Hearing Silent Stars Speak: Name Some of Your Favorites

One of the persistent myths about the silent era is the notion that silent stars had funny voices and had to retire in shame.

Actually, a great many silent stars had stage experience and even if they didn’t, there is a difference between having an untrained voice and a funny voice. And some stars did stumble in their talkie debuts (the technology was pretty fussy) but dusted themselves off and did just fine. William Boyd comes to mind. High Voltage has him trying to act, speak clearly for the microphone and suppress his Oklahoma accent. Pick two. But Boyd soon found his feet and enjoyed a second stint as a star when he was cast as Hopalong Cassidy.

Because her talkie work is rare and not well-known and because she is so famous for her silent films, here are Florence Lawrence’s scenes in the 1931 Hoot Gibson western The Hard Hombre.

Do you have any silent movie star voice stories to tell? Any obscure stars whose voices you have heard? Or do you just want to talk about GARBO TALKS? Go right ahead, this is the place.

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17 Replies to “Hearing Silent Stars Speak: Name Some of Your Favorites”

  1. The Marx Brothers-they DID make a silent film, so I think they count 😉

    In all seriousness, I like Chaplin and Garbo. I can just imagine the anticipation for Garbo’s first talkie.

    1. Humor Risk which is lost and little is supposedly known about. There was some good footage of where Harpo talks in Too Many Kisses:

  2. This isn’t really silent-movie talk, but there has long been a video going around containing Harpo Marx telling a story out loud. He had a pleasant New York accent, but as soon as I listened to it, I regretted doing so, as if I’d uncovered a trick by a magician whose work had fascinated for years.

    1. To my mind, Harpo Speaks! was always potentially bigger than Garbo Speaks! He was a frequent visitor, if not regular, to the Algonquin Round Table, due to as he is quoted, “They all needed someone to listen.” Would bet his bon mots and asides were aplenty in turn. He was, after all, one of Minnie’s Boys, verbose one and all. Later he let his harp and panto speak for his character onscreen, as it did so well.

      This isn’t silent movie talk either, but just read your latest blog post. Words fail. You are so eloquent on a topic many do not dare mention. Kudos for your eloquence.

  3. Ronald Colman and William Powell, of course, and Greta Garbo and Carole Lombard. I also love the speaking – and singing – voices of Gloria Swanson and Corinne Griffith.

  4. John, Lionel, and Ethel Barrymore are personal favourites, particularly Lionel for some reason- such a great character actor on the silver screen, be it in silents or talkies. Oh, to have seen any of them trodding the boards! Their work in talkies will have to suffice 🙂

  5. Conrad Veidt. Silent and talking. Sigh…
    I was truly smitten when i read an account of how he felt about his daughter, “do not ask me how i acted when my daughter was born. Like a crazy man…. (as if) nobody else had ever had a baby before…” – from Viola Veidt’s foreword to From Caligari to Casablanca, first read on Monique Classique’s Conrad tribute site. 🙂

    https://conradveidt.wordpress.com/tag/monique-classique/

  6. Just recently I saw a 1920 film, “Good References”, starring Constance Talmadge. One of the film’s supporting players was Ned Sparks. It was interesting to see him without hearing hi gravelly voice. Likewise, in “Lonesome” (1928) you can catch a young (and very slim) Andy Devine in a small role. And talk about young and slim, Eugene Pallette is one of the leads in D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance”.

  7. I’m going to say the Barrymore’s: John, Lionel, and Ethel. Also, I say Keaton in 1931’s Speak Easily, all the circumstances around Keaton’s time at MGM was tragic.

  8. I remember hearing a short clip of Valentino singing Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar and wishing he’d been able to continue his career into the talkies, but one of the very best voices to emerge from the silents has to be the gorgeous, gentlemanly, Southern drawl of Mr Oliver Norvell Hardy – so glad his career took off!

  9. Hearing some of their voices were to me like seeing someone for the first time after having spoken often on the phone with them and having a mental picture —- not quite what I was expecting. Not to say bad, but not what I had pictured in my head. The voice that I did find the most “surprising” was that of Buster Keaton.

  10. As a wean I loved Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon on the wireless here in England and was astonished to discover their silent film careers.
    Ernest Torrance had a lovely voice which didn’t fit with his physical appearance.

  11. One thing people forget about the transitional period is the limitations of early sound technology. Vitaphone in particular was very bad at recording female voices, and tended to “lisp”, so this colored a lot of people’s views of their favorite stars speaking voices.

    That said, my favorites were probably William Powell, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Keaton’s voice really seemed to match his screen character.

  12. I think Mary Astor’s speaking voice is one of my favorite movie star voices period. I love a lady with a deep voice!

  13. Like Matthew in comment above, I found Keaton’s voice surprising – so deep for such a small man. It’s like the ‘mismatch’ between the sonorous voice that intones the introduction to TV’s ‘Law and Order’ and the youngish-looking man that it belongs to.

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