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Everyone is a film critic, and this seems to always have been the case. But the attitudes among popular authors in mass-circulation publications toward the proper application of the voice underwent change as sound became established. The issues commentators confronted were not the economic realignment of the film industry, the changing international status of Hollywood production, or other trade-press concerns. Rather, they wanted to know how the new technology would change the existing movie institution. Were the filmmakers trying to fix something that was not broken? Who would determine the use, style, and social responsibilities of the speaking voice in film? Though many-faceted, the arguments progressed through distinct areas of emphasis. First was the “quality” phase, which presumed that the voice was an entity separate from the actor’s body and could be molded to an ideal vocal standard derived from the legitimate stage. Then there was a reaction favoring “naturalism.” The stage voice was deemed to be stilted and too artificial for the movies. Intimacy and a “natural” voice were substituted as ideals. Then came a compromise “hybrid” phase. Critics championed actors who spoke with clear diction, as onstage, but with the everyday spontaneity, ease, and colloquialism of American (not British) English. These efforts to come to grips with speech correlate roughly with the critical attitude toward the sound track from 1927 through 1931, changing from an enhancement of the picture to sound and image integrated as the modulated sound track.


The national excitement about electrically reproducing the voice over the radio created speculation about linking speech and images. De Forest Phonofilm showed that it was feasible that talking pictures and something like television might soon be a reality. Well before the 1926 Vitaphone premiere, the desirability of adding speech to film was already being debated in the popular press. A typical enthusiast in 1922 gave a rationale for the inevitable combination of theatrical dialogue and cinema (via radio, he thought) to replace the missing acoustic dimension:

Man is a friendly animal and loves to hear his own voice, and for that reason the motion picture, wonderful as it is, has never been able to replace the spoken play. The rarest value of good acting is in oral expression…. The sound of sobbing from the darkness, for example, stirs us more than any mere physical action. Sarah Bernhardt, speaking from the darkness of a deserted battlefield, thrills us with her voice, though we cannot understand the language she speaks.

Think of the powers of the voice combined with the powers of the motion picture! Is there any limit to its possibilities? (Butler, “Radio to Make Movies Talk,” p. 673)

But others were pessimistic about the voice’s recordability and wondered whether it was proper for speech to be part of the cinema experience at all. Writing in 1924 on “The Human Voice Divine,” an author who identified himself as a “high-brow gentleman” argued that speech was the soul of drama, including the movies. He confessed that when he went to films, he missed hearing the voice of “Doug,” and was confident that Dr. de Forest’s machine would soon reproduce it. But he also foresaw a problem. Modern American speech had already degenerated, and talking films would degrade it further. “The spoken word,” he claimed, “is what suffers the taint of mediocrity; or even, in the ‘silent drama,’ the ignominy of sheer obliteration. What wonder that we degenerate into monosyllabic grunts! Our priceless inheritance, the thing which might save us most surely from bestial oblivion, we have sold for a mess of machinery.” 1

George Jean Nathan, the outspoken conservative theater critic for the American Mercury , similarly felt that the talkies condemned film to the domain of the “booboisie.” After viewing the first program of Vitaphone shorts, he predicted that sound would backfire:

Aside from its commercial value in certain short-reel subjects, such as an opera-singer doing her bit, or a politician exuding the usual platitudes, or a musician making pretty sounds, it will bring to the motion-picture exactly the thing that the motion-picture should have no use for, to wit, the human voice, and that, further, once it brings it, the motion-picture will have a tough time holding its own even among the boobs who now make it the profitable institution it is. (Quoted in “The Vitaphone—Pro and Con,” Literary Digest , 25 September 1926, p. 29)

These arguments center on preserving the voice as the property of a cultural elite and are consistent with the intelligentsia’s far-flung attacks on middlebrow values in the 1920s. The addition of sound came just when critics were elevating the silent cinema to “art,” and it was difficult for them to conceive how talking was conducive to the kind of filmmaking they revered in THE GOLD RUSH (1925), THE LAST LAUGH (1924), and SUNRISE (1927). Other critics had an approach-avoidance conflict with theater. They held it dear as a venue for “modern” ideas expressed in a specific linguistic style and as a metonymy for the highbrow culture to which cinema should aspire. But many also cherished film as an autonomous art with its own rules and attributes, such as dynamism, the ability to compress time and space, to alternate long-shots and close-ups, to linger on faces, and so on. These were assumed to be superior to stage techniques. Thus, some critics hated speaking films because the voice pulled the movie away from something essentially “filmic” and modern, and toward old-fashioned theatricality. But many other commentators thought that the stage was superior to cinema and that perhaps the talkies could benefit from film’s new theatricality. Nathan and those like him regarded theater as a bastion of vocal correctness. He saw the “formerly mute” cinema encroaching on the prerogative of the educated class to define and enjoy film on its own terms.

As the transition to sound got under way, movie actors were revealed to possess a heretofore unnoticed flaw: they lacked both intelligence and the ability to speak proper English. Many writers felt that the latter was symptomatic of the former. One concerned critic noted that the change to sound would require the development of entirely new techniques, in part because “the stars of the screen do not know how to speak and the scenarists do not know how to write dialogue.” 2 Surprisingly, some of this criticism of actors’ voices emanated from the film industry itself. William Fox said in 1927, “Many of the present players who may still be popular [in five years] will have to take courses in elocution, and we will then be able to look at and listen to a motion picture without a subtitle or a spoken title.” David Sarnoff of RCA also thought that film actors would have to be taught to speak, insisting that “at present no one would want to listen to the sort of speech they use.” 3 These executives’ comments are enlightening because of the prejudices they embody. Deriding the intelligence of actors was an old custom, of course. What was new was the implication that current film stars who did not speak could not speak. Their voices were inadequate. It is ironic that Fox and Sarnoff, both first-generation immigrants, should belittle the diction of movie stars. Their potshots at actors’ voices suggest that, perhaps symptomatically among the film moguls, they expected the talkies to disseminate an ideal of cultural homogenization and assimilation through quality speech.

One motif in criticisms of the voice was the distinction between the silent film’s emphasis on the body and the talkies’ accent on the mind. Ideals of athleticism, beauty, and “it” (sex appeal) no longer sufficed in the sound film. Now the articulate would supersede the beautiful and sensuous—but dull and vocally benighted. Actors’ speech signified their intelligence. Film executives at one of their conferences heard Dr. Frank Vizetelly, the editor of Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary , say unequivocally that speech correlated with “mental efficiency.” Even a passable voice was useless if not guided by “brains.” Frederick Lonsdale predicted that “the Hollywood beauty actors and actresses … will soon be as dead as the third and fourth rate touring companies whom the talking films will supplant.” 4 The critic Waldo Walker ventured, “[It] may mean that the old type of actor, the man and woman with complete histrionic ability, will enter the new field in larger numbers, and that the ‘doll-faced’ and ‘sheik’ types of movie stars who lack ability and training to act speaking parts may disappear.” The arts critic Seldes also forecast this “serious displacement of moving picture favorites” based on physical prowess or appearance. “Probably a more intelligent type of player will be required and the young woman who looks well [sic] in a close-up or a young man who expresses ‘it’ by jumping over six-foot fences, will receive less fan mail than those whose voices register warmly and clearly and who learn the new technic of acting which the talking film requires.” Elocution teachers were needed “so that moderately intelligent words will be at least moderately intelligible in the new films.” He noted that “intelligent people now in the moving pictures,” including Chaplin and King Vidor, were extraordinarily dubious of the new medium. 5 Robert Sherwood also prioritized intelligence as a survival trait forced on Hollywood by the talkies:

What matters infinitely more than the tonal quality of the star’s voice, or the perfection of his or her articulation, is the nature of the star’s cerebral functions. For every one representative of the Beverly Hills nobility who will be sent to the guillotine in the near future because of faulty diction, there will be a dozen who are decapitated because they lack the capacity to memorize three or four sentences at a time and to retain them for as long as ten minutes. (R. E. Sherwood, “Renaissance in Hollywood,” American Mercury , April 1929, p. 432)

Edwin Hullinger professed, “There is nothing that reveals shallowness of the soul as quickly as the voice. Sheer, undisguised shallowness tires an audience quickly. And a voice cannot be tampered with, retouched or covered over by means of clever studio lighting. At last the movies may be compelled to ‘go in for brains.’” 6 Another commentator described the new acting expectations:

In the older order of things the candidate for screen honors had virtually no chance of success unless he or she had “it.” … Sound has changed all that. “It” has been supplanted by personality. The fanciful has given way to the real. The public can no longer be fooled and so droves of heavy lovers and impassioned ladies of the premicrophone days are drifting back to the overalls of the filling station and the apron of the cafeteria. They were like strutting peacocks; beautiful to gaze upon, terrible to hear. (Maurice L. Ahern, “Hollywood Horizons,” Commonweal , 21 May 1930, p. 72)

If the silent film actor’s voice was wrong for the talkies, what was right? The legitimate stage—distinct from vaudeville and its ethnic vernacular—was problematic for those who defended the autonomy of cinema art, but it was one readily available model for quality talking performance. The widespread view was that silent players were not suited to bear this cultural responsibility. Nathan protested that movie actors’ voices would always be inferior to those of their New York and London stage counterparts: “To expect a pantomimist, talented though he be, to be the possessor of a vocal organ capable of expressing all the shadings of dramatic speech is surely expecting a lot.” Robert Sisk wrote, “What chance has a cinema favorite, formerly skilled in the mixing of chocolate syrup with carbonated water, of speaking lines as an actor should? Such work, obviously, will take skilled performers, and they will have to come from the stage.” 7 William deMille, who divided his directing between New York and Hollywood, perceptively noted that spectators had been “imagining” screen stars’ absent voices. Hearing their actual voices was apt to disappoint them. These regional, uncultured voices often were inappropriate for the sophisticated roles demanded by the theatrical material of the new cinema. “Many delightful young women,” deMille believed,

lose all their charm the moment their voices are heard; stalwart “he-men” may shed their virility with the first sentence they speak; the rolling Western “r” gives the lie to an otherwise excellent “society” characterization, and uncultured enunciation destroys the illusion created by beauty. In very few cases does the voice of a screen idol satisfy “fans” who, for years, have been imagining it. (William deMille, “The Screen Speaks,” Scribner’s , April 1929, p. 369)

The columnist Rob Wagner developed this line of thought. Stage stars, he argued, are physically real people in a real world, while screen stars have a dreamlike or phantasmagorical quality. “Only so long as they maintain this dream quality does the adulation continue. The moment they come to life, either in a personal appearance or in the speakies, they are instantly reduced to the common denominator of every other pretty little girl.” 8 The vitriolic Nathan scoffed at the public’s naive attribution of an imaginary voice to a star’s face, making veiled references to Bow, Pickford, and Garbo:

The yokel who once imagined that the Mlle. X., were she to whisper to him “I love you,” would sound like a melted mandolin, now hears his goddess speak like a gum-chewing shopgirl. The worshiper of the Mlle. Y.’s seductive girlishness now beholds her, in the grim, hard light of the talkies, to be a middle-aged woman with the voice of a middle-aged woman. The farmhand who once dreamed of the Mlle. Z. as an exotic and mysterious dose of cantharides will now see her simply as a fat immigrant with deradenoncus and over-developed laryngeal muscles assisting in the negotiation of pidgin-English. Valentino died in time. Think what would have happened to his flock of women admirers if the unsparing lighting of the talkies had betrayed his imminent baldness and the movietone his bootblack voice. (George Jean Nathan, “The Pictorial Phonograph,” American Mercury , July 1929, p. 7)

The speech which movie stars allegedly could not enunciate was a unique dialect probably not heard on any street. In a revealing interview, Conrad Nagel discussed how it had taken years of training and mentorship to banish his “defective” Iowa-bred speech. “I had a terrible struggle to shake my mid-western twang, and developed a series of exercises for my tongue and lips that I practiced diligently, all for the purpose of breaking my drawl, and also to place my voice correctly.” 9 His achievement was to be able to speak sophisticated parts in the standard language of the stage. This consisted of clipped speech with “pear-shaped” vowels and sharp consonants. Forensic aficionados found their ideal in the Movietone footage of George Bernard Shaw. “We have heard his voice,” the editors of Literary Digest proclaimed, “and are tempted to nominate him as a model for all the Better English Clubs in existence. This exhibition seems to settle once for all the claim that the best English comes from Dublin, for the delicious Irish overtone adds a music to his perfect enunciation.” A speech professor corroborated the implication that standard English was British English: “Among those familiar with modern speech pedagogy there will be, I believe, general agreement as to English phonetics being the simplest and best means to this end [good diction]. It is, of course, the basis of speech training in many of the largest universities and colleges.” The American readership was also informed that British commentators were appalled by U.S. regional accents and bad grammar. The British press launched salvos against the “corrupting influences of ‘American English.’”

On the stage, there may have been a practical explanation for this enunciative speaking style: it helped actors project their voices so that their lines would be intelligible in the farthest rows of the theater. But there was also an ideological aspect to the preference for this style. Genteel American theater critics favored the English accent typical of London’s West End theaters over “common” American English because it connoted class and culture. This mannered speaking style can be heard by listening to Norma Shearer in THE LAST OF MRS . CHEYNEY (1929) and Ruth Chatterton in MADAME X (1929). Under the direction of MGM’s Sidney Franklin, one of the studio’s “society” directors, and Lionel Barrymore of Broadway’s “royal family” of theater, these characteristic stage voices transposed pristinely to the sound track. (One may also hear Margaret Dumont and John Barrymore parody the “quality” voice in her Marx Brothers movies and his TWENTIETH CENTURY 1934). The enunciative style seemed to many critics to be destined for the technical characteristics of the talkies, for which lines supposedly had to be intoned slowly to minimize electrical distortion. Lasky emphasized the positive social effects of transposing stage speech onto the screen. “I look for better English and clearer enunciation as the result of dialogue films. If all of our popular feminine stars let their hair grow long, they could end the bobbed hair vogue in short order. Slip-shod speech modes can be influenced in the same manner.” 11 Cecil B. DeMille predicted that sound films would have a leveling effect on the language: “The talkies have drawn toward uniformity the most ununiform and diverse tongue the world has ever known. There are scores of dialects of English, some of them very harsh and bad. There are one or two methods of speaking. It is towards a happy medium of speech that the studios of Hollywood are aiming.”

British actors—Boris Karloff, Ronald Colman, Victor McLaglen, Reginald Denny, and Basil Rathbone, notably—acquired an instant aura of sophistication. For native actors who did not have formal stage experience, the new filmmaking was presumed to require a vocal upgrade, precipitating anxiety about “elocution.” Dorothy Manners reported that “all the girls” (i.e., actresses) are “having their voices cultivated,” as though this were a passive process like having one’s nails done.

Led by Paramount, MGM, and Fox, the studios established vocal training departments and forced actors to “improve” their voices. Fans read about the dreaded studio voice culture expert and the sound-recording technician. According to Mayme Ober Peak, “He tells the director just how maybe May McAvoy spoke too high in the middle of that sentence about her lover, or Emil Jannings gave a grunt that sounded like a blast of dynamite. Once, Chester Conklin in Varsity (1928) registered an admonition for caution in a hoarse whisper to Mary Brian that rocked the stage when it came through the amplifier!”

Nervous studios recorded hundreds of voice tests, short films made with actors reciting passages at varying distances from the microphone in order to rank their talking and singing abilities. Paramount’s efforts to educate its voice pupils took the form of on-thejob training:

The big studios have always had kindergartens for the kids in charge of certificated teachers furnished by the board of education but paid for by the companies. Now they are adding voice culture and English courses for their stock players under long-time contracts. At most studios the young star receives her instructions in the school-room and then makes her tests in the laboratory, but on the Paramount lot I found a unique stunt of combining the lessons and tests in one operation. I happened into the studio bungalow of little Mary Brian, 15 and there sat that bright-eyed young lady declaiming into a microphone with apparently nobody to hear her. I soon learned the answer. After doing her exercise she picked up the telephone and listened inquisitively. “This saves both time and embarrassment,” she explained as she hung up the receiver. “Professor Bluett and Mr. Pomeroy, head of the technical department, both heard me over in the laboratory, and while Professor Bluett corrected my English Mr. Pomeroy listened to my recording tests.” (Rob Wagner, “Photo Static,” Collier’s , 23 February 1929, p. 28)

MGM claimed to be making the largest commitment to elocution, building a two-story building for the teachers and engaging the University of Southern California to test and repair “weak spots” in voices. Weakness in the voice was almost always a female trait. Their travails when they faced the technology of the recording microphone was said to be physiological:

Most of their [the USC experts’] effort will be concentrated on the feminine player. “Women, more than men,” states one of the professors, “will be forced to [take] intensive and scientific training for talking pictures, because of a simple scientific fact. The voice of a man is naturally heavier, vibrating at between 100 and 300 vibrations a second, while woman’s goes up to around 500 to 700. At this vibration the sibilant sounds, such as the ‘S,’ ‘Z,’ the hard ‘O,’ ‘X,’ and ‘P’ become hisses or blasts, as they are vibrated at a higher speed than the balance of the vocal sounds.” That is why, he explains, “few soprano singers have succeeded in making successful phonograph records.” (Mayme Ober Peak, quoted in Literary Digest , 20 October 1928, pp. 60, 62)

Nevertheless, because the voice could be isolated and trained, there was optimism that this limitation could be overcome by hard work and the application of science. Several studios resorted to newfangled devices for quantifying vocal properties in an effort to sidestep subjective judgment. Universal’s electronic “syllable sleuth” was something called the “telegraphone.” Professor Verne Knudsen brought his USC “voice detector” machine to MGM. He was “prepared to eradicate the ordinary flaws found in diction and enunciation. Players can watch the recording of their own voices and study how to eliminate the ‘kinks’ in the voice.” William deMille recounted—possibly tongue-in-cheek—an anecdote that illustrates the extent of actors’ anxiety as they sought to teach themselves to speak:

Gone are the shoutings, the music, the noises of electric lights, the hum of the cameras, and the tense directions through megaphones. Instead, a silent group of actors awaits a silent signal upon a silent stage. Between “shots” groups of quiet-voiced players bring forth dictionaries and discuss meanings of words and their pronunciation. The responsibility of the spoken word, hailed with joy by veterans from the stage, is a heavy burden to some of those actors whose whole professional career has been silent. (William deMille, “The Screen Speaks,” Scribner’s , April 1929, p. 368)

New aspirants and established actors rushed to vocal coaches in 1928 to “train” their voices. Journalists emphasized the great personal discipline and labor required to alter the voice. Dr. Vizetelly was quoted giving actors this advice: “If your lips would keep from slips, five things observe with care. Of whom you speak, to whom you speak, the manner, when and where.” Even Mary Pickford claimed to be nervous about her first voice test. She told an interviewer that she “will never, never, never make a speakie.” But in 1929 she flip-flopped and told another interviewer that she welcomed the talkies and was preparing to take advantage of them. She reflected the producers’ hedging strategy of preserving “silent” technique: “There will be plenty of experts concentrating on the talking feature. But we mustn’t forget what we already have.” Gloria Swanson’s singing in THE TRESPASSER was achieved, Collier’s magazine confided, with the aid of fourteen voice lessons. Wagner wrote about one star, a “lisping film-favorite,” whom he overheard “repeating over and over again, ‘The Leith police dismisseth us.’” Phyllis Haver, Leatrice Joy, and Janet Gaynor were taking lessons. Mary Philbin, perhaps anticipating international stardom, was studying German.

Several universities instituted elocution lessons for aspiring movie actors. Readers also learned that experts, such as those lampooned in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (“Moses supposes his toeses are roses”), promised clients a fast break into the talkies but provided only disappointment. Young people had always been lured to Los Angeles by movie scams, and sound provided a golden opportunity for con artists. The Vitaphone director Bryan Foy tried to discourage young women from coming to Hollywood and signing up for voice instruction: “Elocution lessons won’t do a lot of these little girls much good. They lose in naturalness as much as they gain in clearness and enunciation.” Fly-by-night voice teachers, according to Hullinger, had replaced acting schools as Hollywood’s “chief pest, fetching double and quadruple their former rates.” Wagner remarked on the many voice culturists who were promoting themselves in newspaper ads. But he may have inadvertently encouraged neophytes when he observed that even the best voices could flop when recorded or broadcast, while the voices of untrained extras and veteran silent actors sometimes ran away with scenes.

Many took for granted that the British-accented speech of the New York stage would become the norm for movies, but there were a few dissenters. Perceval Reniers, for one, pointed out that, despite some excellent legitimate voices—Otis Skinner, Walter Hampden, Margaret Anglin—"for the rest our stage is overrun with misguided young women who are imitating either Mrs. Fiske or Ethel Barrymore and with young men the source of whose inspiration I have yet to discover. It seems to lie somewhere between John Barrymore of The Fortune Hunter and George Cohan of Broadway Jones." Similarly, Frank Wilstach (publicity director for the Hays Office) observed that theater patrons “do not go there to listen to an actor or actress hypnotized by the melody of his or her vocal cords. If this were the case, there would be schools of elocution on every corner.” Many of the most popular and renowned actors of the past had in fact been tainted by bad enunciation. He doubted that few legendary thespians or currently successful Broadway actors could pass an elocution test.

An alternative vocal performance model for the talkies was the language heard on radio. There, too, like the out-of-control voices coming from the movie screen, one could hear a panoply of speaking styles derived from different classes and regions. In the case of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, these voices came from the same person. His own speaking voice was the refined New York stage. The playboy dummy Charlie McCarthy spoke in jazzy slang. Mortimer Snerd, the yokel dummy, spoke like the hick he was. Radio was also a medium for disseminating middlebrow gentility. “Cultured” commentators who spoke in educated voices, including Joseph Henry Jackson, the Yale professor William Lyon Phelps, and, especially, Alexander Woollcott, presented literati and social critics on radio in “living room conversation” formats. Woollcott’s Town Crier program interspersed banter with personalities with book and theater reviews. 19 Producers of motion pictures must have been interested in trying to attract some of this “sophisticated” clientele to their highbrow stage and operatic adaptations.

The elocution vogue reveals a specific anxiety about the voice. It was the standard of speech and language that was the issue, not some innate acoustic property. Otherwise, ameliorating the voice would be impossible. The supposition that the voice can be isolated and altered suggests that it was something extra, apart from the personality or physical being of the actor. Like the sound track, which was at the time conceived of as a supplement to the silent film, the actor’s voice was being treated as a separate commodity. The debate over who controlled the disembodied film voice had repercussions in the realm of labor, increasing the executives’ anxiety about actors. The producers quickly appended riders to the Standard Agreement that legally recognized the separation of the voice from the body and established their right to exploit it. The actor’s vocal capability was then marketed as a separate entity in advertising campaigns like “Lon Chaney Talks” and “Garbo Talks,” where the speaking star was a selling point.

The “quality” voice sounded better as an ideal than it did on the screen. The enunciative style proved to be very unpopular with general audiences. Critics began pointing out that the delivery which might have been suitable for the theater was inappropriate for the intimacy and closed space of the cinematic medium-shot. By 1929 the call for film voices to emulate stage voices had been silenced.


By late 1929, elocution had become a Hollywood joke:

An actress would enter a restaurant, order a cup of coffee and wonder where she could find someone to teach her how to order a cup of coffee in a restaurant scene on the screen. Even the fact that the waiter brought her the cup of coffee she had ordered did not make her conscious of the fact that without training she had managed to get the coffee, which, after all, is the main idea behind the order, either on or off the screen. No matter what degree of artistic perfection she achieved in uttering the order, the sum total of the returns it would bring her would be one cup of coffee, and she got that without even one lesson in elocution. (Welford Beaton, “High-Hatting Little Brother,” Saturday Evening Post , 24 May 1930, p. 62)

Again, failure to adapt to the demands of sound is attributed to the actor’s stupidity; she is not smart enough to realize that her way of speaking is already satisfactory. As the transition to all-talking films unfolded, there was a corresponding shift in the press’s emphasis from enunciative speaking to what was called naturalism. Rather than promoting stage diction, popular writing more frequently ridiculed it as Hollywood’s folly. The year 1929, according to Welford Beaton, marked the peak of “the screen’s capitulation to the stage.” He argued that Hollywood wanted to turn out “the kind of entertainment the country wants, but its ambition always had been to produce something of which Broadway approved.” The resulting middlebrow concoction was unsatisfactory in both respects. Belatedly, the industry was realizing that stage actors “are equipped but little more to make a motion picture than they are to perform an operation for appendicitis or to fill a tooth.” 20 According to Foy, “Sound is going to be a great thing for good character actors, who can talk their parts naturally as well as play them.” Richard Watts also came out in favor of the natural voice:

It became noticeable that the only triumphs in the new medium were those registered by child actors [i.e., Davey Lee], who were unconscious of the microphone, Negro performers [i.e., Stepin Fetchit], who weren’t interested   in the technique of acting, and such experienced stage and screen players as Lionel Barrymore. No member of these groups was interested in elocution. All of them were natural before the microphone and, as a result, gave performances possessing a quality that talking pictures had not previously provided. (Richard Watts, Jr., “All Talking,” Theatre Arts Monthly , September 1929, p. 709)

Unusual voices and accents, which had been condemned in 1928 as unpleasant and expendable, were welcomed as distinctive if they matched the speaker’s character. Fans were even appreciating players like Joe Fusio, “the talkies’ first stutterer.” Significantly, few of these commentators suggested that Hollywood’s notion of stage diction was outdated or misguided. They largely ignored the trend in progressive drama of using everyday language and realistic situations, such as in the plays of Elmer Rice (Street Scene) . For most critics, the stage meant traditional fare and the mass-audience appeal of Broadway’s big theaters. An exceptional spokesperson for the talkies was John Meehan, a playwright, stage director, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter (THE DIVORCÉE 1930). He came out against long rehearsals in movie acting. Though necessary for multi-camera cinematography, rehearsals tended to destroy spontaneity. Meehan pointed out that “acting as such, has been out in the theater for a long time and one of our most difficult problems in the theater was in keeping the players from acting. In talking pictures we can eliminate this difficulty very easily by limiting rehearsals. … Dialogue must be snappy and crisp. There is little need for long speeches in talking pictures.” Jesse Lasky also distinguished between the speaking style of modern theater and the melodramatic tradition: “The old declamatory style is a hindrance rather than a help to today’s actor. In the literature of the stage as elsewhere the demand is for the natural, for the truth of life, for fidelity to character and situation. I ask our actors to be natural, speak naturally. … None of our artists has been instructed to go in for voice culture.” This last statement, as Wagner’s interview with Mary Brian showed, obviously was not true; Paramount had joined the other studios in the elocution craze. But evidently it was deemed necessary to cover up the now-discredited practice of voice culture in order to promulgate the illusion of “natural” speech.

The definition of naturalism included a proper match between voice, the actor’s appearance, and the social milieu of the fiction. A case in point is the attack on Chester Morris in THE CASE OF SERGEANT GRISCHA (1930) by Variety: “To give a peasant who confesses he can neither read nor write, dialog that would fit a Belasco society drama was giving this picture a kick in the slats before the rest of the works are thrown in.” 23 Wesley Stout wrote, “Nor is elocution an asset, and as for voice culture—well, the most ludicrous sound effects recorded to date have been, not the ‘dese’ and ‘dose’ of Tenth Avenue ancestry, but the phony English accents of several ladies who spoke the language serviceably until they had their voices lifted.” Watts announced: “The vogue of the elocution teachers faded dismally as soon as it was discovered that either complete naturalism or technical precision gave certain stage players their feeling of ease. It became obvious that an absence of self-consciousness was the only thing to make players forget the terror of the microphone and enter into the more serious matter of characterization.”

The Marx Brothers, perhaps more than any other stars, persuaded critics that voice training was futile. Even articulate commentators like Sherwood strained to describe the brothers’ linguistic appeal. His characterization of it as a “beautiful madness” anticipates the surrealists’ love of these comedians’ chatter:

The weird quality of [the four Marx Brothers’] spoken humor is precisely right for the movies. It is an insult to speak of it as “wise-cracking,” for that suggests the glib, trite patter of Broadway. The Marx boys exalt their worst puns with a beautiful madness—the same form of madness that was in “Alice in Wonderland” and Shoulder Arms . Perhaps the greatest proof of this is that very few of the Marxian gags can be quoted and still sound funny. … Up to now, [the actors] have been seriously burdened with opening choruses, singing juveniles, love interest and other irrelevancies. They don’t need plots—particularly such inordinately complicated plots as those which packed the librettos of The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers . They certainly don’t need musical numbers, other than those that they happen to provide for themselves. All that the Marxes do need is elbow room. (Robert E. Sher-wood, Film Daily , 28 September 1930, p. 8)

This was the lesson for Seldes: “Everyone else I have heard from the screen enunciates painfully, to carry out the director’s illusion that speech is unnatural to human beings; Groucho and Chico chatter along.” Seldes was surprised that he liked the Marx Brothers so much in THE COCOANUTS . He had not anticipated that Groucho’s famous high-speed vaudeville ranting would record well, yet it was almost flawless. Harpo’s performance, however, was not successful. His muteness seemed unreal, and in his close-ups he seemed to be pleading to talk. Unlike Seldes and other mainstream critics who were disturbed by Harpo Marx’s screen silence, Beatrice Wilson argued that Harpo “will be perfectly at home, and the screen should be the more fitting medium for his genius.”

Alexander Bakshy, the editor of The Nation whose partisanship for the talkies developed slowly, conceded in 1929 that “the popularity of the talkies is not wholly a craze for novelty. Their success is much more due to the warmth and intimacy which has been given the picture by the human voice and which is so unmistakably missing in the silent picture as this comes from Hollywood.” By 1932 he was convinced that the stage voice had no place on the screen: “No representation of life in a talking picture can ever be convincing so long as it carries the hall-mark of the stage battle of words. Even the socalled ‘natural’ stage dialogue is too inflated to appear natural on the screen.”

These writers, rather than treating the voice as disembodied, malleable, and a surplus commodity, were calling for acting which did not sound like acting. Though they praised performers whose voices were unique (even star quality), they insisted that actors’ idiosyncrasies, accents, and vocal mannerisms had to be subordinated to the standard of creating believable fictional characters. Even as these critics were emphasizing authenticity as a criterion of film excellence, directors were integrating sound effects, music, and dialogue with the film image and reducing the sound track’s intrusiveness.


After debating for about two years, the critics seemed to lose interest in the search for the perfect voice. Vocal style had to be intelligible and intelligent, fit the character and dramatic situation, and, most important, convey a sense of illusionistic “presence.” Audiences wished to experience performers as individualized characters or stars, not as theatrical personae. Simultaneous with the channeling of recording techniques toward the modulated sound track, the public and critics were formulating a new rhetoric of vocal performance that emphasized moderation. The actor’s skill at different kinds of expression in many registers became crucially important. The ideal screen style integrated the best of stage and movie acting styles. William deMille explained the reciprocity of what we can call the hybrid voice:

In many cases the stage actor who doesn’t know picture technic is no better off than the screen actor of no vocal experience; except that it is frequently easier for the stage actor to learn screen technic than for the screen actor to develop a voice which he doesn’t possess. … At the present time the ideal actor for talking pictures seems to be the stage actor with screen experience. (deMille, “The Screen Speaks,” p. 368)

Lasky, speaking of the “new order” imposed by the talkies, recognized that neither the stage actor’s voice nor that of the screen actor was by itself sufficient for the sound cinema:

The star system—that is, the system of featuring some popular star on even terms with the picture itself—will prevail in this new order of things. New faces will be seen, as a matter of course; we are always on the alert for new personalities; but the star of the legitimate stage will not supplant the silent headliners merely because of their voices. The talking pictures will present new problems to both schools of acting. The movie player will have to learn something of the other’s art and the stage star will have much to learn from the film-wise actor. (Jesse L. Lasky, “Hearing Things in the Dark,” Collier’s , May 1929, p. 48)

Unlike the quality voice, the hybrid style revived the ideal of photogenic beauty. Lasky told Film Daily , “Some stage players will have sensational success in the new field but by no means will the stage player supplant the screen artist because of the peculiar demands of the new form of expression. Beauty is still an important part of screen entertainment. A melodious voice will never take the place of physical beauty; it can add to it, but can never supplant it.” For the consumer, nothing was to detract from the direct enjoyment of an actor’s personality. Ideally, his or her speech would be unobtrusive or, if it did stand out—for example, by exhibiting an accent—it would be pleasant. Beaton wrote in 1930, “In not one instance did a stage player become prominent on the screen … until he had substituted screen technic for stage technic, and until he had climbed his way up slowly in the new art.”


A sad story ran in the trades. Fox had brought seven beauty contest winners from foreign countries to Hollywood. Because of their inability to master English, their contracts would not be renewed and they were being sent back to their native lands. This was but one anecdote illustrating a brief mini-crisis about the status of international speakers. A popular writer described these actors as “immediate and spectacular victims” and predicted that soon they would be reduced to playing comic relief and French maids. “So excellent an actor as Emil Jannings will be salvaged by plying him in such old Warfield roles as The Music Master or original stories that can exploit his German English.” Contract players who were reported to be studying English included: Olga Baclanova, Paul Lukas, Ramón Novarro, Karl Dane, Nils Asther, Renée Adorée, Raquel Torres, Greta Garbo, Dolores Del Rio, Vilma Banky, Lili Damita, and Mona Rico. Lasky defended his Paramount employees, stating that everyone on the payroll spoke good English. He had specifically instructed Chevalier and Jannings not to lose their accents because American and British actors who could play foreign parts with the proper dialect were difficult to find. (His reasoning still reflects the older view of the voice as a detachable surplus value.) The Paramount production head B. P. Schulberg expressed his support for Baclanova and Jannings. The trades confirmed that dialects were not being banished: Garbo had been cast for ANNA CHRISTIE , and Jean Hersholt’s Danish-English and Maurice Chevalier’s thick French voices had proven to be charming, not alarming.

No producer was more sensitive to the dialect problem than Samuel Goldwyn (who himself, because of his accent and malapropisms, sported one of Hollywood’s most infamous voices). His leading man Ronald Colman spoke beautiful British English. Vilma Banky, his leading lady, was another matter. In 1925 Goldwyn had brought her from Budapest to Hollywood to make her a big star—and he did. She and Colman competed with Garbo and Gilbert as screen lovers, but the intertitles gave no hint that she spoke barely a word of English.

BULLDOG DRUMMOND , Colman’s talking debut as an English detective, was a hit when released in May 1929. Critics agreed that his soft-spoken, lightly accented voice was perfect. The New York American predicted, “The thousands of feminine fans who have adored this silent man are going to go simply crazy about him now that he is speaking Page 461  his piece. Colman has that which is known as a personality voice. It is much more colorful than his appearance or his acting, so with this new asset added to his visible attractions, Ronald Colman is in the talkies as long as he wants to stay in.” But Simon Rowson, an important industry representative from London, watched BULLDOG DRUMMOND in New York and witnessed the dismay of women fans in the audience. “They could not conceal the disappointment they experienced at the discovery that he spoke a different language from their own!”

Vilma Banky’s first sound vehicle was a romantic comedy called THIS IS HEAVEN . AS with Colman, Goldwyn chose to highlight, not hide, his star’s accent. He cast her as an immigrant short-order cook at a pancake restaurant who falls for a millionaire disguised as a chauffeur. Though the film was basically finished in January 1929 and included three talking sequences, Goldwyn could not decide whether her dialogue was acceptable or not. While he vacillated, the trade press and gossip columnists had a field day disparaging Banky’s allegedly incomprehensible speaking voice. Film Daily reported in February,

Talking sequences of This Is Heaven are back in the picture, setting at rest a controversy of some proportions here at the studios. Samuel Goldwyn eliminated the dialogue because he felt the picture did not need it. This brought kicks from some exhibitors, coupled with gentle kidding from some Page 462  locals, who thought Miss Banky’s voice would not register. Accordingly, Goldwyn accepted the challenge and the picture is to go out with dialogue. A screening here satisfied the producer that Miss Banky’s voice records well, her accent even seeming light for the part of an immigrant girl. (Film Daily, 7 February 1929, p. 9)

When Goldwyn finally premiered the film in New York, Kann wrote, “Just why Sam Goldwyn experienced cold shivers before deciding whether Vilma should talk or not, we fail to see. Miss Banky has a lovely voice and an accent that is positively entrancing. … The gorgeous Vilma will smite you all over again with her foreign English.”

But when THIS IS HEAVEN opened nationally in May, reviewers compared the film unfavorably to BULLDOG DRUMMOND . Several picked on her heavy accent. Of course, it did not help the film that, by mid-1929, part-talking sound tracks were passé. In the final tally, Goldwyn lost $200,000. Banky’s career was nearly over, and Goldwyn, the story goes, tried to deduct $50 from her $5,000-a-week salary to pay for the voice lessons. 31

Then there was the problem encountered when American actors were supposed to be speaking the native language of their characters. The New York stage convention was for everyone to speak English regardless of the fictional language. This had also been the norm in silent film intertitles. But talkie adaptations using the same convention were criticized as unnatural. Kann chided the unintentional linguistic humor in INNOCENTS OF PARIS : “And those gendarmes with their New Yorkese lingo! There’ll probably be an official protest about it.” Probably referring to MARIANNE , Jerome Beatty wrote, “The unrealistic scene is one in which a French peasant speaks to a   German. In the picture, as in the play, both talk in perfect English.” He asked rhetorically, “What can be done in situations like that?” 32 Lubitsch poked fun at this convention in THE LOVE PARADE . A courtier asks the Count (Chevalier), who is supposed to be a “Sylvanian,” how he got his French accent. (Of course, the other Sylvanian speaks perfect stage English.) The Count replies by beginning to tell a raunchy farmer’s daughter-type joke about a doctor’s wife, but we cannot follow it because there is a cut to a long-shot with the conversation shown from the other side of glass doors. Then cutting back to the interior shot, the Count gives the punch line, “When I woke up I had lost my cold, but I had thees terreeble French accent.”

By the time of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT , in which the characters are German, the actors spoke their normal English and generated few if any complaints about the lack of an accent. Indeed, the accent crisis evaporated as quickly as it had materialized after audiences began hearing their film favorites speaking. Colman, Chevalier, Garbo, and the others showed that voice differentiation by an accent was a plus—if it contributed to the integrated vocal performance style, or what the press was calling the “personality voice.” Whether critics actually had any impact on what was coming out of the screen cannot be known with assurance. But certainly the voices of the new vocal stars were anything but conventional. The most memorable actors’ unique speech was consonant with the classical cinema’s emphasis on individualized characters. Gary Coopers flat monotone, Robinson’s growl, Cagney’s nasalisms, Eugene Pallette’s raspy basso profundo, Garbo’s sultry guttural, Betty’s “boop-boop-a-doop,” Mae West’s invitations to tussle—they defied all prescriptive categorization. These voices could never really be controlled. The debate turned away from how the movies talked to what they were saying.

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