve to make the myth more plausible.

Beloved musical, terrible history.

Adding to the myth is the fact that a very large number of silent stars were not visible after the 1930s when, for the most part, talkies were the only kind of movie playing in America. Instead, a whole crop of newly minted stars were in charge.

That being said, I really find it odd that folks fixate on this myth so doggedly. What is the point of all this meanness and negativity toward people who have been dead for decades? So, if your purpose in asking this question is to snicker at dead people, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. This article is not going to give you what you want.

On the other hand, if you are motivated by curiosity or you just saw a movie or read an article that tried to tell you silent stars had weird voices, you have come to the right place. In fact, I have a whole series, After the Silents, dedicated to covering the careers of silent veterans in sound films.

Before we begin with the debunking, let’s lay the whole “John Gilbert had a squeaky voice” thing to rest. The poor man has been the target of more than his share of nastiness and petty rumors.

There you have it. A real, live recording of John Gilbert sounding completely normal. Thank you. Good night.

(Oh, and this also kills the equally ridiculous myth that MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer arranged to have sound techs fiddle with the knobs and make Gilbert’s voice sound silly. Some enthusiastic writers even suggest that Mayer used his heretofore unknown skills as a sound technician to do the job personally. Presumably while stroking a white Persian cat and attempting to kill James Bond. Thing is, Gilbert hated Mayer and Mayer hated Gilbert. Why the heck would the star keep quiet about this obvious sabotage?)

Most silent film stars fell into one of a dozen categories when talking pictures took over and some fit into more than one category.

1. They transitioned just fine

Yep, they started in the silents.
Yep, they started in the silents.

Some of the most famous talents of the 30s actually did start out in silent films. William Powell and Myrna Loy were typecast as villains but their voices allowed them to be wisecracking comedic stars. Boris Karloff was a silent character actor. Laurel & Hardy were equally excellent in both sound and silence. Carole Lombard was a Sennett comedienne. Ronald Colman was an unremarkable leading man in silents but he became a superstar once the public heard that honeyed velvet voice. And of course, as we all know, Garbo talks!

In fact, most silent stars had at least some stage experience and/or singing ability.

2. They could not speak English

Conrad Veidt would return.

The silent cinema meant that a Swede could play a Texas cowpoke, a Hungarian could play a California rancher and a Dane could play an American doughboy. Some stars, such as Conrad Veidt, Emil Jannings and Lars Hanson, had successful careers in Europe and chose to return to their native lands. Hanson made The Informer in which he was dubbed but subsequently returned to Sweden. Veidt later picked up English, which was fortunate since he later had to flee Germany with his Jewish wife.

Please note that these actors did not fail in the talkies, they simply returned to their home countries.

This problem was not exclusive to Hollywood either. For example, France had a large community of Russian performers who had fled the revolution in their home country. Sound severely limited the parts these talented performers could play as they either did not speak French or did so with a Russian accent. And, of course, going back to Russia was simply not an option for many.

3. They had been acting for 20+ years and were entering the third decade of their careers

The reigning queen of Hollywood before Hollywood was in Hollywood.

Some stars had been in pictures since the early 1910s or before. It is extremely difficult to remain on top for 10 or 20 years, let alone 30! Mary Pickford had been a successful film actress since her debut in 1909. She made a few talkies, picked up her Oscar and retired in 1933, thank you very much.

Add to that the fact that a crop of newer talent was being drawn to the talkies. Tough-talking gangster actors like George Raft and James Cagney, the anarchic Marx Brothers, cute Shirley Temple… The movie-going public is always looking for something or someone new.

4. Talkies were an entirely new medium

Gish was not a fan of the talkies. She still made a ton of them.

People sometimes assume that making silents and making talkies are the same thing, just add microphone. Actually, silents and talkies were made in a totally different manner. Silent actors could be coached by the director while they acted. They could have mood music. Suddenly, it was quiet on the set. Is it any wonder that Lillian Gish took a three year break after her first talkie and a nine year break after her second? And what if a star could not sing in the musical-obsessed 30s? And don’t even get me started about the staid camera and dull pacing of many early talkies.

You see, asking a silent performer to suddenly switch to the talkies is like asking a sculptor to exclusively take up painting. Silent performers projected emotion using only their bodies. With the talkies, they had to rebalance their style for the addition of voices.

5. Their voices were fine, just not right for the parts they played

The all-American boy who wasn’t.
The all-American boy who wasn’t.

Reginald Denny took a while finding his niche. Initially known for boxing pictures, he later discovered a gift for subtle, everyday comedy. Denny played very American roles: suburbanites, wage slaves, general middle class everymen and the occasional rich eccentric. Once sound revealed his English accent, he was in demand to play rich swells from the UK, which is a pity as he really excelled at light comedies based on daily life. Note that his career was not really damaged, he simply had to switch gears.

Vilma Banky’s Hungarian accent is blamed for her demise but the real problem was the American perception of foreign stars and the roles in which she was cast. Banky’s accent was no thicker than Garbo’s but Garbo was cast as exotic temptresses and tragic literary characters. Banky swung between princesses, wholesome sweethearts and all-American girls. She made exotic romances (Son of the Sheik, Night of Love) but she was not the exotic one. American audiences wanted their sweet heroine to sound like she was from Massachusetts, not Budapest. Garbo was already considered foreign and so her accent was accepted.

Author Scott Eyman does a wonderful job of explaining the Garbo/Banky conundrum in The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930. He also points out the only rule of successful sound transition: There were no rules.

6. The parts they played were no longer stylish

Lloyd transitioned to sound but his talkies didn’t have the same oomph.

People sometimes forget that the dominance of talking pictures coincided with the start of the Great Depression. Studios released their last silents in 1929 and the same year the economy collapsed. The taste of the American public changed too. No more flappers, please. No more lusty sheiks.

Harold Lloyd had a good voice and it suited his go-getting college boy character. But he was not as successful in talkies (though he still did have hits) because that kind of character did not sit as well with audiences undergoing the Great Depression. (One could also argue that Lloyd’s age– he was in his late thirties when sound arrived– made his college kid persona less suitable.)

John Gilbert’s demise can be blamed on studio in-fighting and alcoholism but also on the fact that the romantic melodramas he specialized in simply did not work as talking pictures. Colleen Moore’s flapper pictures died with the twenties. She had been trying to make the jump to serious drama but it didn’t quite pan out. She retired but remained an active and successful businesswoman.

7. Their personal lives interfered with their careers

Clara Bow endured the double-whammy of the death of the flapper genre and the nasty rumors circulated about her by a bitter former friend. She quit the movies but it wasn’t because of her working class accent.

Marriage (or lack thereof) was another issue that damaged careers. William Haines transitioned to sound but was cut off from his contract when he refused to enter into a so-called lavender marriage. Pola Negri and Mae Murray both received disastrous career interference from their husbands, two brothers in the “Marrying” Mdivani family. (The Mdivanis were Georgian “royalty” who specialized in marrying into the Hollywood elite and spending their spouse’s fortunes.)

Pola recovered and enjoyed sound success in Germany and the Netherlands. Mae Murray was not so fortunate.
Pola recovered and enjoyed sound success in Germany and the Netherlands. Mae Murray was not so fortunate.

Most tragic of all were the careers cut off by death. Lon Chaney made only one talkie before succumbing to cancer. Milton Sills died of a heart attack before the release of The Sea Wolf. Douglas Fairbanks made four talking pictures and was discussing a collaboration with his son when he too died from a heart attack. Renee Adoree succumbed to tuberculosis.

8. They got caught up in studio politics

Paramount thought Bebe Daniels didn’t have the pipes for sound. She showed them with a smash hit musical and a radio show.

Poor voice quality was a great excuse for eliminating contract performers who were difficult, rebellious or expensive. During the upheaval of the sound transition, performers like Mary Astor, Bebe Daniels and Wallace Beery were cut from studio rosters to make way for the new talking stars. All three made comebacks and found enormous success in the new medium. (Bebe Daniels had particularly sweet revenge when her 1929 musical Rio Rita turned out to be a blockbuster.)

John Gilbert did not get along with his boss at MGM, Louis B. Mayer. Supposedly, Mayer vowed to ruin Gilbert after the latter punched him for insulting Greta Garbo. (The “punch” story was started by Garbo frenemy Eleanor Boardman and has been thoroughly debunked by Garbo, Gilbert and Mayer’s biographers. Boardman has yet to explain why she was hanging out in the men’s room during her own wedding.) In fact, Gilbert’s fall from grace was a complicated blend of changing tastes, bouts of alcoholism and a very stiff, affected way of speaking. Nothing wrong with the pipes themselves but his delivery in his very first films was not up to snuff. (He pronounced “cruel” as “crew-ell” for example.)

As for the Mayer issue, I will simply say this: Try openly insulting the guy who signs your checks and see how well that works out for you. I look forward to hearing it.

And, of course, keep in mind that actors and actresses were at the mercy of sound technicians, some of whom did not know what they were doing. No wonder the coming of sound was so stressful!

9. They transitioned successfully– but their films were buried

Bessie Love’s biggest sound hits were at the beginning of the transition.

Plenty of silent stars worked through the 1930s but their films were locked in vaults. Why? Well, in mid-1934, the Motion Picture Production Code began to be enforced in earnest. Many pre-Code films were denied re-release on the grounds of being too… too… well, you know.

So, if an actor gained popularity in, say, 1924, survived the coming of sound in 1927 and worked steadily in lead roles through 1934, that would be a solid decade-long career. Better than average. However, if their early talkies were denied re-release due to Code issues and their career started to decline soon after… well, it would look rather like they did not make the jump to sound.

Fortunately, many pre-Code films are enjoying a revival so we can once again see these silent stars and hear their voices.

Early talkies and part-talkies are not often so fortunate. Because of their relatively primitive look and feel, blessed few see the light of day unless they feature big names or have fallen into the public domain.

10. Their careers were on the rocks already and talkies were the final nail in the coffin

Wanda Hawley, movie star is no more.
Wanda Hawley, movie star is no more.

This is a particular pet peeve. Would-be historians want to write about a silent performer, they look up their filmography, see that there are no movies after, say, 1930 and then declare the performer to be a victim of sound.

Hold your horses! The trick is to look at the quantity and quality of films made by the performer. For example, Agnes Ayres was a popular leading lady best known as the heroine of The Sheik. She was also Paramount executive Jesse Lasky’s mistress. After she broke up with him, she briefly retired, came back, got involved in some messy divorces and lawsuits, battled mental illness and her career hit the skids. All of this occurred well before the talkie revolution. She tried to make several comebacks in the talkies but none really worked. Her leading role in The Donovan Affair is often listed as an example of her popularity in 1929 but Columbia was still considered a cheapie concern at the time. Anyway, she only had fourth billing and did not make another film for seven years. A victim of sound? No, but she is often listed as one.

Then there is Wanda Hawley. Another Paramount actress, her last credited film was in 1932. Surely she must be a victim of sound! Not really. You see, she left Paramount in a contract dispute in the early twenties and bounced around from studio to studio, quickly sliding into poverty row productions. Her cutesy comedies were no longer in style by the time the twenties really started to roar and she was unable to jump genres. Also, by all accounts that I have read, she was a rather unpleasant person and no one seemed to like working with her. A victim of sound? No, but she is often listed as one.

(You can read more about both Ayres and Hawley in the biographical collection Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen by Michael J. Ankerich.)

11. Their talkie debut was awful but they recovered

Boyd soon conquered the talkies.

There seems to be an idea that silent stars had one shot at the talkies and they were doomed if they failed it. In fact, many actors needed several films to get used to the new medium. For example, William Boyd’s talkie debut in High Voltage is just painful. He has the option of acting, speaking clearly for the microphone or suppressing his Oklahoma accent. Pick two.

Boyd was also dealing with personal issues. Alcoholism and an unfair scandal had done considerable damage to his once-promising career. However, he made a comeback with the phenomenally popular Hopalong Cassidy series and became a beloved figure to generations of western fans.

If there is one lesson I can teach you, let it be this: There is an enormous difference between a bad voice and an untrained voice.

12. They made silent films– they just never mentioned the fact

Marlene Dietrich made her film debut in 1930 after being discovered as a school girl by Josef von Sternberg. At least that’s her version. In fact, Dietrich had been making films in Germany for most of the twenties and was nearly thirty when she hit it big.

The movies are obsessed with youth and we certainly cannot blame Dietrich for shaving a few years off her profile. Further, silent films were seen as laughable relics by many. They would have done her career no good.

Raymond Griffith
Raymond Griffith

Finally, I guess I should admit there was one star who had an odd voice: Raymond Griffith. He had damaged vocal chords.

It should also be noted that Marion Davies had a stutter and Dolores Costello spoke with a lisp. However, both ladies were able to overcome their speech issues. Costello retired to raise her family (after making a good many talkies, by the way) and Davies made movies through the 1930s before she too retired.

So next time you read about the “high, squeaky voices” of silent film stars, sit back and feel smug that you know the real story. And if someone asks you to name the silent star with the squeaky voice, give them the same answer that I always offer: Mickey Mouse.