When I picked her up that evening, she was angry. Instead of slumping in the seat next to me and falling asleep, she immediately pulled out a cigarette and started nervously smoking and talking.
“He said I was looking ugly today!” She shook her head in fury. “In front of the whole cast. He said he couldn’t get the lighting to work for me!” Her foot twitched….
“It’s the lights,” I said, remembering the story of Pickford’s cameraman. “And the new film they use. Makes you look older than your years.”
The above excerpt from my novel Sloane Hall is a bit of interaction between chauffeur John Doyle and his starlet boss, Pauline Sloane. Pauline, a successful silent film actress, is making her first talking picture, and she’s justifiably nervous. Many a silent actor’s career ended when they had to speak and not just “emote.”
In this scene, John makes a mental reference to Mary Pickford’s cameraman, a bit of Hollywood lore he picked up from his friend, Leo, who had worked with all the old silent greats.
The Pickford reference is based on a true story. Because the buzz of old arc lights used in silents could be picked up by microphones, talking pictures required different lighting . Quieter incandescent lights came into use with the advent of talking pictures, and with them, a new panchromatic film — as opposed to the orthochromatic film used in silents.
In fact, the first full-length sound feature film, The Jazz Singer, was shot using both kinds of lighting and film, one for the silent sections and the other for the sound sequences.
Just as actors had to adjust to speaking rather than mouthing their lines, so, too, did cameramen have to learn to use the new lighting and film to advantage. And just like the actors of the time, some didn’t make the transition well.
Such was the case with Charles Rosher, Mary Pickford’s cameraman since 1917. He shot her first sound test — even the greatest of actresses had to make sound tests now — and despite his best efforts and several attempts with and without diffusion filters, he couldn’t make the thirty-seven-year-old actress look as young as the part she was trying to play.
The result? She fired him.
Rosher eventually recovered from this setback, but others’ careers went to ashes during the shift from silent to sound. Directors, title writers, musicians and more saw their paychecks disappear as this industry was turned upside down.
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