In his biography of filmmaker Samuel Goldwyn, A. Scott Berg describes the scene when Hollywood insiders finished watching the L.A. premiere of The Jazz Singer on December 28, 1927.
“The audience sat stunned,” he wrote.
Frances Goldwyn herself observed that there was “terror in all their faces. The game they had been playing for years was finally over.”
Some actors had perfectly acceptable voices, but their on-screen persona was weakened by the reality of speech. Listen to John Gilbert in the early talkie Queen Christina, playing alongside his lady love, Greta Garbo. His voice is all right.
But that’s the problem. It’s just “all right.” Not dashing or heroic or suitable for a “great lover.” And when studios could ditch his high salary for an up-and-coming speaking actor who’d work for less. . . well, the rest, as they say, is history.
Other folks besides actors lost their jobs in this industry upheaval, as tumultuous as any industry shift where great technological change is involved.
I previously told a story on this blog about Charles Rosher, Mary Pickford’s cameraman. She fired him because he couldn’t quickly enough master the new lighting that sound required when shooting her sound screen test.
Rosher’s career didn’t go to ashes the way others’ livelihoods did during the shift from silent to sound, even if being fired by Pickford was a low blow for a man who had been one of the most sought-after cameramen during silent films’ heyday. He actually went on to work on sound films such as Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Yearling, Kiss Me Kate and Showboat, among others.
But Rosher’s artistry would have been a waste in the first days of sound. Cameras had to be stationary, housed in boxes to mute their noise, on the very first talkies. There was little for cameramen to do in those early days but stand and shoot.
Ironically, look to some of the best silent films for examples of when cameras really “spoke.”
One of the great achievements of artistic cinematography was F.W. Murnau’s silent Sunrise (a still from the movie is pictured to the left). Released by Fox in 1927 — the same year Warner Bros. released the first feature-length talkie, The Jazz Singer — Sunrise is so visually rich and dense with great storytelling that one forgets there is no dialogue. Title cards are few as well in this story of country versus city life, domesticity versus urban excitement. Silent film directors like Murnau knew how to tell a story with images alone.
The film is available through Netflix. During research for my novel, Sloane Hall, my husband and I watched it, mesmerized from beginning to end. Someone has also posted it on YouTube in nine parts. Click here for the first one.
Today, even casual observers of film know of the movie The Jazz Singer, while only film aficionados are aware of Sunrise.
If you’re wondering who Murnau’s cinematographer was for his masterpiece — it was none other than Charles Rosher.
Sloane Hall, a Jane-Eyre retelling by Libby Sternberg set in old Hollywood, is available here.
It was one of only 14 books highlighted on the Simon & Schuster editor blog, “Off the Shelf” on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth.
“The story is gripping, one of the most successful of this season’s entries…” 2019 BOOKLIFE PRIZE
“Sternberg never loses sight of the story she’s re-telling, but this novel is definitely her own. Readers have things to figure out and look forward to. Her prose flows beautifully with vivid descriptions of people and places, bringing to life a Los Angeles of times gone by. Fans of historical fiction and Jane Eyre in particular will relish this novel, and readers who enjoy a love story should definitely pick this one up.”—KATHERINE PETERSON, FRESH FICTION