The Artist (2011), directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, was nominated for ten Oscars and won five of them. The story of a silent-movie actor who was overcome by the advent of talkies entertained and touched the whole world. The film brought to life a fascinating time when cinema traditions were shaken and it suggested some of the ways performers and audiences reacted to talkies. But was the portrayal of the coming of sound in The Artist accurate or was it exaggerated for fictional purposes? 

Laurent Delmas et Jean-Claude Lamy, Larousse du Cinéma (Ed. Larrousse, 2005)
Laurent Delmas et Jean-Claude Lamy, Larousse du Cinéma (Ed. Larrousse, 2005)

Today, one would think that talkies would have been immediately popular. Indeed, who would reject such an advance in techniques and technologies. The actors were now able to talk just like in real life. They no longer looked like puppets bustling about to make themselves understood.[1] This was a novelty, a huge advance, a Revolution! This is how one sees it nowadays, when every new technology and advance is welcomed with open arms (tablets, ebooks, 3D cinema, Google Glass…). However, at that time, it was more complex than that. Yes, the audience rushed to the cinemas to witness this new phenomenon and yes, the audience was attracted to newness ; they were curious.[2] But it was a little bit different for the filmmakers and the actors…

« Adding sounds to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo » – Mary Pickford[3]

Screenshot from The Artist, 2011
Screenshot from The Artist, 2011

The late 1920s and the 1930s were a period of experimentation in audiovisual technology.[4] Soon, cinemas had to adapt themselves if they did not want to be overcome by the talkie revolution. The studios were renovated to welcome all those new technologies and materials (which were, at that time, cumbersome). This was very costly and many independent studios could not afford it and had to close. It soon became clear that only the major companies benefited from this change.

Yet one should not forget that while Warner embraced sound, Paramount and MGM were skeptical.[5] Indeed, they thought that talkies were cheap and un-artistic compared to silent movies. They thought talkies would not last, that people would quickly grow tired of them. Who has not seen the famous movie Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)? The exotic actress Olga Mara (played by Judy Landon) who says « It’s vulgar » when she is introduced to talkies[6], was actually inspired by another actress, the Polish Pola Negri, who argued as early as 1927 that talkies were just « a fad, a curiosity. »[7]

Pola Negri was surely not the only one to think this way. The first to think like her were the filmmakers. Those who had turned silent movies into a sophisticated art did not understand the need to change. Some of them could not adapt and had to retire earlier than expected, such as David W. Griffith. Some of them did not want to adapt such as Charlie Chaplin.[8]

Lawrence Howe, James E. Caron, Benjamin Click, Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon through Critical Lenses (Ed. Scarecrow Press, 2013), p.191
Lawrence Howe, James E. Caron, Benjamin Click, Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon through Critical Lenses (Ed. Scarecrow Press, 2013), p.191

Chaplin thought that talkies lacked the artistry of silent movies. The silent movie was all about expressing emotions through body language, facial expressions and gesture. Charlie Chaplin was the king of it. So he decided to mock talkies with the very famous movie Modern Times. Modern Times was not only a vivid criticism of Fordism and capitalism, it also had some references to talkies: the only talking person in the movie is the boss of the firm where Charlot works. The boss has a very mechanical and almost inhuman voice. And how can someone talk about Modern Times without mentioning The Nonsense song? This is the first time one hears Chaplin’s voice, and Chaplin showed that he didn’t need normal words to make people laugh. In this famous scene, he was supposed to sing a song about a man trying to seduce a girl. However a few minutes before the show he was so anxious that he completely forgot the lyrics. His partner wrote them down for him but once on the stage, he wriggled so much that he lost the paper on which the lyrics were written. Therefore he had to improvise and the words that came out of his mouth were just nonsense (a mix of meaningless Italian, German and French words). Yet the rhythm, his gestures and his dance were so funny and perfect that this scene and the song became masterpieces. He was the last filmmaker and actor to make successful silent movies in the talking era. After years of clever resistance, Chaplin had to give up in 1940 and convert to talkies also.[9]

Screenshot from Modern Times, 1936
Screenshot from Modern Times, 1936

Keaton’s case 

One cannot talk about the devastating effect of talkies without mentioning Buster Keaton. Keaton was the rival of Charlie Chaplin. They were the two kings of 1920s cinema. Yet, unlike Chaplin, Keaton was crushed by talkies. He did try to adapt, but the audience did not support him: people thought that his voice did not fit his face and that he was funnier when he was not talking. Thus, as early as 1931, he had fallen from stardom and had to declare bankruptcy. Keaton himself recognized he made a huge mistake when trying to adapt to the public demand. He admitted that he was pushed by his new contract with the big MGM: film productions such as MGM made talkies because they knew they generate more revenue than silent movies. He regretted that he did not impose his personal style longer, as Chaplin did and advised him to do.[10]


David Arkinson, History of Film (Ed. World of Art, 1995) p.85
David Arkinson, History of Film (Ed. World of Art, 1995) p.85

Whether one was for or against talkies, their success was undeniable. The influence of American cinema extended worldwide despite the barrier of language. Besides, as soon as 1932, talkies created new employment for the industry through what become known as dubbing. The rest of world quickly followed the American steps and by 1929, the first French, German and British talkies aired (then, in 1931, it was the turn of the USSR and Japan).

In addition to bringing new employment, talkies allowed the rise of new genres such as musicals, westerns and screwball comedies. Musicals could never exist without talkies and it was a marvel: not only could the actors talk but they could also sing. Musicals were very successful and became the main genre of Hollywood cinema until the 1970s. New actors came out and had huge success (Fred Astaire for example). Westerns were a genre that people already enjoyed very much. However, the audience’s attention was starting to fade away when talkies renewed it: the audience discovered the characters’ Southern accent and their hoarse and strong voice, which gave them even more appeal. As for screwball comedies, the actors were now able to make people laugh both with their body language and their speech. They dealt with light subjects, mostly sentimental ones. They lacked artistic or intellectual ambitions and they displayed a sweetened vision of reality. But they entertained the large and not hard-to-please public that was asking for it.[11]

The Artist movie poster
The Artist movie poster

One may say that talkies were revolutionary. It took only two years to completely transform the film industry. Then, the rest of the world had to follow. The resistance was crushed and even huge silent movie stars had to either leave the industry (Keaton) or admit defeat and convert to it (Chaplin). Silent movies disappeared completely after 1936 (Modern Times was the last movie with the specific intention of remaining silent). There are still tributes from time to time (The Artist in 2011) but the late 1920s and early 1930s marked the beginning of a new era: the era of talkies in which we still live.

Works cited:

[1] Dialogue from The Artist « People are tired of actors mugging at the camera to be understood », Peppy Miller, 0:43:10

[2], paragraph « You ain’t heard NOTHIN’ yet »

[3] Los Angeles Times, 18th March 1934, p.1 cf. « Los Angeles Times », 20th March 1934, p.A4

[4] Laurent Jullier, Le son au cinéma (Ed. Cahier du cinéma, Les petits cahiers, SCEREN-CNDP, 2006), p.11

[5] Laurent Delmas and Jean-Claude Lamy, Larousse du Cinéma (Ed. Larrousse, 2005)

[6] Laurent Jullier, Le son au cinéma (Ed. Cahier du cinéma, Les petits cahiers, SCEREN-CNDP, 2006), p.11

[7] David Stenn, Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild (Ed. Cooper Square Press, 2000), p.157

[8] Laurent Delmas and Jean-Claude Lamy, Larousse du Cinéma (Ed. Larrousse, 2005)

[9] Fabrice Revault, « Burlesques Américains » classes about Charlie Chaplin 

[10] Fabrice Revault, « Burlesques Américains » classes about Buster Keaton

[11] André Z. Labarrère and Olivier Labarrère, Atlas du Cinéma (Ed. Encyclopédies d’Aujourd’hui, La Pocothèque, Le Livre de Poche, 2002) p.33 to p.39

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