The great movie pioneer D.W. Griffiths once said “we do not want now and we shall never want the human voice with our films.” Shame he failed to realise that film-making is a technical medium that will always develop. In the last 100 years we have had the introduction of colour, trick photography, 3D and CGI, among other numerous innovations such as CinemaScope - and even Smellovision. But none of these compare to the most revolutionary of cinematic changes: sound.
The silent era of the twenties holds little more than curiosity-value for many modern film fans. Other than a few notable exceptions such as Nosferatu (1922) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), it’s become a long-forgotten part of cinema history. But back then we had the Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolies of their day! Big stars and talented actors who sadly failed to survive the test of time.
The coming of sound was controversial, since it ended the careers of many big names, whose voices disappointed their fans. Even if the voice was fine, some actors were unable to adapt their melodramatic style to the more naturalistic approach that came with ‘talkies’. The gangster classic Little Caesar (1931) is a very good example of this; the performances ranged from amateurish to hammy, only because the actors hadn’t quite adapted to the new medium.
Even when a big star survived the transition, his or her career would still suffer with the arrival of many talented (mainly British) actors who had made their name on stage and were trying to further their own careers in film.
To celebrate the artistic and commercial success of The Artist (2012), here are ten big stars from the silent era that are still remembered today, but only just!
Rudolph ValentinoThe ultimate movie heartthrob. The Italian born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D'Antonguolla was a dancer, waiter, taxi driver and gigolo before heading out to Hollywood. Originally cast as foreign villains, his good looks slicked-back dark hair and muscular frame quickly propelled him to stardom as the silent cinema’s great lover. The idol of every movie-going female, he played mysterious, dominant and exotic
figures in tuxedos, military uniforms and Arab costumes. His handsome princes and sultans always swept his leading lady away to his far-off palace/tent/temple/ harem, as seen in his career defining turn as The Sheikh (1921). It was all pure Hollywood escapism, but like many screen actors, Valentino was a flawed mortal. Rumours of his impotence and homosexuality were further complicated by two short-lived marriages to lesbians. His early death, aged 31, from peritonitis prompted a circus-like wake as thousands of women paraded past his coffin as he lay in state (the funeral was paid for by his studio as the actor was $3 million in debt). It also led to a string of suicides among his most adoring fans. Looking at Valentino today, most women will wonder what the fuss was about. Dying only a few years before the sound revolution, one wonders how his career would have progressed in talking pictures.
John Gilbertknown as ‘The Great Love’, Gilbert was second to Valentino as the silent cinema’s great screen heartthrobs. More debonair and less mysterious than Valentino, Gilbert was the dashing, moustachioed hero who romanced many of the great leading ladies of the twenties, especially Greta Garbo; their on-screen chemistry was so intense it came as no surprise they were lovers in real life. After his performance in The Big Parade (1925), Gilbert was a star, and with Valentino’s death he had the field to himself. Unfortunately the coming of sound ended his career although the reason for his decline had more to do with studio politics. Despite being on a lucrative MGM contract, Gilbert had an enemy in Louis B. Mayer, and legend had it that the movie mogul made an offensive comment about Garbo that prompted Gilbert to punch his lights out. When Gilbert made his sound debut in His Glorious Night (1929), Mayer was said to have altered the sound equipment to make Gilbert’s voice much higher. The end result pretty much destroyed his street-cred as his shrill delivery reduced his fans to laughter. Losing his fortune in the Wall Street Crash, Gilbert turned to drink but refused to get out of his contract. His remaining output was strictly B-movie fodder. Already suicidal, a situation exacerbated by booze, his final humiliation came at a gay party he attended with lover Marlene Dietrich. While they danced, Gilbert’s toupee came off, evoking laughter from the crowd. It was as much as he could stand, and the following day he was found dead from a heart attack – he was 38.
Lon Chaney‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’ - and the cinema’s first horror star, even though he made very few films in the genre. An established character actor, Chaney was perfect for the silent screen. The son of deaf mutes, he communicated with them using pantomime, and this was invaluable for his future screen performances. More importantly, his effective and often painful use of make-up enabled him to create horrific and grotesque characters that appeared in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), London After Midnight (1925) and most memorably his career defining tune as Erik AKA The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Like many silent stars that feared the talkies because of his voice, Chaney also had to tone down his use of pantomime. Any fears he might have had were proved wrong. Making his sound début The Unholy Three (1930), a remake of his 1925 film, critics and audiences were equally impressed by his distinctive vocal range and nicely underplayed performance. Sadly a new career in talkies was not forthcoming when the actor developed the throat cancer that eventually killed him. A strange and ironic fate to say the least!
Charlie ChaplinThanks to producer Hal Roach and Mack Sennett, the twenties was the golden era of slapstick comedy. And to many fans, Chaplin is the silent cinema’s greatest clown (no I haven’t forgotten Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd). His famous character ‘The Tramp’ is now an iconic figure in film history. A former member of Fred Karno’s Comedy Troupe, Chaplin's unique style of pantomime quickly established himself as a Hollywood star. His beloved Tramp, complete with bowler hat, toothbrush moustache, baggy pants and silly walk, was the 'underdog' facing life’s misfortunes but winning in the end. Looking at Chaplin today, his comedy, although ingenious, is at best only mildly amusing to modern sensibilities. Although his films were often overloaded with pathos, he remained popular in such films as Easy Street (1917) and The Gold Rush (1926), where he famously ate his boot! Chaplin’s reaction to sound was to ignore it. It seemed to work with City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). When he finally spoke for the first time in The Great Dictator (1940) it marked his final appearance as The Tramp, who is mistaken for Fuhrer Adenoid Hynkel. Trying to vary his range was not too successful, and his outspoken socialist views and personal scandals quickly prompted an exile from the States.
Douglas Fairbanksbefore Errol Flynn cornered the 'dashing hero' market for himself, Douglas Fairbanks was the silent screen’s swashbuckler par excellence. In fact he went further by doing all the spectacular stunts himself in lavishly-mounted big-budget costume adventures such as The Mark of Zorro (1920), Robin Hood (1921) and The Thief of Baghdad (1924). An astute businessman who also produced several of his movies, he formed United Artists in 1919 with D W Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and his wife Mary Pickford. Although he was a long-established stage star before coming into films, Fairbanks never really suited sound. But then he already knew his days were numbered. Now a little too old for swashbucklers (Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power were the new kids on the block) and with more money than he knew what to do with, Fairbanks decided to quit while he was ahead. Sadly his retirement was cut short by a heart attack at 56.
Mary PickfordA stage performer since she was five, Mary Pickford emerged as the silent screen’s most famous actress. Such was her fame she was dubbed ‘America’s Sweetheart’ even though she was Canadian by birth. With an almost unbroken runs of films shorts, the waif-like, fluffy haired Pickford was always cast as cute little girls - which included title roles in Pollyanna (1920) and Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921) when she was well into her thirties. Attempts to widen her range were none too successful. This probably explains, after forming United Artists with her husband, why she became more involved in producing than acting. Like Fairbanks (whom she divorced in 1936), she knew that her time was up with the coming of sound, and subsequently retired from acting in 1933 to become a production executive and successful businesswoman. Spending her remaining years as a recluse, she ended her days as a senile, bedridden alcoholic in a rest home.
Tom MixBefore John Wayne was king of the cowboys; it was the flamboyantly-dressed Tom Mix who delighted fans (among them Peter Cushing) as the star of countless low-budget westerns made between 1909 and 1929. A former US Marshall (unconfirmed) and rodeo rider (his horse 'Tony' was as famous as his master), Mix added flair and a little cowboy realism to the silent screen. Although he adapted to sound without too many problems thanks to his deep husky voice, Mix was advancing in years, and with John Wayne coming on the scene (both actors despised each other), the inevitable decline would follow. After sustaining injuries from falling off a horse, Mix left Hollywood and invested in a circus, losing a million dollars in the process. He was about to return to films as a character actor when he was killed in a car crash in Arizona in 1940. A monument was erected to his memory. 'Tony' outlived his master by two years.
Roscoe 'Fatty' ArbuckleThe 300 pound baby-faced Roscoe Arbuckle was perhaps second to Chaplin as one of the all time great silent comedians, but sadly his cult status has more to do with a scandal that effectively ended his once promising career. Very nimble, despite his hefty physique, Arbuckle specialised in naughty, grown-up fat boys in several slapstick shorts that emphasised his genial demeanour and plump features. Such was his huge success, the former Keystone Cop had just signed a lucrative contract with Paramount to make features when a sensational murder trial in 1921 ruined everything. Often hosting orgiastic parties, the intoxicated Arbuckle was said to have raped (and squashed) young actress Virginia Rappe in a hotel room, first with a bottle and then with a piece of ice that ruptured her bladder. Arbuckle got charged with murder, but after two hung juries, was acquitted, and was later dramatised in a semi-fictional style in James Ivory's The Wild Party (1975). The whole sordid incident destroyed Arbuckle’s career. His films were banned, his contract was torn up and the Hayes Office barred him from working in films again. He continued to direct under the name William Goodrich. With the coming of sound, Arbuckle made a low-key comeback in a number of shorts, but died in his sleep aged 46 before anything came of it.
Jackie CooganWhere would slapstick comedy be without kids? Before Shirley Temple, Bobby Driscoll and MacCauley Culkin, there was the blonde, chubby-faced Jackie Coogan, chosen by Chaplin to play his most definitive role as The Kid (1921), an orphan who steals just as many laughs as Chaplin’s Tramp. After appearing in a couple of more shorts for Chaplin, Coogan branched out into starring roles, which endeared him to millions of fans. As one of Hollywood’s highest-paid stars, he was also their youngest millionaire. Sadly his inevitable decline had less to do with sound and more with a child star’s greatest setback – growing up. Although he scored hits with the early talkies Tom Sawyer (1930) and Huckleberry Finn (1931), the thirties proved to be a turbulent time for the young actor. Coogan was involved in several acrimonious court battles with his mother and stepfather over his earnings (Coogan was finally left with $125,000.00 out of a reputed $4 million). With his popularity on the wane, attempts to widen his range were unsuccessful. After military service during World War 2, Coogan returned to the cinema as a bald headed, heavyweight character actor. He won a new generation of fans with his memorable performance as Uncle Fester in the TV series The Addams Family. Coogan remained a working actor until his death in 1984.
Lillian GishIf Mary Pickford was the female star of the silent era, then Lillian Gish was the first lady of the pioneering days. Discovered by D W Griffith, Gish certainly made an impression in his epics Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). More versatile than Pickford, she emerged as one of the finest leading actresses of the twenties, tackling a whole variety of roles. Like Griffith, Gish did not feel sound was right for the cinema, silent movies having more impact and power in her opinion. Once the talkies arrived, she left Hollywood and reinvented herself as a successful stage actress. Of course the human voice was here to stay and Gish returned to films in character roles, most notably Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1953). Remaining extremely busy in her later years, she rounded off her screen career on a high opposite Bette Davis and Vincent Price in The Whales of August (1987), She died in 1992.
Its unlikely The Artist will ever begin a new market in silent films but at least we owe a gratitude for the film-makers for showing modern fans where cinema first started – with no voice at all.