Thursday, August 24, 2006

Silence Is Golden: The High Price of Transition To The Talkies (August 2006)

Technology can be a wonderful thing. It can extend lives, improve our quality of life and enlighten us in our knowledge of the world around us. But each coin has another side. The introduction of computers in the 80s lead to major downsizing in the 90s. In the 30s, people by the hundreds were being 'tractored out', as one tractor could replace ten able farmworkers. Imagine how many breeders, blacksmiths, street sweepers and stable-hands were put out of business when the automobile replaced the horse as our favoured mode of transportation? History is full of examples of people being squeezed out because of change and progress, and in Film, this was truest at the advent of the Talking Picture.

1927 introduced the popularity of talking pictures with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, and within approximately two years, every picture made in Hollywood was a talkie. This caused a major upheaval in the industry, and though some actors managed to stay the course, most found themselves with waning careers, never being as big a star as they once were.

Others found their careers to be non-existent after just a few pictures.

Pola Negri was a very successful and rich Hollywood film starlet whose career included over fifty films, a woman who reportedly had romances with Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin. There were other impasses that saw her popularity wane but her thick Polish accent was one of the main reasons she stopped working in Hollywood.

Emil Jannings, the first winner of the Oscar for Best Actor, was a man with a heavy German accent that did not transition to talkies very well. He returned to Germany where he made several Nazi propaganda films, ending any chance of working in Hollywood again.

Clara Bow revealed a Brooklyn accent when she started making talking pictures, Vilma Banky sounded too Hungarian and Agnes Ayres sounded 'improperly pitched', many of the more common reasons for big names to go quiet.

Karl Dane, however, is perhaps the most tragic example of the harsh world of fickle success. In Hollywood he had a solid name for himself, with a career of almost fifty films as supporting cast and comic relief, having been in such record-breaking smash hits as Son Of The Sheik and The Big Parade. On a personal note, I grew to recognize this face and when he'd make his appearance in a film I wasn't so sure I'd like, I always
appreciated his presence as it always made for a better film.

Rasmus Karl Thekelsen Gottlieb was born and raised in Copenhagen, and when he started working in Hollywood, his thick Danish accent was not a problem until talkies, when, like several of his counterparts, he could not find work. He managed to get the occasional role, but by 1933, his career was over and he was earning money as a part-time carpenter and mechanic while training to become a plumber. He bought a hot dog cart to help make ends meet. Selling hot dogs outside of the studios he had once been a movie star in while watching his marriage fall apart drove him to depression, and in 1934 in his rented room he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a pistol.

Here's the thing though: people were so infatuated with the talking picture than for years the industry suffered, as the cameras were so loud that they had to be put in soundproof booths, reducing the cinematographic experience to an old standard of static, unmoving cameras. The sound equipment was also bulky and clumsy, so actors were also confined in their movements until the boom mike was invented.

If you ask me, those early talkies years were the worst that film had to offer. I may change my mind as I continue to explore those early days of the talkie, and I'm crossing my fingers in hopes that I find more gems thank stinkers, but I don't think it's going to happen. Unless of course, you have a recommendation...

Oh and a little Post Scriptum:

Thanks for reading The Film Vituperatem's 500th post, a fine milestone, thank you very much.

I'm celebrating in the nude.