Questions from the Google: Who were the silent stars who failed in the talkies?

Welcome back to Questions from the Google, where I tackle weird, wacky or common search engine terms that bring people to my site. Today, we’re going to be looking at one of the most popular searches of all:

Silent movie stars who failed in talkies
Silent movie stars who didn’t make it in talkies
First talkie actors bad voices

I’m going to be honest, these queries really boil my fingernails.

You do know “Singin’ in the Rain” is not a documentary, right?

I hate musicals in general and I save a special place in my hate box for Singin’ in the Rain. There’s so much smugness to unpack. (I am so getting in trouble for this but I don’t care.) The worst thing, though, is that the movie has taken over the narrative of the talkie transition and implanted the idea of a lovely silent star with a terrible voice firmly into the popular imagination. Even fans of the musical must realize that it is the source for a whole lot of baloney.

tempest-john-barrymore-louis-wolheim-camilla-horn-silent-movie-animated-gif-get-a-room

Basically, there is a general belief that silent stars had funny voices and were laughed off the screen once the public heard them. Um, no.

John Gilbert was the star most often trotted out as a “real” example of a silent actor with a terrible voice but then people started to, I don’t know, watch his talkies and soon discovered that his voice was perfectly normal. Sure, he was stiff and over-rehearsed in his very first talkies but that just made him equal to 75% of Hollywood. Gilbert was a fast learner and was chattering away with the best of them in quick order. He was no Ronald Colman (really, who was?) but more than up to the task of talking pictures.

little-old-new-york-hoo-boy
Marion Davies has the only sensible reaction.

Gilbert is still occasionally trotted out (I had someone try to win an argument citing him as an example of a silent star with a funny voice. It did not end well.) but the myth has attached itself to such diverse talents as Marion Davies (who had a stutter but overcame it and made talkies for a decade) and Wanda Hawley (a minor starlet whose career was kaput in the majors by 1925– well before talkies– and whose voice was just fine).

It’s quite similar to the notion that there must be someone somewhere in silent films who tied women to the train tracks on the regular or that there must be some way to claim that The Birth of a Nation was the first something, anything. People seem to be in love with the narrative and seek out evidence to twist into supporting it even when every shred of research is against them. The sound transition was a time of enormous upheaval and my theory is that the search for the “real” Lina Lamont is a way of simplifying  an extremely complicated period of film history.

Nothing wrong with Mary Astor's voice.
Nothing wrong with Mary Astor’s voice.

There is an enormous difference between a bad voice and an untrained voice or a normal voice that does not match one’s screen persona. In any case, neither Ricardo Cortez nor Mary Astor had voices that matched their silent movie roles but they did just fine in sound. Mary Philbin is terrible in talkies but she was also terrible in silent films so I’m not sure it proves anything.

Did some careers falter? Yes, but it wasn’t because they sounded like they had inhaled helium (in any case, a helium voice seemed to be a-okay for women). There were complicated factors at work and I have written an entire article about them. Basically, the sound transition was a crazy, crazy time and no one could predict who would succeed and who would fail. The art of the silent film was being murdered and replaced by a close cousin. Is it any wonder that some careers died with it? And some stars (Constance Talmadge, for example) just didn’t want to deal with it. Can you blame them?

(For those of you who don’t know, silent films were made in a completely different manner from talkies. The director could no longer talk a star through a scene, they could not use mood music and many other changes. It wasn’t just a matter of voices.)

It’s kind of a weird fixation with failure

To be honest, the sound transition was over pretty quickly and it had its successes and its failures. I’m not exactly sure why there is this huge fixation with failures and only failures. Silent movies don’t get enough respect as it is.

talkies-photoplay-cover
You could try reading the articles inside, you know.

Photoplay‘s famous “Demon Mic” issue talked about some stars faltering in sound (keep in mind that sound technology was primitive and there were a lot of other issues in play) but it also wrote about the stars who were killing it in the talkies.

If Photoplay can do it, why can’t we? Why not turn the question around?

Silent stars who made it big in talkies?

How about Jean Arthur? She was in silent films for most of the 1920s but never really caught on. Arthur became a star in sound films and her squeaky voice was part of her appeal. (If you want to be brat, you can always respond to queries about silent actors with squeaky voices by naming Arthur.)

How about Boris Karloff and Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard and William Powell and Myrna Loy and Joan Crawford? And the aforementioned Mary Astor was dumped because her voice was deemed too deep to play the sweet little virgins she had known for but she came roaring back to life in much, much juicier roles. I guess she showed them, didn’t she?

Jockeys who failed as race car drivers

Why is this query about talkie failures so annoying? Well, suppose you are a big fan of swing music. How would you like it if the first question you were asked was which bandleader didn’t make it in rock ‘n roll? Pretty annoying, right? Why? Because that’s not the point. We’re here to celebrate art, not take spiteful pleasure in watching people fail.

Sure, she plays the piano well but I'll bet she'll just bomb at Metal Fest.
Sure, she plays the piano well but I bet she’ll just bomb at Metal Fest.

Silent movies and sound movies are similar but separate arts. They are made in completely different ways. The very process of acting is different. Asking why an actor was good in silents but not in talkies is missing the point.

Which great painter didn’t make the jump to photography?

Which ballerina couldn’t tap dance?

Which soprano couldn’t sing the baritone part?

See? Sounds silly, doesn’t it?

Conclusion

Instead of focusing of negativity and meanness toward people who have mostly been dead for decades, let’s celebrate their films and their art. The silent era lasted for over three decades in the United States but the sound transition takes up the lion’s share of the conversation. It’s tedious and I’m not here to engage in tedious conversations. I’m here to focus on silent films as an art and celebrate the talented men and women who made them. Sorry but you’ll have to get your jollies elsewhere.

16 Replies to “Questions from the Google: Who were the silent stars who failed in the talkies?”

  1. TCM recently re-ran a pretty good otherwise documentary on Greta Garbo narrated by Glenn Close in which they repeat the “John Gilbert had a high pitched voice” and then (infuriatingly) ran a clip a few minutes later from “Queen Christina” where you can hear that Gilbert’s voice is perfectly fine. I’ve become immune to the Gilbert’s voice bashers, but the fact that this particular group didn’t even take the time to listen to their own clips boiled my fingernails, too.

    1. I haven’t seen that Garbo documentary (I am just shockingly behind on these matters. It was from 1990, yes?) but it doesn’t sound like I am missing much.

      I remember being surprised when I saw a clip of the infamous “I love you, I love you” scene from “His Glorious Night” At that point, I didn’t know much about silent films and was expecting his voice to be bad. The dialogue was bad, of course, and Gilbert was clearly nervous, which can tighten the voice, but he sounded perfectly normal. There is a myth that someone at MGM tampered with the recording to make him sound silly but that was clearly not the case. What made him silly was his insistence that “cruel” should be pronounced “crew-ell” but he dropped the affectations pretty quickly.

  2. In this day and age, it is ridiculous to still read or hear someone spout that John Gilbert’s voice was the reason for his film-doom. But on another note from above, I have also never been much of a musical film fan although I’m liking some an itsy bitsy more if there’s something else unusual about them that can be admired. As for SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, I have a rant about it too. Comparing Debbie Reynolds to Jean Hagan is like comparing a dishrag to…something much grander. And the best dance sequence to me is Donald O’Connor’s. Why Debbie and Gene get praised for this film, makes me shake my head in wonder. (I thought it was interesting to see Ned Sparks in the silent film THE ONLY THING (1925). I bet when he started making talkies, audiences were delightfully amused.)

    1. Yeah, that’s the problem with these myths. Once they catch hold, it’s almost impossible to dislodge them. (See: Train tracks, damsels, silent film) Hail, fellow musical anti-fan! “Singin’ in the Rain” was very much typical in its attitudes toward silent film (“Merton of the Movies” and “The Perils of Pauline” both had the same snide humor) but its continued popularity is really the problem. I wish someone would put a warning label on that thing.

  3. I used to love Singin in the Rain a great deal, but now its smugness about silent cinema just grates me too much. I still love Donald O’Connor and the Broadway Melody number, but after becoming a fan of silent film, I just have a hard time sitting through it anymore.

    1. Yes, I had a similar reaction. The first time I saw it, I was really new to silent films and put in the “it’s okay” category. A musical but okay. Now, it just grates on me soooooooo badly. I do, however, take comfort in the fact that silents and 1930s-1950s movies are all tossed into the same old movie category these days. Nya nya nya!

  4. I will have to disagree. I love Singin’ in the Rain. That being said, it DOES get a lot wrong when it comes to the silent era (apparently they had advanced dubbing technology in 1927 despite sound recording barely working at this time), but I’m able to look past what they get wrong and enjoy the movie. I totally get why others would get very annoyed with it, though.

    1. In theory “Singin’ in the Rain” is a good film (though it has massive structural flaws) but it just had the double whammy of being a (ugh!) musical and being snarky and mean-spirited about a film period that already gets enough nonsense. The key is definitely looking past the errors but the problem is that most viewers simply do not and accept the story as having at least some basis in fact. Richard III defenders have the same issues with Shakespeare, I imagine.

  5. I’ve seen several Gilbert “talkies” (Captain Hates The Sea, Fast Company, Queen Christina) and his voice wasn’t a problem at all. His drinking may have been, but you could say that about many ex-silent stars (Barrymore, Fields, etc)

    1. Very true. His alcoholism (along with his neurotic personality) is probably the single biggest cause of his downfall as there were quite a few outfits who hated the MGM brass and were willing to take a chance on Gilbert. There was that famous quip about The Captain Hates the Sea. “The costs are staggering!” “So’s the cast!”

      And it is a good comparison as Barrymore didn’t last that much longer than Gilbert.

  6. I hate musicals, but I do love Singin’ in the Rain, even though it gets film history wrong in many ways. (MY big gripe is people who use fictional sources as “proof” of, well, anything. Hello, that’s why they call it FICTION!)

    If Garbo and Deitrich could make the transition, then clearly, the failure of others to do so had little to do with their voices. But I still laugh whenever Jean Hagen says “Why, I make more money than Calvin Coolidge. Put together!”

    Actually, I think the most unbelievable part of Singin’ in the Rain is how nice the studio head is. No way do I believe he wouldn’t have done something super ruthless to void Lena’s contract.

    1. Oh yes, there were always ways of voiding contracts or punishing stars who stepped out of line. As I recall, Lucille Ball was put in a harem picture near the end of her tenure at Columbia and Warner Brothers socked it to Humphrey Bogart by casting him as an undead mad scientist in The Return of Dr. X. I think Garbo was actually one of the few who almost always got her way and still kept her contract.

  7. I, too, have “a special place in my hate box” for Singin’ in the Rain! While I don’t share your disdain for film musicals, I’ve never understood the rapture that many critics and self-described film historians have for that film (but I happen to love the original, almost surrealistic version of the song “Singin’ in the Rain” from the otherwise dreadful 1929 MGM film “The Hollywood Revue,”– far superior to the obsequious Gene Kelly rendition.)

    Aside from the drivel that passes for history in Singin’ In the Rain, and beyond the twisted pleasure that many seem to derive from the myth of failure that has been attached to silent stars during the transition to sound, the point that is usually missed is that the so-called talkie “revolution” was actually the product of the corporate marketing of sound technology that had already existed for more than a decade.

    The emerging giants in electronics, RCA and GE in particular, wanted to find ways to further monetize their patents for sound technology beyond radio, and motion pictures were the logical, and potentially the most lucrative, way to accomplish this. The American film industry, “Hollywood,” was essentially their tool for selling this to an American public that now equated electronic technology with “progress.” Anything that was not technologically “innovative” was now subject to derision, even in a film musical made more than twenty years later.

    1. Yes, there was definitely money to be made from the sound transition. And the NEW!!! attitude fit rather nicely into the cultural arrogance of the 1950s.

      You’re quite right in describing the attitude toward silent film stars as twisted. What’s worse is that the joke (which was never very funny) was hoary even when Singin’ in the Rain was new. I’m not sure which is worse: the kids snickering at the silents who were in diapers during the sound transition or the old veterans who were obliged to make fun of their life’s work. Either way, it’s sick.

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