Jul y 1928’s Photoplay – the USA shop girl’s favourite fan mag – was crammed with stars, wannabes and mere twinkles. Most had rosebud lips, Marcelwaved hair, wore helmet hats and looked in agony of constipation.
They had strange names: Renée (Adorée), Vilma (Bánky), Theda (Bara), Bebe (Daniels), Blanche (Sweet), Colleen (Moore) Mabel (Normand) and Gloria (Swanson).
Many an unfortunate child (Gloria Hunniford) was exotically named after them by fixated mothers. Baby Blanches, Mabels, Thedas, or Vilmas carried these sobriquets through adulthood long after silent celluloid sirens had pouted their last.
We learned that Lily Damita (Errol Flynn’s future grasping first wife) left France – not for stardom, heaven forbid – but only to play opposite Ronald Coleman. That Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford would never divorce (they separated shortly afterwards).
Photoplay portrayed Hollywood as a place where directors spent more time looking for female stars than they did directing. That it could be you, if you could leave your shop or machine and get to Hollywood. That “nice people” avoided halitosis by taking Listerine. And that 96% of Hollywood stars’ complexions are cared for by a 10¢ bar of Lux.
There was advice on how to get a man and hold him (look constipated?). In fact, Photoplay Hollywood tallied with any braindead’s idea of Hollywood. Why? Because, like most of its readers, Photoplay wasn’t in Hollywood. Its editorial and publishing was New York and Chicago based, its gossip amplified studio press releases plugging heads with vacuous movies and fashions of the moment.
Photoplay said that MGM’s Leo the lion was embarking on a world tour, and that the best films of the month were The Godless Girl, Red Dance, and Street Of Sin. The fact that MGM’s Dublin-born lion was named Calibre didn’t matter.
This Hollywood, a world of flailing flappers and moronic melodramas, refused to lay the ghost of Valentino. Even though Jolson had sung and talked ten months previously in Warners’ half-talkie, The Jazz Singer, big studios Fox, First National, Paramount, and Universal had more silent stock to release. Until they saw how the talkie cookie crumbled they’d keep their powder dry.
Besides, most screens in America were silent and could be supplied with silent versions of talkies. Silence was still the loudest sound in 1928 Hollywood.
Many silent actors had become stars because of physical attributes (Pickford: prettiness, Fairbanks: agility, Valentino: handsomeness, Gary Cooper: ability to ride a horse.
In silents if Valentino sounded like Popeye or Mary Pickford like Arthur Mullard, it mattered little. Many silent stars were so squeakily or heavily accented, transition to sound was impossible. On such sixpences do moviestar careers turn.
We’ve all experienced a visual version of this. A favourite radio star whom we loved for his deep-voiced butchness, we saw on TV for the first time. But he looked either a nance, garden rake, or Billy Bunter. So? What did we expect him to look like? We can’t answer that of an imagined incorporeal figure. Try describing God and you’ll get the idea.
Warner’s talkie cookie didn’t merely crumble, it exploded. The Jazz Singer grossed $2.625M – $1M more than any previous Warner movie. While Hollywood sang silent silent’s praises, Warner’s on July 6, premiered the world’s first 57-minute, all-talking feature, Lights of New York.
Supposed crime drama Lights was as dramatic as a saline drip. But it talked, and audiences were silenced by this miracle. Costing Warner’s $23,000 it grossed $1.252 million, a 5,000%+ return. In September The Singing Fool, another Al Jolson part-talkie, was the largest grosser till Gone With The Wind.
Paul Terry (later Terrytoons) premiered Dinner Time (1928), the first cartoon using a photoelectric beam (RCA Phonofilm) – effectively the first all-talking comedy.
Dinner Time was a fluidly funny cartoon about a butcher’s shop raided by dogs. Its inventiveness, movement and gags evolved with the rapidity of thought yet was unsuccessful with the public.
Then Disney released Steamboat Willie to a delighted New York audience. Featuring Disney squawking Mickey Mouse’s unintelligible speech, it used Waterford-born Paddy Power’s Cinephone synchr onised sound system.
Although only running as add-on to paint-drying 70-minute Gang War, Willie’s seven fun-packed minutes completely outshone it. Today Gang War is a lost film while Dinner Time and Steamboat Willie – as freshly funny as in 1928 – can be seen on YouTube. Sound systems Vitaphone, Cinephone and Phonofilm eventually morphed into RCA System and Western Electric Recording.
Twelve months later MGM shot in twenty-five days, Hollywood Revue Of 1929,their $426K attempt to cash in on the aural action. Retrospectively it was more a curate’s egg.