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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Tom Mix: America’s Silent Cowboy Star

This year’s postage stamp series honoring cowboys got me thinking about using one of them—Tom Mix (1880-1940)—in a cameo in my Roaring Twenties novel set in 1925.

Mix was one of the most important Western film stars of the 1920s. Almost all of his 300-400 movies were silents. He thrilled audiences with his rugged good looks and cowboy skills: trick riding, expert rope work, and marksmanship. Worshipped by two generations of schoolboys, he maintained a wholesome image that involved “no cussin’ and no drinkin’.” He and Tony the Wonder Horse were both screen legends. Like Douglas Fairbanks, Mix did all his own stunts. It was said that during his career, he suffered more than eighty injuries including knife wounds, bullet wounds, broken bones, and one dynamite explosion.

Although it is true that many silent stars failed at talkies because of their poor voice quality, it wasn’t true of Tom Mix. He made several talkies, but chose instead to follow his love of the circus and tour the country with his own Tom Mix Circus. (Radio didn’t pay enough for him to bother with.) Unfortunately, he was a big spender with a passion for women (he had 5 wives), fancy clothing, sports cars, a yacht, a ranch in Arizona, diamonds, and wild parties. His Hollywood mansion had his TM brand in neon lights above the roof. Although he made millions in a time when thousands was beyond most people’s wildest imagination, he spent money like water.

Mix died in a car crash at the age of 60. 

Published in: on August 16, 2010 at 8:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The First Talkie?

         “The Jazz Singer” (1927) with Al Jolsen is usually credited as the first “talkie.” You can see a 2-minute clip of it here, starting at the 4 minute 54 second point.

            Actor John Barrymore made a film the year before with a synchronized musical score and sound effects using the Vitaphone system, so why isn’t that one considered the first? Probably because “The Jazz Singer” was the first film to use spoken dialogue, or maybe because it was the first full-length talking movie, or maybe because it was the first widely-seen, popular movie with words. Even then, most of “The Jazz Singer” was, like the Barrymore movie, vocal musical numbers. The first non-musical talkie came the next year in 1928: “Lights of New York.”

          Warner Brothers used the new Vitaphone system to make the movie. With this system, the soundtrack was not printed on the actual film as it would be later, but came separately on phonograph records that were played while the film was being projected.

Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 12:18 pm  Comments (1)  
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