Constructive Criticism: The Fans' Perspective
19The Talkies—Pro and Con
Constructive Criticism: The Fans' Perspective
Personality and Stardom
The film is Movie Crazy (1932), and Harold Lloyd is a star-struck fan who, through improbable twists of fate, finds himself making a screen test. He embraces his leading lady and emotes, "Oh, Marjorie! I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you." The joke, that nerdy Harold is replaying the talking-picture debut of the matinee idol John Gilbert, would have elicited laughter of recognition from audiences of the time. Lloyd is poking fun at early sound pictures, and perhaps also at the fans' role in making and unmaking talking stars. Harold, the fan, can do no better than the derided star when given the chance to cope with the talkies. The sequence also indicates the implicit tension over who was in control of the movie business: star, studio, or "crazy" fan. As a performer who made a difficult transition to sound and as a producer in decline, Harold Lloyd was intensely aware of the changing taste of the public and the difficulty of gauging it.
Industry organizations, including the Hays Office, theater owners' associations, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, coordinated the dissemination of knowledge about sound in a systematic fashion. But as the screen found its voice, where was the voice of the consumer? There were no motion picture viewer associations; fans had no "czar" equivalent to the producers' Will Hays. Clergy, reformers, and censors looked upon moviegoers suspiciously. The popular press, articulating aesthetic and practical criteria, claimed to be mouthpieces for the general public, but the extent to which critical opinion represented popular views is unknown. Certain publications, however, claimed to speak for the consumer: movie fan magazines. What did they and their readers say about the talkies?
The late 1920s saw a proliferation of periodicals aimed at specialized markets. Originally the venerable Photoplay (founded in 1911) and Motion Picture Classic (1915), the preeminent movie fanzines, had been story digests. Gradually their orientation shifted to cultivating fan response. By 1930, Screenland (commencing in 1920), Screen Play (1925), Screenbook (1928), Screen Stories and Screen Romances (1929), Modern Screen and Movies (1930) were part of what had become a huge publishing industry based on Americans' movie craziness. In addition to these titles, "affinity" magazines provided fan-oriented coverage. The advertising department at Columbia Pictures assumed, in 1930, that there was 90 percent shared readership between filmgoers and consumers Liberty, True Story, Film Fun, Detective Magazine, Love Magazine, New Movie, Home Magazine, American Weekly, Screen Play Secrets, and Redbook. As titles like Screen Secrets suggest, these movie publications had strong associations with romance and "confession" magazines. This should not be a surprise, because many had the same publisher, were frequently displayed together on newsstands, and attracted the same market. Like the confession magazines, movie fanzines sold fantasy and vicarious pleasure to an audience composed primarily of female readers under twenty-five. The periodicals "fanned" consumers' desire to learn more about movies and to become "fanatic" about their screen favorites. The media historian Theodore Peterson observed, "The fan magazines probably resulted from and helped to perpetuate the star system of the movies. They created a picture of the 'real' life of the movie stars, of the 'real' Hollywood, as synthetic as the world that the movies themselves portrayed. But for the typical reader, there was nothing artificial about such articles."1 This picture of the engrossed movie consumer—probably young, female, and unable to distinguish fiction from reality—is deeply rooted in our conception of fandom and encouraged by wistful letters to the editor like this one:
What a blessing the talkies are! Lonely rooms to come home to in the evening after a day of loneliness no matter if we work with hundreds and come in contact with thousands. Lonely dinners, lonely walks, and lonely nights!
Now, overnight it seems, our friends have multiplied fourfold. Maurice Chevalier twinkles at us with his naughty eyes, singing his songs for us alone, Gloria Swanson shows us her beautiful gowns, Richard Dix acts as "big brother," Paul Whiteman's orchestra sets our feet tingling, John McCormack sets our hearts singing—all of them bringing us sympathy, friendship and romance. And we leave the theater, our heads high, cheered for the moment at least, and believing that perhaps happiness is waiting for us just around the corner. (B.F., "Black and White," Motion Picture Classic, July 1930, p. 104)
The authenticity of letters like this one is contestable. There is no assurance that "B.F." was not a staff writer. Because the fanzines often gave small prizes for published letters, there was also an incentive for freelance authors to contribute what they thought the editors wanted to read. It is even possible that males (maybe incarcerated, who knows?) were masquerading as female movie buffs. But Photoplay's editor James R. Quirk strove to create a very different snapshot of his magazine's correspondents:
Every month there pour into the editorial offices of this publication from three to five thousand letters from motion picture devotees. Most of these letters are sent in by young women to the various service departments [i.e., responding to advertisements] but at least a thousand letters a month are from readers sincerely and intelligently interested in the development of their favorite form of entertainment.
College professors and stenographers, nurses, housewives, mothers, fathers, bank officers, school teachers, all real fans, all expressing their helpful opinions, paying respects to actors, actresses, directors and producers whose pictures please, or voicing kindly criticism of those who disappoint.
These letters are carefully read by the editorial staff, and the editorial policies of the publication are often guided by them. They constitute an accurate barometer of the popularity of plays and players. Of late they have been concerned with talking pictures. (James R. Quirk, "Close-ups and Long-shots,"Photoplay, March 1929, p. 24)
Like Will Hays, Quirk tried to create the impression that his constituency was a cross-section of middle-class America. But it is difficult to take as literally true Quirk's claim that many "professors" and "bank officers" (connoting well-to-do, middle-aged white males) were writing fan letters. Evidently he was taking pains to establish that the readership of Photoplay consisted of more than the stereotypical "little shop girl" movie fanatic. Many of the letters to the editor printed in the correspondence section were purportedly from men. But lacking other demographic evidence, we can look at the advertising in Photoplay and see that the ads contradict the editor's idealized heterogeneous image. The preponderance of sales pitches were for women's clothing and health, cosmetic, and household products. The magazine's staff and advertisers definitely assumed that the readers were women consumers, consistent with the prevailing notion in the industry that the majority of filmgoers were young females. The monthly column by Carolyn Van Wyck, "Friendly Advice on Girls' Problems," and romantic fiction inviting female identification makes the magazine's gender orientation obvious.
Gaylyn Studlar, however, has rebutted the widely accepted view that the fanzines encouraged passive spectatorship. Her analysis shows that editorial content and readers' letters frequently questioned the patently manufactured quality of official Hollywood publicity and were skeptical of efforts to launch new stars by hard-sell techniques. Reading the pages of these magazines in search of attitudes about sound reveals that representations of the passive consumer and the active constructor of cinematic pleasure competed head to head. The movie fan was the escape-seeking, lonely-hearted adolescent on one page and the active proponent or opponent of sound films on another.2
In addition to questions of authenticity and the demographics and assertiveness of the readership, we must also wonder about fan magazines' independence from the studios' influence. The magazines of 1927—1931 were not full of smutty scandal and near-libelous innuendo, as some were in the post-World War II period. But neither were they paragons of objective journalism. Some articles are vestiges of the origins of these publications as promotions for sponsoring movie studios. Many stories were rehashes of publicists' press kits and star agents' promotions. They also included some "inside" information which could be corroborated in the trade press. Thus, on any given page, gossip, insinuation, subjective opinion, and biased fabrications might merge with competent observation and what appeared to be reliable information about production.
But the magazines definitely needed the studios. The symbiotic nature of the fanzines demanded that an editor like Quirk walk a thin line. For his subject matter—especially news items, press releases, and, most important, photographs—he relied on the industry's self-interest. At the same time, Quirk sounded a constant editorial refrain of his independence from the studios and partisanship for the fan, although, as Koszarski observed, "his own standards were too idiosyncratic for any reader to fully comprehend."3 To serve as a spokesperson for fan power, it was essential that the editor not be perceived as a dupe of the moguls. He spoke for the "little" person and stressed that his magazine was a public service. Photoplay's tag line was "The National Guide to Motion Pictures." Repeatedly Quirk lauded movie-loving readers and assured them that they collectively possessed economic and aesthetic power. He devoted pages to readers' responses and exhorted them to register complaints and compliments, "remembering that the object of these columns is to exchange thoughts that may bring about better pictures and better acting. Be constructive." It was also vital for fans to believe that their comments were effective. "Those who make pictures, those who act in them, and those who comprise the photoplay's vast audience," Quirk pledged, "may find your opinions interesting and your suggestions helpful."4 This rather weak promise may in fact accurately describe the fans' impact on Hollywood. Certainly the studios must have paid attention to the opinions expressed in these publications (along with newspaper reviews and critical articles in mainstream publications), but the unfaltering measure of favor was always box-office revenue.
The industry was ambivalent about these publications. On the one hand, the studios courted fan magazine writers, recognizing them as a source of publicity and advertising. In 1930 the Academy invited fan editors and writers to a "free lunch" at which the famous lawyer (and film industry lobbyist) Louis Nizer was the speaker. He advised the editors to avoid too many "superlatives" in their ads and articles. On the other hand, Hollywood mistrusted the fan magazines, and several times in the 1930s pressured the Hays Office to restrict their reportage. Producers regarded fan culture and the publications that facilitated it as something else in need of concerted industry intervention.
The studios were able to call the shots. They retained contractual control over their performers' private as well as public lives and so held the power to dispense whatever knowledge they chose. Of course, some scandals were too big to contain and were written up by journalists who were outside the studios' sphere of influence. In such cases, the job fell to the fan magazine editors to explain and interpret what their titillated and/or disappointed readers were hearing "outside" the system. The studios' cooperation with the magazines was camouflaged by the authors' claims to be disseminating allegedly private information. Secrets and inside dope about pictures and stars were available "exclusively" to each magazine's loyal readership. The reporters personified themselves as espionage agents. Dorothy Manners of Motion Picture Classic spied on the privileged inner circle of Hollywood producers. Photoplay's Cal York let it be known that he was the bane of studio managers. He boasted of illegally entering closed sets, of scooping revealing interviews with anonymous insiders, and of cultivating his special status as confidant to the stars, few of whom hesitated to bare the details of their private lives. In point of fact, Manners, York, and the other regular columnists were more like double agents, selling their knowledge of the fantastic world of Hollywood for the price of an issue but really passing on information with a wink from the cooperative studios. The columnists adopted the personae of voyeurs and tattlers to enable readers to project themselves into the presence of their most cherished film stars.
Reading these fascinating articles, it is easy to forget that the film companies were the gatekeepers of industry knowledge. Fan magazine editors and writers no doubt had the same "silent bargain" with studios that book reviewers had with publishers, tacitly recognizing that a good review or star puff piece was linked to advertising revenue. Reporters' press credentials could be revoked. York could be banned from the back lot, and Photoplay could lose its "favored-nation" status with studio insiders or be sued for libel. The fountain of production stills and star portraits that illustrated Manners's pieces could dry up. And, of course, studios could elect not to purchase display advertising for their new releases. Yet the studios tolerated, and sometimes colluded with, these prying, sensationalist, and often inaccurate journals. Their pages provided an important forum for presenting potential new stars, honing the careers of established stars, and channeling and blocking information about actors and productions. "Behind-the-scenes" knowledge of production circumstances and stars' lives could boost attendance. Fan magazines were also the crucible in which the paradox of stardom was concocted: movie stars are glamorous, charismatic beings we can never approach, yet they are basically just plain folks like us, with similar interests and foibles.
These magazines are clearly not reliable as historical sources in the traditional sense. They are nevertheless highly useful to read as mediators of a complex web of exchange between the industry, the commercial world, and the consumer. We cannot look at them for the "truth" about the transition to sound because that was often suppressed in an effort to write a story with a certain bias. It would be better to regard them as a parallel form of entertainment (not unlike today's TV programs which repackage publicity about stars and show business in the guise of "news"). We can read fan magazines as filters through which ideas about the movies emerged, analogous to the ways in which trade journals strained the news about sound according to what the editors believed were their constituents' interests. Thus, it is all the more surprising that remarkable differences of opinion about sound were aired in the fanzines. These differences must have reflected both the misgivings of consumers about the talkies and the tentativeness of producers about which direction they should take sound. If fan magazine coverage was an accurate barometer of public sentiment, as Quirk claimed, then the magazines' treatment of the advent of sound reflected a fragmented and confused response to the talkies by the public.
James Quirk came out in favor of the talkies only during the summer of 1928, well after the studios had signed with ERPI and were wiring soundstages and theaters in earnest. Admitting his initial skepticism, he conceded that sound would "change the entire map" of the business within two years, introduce new stage personalities, force some favorite actors into second place, revolutionize newsreels, double the size of the audience, and put an end to "many affectations of speech."5 Fan correspondence arriving at Photoplay was slow to acknowledge the talkies, possibly because it was necessary to live in or near a major city to experience them. But by early 1929, while the industry was hedging with dual versions and part-talkies, controversy raged in the mail pouch. The editors searched for a trend:
These letters indicate that the talking picture or the sound effect picture is still regarded as a novelty, and that the public is not so sure that they will continue to be satisfied with full length, all-dialogue entertainment. Nine out of ten say they would rather have a first rate silent picture than a second rate talking picture. They complain of the mediocre photography and static quality of the acting in the talking versions, and are sensible of the greater sense exertion and brain effort demanded by them. They are unanimous in their praise of talk and sound in news reels, and there seems to be a definite acceptance of two reel talking pictures when combined with a silent feature.
There are many who say they will not attend any more full length talking pictures because of the added strain, but there are many more who name several short subjects they have enjoyed hugely. (James R. Quirk, "Close-ups and Long-shots," Photoplay, March 1929, p. 24)
For a while the pages provided a lively forum for a divided readership as the magazines gave coverage to those for and against the talkies.
For the Talkies
Minor Horton of Okmulgee, Oklahoma, knew what he liked about the talkies and submitted a list:
- They will give us real acting by real actors rather than a series of closeups of pretty faces and figures.
- They will help to Americanize movies, thus excluding "Foreign Finds," who are not even American citizens.
- They will afford excellent musical accompaniment by good orchestras.
- Instead of wondering what is actually said we can now hear the exact dialogue of the stars.
- Talkies will give many fans a chance to see and hear the world's greatest stage favorites and other notables that they might never have seen otherwise.
- They will provide a greater choice in movie entertainment as to whether it shall be silent or Talkie.
- And last but not least, there will be no written titles for the ladies to read to the children. This will also eliminate much of the eye-strain from hurried reading. ("Brickbats and Bouquets," Photoplay, May 1929, p. 123)
Horton's letter is worth examining in detail because it touches on so many aspects of the talkie debate. His first point about the "reality" of actors could refer to their naturalism, their sincerity, their professionalism, or all three. It seems to imply that real actors who can speak their lines as well as pose will be from the stage. He suggests that the silent film was characterized by the camera's excessive attention to women's faces and bodies. Does this mean that real acting is more masculine and that close-ups are less interesting than long-shots—as in "action" scenes, for example? His hint that a beautiful appearance competes with the voice was addressed more specifically by Colleen Moore's manager John McCormick when he was asked about sound: "What am I doing to prepare Colleen for this change? Nothing! For picture screen personalities faces are the important things, and, up to date, few of the stage stars with trained voices have proved to have film faces."6 Such perceived differences between face and voice reflected Hollywood's separation of image and sound, as well as a deeper schism between the viewer's confidence in the good looks of actors and the substance of their dialogue. This view paralleled the belief that sound revealed the intelligence or stupidity of actors. Several other readers pointed out that silent stars were failing in the talkies because their careers had been built on appearances. Floyd Casebolt of Waxahachie, Texas, wrote, "Too many lightweight actors and actresses have made the cinema grade because they had good looks. But now come the talkies and they are going to be a hard taskmaster. Dumb clothes-horses are going to be relegated to the scrap heap sooner or later. The talkies will bring the acid tests."7
Horton's sentiment about Americanizing the movies raised a divisive topic. While many hated the thought of losing certain artists, some were openly exhorting Hollywood to rid itself of alleged foreign domination. This attitude may have reflected a division between cosmopolitan production and regional exhibition tastes. The melting-pot character of early sound definitely played better before urban audiences than rural ones, to which presumably Horton belonged. His seemingly isolationist reaction may have been more, however, than Dust Belt xenophobia. Sklar has characterized the national sentiment of the period as one of "unbridgeable difference between social groups. Its ugly side was legislative restriction on immigration, based on ethnicity or national origin; its positive quality, a new recognition of the vitality of cultural variety … what we would now call multiculturalism."8
Horton's approval of musical accompaniment may refer to the synchronized or parttalking films that were circulating in early 1929. He implies that these sound tracks provided orchestras that were superior to the local live accompaniment. The importance of this criterion probably depended on the size of the listener's city and the expertise of the musicians. Like "B.F.," many readers favored the sound film because of the music.
Wondering what the stars actually were saying intrigued and frustrated many viewers. Many viewers lip-read the dialogue scenes in silent films, sometimes complaining later that the actors either were not saying what they were supposed to or were saying something profane. Also implicit in Horton's remark is a distrust of silent intertitles and their ability to convey the "real" speech of the actors. He prefers the concrete literalness of spoken dialogue, in contrast to the many fans who adored the silent movie because it allowed them to imagine their favorite stars' voices.
Horton's praise of the talkies' ability to present high-class stage performances assumes that fans wanted to experience this kind of entertainment. He seems to welcome Hollywood's virtual Broadway strategy of bringing canned talent to the local theater. Another enraptured fan, Clifton Ray, was a press agent's dream: "Didn't I recently see Fannie Brice and hear her, right down south? Answer is I did. And how? Why, talkies, of course. How else could Broadway arrive on Forsythe Street in Jacksonville [Mississippi]? My Man brought her right to my very door. There she was, singing all the way through it. Realized dreams." Renée Delage had grown up in Paris, where she had always dreamed of seeing Maurice Chevalier perform but could never afford the price of a music-hall ticket. "Last week I went to the United Artists Theater to see him in Innocents of Paris…. I had an idea of how he looked—but what a thrill when I heard his voice! Thanks to the movies and to the talkies. I owe them one of the happiest moments of my life."9
Horton's mention of being able to choose between silent and sound films refers to dual versions. He assumed that the two kinds of films would coexist and the fan would continue to have a choice. The studios encouraged this belief. Warner Bros.' Photoplay ads for Brice's film, for example, included the notice: "If there is not a theatre in your community equipped as yet to show My Man as a talking picture—be sure to see it as a silent picture."10 Apparently Horton shared the common belief that talkies would augment, not replace, silents.
Ladies reading to children, eyestrain, other distractions, and physical discomforts were associated with silent presentation. The sound film imposed a discipline on the audience that Horton welcomed.
Horton's list comprises many of the arguments in favor of the talkies, but not all. Dorothy Pritchett of Fort Brady, Michigan, wrote: "[The talkies] have 'gotten me' to the extent that a silent picture actually bores me nowadays, and I believe that to be the general opinion of this post. When I think of the master minds and skilled workmanship that made it possible for us to HEAR our favorites—I'd like to cheer for talkies—and I do, inwardly. Even Voice doubling' doesn't dim the attraction."11 She was awed by the foundations of sound cinema in science and technology.
Against the Talkies
A letter from D. H. Chapman of San Francisco opposed sound:
At their best, talking films are only an imitation of the stage, and I have never been able to take the stage very seriously. In the first place, I dislike the artificial voices affected by stage players, and then there is something so stilted and limited about stage technique. Pictures have always gotten into the very heart of personalities and situations, whereas the stage and talkies merely skim the surface. The silent movies, accompanied by appropriate organ music, were soothing to the nerves, stimulating to the imagination, often artistic, and a lot of fun. ("Classic's Readers Respond on the Talkies," Motion Picture Classic, September 1929, p. 82)
Chapman's objection is that the theatricality of dialogue films is harmful. For her (him?), stage voices were not "real acting," but contrived. It was theater that was superficial. If cinema adopted talking, these theatrical qualities would replace the silent film's superior ability to develop characters, stars, and "situations." Chapman spoke for those readers who found the ambience of the silent movie house more pleasing than that of the sound theater. Many regretted the loss of the "soothing" or almost hypnotic state induced by watching silent movies. The greater "strain" of concentrating on dialogue was frequently mentioned.
One argument against the talkies accepted the inevitability of censorship. George Kent Shuler, publisher of Motion Picture Classic, argued that certain subjects could not be treated as dialogue pictures and therefore would limit film to puerile themes.
The picture carrying the spoken word would naturally have to carry a plot which doesn't place its figures out of character….
With pictures that carry strong dramatic meat it would be utterly impossible to exploit the dialogue…. No improvement could be made over the pantomime revealed in the outstanding opuses of the screen. The expressions of the characters in these films offer an eloquence that makes dialogue or speech genuinely out of place and out of order. (George Kent Shuler, "Pictures and Personalities," Motion Picture Classic, June 1928, p. 15)
He predicted two lines of filmmaking determined by content. Hollywood would make light romantic films in sound "and leave the heavy melodramas to pantomime and captions."12 He also fretted about the culture gap between New York and regional movie houses. Broadway's dialogue was acceptable for sophisticated audiences, but unsuitable for distribution to the rest of the country. He was contradicted by one of his columnists, Cedric Belfrage (who referred, perhaps with ironic intent, to the "innocent girlish minds" of his readers!). Belfrage interviewed Edmund Lowe, the foul-mouthed Sergeant Quirt in What Price Glory? Lowe denied that the talkies would kill adult subjects. "Sure, there is a little problem there: this matter of making hard-swearing characters seem natural in the talkies. But we've faced much worse problems than that in developing the movies." Belfrage suggested that audiences would feel deprived if they did not get uncensored dialogue.13
The talkie-hating readers were fortunate in having Charlie Chaplin as their spokesperson for the silent film. Chaplin's articulate and heartfelt diatribes against sound frequently made the papers, and many comments condemning sound in the fan magazines refer to his exemplary resistance. In August 1930, Motion Picture Classic put silents "on trial." They were "defended" by Chaplin. The magazine did not claim that Chaplin himself wrote the piece; it appears that the arguments were fabricated by the staffer Charleson Gray from the star's public comments and from press releases promoting City Lights, undoubtedly with Chaplin's authorization. In his defense of silents, Chaplin (via Gray) complains about the poor quality of the talkies' stories. "While I consider a good stage play far superior to a good talking picture, I consider a good silent film of the same play as superior to both." He griped about unreliable acoustic reproduction and was bothered when speaker placement caused the voice to seem disembodied: "During a tense love scene, the dialogue will appear to be proceeding from the characters' feet…. Rarely do words ever seem to be coming from the lips of the speakers themselves. " He argued that remaking films in foreign languages was neither commercially nor linguistically acceptable. The talkies were dealing a deathblow to pantomime, an ancient art form. His final argument is humanist (and, incidentally, sums up the moral of the story in City Lights): "The efforts of the earth to communicate with Mars are as nothing to the efforts of one human being to communicate with another." Chaplin predicted that "my future films are to have even more of a vogue than those of the past, if I am to judge public sentiment by the thousands of letters which pour into the studio, begging that I remain in the field of silent pictures."14
The behavior of fans at the box office reflected how torn they were in their interest in the talkies. A reporter bemoaned the confusing situation:
A few weeks ago four hundred of you stood in line in a pouring rain at eight-fifteen on Monday morning on Broadway to buy seats for Clara Bow's first talkie, The Wild Party…. Yet a short time ago when the largest movie house in Glendale, a neighboring town to Los Angeles, flashed the announcement that its screen would soon sing and talk, the audience—which means you—burst into boos and catcalls of disapproval…. Fan-letter departments at the various studios report that you are writing your favorite stars more and more urgently to make a talkie, though three months ago you were writing them, begging them not to. And … questionnaires distributed in the biggest theater chains would seem to show that the audiences patronizing these houses wanted silent movies, while they were crowding the same theaters as never before to hear talkies. It is all very puzzling. (Dorothy Donnell, "Do You Want the Talkies?" Motion Picture Classic, July 1929, pp. 87, 89)
One gathers that neither the studios nor the fan magazines could ascertain the public's appetite for entertainment. On the contrary, we see those institutions scrambling to find or to influence the fickle consumer's vaguely defined and "puzzling" pleasures.
First and always foremost, movie stars were fan magazines' stock in trade. Not surprisingly, the bulk of published material on sound concerned the adjustment that picture personalities were making to dialogue and their career changes. The debates echo the preoccupation of the general press in focusing on vocal quality but differ in their concern for how the voice affected star status.
Fanzines, before the talkies became commonplace, speculated about which stars' voices would adapt best to sound. Dorothy Manners, discussing Clara Bow's silent picture Red Hair (1928), quipped, "Now if they would only use the Vitaphone on Clara's wisecracks the triumph would be complete."15 There was curiosity about John Barrymore's singing debut announced for General Crack (1929) and anticipation of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell's harmonizing in Sunny Side Up(1929). These expectations are consistent with the disembodied-voice attitude which marked popular criticism. Shuler observed that "it behooves the boys and girls out Hollywood way to develop their vocal chords."16 It is as though the "quality voice" was not part of the actor but part of the medium itself. The actor' job was to adjust his or her physiology to that mechanical paragon.
The fan magazines provided abundant opportunities for viewers to express their opinions concerning stars' voices. Sometimes these were conspicuously polar, as in this exchange about Mary Pickford's southern accent. Maye Higdon of Atlanta approbated, "In Coquette the dialogue sounded so perfectly natural it was hard to believe that all the actors were not Southern people." But Milton Hutchinson of Richmond, Virginia, castigated, "Surely Miss Pickford and the supporting cast do not think that we Southerners say 'sho' for sure, and 'luv' for love."17 These writers were staking a linguistic claim on the talking-picture representation of their dialect.
The case of Pickford also highlights the concern of many viewers that there be a good match between a voice and a star's perceived image (which here did not include a strong accent). The general press predicted that stars' actual voices would disappoint in comparison to the "imagined" voice of the silent screen, but fan evidence suggests that the opposite was sometimes true. "I heard my first talking picture a few days ago," reported Nancy Kimball, of Jamestown, North Dakota:
It was The Canary Murder Case. I thought it was great! William Powell had always been fixed in my mind as a villain of the screen until then. He will never seem the same to me again and I am glad of it, because I like him so much better this way. He has a really remarkable voice. It is so easily understood and contains such a soothing quality. Let's hear and see more of him! ("Brickbats and Bouquets," Photoplay, July 1929, p. 110)
With the career transitions to sound under way in 1928—1929, the magazines began itemizing those whom sound had helped or hurt. This was an irresistible opportunity for fans, authors, and editors to be authoritative. The fan magazine-composed narratives of stars' brushes with the talkies fall into four categories: silent stars whose voices were successfully recorded and who made a smooth transition; "retired" or unappreciated silent actors whose voices enabled them to make a comeback; newcomers (often from the stage) whose proficiency, it was predicted, would elevate them to stellar heights; and current film stars whose careers were suddenly terminated after failed initial appearances.
Silent Stars Who Succeeded in Talkies
The introduction of voice testing gave writers the chance to personify the talkies as a demanding taskmaster. "Mike" (the microphone, of male gender) was said to love Norma Shearer, Constance Bennett, Betty Compson, and Gloria Swanson. Manners recounted that Shearer and Lina Basquette had excelled. Janet Gaynor sounded like a little girl but redeemed herself in Sunny Side Up; the trope of the disembodied voice reappears: "Janet Gaynor turns loose her cute little singing and speaking voices in a story of high life and low in New York." Richard Watts designated as successes Bessie Love, Betty Compson, Ruth Chatterton, Anita Page, and Evelyn Brent. These lists indicate that most of the concern was for women, although some men were singled out. Hollywood insiders had predicted failure for Harold Lloyds high-pitched voice, but it recorded "splendidly." Watts included Chester Morris, Paul Muni, and Clive Brook on his list of talkie survivors.18
Quirk had his own pantheon of established stars whom he deemed to have passed their trial, including Marion Davies and Corinne Griffith. Many of his comparisons evaluated the voice as an autonomous entity: Colleen Moore "came through her test with a voice that matched her sweet personality"; Clara Bow possessed "a pert echo that fitted her shadow self perfectly." He regretted the English-language training undertaken by Vilma Banky and Greta Garbo because their accents were part of their charm. (Unlike Pickford's in Coquette, theirs were innate, not affected.) Quirk's views either represent his own idiosyncratic opinion or parrot press agent copy; they often differ from the opinions expressed within the pages of his magazine. Of the performers he mentioned, articles typically portrayed all of them except Garbo as unsuccessful in talking pictures. This superficial difference between the editor's views and Photoplay's content may reflect the magazine's attempt to straddle the competing interests of the consumers of star information (fans) and those who provided it (studios).
Neglected Actors Who Became Talkie Stars
The sentimental favorites among fanzine readers and writers were the silent performers who had quit the film business, only to be rediscovered because of their superior voices. Dorothy Manners observed, "It's an odd outgrowth of the talkies that even the pioneer personalities of the screen are new stuff before the microphone."19 The reporter mediated between the star and the fans when she described Photoplay readers as "proud of the old favorites of the screen who have come back via the talkies. Betty Compson is a good example. The fans are for you, Betty."20 Actually, Compson was at the peak of her career when sound came in, having received kudos for The Docks of New York (1928) and having been nominated for the Academy's best actress award for The Barker 1928. But her recent work as Richard Barthelmess's girlfriend in Weary River (1929) and as the star of On with the show (1929) had brought her no acclaim. The situation appears to have been the opposite of Manners's reversal-of-neglect story. Helen Morgan's case was written up as another comeback scenario. She earlier had tried the movies (Six Cylinder Love ), failed, and retreated to the stage to be a "sob singer." Then her lead role in Applause rewarded her with deserved film stardom. The silent star Raymond Griffith, who had failed as a stage actor after losing his voice, was having a resurgence of popularity. His "husky whisper" turned out to record wonderfully. Lloyd Hamilton, who had fallen from grace because of a life of partying and scandal, was regaining his reputation in the talkies.21
Lois Wilson's Paramount contract was not renewed until she "proved herself by voice training and stage acting in Los Angeles. Antonio Moreno "had been doing a quiet fade-out until First National discovered that he has been suppressing a splendid speaking voice all these years." Edward Everett Horton ("more or less of a 'flop' in silent pictures") received a long-term contract after his success in The Terror.22
The example of Pauline Frederick, depicted by Photoplay as "a star who was gone [from Hollywood] but never forgotten, more in sorrow than in anger," demonstrates the magazine's apparent support of an actor who was resisting her studio and the transition to sound. In her interview with Manners, Frederick emerged as a reluctant success story who disliked submitting to the talkies. She explained that Warner Bros. did not respect her talent and was giving her bad scripts. Sound pictures were "odorous," but she was compelled to honor her two-year contract. Because of her low voice, she rationalized, she would have to study diction, "because only actors with high voices recorded properly."23
Bessie Love was another success story. She had been rescued from a dead-end stint in vaudeville when MGM discovered she could sing, dance, talk, and play the ukulele. According to a fan magazine account, at the beginning of her career she had
made the mistake of going into the movies, instead of the stage. For years she played wistful heroines when she should have been twinkling in musical comedy. Came the talkies and Bessie, who had said good-bye to the studios, was summoned from a vaudeville tour to play in The Broadway Melody. Today, in the midst of the microphone panic, Bessie is one of the few stars who know where their next Rolls-Royce is coming from. (Herbert Howe, "The Girl Who Walked Back," Photoplay, May 1929, pp. 60-61, 150)
Conrad Nagel's great voice made him a star, whereas before, in silents, he had been a mere "stock leading man." According to an article by Mark Larkin, Nagel's body image and voice did not match, but he succeeded in spite of this lack of integration. The camera pictured Nagel as a man with a small, slender build. "But the microphone, by catching the intensity and sincerity of his voice, brings his real personality to talking pictures." Nagel attributed his own success to his training on the stage. In a remarkable example of the rapidly changing attitude toward the voice, Nagel described his own early performances in the talkies as overactive, artificial, and full of exaggerated theatrical emphasis. He had now progressed to the hybrid style (see chapter 18), supposedly integrating the best of the stage and movies. Shuler profiled Nagel as a Horatio Alger success story. His previous career in the "erstwhile silent drama" was ordinary; the talkies promoted Nagel to stardom:
He came from the stage and from a successful career on the stage. Anyone who saw him as the small-town boy in Forever After, with Alice Brady, will remember his work as marked by both sincerity and a telling power to stir the emotions. But those same theatergoers probably were won over more by the evidence of a repression of feeling rather than a manifest and mobile expression of it. And this Nagel conveyed more by his voice than by his gestures.
Hence, ever since his entrance into pictures, he has been under something of a handicap. In the words of the radio salesman, he must be heard to be appreciated.
The talkies have given Nagel a chance to be heard. And appreciation of him has been emphatic. The barometer of fan mail has shown the altitude of his popularity literally zooming upward. And the manner in which those who hold his contracts are shaking hands with themselves indicates that the box-office as well as the post-office has felt the weight of his enhanced reputation.
This is an instance of increased scope of effort that has already taken place with the coming of the speaking screen. It is something which has happened and which therefore is a fact. (George Kent Shuler, Motion Picture Classic, January 1929, p. 15)
Nagel's story is prototypical. It was assumed that his "natural" voice was defective (because of his regional accent). Through hard work and determination, he was able to change his voice to match the norms of the legitimate stage and then the talkies. The result was a hybrid movie voice, the new norm, but furthermore, his success story provided a work-ethic model to inspire fans.
Bebe Daniels was considered washed up until RKO discovered that she had a singing voice and could pick up songs by ear. In a gossipy article, Harry Lang contrasted her career with Bow's:
Consider Bebe Daniels and Clara Bow. Envision for yourselves a see-saw. One end goes up; the other end goes down. Bebe is on the end that's going up, and Clara is—well, er, let's confine ourselves to her own admission that she's going to take a European trip by and by because she's tired….
When [Paramount] wouldn't give her a talkie chance, Bebe slapped down $175,000 and bought back the contract that called for her to make three more pictures. And now what?
Why, just this: Bebe Daniels, as this is written, has just finished the lead in Rio Rita for Radio Pictures. And there isn't a doubt in the world, say the wiseacres of Hollywood, [that] that talkie will be one of The Big Shots of the talkie year….
Strange, too. Bebe has a voice that you wouldn't think twice about, ordinarily. Nice voice, and all that, but no power—no force. Now that's just where Mike does his stuff. He took all the nice things in Bebe's voice—and there were plenty of'em—and added the thing she didn't have—POWER. And boy, what a voice it gives her on the screen!—you'd even fall in love with a strabismic wart-hog if it had a voice like that. (Harry Lang, "The Microphone—The Terror of the Studios," Photoplay, December 1929, p. 30)
Sessue Hayakawa, who "crashed back into celluloid BECAUSE of—not in spite of—the mike!," was another for whom the talkies turned defeat into victory:
Ninety percent of the people who see and hear him will be amazed to find out how well he speaks English! Hayakawa died in the silent pictures many years ago because he could only do ONE kind of story—the Japanese prince or something who married the white girl and paid for it. Or didn't, and paid anyway! And so it's a funny thing, isn't it?—how Terrible Mike makes em or breaks 'em. (Lang, "The Microphone—The Terror of the Studios," pp. 29-30, 124-26)
Actually, Hayakawa had been living in France and Japan. His first talkie was a Fu Manchu genre picture, Daughter of the Dragon (1931). Mordaunt Hall thought that "he does moderately well, even though his lines are not always spoken so that one can understand them."24
Maurice Ahern celebrated Betty Compson, Bessie Love, Louise Dresser, Henry B. Walthall, Lila Lee, Irene Rich, and Conrad Nagel. These players, "relegated almost to the limbo of bit players long before the age of microphone have, through the suitability of their voices, regained the eminence that once was theirs."25 The leitmotif in Lang's and Ahern's articles is self-determination. These performers used the heretofore-untapped power of their voices to resist the studios' exploitation or disinterest.
Warner Baxter's story was told with the added melodramatic flair of a last-minute rescue. He had played minor film parts for years, achieving no recognition, but with the arrival of sound he was "the most effective voice yet heard in pictures…. Nine months ago he had made up his mind to give up films forever. Today he could not quit if he would, and he wouldn't."26 In fact, Baxters break as the Cisco Kid came because Raoul Walsh, who was supposed to play the lead as well direct In Old Arizona, needed a last-minute replacement after his eye injury. For the magazines, though, it was not this accident but Baxter's exceptional voice which saved his career. Another actor whose speaking and singing gifts elevated him to stardom was the heartthrob of The Desert Song, John Boles. He became an instant love object, a good example of the "woman-made man" ideal embodied in Valentino. Evelyn M. Fess of Buffalo, New York, professed that Boles had "the most perfect screen voice so far heard. And his singing would melt a stone. We have been looking for Rudy's successor for a long time. We needn't look farther." Trix Shaw of Claymont, Delaware, exclaimed, "What a find! And where has he been all the time? I never got such a kick out of screen love-making, and I've been seeing movies all my life. Oh, his expression—his voice—his singing!" In December 1929, according to the volume of Photoplay fan mail, Boles displaced John Gilbert as the male favorite. (Garbo remained the leading female star.)27
Another fan magazine theme was the additional "job stress" inflicted on the stars by sound. Whereas acting in the silent cinema was merely posing, talking-film performers earned their millions by their sweat. H. B. Warner, a case in point, found working for the talkies to be so physically demanding that he lost eleven pounds during filming. Most of the complaints were more psychological in nature. Louise Closser Hale, who played opposite Al Jolson in Big Boy, reported that silent screen actors and stage actors alike were afflicted with "The New Stage Fright." She confessed, "When I heard of the greatest of the women stars losing her dinner every night during the filming of a talkie I felt that I wasn't such a gump after all."28 Peggy Wood, an actress as well as a voice teacher, explained mike fright: "The actor is worried about the irrevocability of what he is doing—the thought that every move is being photographed and recorded for all time then and there." Unlike stage work, filmmaking offered no chance to perform better the next time.29
The appeal of these success stories is that they propose scenarios of personal inspiration and, occasionally, resistance to Hollywood's domination. Again, their factual content may be dubious, but the messages are significant. One common theme is the success often produced by persistence and hard work. Those who persevered would eventually get their lucky break, similar to the opportunity the talkies brought to these talented but neglected actors.
The concern about stars' hard work, job stress, and mike anxiety is based on the assumption that talking-picture stars actually labored for their living, a belief that ran counter to the attitude held about silent acting. Danae Clark has argued that, "according to [Hollywood's] conventions of naturalism, stars did not work. Though some stars were distinguished for their acting ability, it was widely thought that most stars owed their success to their personalities or photogenic qualities."30 Sound, many fan magazine correspondents agreed, forced actors to "work" and "think" by studying elocution, taking singing lessons, and rehearsing for long hours. Cal York contributed the view that the talkies had transformed Hollywood from a place of leisure and visibility to "a place where a lot of hard-working men and women live."31 Quirk agreed, joking that sound film labor was destroying Hollywood's legendary night life: "Maybe when they [actors] get that microphonephobia, which is high hat for fear of the talkies, thoroughly out of their systems there will be some fun in Hollywood again. But right now the bootleggers are starving to death and night life ceases promptly at nine-thirty, when they all start home to spray their throats with Listerine and go beddy-bye."32
Did readers believe such outright prevarications? Like many of the stories of actors helped by sound, these scenarios of hardworking, stressed-out employees of demanding corporations seem designed to humanize actors, to set them up as role models, and to enhance their potential for fan identification and empathy—all of which served Hollywood quite nicely.
Late 1928 was the peak season for recruiting talent for the 1929-1930 production period. Film players were finding that choice parts were going to those with stage experience. Pathé's Broadway import, for instance, was Ina Claire, the popular star of The Gold Diggers. She was hired to rekindle her stage role in The Awful Truth (1929). Kann was impressed: "Her debut in talkers is certainly one of the events of 1929 and her picture easily one of the finest which sound has given theaters to date."33 For fans, however, she garnered much more publicity by marrying John Gilbert after a three-week romance.
Cal York represented this trend toward Broadway recruitment as Hollywood's fullblown talking-picture panic. Beauty and "camera face" were losing out, he said, to vocal expertise. (Each was somehow autonomous from the body.) Like most who expressed opinions in the fan magazines, Dorothy Manners was skeptical from the start about the Broadway imports. She asked rhetorically, "Ever hear of Helen Twelvetrees, Dan Healy, Helen Kane, Colette D'Arville? These are but a handful of the stage people who have been cast in feature talkie productions…. Now, the question is, can Broadway with all her enunciation, singing and dancing, fill the places left vacant by long established idols of the screen who for some reason or other can't make the talkie grade?"34 An anecdote was supposed to show that studio executives were out of touch with their customers:
After six months of almost solid talkie releases with those new-fangled stars from the stage, this much has been brought to light: That the fans are not very willing to give up their old favorites for more oral, but less beautiful sweethearts. Mr. B. P. Schulberg of Paramount spent one half hour of his valuable time explaining to me that the public does not know what it wants. And yet one of the finest and most interesting productions ever put out by his organization, The Hole in the Wall, played to half empty houses in Los Angeles, while not far down the street America's Sweetheart was standing them in line for what many critics believed to be a mediocre picture, Coquette. The secret being that there wasn't a movie name in The Hole in the Wall. (Dorothy Manners, Motion Picture Classic, September 1929, p. 62)
Manners's points were that given a choice between vocally inferior but known stars (Pickford) and quality productions with (then) unknown stage stars, fans would continue supporting their erstwhile silent heroes. The audiences' preferences also showed their economic power. The failure of the imported Broadway actors was presumed to validate the wisdom of the film buff, while pillorying the moguls' mistake of ignoring the public.
Less than a year after the Broadway film rush of 1928, this crop of stage recruits was producing disappointment. "The microphone," related Quirk, "which the stage actor looked upon as a friend in need, turned out to be a tricky magician who would not tolerate the bellowings of the Shakespearean veteran or the studied affectation of the English actress from Arkansas."35 Leonard Hall wrote in August 1929,
The hosts of the stage and screen are gradually living down and fighting off fear and distrust, and are laboring hand in hand to the greater glory of the photoplay. The truest and finest of the theater and the studio survive, as they always have and will, whatever their medium. The incompetents and drones are perishing, as was inevitable. The great war [the talkies] has done more to shake out the wastrels and the two-for-a-nickel reputations of the film world than anything in the history of Hollywood. (Leonard Hall, "Revolution in Hollywood,"Photoplay, August 1929, pp. 100-101)
Quirk and Hall explained the assimilation of theater actors and the disappearance of familiar players by constructing a simple Darwinist scenario. The fittest survived; the others' options were not picked up.
In September 1930, Herbert Cruikshank stated that the panic was over. The Broadway hordes were "folding their tents and silently stealing away." Some of these players had made deals for a number of pictures, and studios were paying 25 to 50 percent of their contracts to break them. (Pathé paid Ina Claire $55,000 after The Awful Truth flopped.) "There are dozens of playwrights, song-writers, directors, technicians and others who were signed on long-term contracts, who went to Hollywood, who didn't click for one reason or another, and who were finally bought off," Lang reported. He continued, cynically, "It cost the producers thousands—for nothing. Thousands that might have been spent making fine movies; instead. And they holler about putt-putt golf courses ruining business!"36 The moral was that, rather than waste money on Broadway talent, the producers should have listened to the fans.
These opinions about the voice parallel the critical press's definition of the right voice for the talkies. The standard evolved from the "quality" to the "natural" voice as dialogue became integrated into everyday moviegoing and the fanzines stopped paying attention to the stage and the voice. The stars would not be exorbitantly paid unfamiliar players from theater, but performers who had voices that "Terrible Mike" liked and who could act in the movies.
Silent Stars Who Failed the Test
Even before their features were released, the fan magazine press passed judgment on stars who would not be hits in the talkies. Photoplay reported that Janet Gaynor and Sue Carol "failed to sound impressive" in their Fox tryouts. Quirk added condescendingly that a year of study and training should restore them. May McAvoy and Dolores Del Rio were judged "more effective pictorially than audibly."37 Among others "broken" by the microphone were Mona Rico ("Terrible Mike has a Nordic superiority complex or something"), Dita Parlo ("ran afoul of Terrible Mike in Hollywood and has returned to Deutschland to do her klangfilming"), and "the sexquisite" Dolores Costello, whose career was a meteoric rise and fall. It was commonplace to lampoon Costello's delivery in Glorious Betsy. The fanzine writers did not hesitate to attack her vocals: "Poor Dolores—there are two opinions in Hollywood as to what her mike voice sounded like. One clique says it sounded like the barkings of a lonesome puppy; the others claim it reminded them of the time they sang 'In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree' through tissue paper folded over a comb."38
Even the much-adored Constance Talmadge succumbed to mike fright. Quirk related that, "when she stepped before a camera and microphone to take a test for the lead in The Gold Diggers, she was ossified, and it was some few minutes before she could croak a note. She came through beautifully, and the teacher marked her A Plus, but a little iron mike had frighted this young veteran completely out of her consonants."39
This was the plight also of others "not born to the English language." Word that the popular Emil Jannings would probably not make any English talkies was a disappointment, but hope was held out that a story was being written for him about an immigrant struggling to become "an American." Lili Damita was notified that her contract would be canceled if she did not "learn to speak utterly without a foreign inflection." Pola Negri, Nils Asther, and Eva Von Berne were in trouble. Beatrice Wilson predicted that British Reginald Denny and Swedish Greta Garbo would have problems owing to their accented English.40
The fan magazines' discussion of these actors' rise to stardom or slide into oblivion was a strategy to make the transition to sound navigable for the reader. To help them understand the significance of the talkies, the magazines personalized the new medium, that is, redefined it not as an industry, economics, or technology but as an individual crisis for the star to overcome. Coping with a change in the profession gave fans, for a short time, a convenient explanation for a star's changing status. Many of the stories of the performers' adjustments to Hollywood are scenarios that mirrored the lives of "ordinary" people, but on a grander, public scale. Readers might not have known what Louis B. Mayer was like, but they knew what it was to have a mean boss. They had suffered injustice, through no fault of their own, analogous to being born with a bad voice, having an accent, coming from a low social class, or suffering other "defects." They had dreaded public embarrassment, just as some stars lost their voices before Terrible Mike. Like the established actors whose careers were struck down by the talkie nemesis, they had suffered anxiety about losing their jobs.
An excellent example of the fan magazines' propensity to refabricate events in a way that personalized them is the telling of the Queen Kelly debacle. Ignoring all the circumstances that contributed to the failure of this project, the magazines instead exuded compassion for Gloria Swanson's personal loss and rallied behind her plucky determination to recover:
Nobody knows just what happened to this picture, but the rumor has been that nearly a million dollars' worth of work had to be scrapped. This series of unforeseen setbacks would have prostrated seven actresses of ordinary hardihood. But not Gloria. She picked up the scraps herself and went right ahead making another picture. What that picture is is not known. Or how good it is, or how bad. But we hope sincerely that it is good. For Glorias perseverance and ability to stand up under fire merit reward. (George Kent Shuler, Motion Picture Classic, October 1929, p. 15)
This strategy personalizes the star's troubles and makes her a figure of identification. Readers could empathize with Swanson's independence and resistance, while learning an object lesson in how to cope with exploitation by a powerful system. This attitude helped define a model "new woman" who could succeed in a man's world. The magazines often praised women such as Swanson, June Mathis, Corinne Griffith, and Dorothy Arzner for their professionalism, while blaming the system for any lack of success in their careers.41
Accounts of talking-picture failure pointed to unsatisfactory vocals, bad acting, "sagging" narratives, professional victimization, and a somewhat xenophobic suspicion of "accents." Swanson's story of personal triumph over mismanagement and personal clashes suggests that other agendas were hiding behind such narratives. Did fan magazine—constructed scenarios of talkie crack-ups camouflage other matters not related to their voices? In two of the most famous crashes, Clara Bow and John Gilbert, external circumstances seem to have been influential.
The sensational failure alluded to by Harry Lang in his "Terror of the Studio" exposé was Bow, the butt of a malicious parody called "Mother Goose in Hollywood:"
Miss Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall;
Miss Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall—
For all her "S.A." [sex appeal] and all of her "It"
Just couldn't make her in talkies a hit!
(Harry Lang, "The Microphone—The Terror of the Studios," Photoplay, December 1929, p. 30)
Clara Bow personified the flapper with the elusive erotic appeal "It." Eleanor Glyn coined the word for the 1927 film of that title to describe her, connoting liberated sexuality and "everything that was glamourous, mysterious, and forbidden."42 Bow had been consistently voted a popular star throughout the late twenties, and in April 1928, she received a record amount of fan mail. Her first talkie, however, The Wild Party, was lackadaisically received. Some reviewers heard an excessively sharp edge to her voice. For others, it was her Brooklyn-accented vocalization that, in the words of Lang, made her see-saw go down. The magazines typically presented her case to fans so as to induce maximum reader sympathy. They learned that she wept bitterly upon hearing her voice played back the first time. But seemingly in contradiction to her chronic mike fright, her chronic exuberance, an amiable trait in her silent pictures, was blamed for destroying the technology of the talkies:
When Clara turned the full force of the Bow personality on the microphone and shouted "Whoopee!" her first line in The Wild Party, the one word caused an electrical crew an hour of work, the producers an hour's delay and the studio the price of a set of delicate sound tubes. The sensitive electrical system could not stand the shock of Claras IT. But that was not all.
The picture is an all-talkie and there is much dialogue. Whenever Clara began dialoguing, the delicate little bulbs quivered and died. The operators tried to locate the trouble, but all they could do was to replace the bulbs.
Each time Clara talked the same thing happened. Any of the others could talk indefinitely and nothing would happen. But the picture was made in spite of these difficulties. (Albert Boswell, "Trials of the Talkies," Photoplay, July 1929, p. 114)
This treatment makes it clear that it was not Bow's vocal quality that was the problem. It was her unbridled ebullience and, implicitly, her trademark sexual vitality that was shocking the electrical system.43
Unlike coverage in the fanzines, the trade reviewers did not reprove Bow's vocals. Variety's review of The Wild Party found that, "laughing, crying or condemning, [the] Bow voice won't command as much attention as the Bow this and that, yet it's a voice. Enough of a voice to insure general belief that Clara can speak as well as look—not as well, but enough.44 Editor Kann confirmed in Film Daily that nothing was inherently wrong with her speech: "Clara Bow speaks just as you'd expect she would. Her voice is hard and metallic, but she does her usual wild stuff in a way to satisfy her fans." Mordaunt Hall felt that "Miss Bow's voice is better than the narrative. It is not over-melodious in delivery, but it suits her personality. Sometimes it is distinct and during some passages it isn't. It may fail on account of technical deficiencies in the recording device."45 These comments (which continue to segregate the voice from the actor) suggest that Bow's manner of speaking was not exceptionally good or bad. Rather, it was her sexuality and libertine persona which constituted her appeal. Modern critics who have evaluated Bow's talking performances conclude that "she was a capable and charming actress."46
Why, then, if her voice was not a serious problem, was she represented as a vocal failure in the fan magazines? Before her sound films, letters to Photoplay from young female readers occasionally protested that her "wild" image was not representative of modern youth. It seems likely that some fans were turning against her because they could not condone her behavior offscreen, and the editors substituted her alleged speaking problem for her highly visible legal problems.
Bow's private life was much more frenzied than her screen persona. Though Paramount was able to cover up many of her shenanigans, word leaked out of her alleged misbehavior through the popular press and the tabloid Evening Graphic. She threw parties, suffered a nervous breakdown, and was victimized by professional gamblers. She did not try to hide her drinking and sexual escapades. This behavior was not an asset in an industry that was feeling the pinch of Production Code morality. Coinciding with the advent of the talkies was her involvement in two lurid scandals. She settled out of court with the wife of a Dallas doctor who had sued for "alienation of affections." Then her secretary and companion, Daisy De Voe, was discovered to have been stealing from her, tried to blackmail her, and "told all" on the witness stand. The trial was a tabloid circus. A book, Clara's Secret Love Life, made the rounds. Its dramatis personae included Gary Cooper, Bela Lugosi, and the USC football team. Under the stewardship of B. P. Shulberg, Bow made a few more pictures for Paramount. Like Mary Pickford, she did try to change her established image. Dangerous Curves (1929), released three months after The Wild Party, cast her as an ingenue instead of a flapper. Kann reacted:
If there is one thing Clara can't do it is trying to be coy. She's just a red hot flaming little baby with a sex appeal all her own, and why they can't be satisfied to let her ride that way is more than we can understand. It's a safe bet that there'll be such a fan holler on this one, that they'll be glad to turn Clara back to the hotsy totsy and let her stay there for good. She's not enough of an actress to ever be anything else. Just a flaming personality—that's all. But that's enough." (Film Daily, 21 July 1929, p. 12)47
The accounts in the fan magazines often concealed as much as they revealed and thereby took a mediating position between the studios and other sources, such as newspaper gossip columnists like Louella Parsons and the tabloids. The stories about Bow seem to have been composed with the aim of reinterpreting the unpleasant stories appearing in the mainstream and tabloid press. "Events might be alluded to long after their occurrence," Studlar observes, "but through a strategy of indirection that relied heavily upon the reader's preexistent knowledge of events gleaned from other sources, not the [fan] magazines themselves."48 Helen Morgan is a good example. She was arrested in 1928 for operating a speakeasy, but this scandal, which would have been known by devoted movie fans, was suppressed in her comeback stories. One reason her film career did not take off after Applause was that her drinking made difficult to direct, but information was never discussed in the fanzines. The stories drafted for Betty Compson, Sessue Hayakawa, Warner Baxter, and others also show the tendency to rewrite facts in favor of fiction. The coverage of Clara Bow in these publications utilized a similarly allusive style, first blaming her voice and her exuberance. Once the scandals could not be ignored, these strategies were jettisoned. Instead, the star's indiscretions, not specifically identified, were addressed in a desperate appeal to the fan. Leonard Hall's discussion of Clara Bow's personal problems was startling in its implication of the reader:
Clara faces a crisis, and we're all involved in some measure.
She's a woman in years, now [she was twenty-five], and not a schoolgirl thrust into an unfamiliar spotlight.
She can't continue to gallop off the reservation, and continue to delight us too. She's stretched out her arms for understanding and help and trust—as have thousands of the rest of us. If she's failed to find them—as have thousands of the rest of us at times—she must develop resources within herself, a spiritual fortress that can defend her against all the varied and cruel assaults of life and destiny. (Leonard Hall, "What About Clara Bow?" Photoplay, October 1930, p. 138)
Hall identifies what that "spiritual fortress" might be—a mate. "Tasting fame and money, she galloped away—and there has never been a firm and trusted hand on the reins." Like the story of the "fallen woman" of the movies, which Bow's story is here made to resemble, there was a moral lesson for the reader. Submitting to discipline (preferably from a strong spouse) would tame her. And fans had to support her (by writing fan mail and buying tickets to her movies). Thanks to an implied common bond, consumers and the fallen star were part of the same community. Movie fans had to bring "wild" Clara back into line.
"Talking Pictures? Splendid!" John Gilbert reportedly "boomed" in 1928. The story of the matinee idol's giddy decline in popularity during the transition to sound is well known; indeed, it is one of Hollywood's most enduring legends. Fan magazine readers had consistently voted him the most popular male star through 1929. MGM's romantic leading man in The Big Parade, Flesh and the Devil, and Love had his disastrous first encounter with sound in October 1929 when His Glorious Night was released. Variety ran the headline, "Audiences Laughing at Gilbert." Supposedly his high-register voice sounded unsuitable for a screen lover who previously had exuded passion and prowess with costars Renée Adorée, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo.
The canard that Gilbert had a squeaky voice has been disputed for years. Now that viewing copies of most of his ten talking films are available, we can hear a voice that is intelligible, appropriate for his physical stature, and, though affected, by no means abnormal. Colleen Moore described it as in "the middle register—the same register as that of Douglas Fairbanks and many other male stars."49 The voice coach Peggy Wood, writing in mid-1929, seemed unaware of any of Gilbert's speech impediments. On the contrary, she held up the screen actor's recent marriage to the Broadway star Ina Claire as symbolic of the new hybrid form: "The best that the screen has, then, combined with the best the stage can offer, will make the perfect talking picture."50
The bad-voice theory has been more or less replaced by a conspiracy theory: Louis B. Mayer intentionally sabotaged Gilbert's career as a vendetta for a public humiliation at the wedding of King Vidor and Eleanor Boardman in 1926. Mayer also wanted to get back at Nicholas Schenck for signing Gilbert to a contract that would pay him $500,000 annually for five years. Mayer ardently tried to break it, the legend goes, by giving Gilbert bad parts and by assigning Lionel Barrymore to direct his talking debut in Redemption and His Glorious Night. Barrymore disliked Gilbert personally and was an incompetent director, a toady for Mayer, and a morphine addict. Rather than applying techniques for curing Gilbert's vocal problem, Mayer, to ensure that it recorded in an unmanly high range, ordered the bass turned down during the actor's parts. Mayer ruined his star's career and symbolically emasculated the screen's leading ladies' man by feminizing his voice.51
Some snippets in the press suggest that, whether or not as part of a conspiracy, rumors concerning Gilbert's voice were circulating before the release of his first feature. Reviewing the untitled 1928 MGM short (see chapter 12), Mordaunt Hall praised the voices of George Arthur, Joan Crawford, Ernest Torrence, and Norma Shearer, but was noncommittal about Gilbert's. Jesse Lasky, in his April 1929 article on sound, was probably referring to Gilbert and Garbo when he wrote, "All sorts of dire prophecies were heard…. For example, Cyril So-and-so, the high-salaried idol often million girls, would have to be retired because he could not make the vocal grade; and the beautiful Annabel Gorgeous, the greatest box-office siren in history, would have to be dropped because she had a compound lisp." Having introduced the rumor, he then disclaimed it as nonsense. "I know of no film artist who had the appearance and the intelligence to make good in the silent pictures who cannot carry on now."52 A line in Manners's July 1929 column said that of all the major stars, Gilbert had a voice that, being too juvenile and "boyish," was the least fitting to his personality.53 The source of this information, unfortunately (but not surprisingly), was not revealed. Conspiracy theorists would suspect that the lead was a studio plant. These comments preceded the release of His Glorious Night but were contemporary with The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and the troubled production of Redemption, SO it is possible that these conclusions could have been arrived at independent of studio involvement.
There is hearsay evidence that audiences were already dissatisfied with Gilbert's performance. Samuel Marx recalled that the producer Irving Thalberg had been alarmed by the "wrong kind" of laughs in two previews of The Hollywood Revue. He removed the segment in which Lionel Barrymore directs Gilbert and Shearer in the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet—only to be overruled by Nicholas Schenck. This alleged reaction to the audience's laughing response is puzzling since the scene was played for comedy. Gilbert and Shearer begin the skit speaking "serious" Shakespeare. Shearer sounds properly theatrical; Gilbert sounds like he is concentrating on remembering the lines. His voice is mellow, though somewhat nasal. This out-of-character casting of the screen lover in a high-culture role in itself might have caused Gilbert's fans to squirm. But then Barrymore intervenes (scripted), and the actors ad-lib (apparently) in their everyday voices. Shearer seems to react with real surprise when Gilbert calls her "Auntie." She objects, and he replies, "But I call Irving 'Uncle.'" His voice sounds relaxed and unexceptional, but is there a hint of slurring? They replay the scene in "jazz" talk, and it ends with Gilbert saying, "I'm nuts about you," in pig-Latin (also obviously scripted). While not hysterically funny, there is enough mirth to counteract the tension of the Shakespearean section.54
Contrary to popular belief, His Glorious Night, Gilbert's second talkie and his first feature release as a star, was a modest box-office success. But technically it was very crudely made. Fountain describes one seven-minute continuous take: "The camera sees [Gilbert and Catherine Dale Owen] from the waist up. They are glued in place by the position of the microphones. There is no action at all except for a few spasmodic hand gestures. They stand in front of a painted backdrop, and on two occasions studio workmen are clearly visible walking around behind the scenery. Jack seems painfully constrained."55 Audiences did laugh.
A few more talker productions like this and John Gilbert will be able to change places with Harry Langdon. His prowess at lovemaking, which has held the stenos breathless, takes on a comedy aspect in His Glorious Night. The gumchewers tittered at first and then laughed outright at the very false ring of the couple of dozen "I love you" phrases designed to climax, ante and post, the thrill in the Gilbert lines. (Variety, 9 October 1929)56
The crucial question is, Were they laughing at Gilbert's voice or something else about the film?
The answer is: both. The reviews of His Glorious Night can be described as damning Gilbert's voice with faint praise. Even the superficially laudatory comments always added a qualifier. Mordaunt Hall's is typical: "[Gilbert] is to be congratulated on the manner in which he handles this speaking role. His voice is pleasant, but not one which is rich in nuance. His performance is good, but it would benefit by the suggestion of a little more wit." Owen's enunciation, in contrast, was "clear and pleasing." Variety observed that "Gilbert presents a voice passable when it does not have to work into a crescendo."57 Some of the comments assembled by Fountain refer to Gilbert's apparent voice training—for example, "He can speak the English language and speak it beautifully. His diction is faultless. Obvious training has been undergone, a little too much perhaps, as yet there is no warmth in the voice." Other reviewers also noted his lack of "warmth." This seems to have been a polite way of pointing out that his speech was stilted and emotionless, but those are problems of delivery, not of pitch. Kevin Brownlow has described Gilbert's speech as, ironically, too "good":
Gilbert's voice [in His Glorious Night] sounded no different to the other talkies in which he appears. It was quite low. The television technicians who saw it with us said he could not have been incorrectly recorded without affecting the other players in the same scene.
The direction, however was lamentable. Gilbert seemed tense and his eyes constantly stared at the girl during the love scenes. The script was appalling, and worse still was Gilbert's delivery. His enunciation of every line with the correct "pear-shaped" tones was what aroused the laughter. If only he had been encouraged to relax, and to abandon that dreadful enunciation! (Kevin Brownlow, "The Rise and Fall of John Gilbert," in Hollywood: The Pioneers [New York: Knopf, 1979], p. 193)
The New York Review expressed the consensus: "His voice is neither remarkable nor displeasing but it is not that which one would associate with the Great Lover of the screen."58
The one passage that everyone referred to occurred during Gilbert's scene of passion with Owen: "The sound recording [is] so cavernous, so unnatural and so unpleasant that what the characters have to say matters very little," opined the New York Post."Mr. Gilbert repeatedly says, 'I love you, I love you, I love you.' It's all a lot of play acting and I don't believe a word of it. The audience did not always find it possible to take seriously the laughably stilted and affected dialogue." The Variety reviewer felt he was watching "an over-stressed necking party made more pronounced by the dialogue." After the "I love you" scene, "the audience knows that another and still another hugging and talking laugh combo is to go on record before the princess marries our hero."59 King Vidor and Colleen Moore, reflecting on this famous incident, agreed that the bad script was the culprit for generating uncomfortable tension among female viewers: "[The 'I love you's'] disconcerted and embarrassed all the women in the audience, those most ordinary but still most profound words that can be spoken between a man and a woman. In their embarrassment they giggled."60 In fact, laughter was a frequent response to love scenes in sound films (and probably to similar scenes in the silents). Billie Dove in Careers elicited "derisive laughter at a moment when she is using an intense barrage of histrionics." Hall cited an incident with Norma Talmadge in Du Barry, Woman of Passion(1930) that is remarkably similar to Gilbert's repetitive "I love you's": "Miss Talmadge … repeats 'I Love the King' so many times that one is apt to recall Ed Wynn's amusing line: 'I love the woods.'"61 The Graphic described the reaction to Frank Borzage's The River (1929): "Mary Duncan, in the feminine lead, appeared in her second film special on Broadway. And for a second time a premiere audience, Saturday afternoon, laughed at her vampire pantomime, which should teach this actress that Garboing isn't as easy as it looks from an orchestra chair." Variety described Duncan's love scenes as "imperative giggle material" and reported on the audience's reaction: "Having so much smouldering sexiness, it is occasionally liable to laughter. They laughed at the Gaiety [in New York], although the laughter was not altogether clear in motive. Coming from the women mostly there may have been a factor of overflowing tension expressing itself in tittering."62 One moviegoer, Ruth Ramsay of Petersburg, Illinois, testified (before Gilbert's film was released), "Some of the love scenes [in the talkies] aren't so effective when the actors are putting their emotions in words. This is especially true when the hero pleads with the heroine for her love. While she is deciding what the answer will be, we hear nothing but the whispering, coughing audience and the suspense is terrible."63 Shuler wrote, "An old observation has it that nothing seems so silly to a man as another man's love-letters. But there is something sillier, it would seem; not only public, but audible, love-making. It appears to be the consensus of opinion that all love scenes should be silent—unless comedy is intended." So whatever shortcomings Gilbert's voice might have had, they were compounded by the screen writers' awkward intrusion of public lovemaking in the audience's private realm. Significantly, in Berlin audiences laughed at the same scene as played by Theo Shall in the Gilbert-less German-language version, Olympia. "The [scenario] author wrote in an excessively banal seduction scene in which the words 'I love you' were used again and again, each time to the accompaniment of louder titters from the audience."64
How did the movie fan magazines respond to this sudden misfire by one of the top international stars? There are no references to Mayer conspiracies, kissing discomfort, or overall production quality. Instead, characteristically, the pages displace Gilbert's sudden loss of popularity into three areas: lack of control over his personal life, being a victim of corporate forces (as with Swanson), and having an infirmity to overcome (the need to improve his dialogue style).
The publications energetically played up the alleged love affair between Gilbert and Greta Garbo long after the embers had cooled. The offscreen romance undeniably ended on 10 May 1929, when he married Ina Claire ("of whom there is no whomer on Broadway," according to Manners). It is evident from published mail that this wedding disappointed many of his fans who wished the star-crossed romance with Garbo to resume. It was a case of star behavior running counter to fan desires. Besides, Claire was supposed to be a snob. When a reporter asked her how it felt to be married to a great star, she quipped, "I don't know. Why don't you ask Mr. Gilbert?"65 Fan magazines portrayed her consistently as an interloper from Broadway who had caught Gilbert, seven years her junior, on the rebound. (Many of her putative character traits seem to have been inspired by her role in The Gold Diggers.) Motion Picture Classic announced that the actress had become incensed when Pathé asked her to make films under the name Mrs. John Gilbert. "But think of the fan mail, Ina!" Manners advised. "What it amounts to is that the fans had rather have a look at Jack Gilbert's new wife than all the Broadway glory in the world."66 Another gossip author implied that Claire's motives were not romantic: "I don't know that I'd go so far as to say Ina Claire made suckers of Hollywood and its gals by walking altar-ward with our leading box-office attraction, but it's worth mentioning in passing."67 Some fans who expressed animosity toward Gilbert sounded like jilted lovers. Violet Hopwood of Flushing, New York, wrote:
Why do motion picture actors get married? It spoils all when you know that your favorite actor, John Gilbert, has married Ina Claire! Why say that actors have a right to get married as well as other people? Don't they know when they start in pictures that they have to dance to the tune the fans play and that they can't displease their public? I wish something would be done to stop them! ("Brickbats and Bouquets," Photoplay, October 1929, p. 146)
Gilbert's case was aired in Photoplay in February 1930, before the shelved Redemption was released. Katherine Albert presented scenarios to explain Gilbert's failure and alluded to the voice problem:
What about the voice of the man who is virile as a steel mill, lusty as Walt Whitman, romantic as a June moon? …
You heard it in His Glorious Night. It is high-pitched, tense, almost piping at times.
His friends have known for years that it was completely unsuited to the strength and fire of the man.
Jack's great art is pantomime…. It was tremendous on the silent screen. He spoke through his eyes.
But any singer will tell you that the voice is right only when the body is relaxed. The voice, to be convincing, must flow calmly.
Gilbert was caught unprepared for the talkies. (Katherine Albert, "Is Jack Gilbert Through?" Photoplay, February 1930, p. 128)
The emphasis on Gilbert's virility nips in the bud any hints of impotence or homosexuality that a "sissy" voice might convey. Downplaying the bad-voice angle, Albert's article emphasized the business aspects of Gilbert's situation, but without saying whether her information came from the Gilbert or MGM camp. He had one of the most lucrative and protective contracts in the history of the industry. Dissatisfied with his lack of independence at MGM, he had decided to accept United Artists' generous offer when his MGM contract expired. This was during a crucial phase of William Fox and Nicholas Schenck's negotiations for the former to acquire Loew's/MGM. They decided that the value of the deal would be diminished with Gilbert at another studio and so gave him the contract of a lifetime. He was to make two pictures a year at $250,000 each. He would have approval of his stories, an enormous dressing-room bungalow, and—most impressive—no options which the studio could decline to renew. "The signing of the name John Gilbert to a little piece of paper was of utmost importance to a fifty million dollar deal. Jack was more or less a pawn. He didn't realize how vital he was to the financial gods."68
The real villain in the piece, Katherine Albert argued, was Claire, who "distracted" the star from his work.
While other stars were trotting to elocution teachers and voice specialists, Gilbert was flying to an obscure town in Nevada and getting married to Ina Claire…. All during this time, sitting across from Jack at the breakfast table, was a woman who could have taught him every nuance of line delivery. Ina Claire could have taught him to speak. (Albert, "Is Jack Gilbert Through?," p. 128)
But, according to Albert, it was Gilbert's proud machismo which prevented him from taking advantage of Claire's expertise, something male readers should comprehend: "If you have ever tried to learn anything from your wife, anything that she knows better than you, you will understand." Gilbert and Claire had already separated by the time the article was written. Despite the unspecified treachery of the gold-digging Claire, now that she had "left the hilltop manor" of her husband, the author was confident that Gilbert's acoustic woes were over. "I cannot believe," she exuded, "that a man who has battled life single-handed, who has taken all the hard knocks right on the chin, will let a little thing like a talkie device down him."69 Thus, like other talking-picture failures, Gilbert was victimized by external forces, not by his own weakness.
After His Glorious Night failed to excite fans, MGM offered buy out Gilbert's contract for $500,000. Photoplay applauded Gilbert's rejection of the offer as evidence of his strong character: "Jack, magnificently brave and confident insisted on making pictures. 'I'll show them!' he said, and held M-G-M to the contract."70 Thus, his inner strength was revealed. By then the trades were openly castigating Gilbert and his dramatic failure. Film Daily called Redemption a
decidedly mediocre drama of Russia. Weak in nearly every department including acting and directing. Adapted from Leo Tolstoy's drama, "The Living Corpse." John Gilbert's voice fails to register well. His performance, like that of Eleanor Boardman, is unconvincing. Conrad Nagel is the only principal player who seems real. A story of recognized dramatic value has been mistreated in its adaptation and the editing job had made it a great deal worse. As it runs now it's choppy, episodic, lacks movement and attention-compelling elements. Fred Niblo is billed as the director. It is difficult to associate this incompetent piece of work with him. The plot concerns a young wastrel who marries his pal's fiancee. He dissipates his fortune and they separate, although still loving each other. He fakes suicide, his "widow" marries her old sweetheart and finally he actually kills himself to clear the way for the girl's happiness. (Film Daily, 4 May 1930, p. 11)
Variety had no comment on the voices but predicted that when the film was released, "Gilbert will be the chief sufferer and Fred Niblo will not go unharmed in reputation."71 Listening to Gilbert in Redemption gives the impression that he is trying to speak in someone else's voice. He sounds for all the world like he is giving a bad imitation of Lionel Barrymore. (But then, so does his costar Renée Adorée.) One section is very similar to the balcony scene in The Hollywood Revue, with Gilbert reciting to Adorée. Taking care to speak in Shakespearean stage English (despite being a Russian), he pronounces heart emphatically as hot and repeats "tomorrow!" several times. The overall effect is very studied and declamatory.
Variety's review of Way for a Sailor specifically acknowledged the rumors about Gilbert's voice: the movie "throws John Gilbert for a loss instead of advancing him back in the talkers to the place he held in the silents. And it's not his fault. His voice is okay. Star is miscast and film seems cut to ribbons."72
Unlike the trade journal reviews, which indicted the overall bad quality of his films, the fan magazine accounts of Gilbert's deterioration, like those about Bow, were based on his failure to keep his voice under control. It is clear that the "voice" is standing in for larger issues. While their manner of speaking was not perfect, the fan magazines emphasized that Gilbert and Bow both came to ruin because of a lack of self-discipline. Gilbert's career was also sidetracked by his fling with Claire and by conniving executives, but mainly he failed by not applying himself to his craft.
How does this jibe with what we know about his real career? John Gilbert was a "difficult" actor. Fueled by alcoholism, he became an unpredictably belligerent, gun-wielding menace to those around him at home and on the set. He may well have been a pawn in the MGM power struggle between Louis B. Mayer and Nicholas Schenck, but Gilbert had ambitions of his own. It was widely known that he aspired to direct and write. In July 1927, he told an interviewer from the Los Angeles Times that he might quit films for five, ten, even fifteen years. He dreamed of forming his own company and making pictures to suit himself: "The star is quoted as saying he 'is not on speaking terms with his employers,' because of dissatisfaction over stories." The next day, Gilbert claimed he was misquoted.73
Gilbert's discontent surfaced again a year later. He published a serialized story in Photoplay (June-September 1928) based on his early career. This might have been a gambit for establishing his writing credentials. Quirk attested to the star's genuine authorship of the piece, and to his literary ability:
It is interesting to note that Gilbert's ambition is to be a writer. He realizes that a star's career is short-lived—two or more years—with luck, five. With oblivion, perhaps, lurking just beyond. I would not be at all surprised if in ten years he would turn out to be a successful novelist, his closeups long forgotten.
Stranger things have happened. (James R. Quirk, "Close-ups and Longshots,"Photoplay, September 1928, p. 30)
This came during Gilbert's renegotiation of his MGM contract, so perhaps it was posturing. But the references to "oblivion" and "forgotten close-ups" suggest that someone—Quirk on behalf of Gilbert perhaps—was contemplating alternative careers for the star at the time when MGM was making its first sound film tests.
The cases of Morgan, Bow, and Gilbert demonstrate how the "voice problem" could serve everyone's interests by diverting the attention of readers away from scandal, alcoholism, bad judgment, a lack of commitment to work, and a desire for too much independence as a worker. These shortcomings were inconsistent with the mission of the movies fostered by the fanzine editors, the studio public relations teams, and the Hays Office. If, instead, the troubled performer could be represented as a victim, then his or her star quality could be prolonged and the Hollywood institution might be saved from embarrassment. The studio would salvage its investment, the fan magazine's readers would continue to follow these ups and downs, and even the star benefited if his or her personal difficulties were displaced onto outside forces, thus gaining sympathy, not condemnation. In short, the "voice problem" scenario worked well as a cover-up.
In addition to the professional and personal problems Gilbert and Bow were having, their silent film personae, the consummate lover and the flaming youth, were growing out of sync with audiences' changing expectations. These screen characters were fictions cultivated by Hollywood producers and technicians, fan magazines, and fans themselves—in the audience, in the lobby, on the telephone, in the beauty parlor, and on the job. The new image of the ideal male lover matched the voices of John Boles, Ronald Colman, William Powell, Gary Cooper, and soon, Clark Gable. Gilbert's voice was judged not to fit the visual model he had created, and his writers and directors (perhaps at his insistence) placed him in old-fashioned dramatic scenes which brought out his worst acting tendencies. Clara Bow's "flaming" exploits were no longer condoned after the quick passing of the flapper fad. Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Norma Shearer, Marie Dressier, and Greta Garbo, portraying "adult" women who spoke in "serious" language, were setting the new standards.
While the fanzines were speaking for an audience, they also speaking to that audience, providing object lessons with the aim of proscribing behavior for the young fan. She needed (like Clara Bow and John Gilbert) discipline and a strong hand on the reins. Whether the consumers of these magazines accepted this implicit moral guidance is impossible to say.
One of the earliest references to the talkies in Motion Picture Classic was a 1926 cartoon by Ken Chamberlain showing a muscular leading man whose voice is being "doubled" by a beefy speaker behind a curtain. The caption reads: "Warner Brothers' new Vitaphone, that records the actor's voice as the camera records the action, might be a bit disillusioning. For instance, some actors who play he-men rôles have anything but hemen voices. We suggest that Billy Evans or Hank O'Day or some other big league umpire be used to double for the voice in such cases."74 This joke predicts the main controversy in the fan magazines in the early years of the talkies, the debate surrounding voice doubling, or using one actor's offscreen voice to substitute for another's in the recording session. The cartoon encapsulates several motifs in the "story" of the talkies. In the sound motion picture, the actor's voice is separate from his or her physical body and therefore interchangeable with the voices of other actors; the male voice denotes sexual prowess and masculinity; alternative labor (the double) can stand in for the actors being photographed; and cinematic illusionism easily tricks the spectator. Perhaps better than any other issue, voice-doubling demonstrates the rapidly changing conception of the voice from autonomous to integrated status. The practice also raised the stakes in the game of who controlled the screen voice.
Doubling had been used practically from the beginning of the talkies. Al Jolson's piano playing in The Jazz Singer was performed by Bert Fiske off-camera. Cantor Josef Rosenblatt was dubbed for Warner Oland and Jolson. Though apparently common, these practices were not publicized. It was the Barthelmess scandal that raised the public's consciousness.
In January 1929, First National launched an advertising campaign for Richard Barthelmess in Weary River. He was one of the most popular and highly paid stars of the decade and had been nominated as best actor in the 1927-1928 Academy Awards. The advertisements claimed: "It's worth the money just to hear him talking and playing for the first time," and, "You'll enjoy two great stars in one when you see and hear Richard Barthelmess talking and playing in Weary River." The audience's appetite was further whetted by the prevue trailer. Costar William Holden says to Barthelmess, "You know, I—I really believe that the audience out in front would like to hear you sing 'Weary River.' Wouldn't you? Eh?" asks Holden, turning to the camera and pretending to speak directly to the theater audience. Barthelmess replies, "You know, if they come to see the picture, they'll hear the song." As it turned out, the two-voices-in-one-star claim was literally true. Audiences heard the song, but Barthelmess did not sing it. The feat was accomplished by an off-camera singing double whose sounds matched Barthelmess's lip movements well, but not perfectly. Shuler pointed out to his Classic readers that the star's mouth moved but not his throat. According to Photoplay, the public "made a sound like a moribund raspberry."75 The fanzines exposed Johnny Murray, a cornetist at the Coconut Grove nightclub whom First National had hired to sing as Barthelmess's permanent voice-double. Frank Churchill, not the star, played the piano. This news led to other revelations. Photoplay's Larkin revealed doubles for Corinne Griffith's operatic singing and harp playing in The Divine Lady, Laura La Plante's banjo plucking and spiritual singing in Show Boat. The singer Lawford Davidson received $500 per week substituting his voice for Paul Lukas's, which was "handicapped for American pictures by a foreign accent." Margaret Livingston's dubbed voice replaced that of Louise Brooks in The Canary Murder Case. In a typical fanzine formulation designed to induce empathy, the reader learned how embarrassed she was at a chance encounter with Brooks in a restaurant.
The columnist Harry Lang illustrated a description of doubling a chorus scene with a joke:
The cameras are trained on the beautiful chorus girls, who dance and move their lips just like Dick Barthelmess did. But they are as silent as a bill collector isn't. And down below the camera-range, or at one side, are the microphones—in front of a dozen or so lovely-voiced creatures whose loveliness often ends there.
"Yes, dearie; I've got a job in the pictures."
"You! With that pan?"
"No, dearie—do-re-mi-fa-sol! … With this VOICE! (Lang, "The Microphone—The Terror of the Studios," p. 126)
Lang alerted readers to the illusionistic combination of different voices and bodies in the talkies and tacitly promoted the notion that an actor's screen face and voice might be incompatible.
Larkin said that, "of course, every effort is made on the part of producers to guard the secret of doubling. Picture-makers feel that it spoils the illusion, that it hurts a production's box office appeal."76 Shuler claimed that doubling would not be objectionable if the actors could pantomime it better. Appearing out-of-sync "punctures the conviction of the realness of the scene. It's bad art and bad entertainment."77 These responses assume that the star voice was a valuable draw in its own right, that fans would want to hear their favorite performers speaking and singing in their "natural" voices, not some unknown, invisible impersonator. However, there was disagreement on this point.
The fan mail reprinted in the magazines suggests that, unlike the columnists, many viewers seemed quite willing to accept doubling simply as a component of Hollywood's trickery, not as false advertising or malicious deceit. Nina Sutton of Huntington Park, California, responded to Larkin:
These screen people have been very satisfactory as to acting ability, so does it matter that they have doubles do their singing and playing? … It seems to me the most wonderful progress in the picture industry when we can see the beauty of face and form of old friends, combined with the beauty of voice we like to think theirs. After all, movies are all the romance the majority of us get out of life, so why not let the actors remain ideal in our hearts and minds? Even though the stage voice is behind the scenes, let us continue to look upon the loveliness of the screen stars. ("Brickbats and Bouquets,"Photoplay, November 1929, p. 146)
This reader welcomed doubling because she preferred a voice that "matched" the imagined one, even if it was not the star's own voice. Voice-doubling was analogous to the practice of special effects or makeup. Because Hollywood could use technology to craft illusion, there was nothing wrong with exploiting that capability to its fullest.
The case of Lon Chaney shows even more explicitly that, for many fans, preserving the charisma of stardom counted more than enunciatory excellence. He was celebrated for his Gothic character impersonations and hideous makeup appliances. But the actor had announced that he would not speak on screen or radio. This prompted L.J.N., a Photoplay reader from Tulsa, to remark that Chaney was hampered by his voice: "Lon Chaney may be The Man of a Thousand Faces,' but with Movietone he is merely the man of one voice." Another letter writer, Esther Ford of Pittsburgh, jumped to Chaney's defense by suggesting voice-doubling:
If he had only one voice, that would not make him lose his appeal. He could speak with an accent, lisp, or in a sing-song way. He could even have other men (and perhaps women) voice-double for him. That would give him more than one voice. There, L.J.N., you see he would be the man of more than one voice.
But before he tries any of those, I sincerely hope he speaks via the talkies with his natural voice. Lon Chaney is my favorite actor and it would be the thrill of thrills to hear his voice. I'm for talkies—especially when they bring me his voice—WHEN. ("Brickbats and Bouquets," Photoplay, September 1929, p. 141)
Chaney's case points out how readily the screen voice was accepted as a surplus, an addon, not unlike an extra layer of makeup or a new character role. The gist of the doubling debate was that actors possessed two or more "voices." They had their natural way of speaking, which might be unsuited for recording, and they had their professional voice, which was tailored to the needs of sound recording to fit their physical appearance and screen character. This second, constructed voice was not the actor's property. Though the studio owned the rights to it, the magazines cultivated the impression that the fans could impose their own normative demands on it.
The split between conceptions of the actor as a "real person" and as a "star" has always been part of the Hollywood star system. From around late 1928 through 1930, sound in general and voice-doubling in particular amplified this critical concern for the general press and fans alike. In the early days of the transition, during the period when the voice was considered autonomous, if a star's natural voice was unsuitable, then, instead of changing stars, it was felt that the voice should be changed. If it could not be "trained," then it was better to bring in the double. While actors' contracts explicitly gave legal control of their voice to the studio, Actors Equity was fighting to at least require the performer's consent to substitute voice-doubles. Photoplay sided with the studios. There was "little reason for established players to feel like self-conscious children over their bad tonsils or adenoids. It may not be necessary to operate; and, indeed, where it is, the thing may not be nearly so bad as its anticipation."78
As dialogue became the norm, the emphasis in both the fanzines and the critical press switched from debating the proprietary rights of speech to judging the "naturalness" of the voice. The actual voice was now inseparable from the performer's screen personality, so doubling could no longer be used. The issue of foreign accents shows the rapidly changing attitude toward the practice and, again, parallels that of the critics. The editors of Motion Picture observed in mid-1929 that, for producers who had risked investing in foreign actors "who neither can sing nor speak presentably no matter how they may study and practise [sic]," doubling was standard practice.79 But John J. Goodman of Los Angeles, a fan writing a year later, insisted that acting and speaking were irreducible components of a star's screen image:
Check up on the recent talkie successes, and in the majority of cases you remember the acting and the actor. Together they make the voice. Now and then there's an exception—you recall the voice also—as Greta Garbo in Anna Christie. Her voice lingers because it is such a natural part of her—not the studied P's and Q's of the elocution schools. (Motion Picture Classic, July 1930, p. 104)
In the early days of sound, the voice had been a variable, the fitness and quality of which were readily disputed. After a while fans redefined their expectation: the speaking voice was to be an integral part of the actor.
As the voice-doubling issue illustrated, fan magazines provided viewers an outlet for expressing their opinions to their fellow fans, thus creating a feeling of solidarity and a community of film lovers. The magazine editors claimed that readers influenced stars and studios. But how real was this power to influence the status of the voice and the industry's use of sound?
Fan columnists went out of their way to address their readers directly: "The audience—which means you." The implied reader was active, but was Hollywood listening to the voices of this readership? Occasionally there were published acknowledgments that the influence of the fanzines was not all that the editors claimed. Vivian Kappner of Puyallup, Washington, lamented that her local theater did not play the recommended films: "Nine times out of ten, they show pictures that Photoplay warns us about. If they can't give good movies when they have the Vitaphone, then I suggest they leave the Vitaphone out."80 Behind this complaint lurks economic reality. As film exhibition veered toward oligopolist chains during this period, neither the fans nor, increasingly, the exhibitors had direct control over which movies were presented, the transition to sound, or any other aspect of the film industry. Dorothy Manners's 1929 interview with Schulberg suggests that, in the eyes of the fanzine writer, the Paramount executive had little comprehension of what fans wanted.81 Feisty Welford Beaton described a similar encounter in 1928, before the ERPI agreements had been signed:
I am in a combatative mood about speaking pictures because I just have left the office of a producer who proved conclusively that such screen entertainment never would be popular, and who urged me not to advance a contrary view, because it would give my readers the idea that I am an impractical dreamer. The silly ass! I suppose that if he had been toddling about when Bell invented the telephone he would have produced proof that the public would never accept it. It is possible to tell stories on the screen better with voices than without them, and to declare that the public never will demand the best is to combat all the history of human achievement. If I were a producer I would give sound devices my major attention and I would develop artists who can talk and directors who know color, for if there be anything certain about the future of pictures it is that in two years or less we will be making talking pictures in color and that no others will be shown in the big houses. (Welford Beaton, "Marks the Inevitable Progress of Pictures," Film Spectator, 4 February 1928, p. 7)
Industry gadflies like Beaton, Harrison Reports, and establishment critics offered responses to Hollywood. But direct communication between audiences and the producers was limited to impressionistic reports from "the field." The fan magazines provided their subscribers with an important forum for venting their opinions in the hopes of influencing film production. It was a voice. The fan magazines' reactions to sound shows that audience opinions about sound and about talking stars were too fragmented to guide producers toward or away from a distinctly fan-articulated policy. Producers paid some attention to fan magazines but may not have regarded the information in them as useful or valid, either because it was so inconsistent or because they put little merit in the opinions of the assumed authors, young females. In a television context, Ien Ang has asserted that media institutions
are generally not interested in getting to know what real people think and feel and do in their everyday dealings with television. Indeed, institutional knowledge about the television audience inevitably abstracts from the messy and confusing social world of actual audiences because this world is irritating for the institutions, whose first and foremost concern is to seize control over their own conditions of existence. (Ien Ang, Desperately Seeking the Audience [New York: Routledge, 1991], p. 7)
Analogously, B. P. Schulberg and Beaton's unnamed executive probably cared little about the specific involvement of fans, except for its impact on operations. They did, however, have a tangible interest in keeping up with large-scale trends that would affect the bottom line, such as a star's popularity. Understanding the pulse of the public was one way to forestall and blunt the effects of problems like scandals, and here the fan magazines were probably valuable as indicators of shifting star value.
Producers, studios, and distributors became stronger by using sound to wrest control from local managers, thereby increasing their regulation of the viewing experience. The switch to the talkies also granted the studios more authority over actors by allowing them to institute voice tests, impose restrictive contract clauses concerning speech, and threaten careers by bringing in Broadway "replacements." Doubling gave Hollywood the power to develop face and voice as separately exploitable entities. Fan response, however, had the potential of diminishing this power. By making or breaking stars, discriminating among film genres, and—the worst possible scenario—rejecting sound altogether, fandom (like unmanageable stars or independent theaters) was an economic necessity, but also a potential threat.82
Stars were used by fan magazines to tell the story of the transition to sound. The performers were the subjects of narratives which blended the fictional and the real, which illustrated how the talkies impinged on their personal lives. Fans' opinions were diverse, but the solidarity of fandom generated a feeling of participation and power over what came from the screen. As Studlar has observed, "Fan magazine readership may have given women the sense of a privileged status in reading the film text through their understanding of a 'truth' not immediately revealed on screen, beyond mere sight and visual representation."83
Despite the effort to promote the magazines' antagonism toward the studios, ultimately fans and Hollywood shared the same goal: to maximize cinematic pleasure for the greatest number of people. Perhaps the lack of a unified fan response explains why a cultural divide appeared in Hollywood's productions during this period. The range of film material—from international opera to girlie shows, from Westerns to ethnic comedy—can be read as an effort to address diversified viewers. Pretentious stage play adaptations like Gilbert's first talkies were aimed at a market presumed to be older, urban, better educated, and more economically upscale than the younger, rural, less-educated types who patronized William Boyd's action films or Clara Bow's flapper exploits. Hollywood's product diversification was its response to a "movie crazy" but fragmented and unknown audience. Though the actual influence of fandom on Hollywood production is not known, the fan magazines capitalized (perhaps in collusion with the studios) on the consumers' wish to control the use of sound and to fashion the talkies according to their own ideals.