the crisis of sound for silent movies stars was more complex than just having a scratchy voice or a lower class accent.
Some actors and actresses did indeed perish because they had bad voices. But the vast majority of silent performers persished and if you listen to a recording of a voice today you would not feel it was either good or bad. Most modern actors do not speak in deap base voices or melodious voices. So it was not just having a good voice or a bad voice.
The recording equipment was very bad at the begining and that did not help the performers. the Mikes were hidden in pots and later were hung from the ceiling inmobile so the performers dare not move!
Many performers became so frighten they froze. Many just did not bother to try. Banks were caving in but some had survived the financial meltdown and could aafford to retire gracefully. But a lot of performers desperately needed to work aand tried to work and were humiliated.
Another problem was the now familiar ‘downsizing’ of expensive top union contact workers in favor of hiring new, cheap, untrained workers at the new lower wages. It was the perfect time for studios to crush expensive uppity actors and actresses! And they did!
Some performers found the style of acting changed too. But the best were never ‘hammy’ to begin with so they should have adopted very well. Why did they fail then?
Jack Gilbert was a good example. His acting was masterfully quiet. He was only 30 and still looked beautiful. He had performed diverse roles from romantic leads to character parts including heels and cads and geeks. Why did he fail?
His voice was not deep but it was not, as myth says, a tenor. It was an interesting voice. Today there would be no problem at all. So why did he fail?
The failure of Jack Gilbert goes to the root of the problem. He was being downsized by Meyer who hated him. His vehicles were dreadfully — deliberately dreadful, and he was crushed to the point he even lost his original beautiful quiet acting and simply floundered lost in bad films he could not rewrite or direct or salvage so he was simply destroyed bit by bit. But there is more to it.
Jack Gilbert lost his magic. All of the silent performers lost thieir magic —because they were first seen silent. So almost no voice would have been accepted by anyone. Everyone had thier own imagined voice in their heads. The silent magic of the silent film was pristine. No voical reality interrupted the magic. Speaking turned them from demigods to real people and the magic was lost.
If Jack Gilbert had entered films in 1930 instead of fought to adopt to new talkies in 1930 audiences would have judged him impartially and objectively. New guy. interesting voice. let’s give him a chance. instead he was not forgiven for speaking. The act of speaking shattered the magic and that was unforgiveable.
Colman and Cooper survived but most perished and Fairbanks had done theater in the 1910s too! Yet he failed. He had been silent too long. Even he could not be accepted now.
Cooper survived but he was very young and his first films boasted little speaking. Cooper was the exception that proved the rule. Colman happened to have an amazing voice. Gish failed. Gish went on to Broadway and did theater. So why did Gish fail is she did theater for the rest of her life? Speaking violated the magic and that could not be forgiven.
Gloria Swanson was great in Sunset Blvd byt what happened between 1930 and 1950? No audience could accept any silent star speaking. Good voice or bad boice did not matter. It was not that they could not talk so much as they were not allowed to talk.
Daffy Gilbert-Blackheart died after only one talkie but that talkie was successful. Why? Because Daffy always had a voice. Daffy did records and performed live. Daffy sang on radio. The audience always kknew about the disconnected voice and when talkies came they simply connected the face to the voice. Fortunately the face and voice fitted. But more importantly, the voice was familiar and therefore the voice was accepted.
Daffy also did his one and only film on sound on disk which was a bridge technology which was more merciful on the voice. Daffy policed his recordings and controlled his sound tech men. His records and his disks for his talkie were top engineering because he had the power to control it.
Jack Gilbert had a producer who hated him enough to order the worst director (morphine addict) to direct his talkie and ordered the sound tech to record only in the highest triple tones. No one could have survived ‘His Glorious Night’. Daffy had the power and the allies to not be knifed in the back like that.
Today Jack Gilbert haunts because of his failure which is mysterious and complex. Daffy haunts because he died so young. What if? What if?
J E F Rose