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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.