Radio Was the Flip Side of Silent Movies*

The visual came first–silent movies. Audio came next–radio. One was pictures and no sound; the other, sound and no pictures. When they mated in 1927, sparks flew. Talkies were born. The combination spelled disaster for studios, theaters, and actors alike. Few actors survived the transition to talkies. Aside from Greta Garbo, almost none of the stars of the 1930s had been stars of silent film. No theaters did–all had to undergo expensive renovation for sound. Studios did not survive either. Entire sets were destroyed, new filming techniques replaced ones that had been around for decades, many studios went under. 

Garbo made the transition to talkies

It’s understandable that when television was invented, people thought the same thing would happen, that is, that television would destroy movies just as talkies had destroyed silent pictures. It didn’t. Television damaged movies–people went to the movies less often–but it didn’t destroy them. 

*Observation courtesy of Eileen Whitfield in “Pickford” (2007).

Published in: on October 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Name Game

       Silent film actors often gave themselves a new name, something more memorable, more alliterative, more modern than the one bestowed upon them by their parents. For example, one casting director advised a handsome young extra named Frank Cooper to change to a first name that sounded tougher. She suggested Gary after her rough-and-tumble hometown of Gary, Indiana. “Coop” took her advice. When little Gladys Smith got her first part in a David Belasco play, the famous New York director insisted she change her humdrum name. Together they settled on Mary Pickford. She became one of the country’s most famous film actresses, known all over the world as “Little Mary” or “Our Mary.” Her siblings were all too happy to piggyback on Big Sis’s fame. They change their names as well, from the almost comically boring John Smith to Jack Pickford, and from Charlotte Smith to Lottie Pickford.

       Foreign-born actors needed something less—well, less foreign, so that American audiences could pronounce and remember their names. So Greta Lovisa Gustafsson became Greta Garbo, the famous vamp. Wong Liu Tsong became Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American film star. My favorite? Get a load of this: Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi who became Rudolph Valentino, the Latin Lover.  Here are a few more silent movie name changes:

 Mary Astor – Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke

Joan Crawford – Lucille Lesueur

Lon Chaney – Leonidas Chaney

Douglas Fairbanks – Douglas Elton Ullman

W. C. Fields – William Claude Dunkinfield

Buster Keaton – Joseph Frank Keaton

Stan Laurel – Arthur Stanley Jefferson