Silent screen star Norma Talmadge, shown on the December 1929 cover of Photoplay magazine, became something less of a star after the onset of sound & the “talkies.”
Norma Talmadge, a Hollywood star of the silent film era, is shown at right on the December 1929 cover of Photoplay magazine. Photoplay was founded in Chicago in 1911 and reached its zenith in the 1920s and 1930s, becoming quite influential in the early film industry. The magazine was renowned for its beautiful cover portraits of film stars by artists such as Rolf Armstrong, Earl Christy, and Charles Sheldon. By 1937, however, with the advancement of color photography, the magazine began using photographs of the stars.
Talmadge, shown here in an Earl Christy rendering, was one of a number of Hollywood stars whose careers were dramatically altered by the coming of “talking motion pictures.” Photoplay’s cover story of December 1929 dealt with the hot topic of the new technology then upsetting the status quo in Hollywood, as one of the taglines explains: “The Microphone–The Terror of The Studios.” Photoplay’s editors added another tagline on the cover’s lower right hand corner: “You Can’t Get Away With It In Holly- wood” — meaning that the days of “image only” appeal for Hollywood’s big stars were over. And for those involved in film at that time, this change was truly a terror.
Young Myrna Loy, who first worked in silent films.
“It was a dreadful time, believe me,” explained actress Myrna Loy to New York Times writer Guy Flatley in 1977, then writing a magazine piece at the 50th anniversary of sound in film. “There was panic everywhere,” said Loy, “and a lot of people said, ‘This is ridiculous! Who wants to hear people talk?'” Loy added that many people at the time still “loved the silent film, the great art of pantomime perfected by the comedians and by [director, D.W.] Griffith.” So much of what happened with the coming of sound “was terribly unfair,” Loy charged. The studios, she believed, “should have taken the time to train those people whose voices didn’t match their screen images….”
And indeed, for actors and actresses like Norma Talmadge, shown on Photoplay’s cover, the problem was the sound of their voices. Often, it seemed, the image and voice didn’t match up to what audiences had already cast in their minds and expected, and that’s what touched off the panic among many actors and actresses, ruining some careers. But it wasn’t just the movie stars with funny voices, explains Guy Flatley in his 1977 piece:
“Everyone was affected: actors, directors, studio chiefs, cameramen. For many the sound of the talkies was the sound of doom: Lionized stars, suddenly forced to speak, found their careers screeching to a halt. “Lionized stars, suddenly forced to speak, found their careers screeching to a halt.” - Guy Flatley Directors accustomed to shouting orders to actors at the peak of a crucial scene heard themselves being shushed by the newly all-powerful sound technicians. Studio moguls who had reigned with supreme tyrannical confidence crumbled behind doors in solitary panic, frightened by the vast sums gambling on “talkies” required.
…Cameras could no longer move freely, since the cameraman was now cramped into a huge soundproof booth, his camera robbed of almost all action. Even the scripts were different; tea-cup dramas, literal and static translations of Broadway plays initially dominated sound films…”
“Singin’ in the Rain”
Gene Kelly & Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont in hilarious ‘sound check’ scene from film ‘Singin' in The Rain.’ Click on photo to see YouTube video.
Some of the early technical difficulties in making film with sound are accurately captured in a hilarious segment from the 1952 movie, Singing In the Rain, a film which is in part, about movie-making in the silent-to-sound era. During the famous “sound check” scene in that film, Gene Kelley’s character and female star, Lina Lamont, played by Jean Hagen, are trying to complete a key scene that contains amorous dialogue, but have repeated difficulties with sound, not least of which is the high-pitched voice of Lina, their big star. The directors and set crew try to record the scene numerous times, with each take confronting one or more of the temperamental variables now present in the new sound regime — all to the director’s great hair- pulling frustration. Later, in the Singing in the Rain storyline, the resulting film preview is shown to a live audience, but proves to be a bust, revealing the new “talkie” to be an embarrassing disaster. The big fraud then undertaken in an attempt to salvage the film and the career of the “squeaky-voiced star” Lina, is the dubbing of another voice in place of her’s. The new voice belongs to Debbie Reynolds (Kathy), but the fraud is later revealed. Yet in real-life Hollywood, a number of careers, including that of Norma Talmadge, came to a untimely end with the onset of sound.
Silent film star, Norma Talmadge.
Norma Talmadge got her start in the movie business as a model for illustrated slides — the still images projected on movie house screens in the early days of film “singalongs.” Her first silent film role came in 1911 with Vitagraph Studios of Brooklyn, New York when she played a seamstress in A Tale of Two Cities. With good looks and talent, plus a mother who helped promote her, Norma Talmadge rose to become a leading-lady of the silent screen. A marriage to influential movie executive Joseph M. Schenck also helped, as Talmadge was set up in her own film company.
Talmadge became known for her dramatic roles — the “two-hankie” weepers, as some were called. A big hit came with Kiki in 1926. But in 1929, after Norma ventured into her roles in talking pictures, a reversal of fortune set in. Norma Talmadge had a flat Brooklyn accent, and when this became clear with the talkies, it surprised audiences and was greatly at odds with her glamorous, big screen personality. “Norma got a coach, but as soon as she tackled sound, she realized she’d come a cropper,” recalled screenwriter Anita Loos, who knew Talmadge and had worked with D.W. Griffith and other directors. “…But Norma had made over $5 million in silents,” noted Loos, “and was married to Joe Schenck, a multimillionaire. So it was no tragedy.”
Norma Talmadge on set of “Du Barry, Woman of Passion,” 1930.
In Time magazine of November 17, 1930, a reviewer of Talmadge’s sound film, Du Barry — Woman of Passion, wrote, in part: “…Norma Talmadge plays less pompously than might be expected, but people who liked her program pictures in the old days may hope that this will be the last attempt to establish her as a great figure in sound pictures,” offered the reviewer. “However, her diction is improving; in her first dialog effort she talked like an elocution pupil; this time she talks like an elocution teacher.” Not long thereafter, Norma Talmadge retired from film-making. And although she divorced Joseph Schenck in 1934, she was still an extraordinarily wealthy woman for the time. But once she left the world of Hollywood, she no longer felt obliged to her fans. Approached for her autograph in her post film-making years, she would wave people off, reportedly saying: “Go away, my dears. I don’t need you anymore.”
Norma Talmadge wasn’t the only Hollywood star done in by the coming of sound. Dolores Costello, Corinne Griffith, May McAvoy, Charles Farrell, John Gilbert, and Marie Prevost, were among silent stars whose careers were ruined, shortened, or made difficult by the coming of sound. Other Hollywood hands — directors, writers, actors, etc., — had experiences, good and bad, with the silent-to-sound transition in film making. What follows below is a sampling of actors and directors offering their recollections and views on that changing era and difficult time in the film business.
Screen credits for one of Frank Capra’s most famous films, "It’s A Wonderful Life” of 1946.
Famous film director Frank Capra was right on the cusp of the silent-to-sound era. He worked as a prop man in silent films and also wrote and directed silent film comedies starring Harry Langdon and the Our Gang kids. Capra worked for Mack Sennett in 1924 and then moved to Columbia Pictures. He became famous for his own feature films of the 1930s and 1940s, among them: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), It Happened One Night (1941), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In 1977, Capra’s views and recollections of the coming of sound to film were recounted with Guy Flatley in the New York Times.
“…When film found its larynx,” Capra said, “it astonished, amazed and absolutely threw everyone into a tailspin.” There was panic all around Hollywood, he explained. The studios were being asked to spend millions of dollars to revise everything. “…When film found its larynx, it astonished, amazed and absolutely threw everyone into a tailspin. There was panic all around Hollywood…” - Frank Capra “…Men like L. B. Mayer, powerful men who were in the habit of telling everyone in Hollywood what to do, were suddenly sitting in their offices, completely stunned. They didn’t understand what the hell was going on, and so they lost control of the studio to the engineers. Soon the soundmen were telling everyone what to do…”
But the real chaos, said Capra, was among the actors. “It was easy enough to accommodate those who had experience on stage,” he said, “but no film actor had ever learned lines before.” Working on a completely silent set was another experience most film makers and actors had never had. “In the silent days,” said Capra, “the cameraman was yelling, carpenters were hammering and a director was shouting commands on the next set. Then, all of a sudden, everything had to be as silent as a tomb. It was scary. The poor actors sweated, missed their lines, cried and broke down.”
Buddy Rogers in "Wings," 1927.
Charles Edward “Buddy” Rogers was born in 1904 in Olathe, Kansas. He became an American actor and jazz musician. He found his way into film when he was in college. “I was studying journalism at the University of Kansas when Paramount came through looking for 10 boys and 10 girls to put together a Paramount School of Acting out at Astoria [Queens],” he later told the New York Times. “They taught us how to roll down a flight of stairs without hurting ourselves, how to wear false beards and how to hold a kiss for three minutes without laughing.”
In the mid-1920s, Rogers began acting professionally in Hollywood films. A talented trombonist, and skilled on several other musical instruments, Rogers performed with his own jazz band in motion pictures and on radio. He was nicknamed “Buddy,” and his most remembered film role was opposite Clara Bow in 1927’s Academy Award winning Best Picture, Wings, the first film so honored. Rogers recalled his experiences when sound came in:
Buddy Rogers starred in the 1927 silent film “Wings,” which won the first ever Best Picture award.
“…To find out how the public would react to my voice, the studio put me in a movie called ‘Varsity,’ in which I was the star football player. It had a 12-minute talking sequence, and I don’t mind telling you those were pretty serious moments for me. It worked out fine, and, of course, we had our voice coaches with whom we’d meet regularly so they could teach us how to ‘e-nun-ci-ate’. They also brought out a lot of people from the New York stage, actors who knew how to project their voices — people like Ruth Chatterton and Clive Brook. They were very cool to us. All of us were at the mercy of the soundman; the director had lost control…”
In 1937, Rogers became the third husband of silent film legend Mary Pickford, a woman twelve years his senior. The couple had two children. Rogers continued his work in film for many years. He died of natural causes in Rancho Mirage, California in 1999 at the age of 94.
Wallace Beery, an actor from the silent film era, initially had trouble remembering lines. But he became a Top Ten box office draw, here with young Jackie Cooper in 1931's ‘The Champ,’ for which Beery won Best Actor.
Walsh on Beery
Raoul Walsh, an early stage actor in New York city in 1909, became a director whose numerous films spanned the silent-to-sound era. In 1914, he went west with D. W. Griffith, and became a director of silent films such as Regeneration (1915), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), What Price Glory, and others. He also directed early talkies, including The Big Trail (1930), and other films such as They Drive by Night (1940), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), and White Heat (1949). Walsh worked with a range of actors and actresses over the period, from Gloria Swanson, Anna May Wong, and Douglas Fairbanks, to a young John Wayne, Wallace Beery, Marlene Dietrich, George Raft, Ida Lupina, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Errol Flyn and others. In 1977, Walsh recalled the transition from silent film to sound in Guy Flately’s New York Times piece.
“I knew we’d have problems when the actors had to learn lines,” he explained. “They had drama coaches, of course. I don’t know if they had conducted classes in a subway before they came west, or what, but I do know they were terrible. One of the actors who had a hard time was Wally Beery. He got the dialogue all backwards, so he just started ad-libbing. Some of what he said turned out good, but some had to be cut out…”
Berry, however, was one of those actors who successfully weathered the silent-to-sound film era, in fact, becoming one the Top Ten box office draws in the early sound era, and winning an academy award for his performance in the 1931 film, The Champ. Beery was also among the stars in Walsh’s 1933 film, The Bowery.
Allan Dwan, a Canadian film director, directed his first movie, Rattlesnake and Gunpowder, in 1909. After making a series of westerns and comedies, he directed fellow Canadian Mary Pickford in several very successful movies. He also worked with actors Douglas Fairbanks and Gloria Swanson during the heyday of silent film, including the acclaimed 1922 version of Robin Hood with Fairbanks in the title role.
Alan Dwan, seated left, on a movie set in the silent film era with Gloria Swanson, center, possibly in the 1910s-1920s.
Following the introduction of the talkies, he directed child-star Shirley Temple in Heidi in 1937 and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm the following year. Over a career spanning 50 years, Dwan directed more than 400 films, many highly acclaimed, such as the 1949 box office smash, Sands of Iwo Jima. He directed his last movie in 1961.
Dwan recalled the surprises and perils that could come in the early days of sound recording: “…Once, I was making a picture with Doug [Fairbanks ] — a big picture that cost over a million — and I was getting worried. It was just about the last silent movie made, and all around us sound was drifting in. I advised Doug that our movie should be made with a speaking prologue and epilogue. He agreed, but to my horror, Doug — who had a good voice — came up sounding like a tinhorn tenor. The soundmen hadn’t checked for decibels, so another man, with a deeper voice, read the prologue and epilogue, and the audiences accepted it as Doug.”
Dolores Costello, film studio photo.
Dolores Costello, born in 1903, was an American film actress who achieved her greatest success during the era of silent movies. Sometimes described as “delicately beautiful,” Costello was a blonde-haired actress who became nicknamed “The Goddess of the Silent Screen.” With her sister, she had appeared on Broadway in the 1920s, leading to a contract with Warner Brothers. After several small parts in feature films, she starred opposite John Barrymore in an adaptation of Moby-Dick titled The Sea Beast (1926). Warner Brothers soon began starring her in her own films, alternating her roles in contemporary stories and elaborate costume dramas. In 1927, she and John Barrymore starred in When a Man Loves. She and Barrymore became romantically involved and married in 1928. She became the mother of John Drew Barrymore and the grandmother of Drew Barrymore.
Dolores Costello, Photoplay cover, Oct 1927. Artist: Charles Sheldon.
Costello, however, spoke with a lisp, and with the onset of sound in film, she found it difficult to make the transition to talking pictures. One critic called her “a gorgeous creature who, clearly, was better seen than heard.” Author Harry Carr, in the 1929 Photoplay feature story on the “terror of the microphone,” wrote of Costello:
“Magnificent thing that she is… she’s got something in her voice that Terrible Mike simply snarls out loud about… Headed for the heights she was, until she played in ‘Glorious Betsy.’ Poor Dolores — there are two opinions in Hollywood as to what her mike voice sounded like. One clique says it sounded like the barking of a lonesome puppy; the other claimed it reminded them of the time they sang ‘In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree’ through tissue paper folded over a comb. . . It’s not Dolores’s fault; it’s just one of the Terrible Mike’s dirty tricks.”
Dolores Costello on the cover of “Motion Picture,” Aug 1928. Artist Marland Stone.
Costello, it turns out, had two years of voice coaching to help her though the process, and she soon became comfortable before a microphone. One of her early sound film appearances was with her sister Helene in Warner Brothers’ all-star extravaganza The Show of Shows in 1929. That year she also co-starred with George O’Brien in Noah’s Ark, a part-talkie epic. By 1931, acting became less a priority for Costello following the birth of her first child and she retired from the screen that year to devote time to her family. Her marriage to Barrymore, however, ended in 1935. She later resumed her film career for a time, most notably in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Her last film was This is the Army (1943). Costello spent the remaining years of her life in semi-seclusion, managing an avocado farm. Her film career was largely ruined by the destructive effects of early film makeup, which had a bad effect on her complexion. Costello passed away in 1979. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Vine Street.
Late 1920s studio ad touting King Vidor’s ‘Big Parade’ and other films of that era.
King Vidor was a well known director in Hollywood with a career that began in 1919 and continued to thrive well into the 1950s. In the silent era, The Big Parade of 1925 was his biggest hit, a romance epic, starring John Gilbert. The Crowd of 1928 was another of his films, considered one of the greats from the silent era. He also did La Boheme (1926), Show People (1928) and others. His first sound film, Hallelujah of 1929, was nominated for an Oscar. He also did a number of others, including “The Champ” (1931), “Our Daily Bread” (1934), and “The Citadel” (1938). Vidor also directed some sequences in The Wizard of Oz (1939), including the famous “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” number. In later years his films included Duel In the Sun (1946), The Fountainhead (1949) and War and Peace (1955).
Vidor’s long experience with silent and sound film left him with a certain perspective. He recalled that there was more going on with the “silents” than most realized, and that a certain attentiveness was required of film viewers that made the experience different than what it would later become. Vidor also argued that the silents summoned a special kind of talent and expression from its actors, and the productions generally became a unique art form. And for a time, the coming of sound was a disruptive force, he found, in the evolution of acting and filming techniques. Here’s Vidor making those comments:
“…We call them silent, but all the films in those days were played with an orchestra or an organ or piano. They never played silently. …. [I]n silent theaters there was none of this popcorn stuff, this running out to the lobby for food and drink that’s done all the time now. We had to glue our attention to the screen…”
King Vidor in later years.
“Naturally, I believe in progress, and it’s hard to say that movies were better in the silent days. But I can remember a distinct feeling I had in the late 20’s, along with directors like Clarence Brown and Henry King, that we had achieved an art form that was unique. We felt we were bursting forth with a fresh channel of expression in each new movie. Silent techniques constituted a universal language; Chaplin, after all, was the best known man in the whole world. Then, bang, we were hit with this sound thing, and the technicians began to dominate the scene. ‘You can’t do that, you can’t move there, you can’t speak with your head down.’
“It was a good 10 or 15 years before we got back to where we had been at the peak of the silent film — the mobility and expressionism that the silent camera had achieved. In the beginning, we figured that sound would be good for singing and dancing, since musicals were kind of unreal anyway. But we didn’t see the need for it in drama. The minute dialogue came in, we were conscious of what was going to happen to the universal appeal of movies. Everything became too specific, and everyone had to speak in a certain manner…”
Actor John Gilbert, 1920s.
And finally, there is the case of John “Jack” Gilbert, who was a big star of the silent screen; known as a great lover, even rivaling Rudolph Valentino. However, Gilbert, in one of his first talking pictures, was “done in” when the studio sound men gave him too much treble and not enough bass, part of the peril in the new sound technology. However, in Gilbert’s case there was an added twist, owing to studio politics, according to several accounts. A fight between he and producer Louis B. Mayer had erupted over Gilbert’s pending marriage to Greta Garbo — the ceremony for which she failed to show for — but with Mayer adding a snide remark at the time that provoked Gilbert to punch him in the face. A humiliated Mayer vowed to get even and is believed to have had a hand in the technical sabotage of Gilbert’s voice on film.
Cover of Colin Shindler’s book, “Garbo & Gilbert in Love.”
Film director Clarence Brown later recalled the “terrible thing” that had befallen Jack Gilbert in his first talkie. “He came out sounding like a damned fairy,” explained Brown, “his voice was way up there. The guy in the sound department said to me, ‘Clarence, it wasn’t Jack’s fault; it was our fault’,” as the sound adjusters gave him too much treble. “They put [Gilbert] in another picture where he was rough and tough,” explained Brown, “but the damage had already been done.” Others believe that it was not actually the high-pitched voice incident that did Gilbert in, but rather hat he had a refined and cultured manner of speech that was at odds with the visual image audiences had assumed for him.
Screenwriter Anita Loos had a somewhat different take on the Gilbert affair: “Lillian Gish told me… that Louis B. Mayer did Jack Gilbert in on purpose. Jack was getting so much money that they were looking for a way to break his contract with MGM. So Mayer told the sound technicians to manipulate things so that Jack’s voice would come out funny.” Gilbert was indeed one of the highest paid actors of his day, and one of the screen’s most magnetic personalities, garnering $250,000 per film. He had appeared in more than 100 films. But with the onset of sound, and how audiences perceived him thereafter, he was unable to gain his former big star status. Descending into alcoholism, he later died of a massive heart attack in Los Angeles in early 1936. He was 36 years old.
Out With the Old
During the silent-to-sound transition in Hollywood, there was a gradual changing of the guard, with many actors and actresses leaving their careers for a variety of reasons, not all of which were due to voice issues and the new technology. However, with the popularity of the sound picture, audiences perceived certain silent-era stars as old-fashioned, Some actors were pushed out by the studios, then using voice issues as an excuse to fire or demote them for other reasons.even those who had no voice problems. Some actors, such as Lillian Gish, went back to the stage, while others left acting entirely. Among the latter were: Colleen Moore, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Some were pushed out by the studios, then using voice issues as an excuse to fire or demote them for other reasons. Louise Brooks was more or less given an ultimatum by one Paramount studio chief who used her voice as a vague threat as to why she might not make the cut, and so, was undeserving of a salary increase. He told Brooks she could take lower pay or quit. She chose the latter, even though her contract had specified a salary increase. Clara Bow left acting too, with her speaking voice sometimes cited as the cause, when actually it was more likely her freewheeling Hollywood lifestyle that grated on some studio executives.
There was also a shift in Hollywood hiring. Demand rose for directors who understood the power of the spoken word and had experience in the theater, leading the studios to recruit directors and actors from New York’s Broadway. Stage actors experienced with dialogue were also hired in large numbers during the 1930s. Several of the new medium’s biggest attractions came from vaudeville and the musical theater, bringing performers such as Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Jeanette MacDonald, and the Marx Brothers. Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Muni, Melvyn Douglas, Leslie Howard, and Katharine Hepburn were also among those who came to film from the stage. And the plays themselves were also acquired by the studios to be turned into films. More than 25 percent of the plays produced during the 1930s were bought by the film studios. Sound also helped change the structure of the film business leading to consolidation and the growth of the best positioned companies.
The first “all talking” feature film -- “Lights Of New York” – came from Warner Brothers in July 1928. It became one of that era’s most profitable films, then grossing 1.3 million dollars.
Sound & Big Hollywood
In January 1928, there were approximately 20,000 theaters across the U.S., but only 157 of them had been renovated for sound. Studio moguls were not happy with the money needed to equip Hollywood’s production studios for sound, or to put the new equipment into thousands of theaters. At the studios, silent films that had already been shot, were given inserted segments of quickly-recorded dialogue so they could be billed as “new talkies.” Enthusiastic public demand for talkies pushed theaters to install new sound equipment. As 1929 drew to an end, 8,741 movie houses were equipped for sound. Movie attendance increased to 110 million, almost double the movie attendance in 1927. Still, for a time, many studios produced both silent and sound versions of their films, as many theaters, especially in rural areas, could not afford the conversion. The studios, in any case, did quite well.
In 1928 and 1929, the profits of Warner Brothers, Fox, and Loew’s/MGM, all surged sharply upward. Warners’ profits surged from $2 million to $14 million; Paramount’s rose by $7 million, Fox’s by $3.5 million, and Loew’s/MGM’s by $3 million. A new player in the business named RKO — which hadn’t even existed in September 1928 — became one of America’s leading entertainment companies by the end of 1929. However, most independent studios couldn’t compete with the four major studios in the production of sound films. In fact, the combination of sound’s expense and the Great Depression would lead to a wholesale shakeout in the film industry, leaving essentially five big integrated companies — MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Brothers, and RKO — and three smaller studios — Columbia, Universal, and United Artists. These eight studios would dominate the film industry through the 1950s.
MGM's “The Broadway Melody” of Feb 1929 was the first smash-hit talkie from a studio other than Warner Bros. and the first sound film to win a “Best Picture” Oscar.
The sound era also ushered in Hollywood’s love affair with a new film genre — the musical. Over sixty Hollywood musicals were released in 1929, followed by more than eighty in 1930. The talkies also became a global phenomenon, with U.S. studios taking a 70 percent share of foreign markets by the early 1930s. However, the Great Depression of the 1930s did take the film industry down, as it had everything else. At first, it seemed the popularity of the talkies would keep Hollywood immune from disaster, as ticket sales and profits hit new highs in the 1929-30 season. But rougher times soon hit Hollywood, too. Still, talking motion pictures had lifted Hollywood to a new position of economic and cultural importance. By 1931, the box office share of total spending by Americans on recreation had risen from about 16 percent to nearly 22 percent, where it would remain for the next 15 years or so.
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Talkie Terror, 1928-1930,” PopHistoryDig.com, October 19, 2010.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
1929 ad for “His Glorious Night,” the early talkie that spelled doom for actor John Gilbert, in part because of poor sound quality that gave him a high-pitched voice, and also some “overly-florid” love scene dialogue that was not well received by audiences.
October 1930 newspaper ad for "What a Widow," Gloria Swanson’s second talkie. Swanson, a big 1920s silent film star, made only a few talkies in the 1930's, then disappeared until she did "Sunset Boulevard" in 1950. This ad also notes in smaller print near bottom, “presented by Joseph P. Kennedy,” the famous Kennedy family patriarch who was involved with Swanson for a time.
A “film star trading card” for Norma Talmadge by Ghirardelli Chocolate Co.
“Griffith Foresees Sound Movie Supreme; Says Talkie Will Force Drama and Silent Picture Off Stage in Five Years,”New York Times, Friday, February 22, 1929, p. 17.
“Britons Debate Value of Talking Pictures; London Times Criticizes Them, But Theatres Where They Are Being Shown Are Packed,” New York Times, Wednesday, April 3, 1929, p. 22.
“Projection Jottings; Cyril Maude’s Ideas on Dialogue Films– Miss Talmadge’s New Picture,” New York Times, Sunday, May 18, 1930, Section: Arts & Leisure, p. X-5.
Harry Carr, “Mike, the Demon Who Sends the Vocally Unfit Screaming or Lisping from the Lots,” Photoplay, December 1929.
“Mary Garden Sees Opera’s Doom Soon; Technical Resources of the Talkies, She Says, Will Prove Superior to Stage…,”New York Times, Tuesday, October 14, 1930, p. 28.
“Joy v. Monopoly,” Time, Monday, November 17, 1930.
Guy Flatley, “The Sound That Shook Hollywood; On The 50th Anniversary of the Talkies, Survivors of the Silent Film Era Recall The Panic of ’27,” The New York Times Magazine, Sunday, September 25, 1977, p. 213.
David W. Menefee, The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era, 2004.
From the ‘Broadway Melody Ballet’ sequence in ‘Singin’ in The Rain,’ MGM, 1952, Cyd Charisse with Gene Kelly.
“She’s got legs, she knows how to use them,” is a line from a ZZ Top rock `n roll tune entitled “Legs.” The good ol’ boys of ZZ Top likely did not have Cyd Charisse in mind when they wrote this tune — Charisse being the famous statuesque dancer of the 1950s who lit up the silver screen with grace and good looks in the heyday of MGM musicals. Nevertheless, ZZ’s lyric serves this lady well. In fact, rumor had it — as did at least one Guiness record book entry — that Charisse’s legs were insured for millions in the 1950s. She reportedly later said this was an MGM-inspired publicity stunt. Still, those legs of hers certainly appeared to be worth every one of those purported millions — and more. For beyond their mere sexy appearance, the legs of Cyd Charisse were made for dancing — and dance this lady did; with poise, power, and entertaining provocation. But it didn’t start out that way for a little girl in Texas.
Born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas in March 1922, Cyd Charisse had a brush with polio as a child, making dancing seem a pretty remote possibility. But the sickly Tula began dancing at home at the encouragement of her father.By the age of 14 she was dancing with a Russian ballet troupe. He built her a practice bar and a full-length mirror in her bedroom. He wanted her to work and stretch her muscles. She began dance lessons at age 8. “I was this tiny, frail little girl, I needed to build up muscle,” she would say in a later interview, “and I fell in love with dancing from the first lesson.” During a family vacation in Los Angeles when she was 12, her parents enrolled her in classes at a Hollywood ballet school. As a teenager, she returned to the school as a full-time student. One of her teachers there was Nico Charisse, a handsome young dancer. At age 14, she auditioned for and later joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, touring under Russian-required stage names Natacha Tulaelis and Felia Siderovaa.
Cyd Charisse, 23-year-old ballet dancer and aspiring film star, posing on a Santa Monica beach in September 1945 for Life magazine photographer, Peter Stackpole.
Later, on a European tour, she and Nico Charisse met again, became involved, and were married in Paris in 1939. She was 18. Their son, Nicky, was born in 1942. World War II in Europe led to the break-up of the dance company and Charisse returned to Los Angeles, where she resumed dancing. There she was discovered by choreographer Robert Alton (who had also discovered dancer Gene Kelly) and joined the MGM film studio as a ballet dancer. She soon began a career of dance film-making that paired her with two of the best dancers then in Hollywood — Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. These roles and others would take her beyond ballet, and into many styles of dance.
Her film debut came in 1943 under the name Lily Norwood in Something to Shout About, with Don Ameche and Janet Blair. That role came about when David Lichine was hired for a ballet sequence in the film and he needed a partner. The movie was not a blockbuster, but its ballet sequence attracted notice, and Charisse, still billed as Lily Norwood, began receiving movie offers. “I had just done that number with David as a favor to him,” she would later explain. “Honestly, the idea of working movies had never once entered my head. I was a dancer, not an actress. I had no delusions about myself. I couldn’t act — I had never acted. So how could I be a movie star?” But movie dance star she would later become, and signed on at MGM with a seven-year contract.
Cyd Charisse in a solo spot in 1946 film, ‘Ziegfeld Follies.’
Charisse spent nearly a decade in small roles, sometimes anonymously. She first appeared with Fred Astaire in a brief number in the film Ziegfeld Follies, a star-studded 1946 production that included notables such as Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Fanny Bryce and others. Charisse also had a solo number early on in that film. She conintued to play supporting roles in other major musicals, including “The Harvey Girls” and “Till the Clouds Roll By,” both in 1946 with Judy Garland. As a kid, she had been nicknamed “Sid” by her brother who had trouble pronouncing “Sis.” Ziegfeld Follies producer Arthur Freed is said to have preferred her married name, Charisse to the stage name Norwood, and he also changed the spelling of Sid to “Cyd,” thus christening her “Cyd Charisse” ever after. By the late 1940s, she was getting more notice in her dance roles. In 1947, she joined Ricardo Montalban in the film Fiesta in which she did a bamba dance and a flamenco number. In 1948, she had a much-praised cameo as a fiesta dancer in The Kissing Bandit with Frank Sinatra. After a serious romance with millionaire Howard Hughes ended, she married singing star Tony Martin in 1948. Offered the lead opposite Gene Kelly in what would become the 1950 Academy Award winning film, An American In Paris, Charisse was then pregnant with son Tony and had to decline. But her big break came in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, where she danced memorably with Gene Kelly.
“Singin’ in The Rain”
Singin’ in the Rain was an MGM comedy musical released in August 1952. It starred Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds, however, was not a dancer so Kelly chose Charisse to partner with him in the “Broadway Melody” portion of the film, in which Charisse had no dialogue but danced two segments with Kelly. The most memorable of these is the scene in which Charisse appears as a tall and leggy gun moll. Charisse was 5′, 6” tall, but in heels and full-length stockings, she could look much taller. In the “Broadway Melody” scene, Charisse appears in a green flapper dress, smoking a cigarette with holder. She proceeds to dance seductively around the awe-struck Kelly, who plays the hopeful young dancer looking for a break. As they continue in a dance segment, Kelly’s character remains smitten with the tall beauty. But at scene’s end, she walks off with a wiseguy gangster. For many who first saw the film, the scene with Charisse was especially memorable.
David Shipman, a British film historian and author of the book, The Great Movie Stars, among others, offered this observation of Charisse’s appearance:
“If you were in an Air Force cinema, circa 1952, you’ll never forget the sound which greeted the appearance of Cyd Charisse halfway through the climactic ballet in Singin’ in the Rain. The audience to a man greeted the sinuous leggy beauty with a loud and prolonged ‘Ooooaah!’ As she slithered round an understandably bewildered Gene Kelly, there was uproar in the cinema. Cyd Charisse didn’t do more than dance in Singin’ in the Rain and people remember her in it.”
Film and dance historian Larry Billman also noted of Charisse’s breakthrough dancing in this film that she was “strong, lithe, and drop-dead gorgeous to look at.” Charisse’s style, and the material she had to work with, set her apart from earlier Hollywood dancers. “After years when Hollywood’s leading dancers were cute and fluffy,” explained Billman in a 2007 interview with The Los Angeles Times, “Cyd took dance to a more sensual realm in the 1950s.” Working with Kelly, Astaire, and good choreographers, the dancing she did was also sometimes quite inventive.
In another dance sequence with Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, Charisse is cast at the other extreme of her flapper bad girl — as the elusive ideal dressed in white. She and Kelly then danced a scene in which Charisse stunned critics and audiences by including a long, 25-foot Chinese silk scarf in the dance that floated in the air with the aid of a wind machine.
Cyd Charisse on the cover of Life magazine, June 29, 1953, in ‘Spectrum of Stars’ story.
In the early 1950s, as she began dancing with Fred Astaire in a series of productions, more national press began to cover her and feature her in major stories. In late June 1953, she appeared on the cover of Life magazine, featured in the story, “A Spectrum of Stars.” Charisse’s good looks fit in well during a Hollywood era in which sex appeal at the box office was the emerging trend, with actresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren among the more appealing and glamorous stars of the big screen. But Charisse, with her beauty and grace, would come to rule the dance portion of that Hollywood world, and in fact, in that era, according to dance historian Larry Billman, would become the personification of dancing sophistication, at least on film.
Charisse & Astaire on the cover of Newsweek, July 6, 1953, in advance of 'The Band Wagon's' premiere.
One sketch of her at Turner Classic Movies would later note: “Charisse was one of the finest dancers ever to achieve star status in Hollywood. While her acting and singing abilities were decidedly modest, her grace, serenity and earthy sensuality (somewhat reminiscent of the more fiery Ava Gardner, whom she strongly resembled) made her presence a decided plus.”
By 1953, she was working with Fred Astaire on the musical that would become The Band Wagon. A July 1953 cover story for Newsweek showed the pair dancing together with the tag line “Charisse and Astaire: It’s Hard Work.” Look magazine also put her on the cover of its August 8, 1953 edition. Charisse had her first lead female role in The Band Wagon, in which she danced with Astaire in two routines — “Dancing in the Dark” and “Girl Hunt Ballet”. The film, a musical comedy, was released in August 1953. It is regarded as among the finest of the MGM musicals, although in its day, it was not a box-office smash. It tells the story of an aging musical star, Astaire, who hopes a Broadway play will restart his career. The film popularized the songs “That’s Entertainment!” and “Dancing in the Dark.”
Poster for the 1953 MGM film, ‘The Band Wagon’, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.
Perhaps the most famous dance scene in The Band Wagon is the one set in Central Park, with Charisse and Astaire performing to “Dancing in the Dark” (shown practicing on Newsweek cover above) and has become a favorite of many Charisse and Astaire fans. Another dance sequence shot for The Band Wagon, but not used in final film, featured Charisse in a seductive routine performing “Two-Faced Woman”. However, that scene was later incorporated into the Hollywood retro- spective, That’s Entertainment! III, first released in 1994. The Band Wagon, meanwhile, was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1995. The American Film Institute has also named it among “best musicals,” ranking it at No. 17 in 2006.
Cyd Charisse & Fred Astaire in 'Dancing in The Dark' segment of 'The Band Wagon.'
In 1954 Charisse co-starred with Gene Kelly in the Scottish-themed musical Brigadoon, adapted from the 1947 Broadway show by the famous team of Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Although not known for her acting skills, as she did not have the theatrical training that even some Hollywood dancers did, film viewers found that Charisse gave a believable performance in her somewhat vulnerable Brigadoon character. In the story, American tourists Gene Kelly and Van Johnson stumble upon a mysterious Scottish village that materializes only once every 100 years. There, Kelly falls for a beautiful villager named Fiona played by Charisse, and they dance together twice in the film to “The Heather on the Hill.” Kelly’s character in the story learns that his love for Fiona will make it possible for him to remain in Brigadoon forever. But he is unwilling to commit himself and backs down as Brigadoon disappears at its appointed hour. Back in New York City, he can think only of Fiona and returns to Scotland. There, his love for Fiona causes Brigadoon to materialize and he crosses the bridge into the village to be with Fiona forever.
Cyd Charisse, ‘Meet Me in Las Vegas’ promo, 1956.
In December 1954, Deep in My Heart was released, an MGM film in which Charisse received notice for a sexy duet she danced with James Mitchell. A lead role for Charisse in another pairing with Gene Kelly came in MGM’s 1955 musical, It’s Always Fair Weather, a film that some believe was much underrated. A number of Charisse’s fans praise her performance in the film’s dance number, “Baby You Knock Me Out.” It’s Always Fair Weather was among the final group big 1950s musicals. Critically acclaimed, the film had modest box office success. It was also the last film co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.
In Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), Charisse has more dance scenes. In one, as Sammy Davis Jr. croons the tragic jazz ballad “Frankie and Johnny,” Charisse commands the scene dancing across a nightclub’s floor. She is dressed in a tight sequined gown slit to her thigh, with four-inch high heels, admirers later marveling that she could move at all, let alone dance. In the number at one point, she grabs a pistol, vaults over the bar, and shoots her two-timing lover, pivoting around for the final take, shaking her tail feather at the close.
Astaire vs. Kelly
Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were very different dance partners for Cyd Charisse, as she explained in a 1992 New York Times interview: “Gene was always interested in ballet, and he was more of a ballet partner. He was more of a physical dancer…” As for Astaire, she said, on some occasions he was the perfect partner: “Fred moved like glass. Physically, it was easy to dance with him. It was not as demanding on me. I didn’t need the same vitality and strength.”
In her autobiography, Charisse also reflected on her experience with Astaire and Kelly: “As one of the handful of girls who worked with both of those dance geniuses, I think I can give an honest comparison. In my opinion, Kelly is the more inventive choreographer of the two. Astaire, with [choreographer] Hermes Pan’s help, creates fabulous numbers — for himself and his partner. But Kelly can create an entire number for somebody else … I think, however, that Astaire’s coordination is better than Kelly’s … his sense of rhythm is uncanny. Kelly, on the other hand, is the stronger of the two. When he lifts you, he lifts you! … To sum it up, I’d say they were the two greatest dancing personalities who were ever on screen. But it’s like comparing apples and oranges. They’re both delicious.”
By 1957, Charisse was back with Fred Astaire in the Silk Stockings, which was a musical remake of 1939’s film Ninotchka. Taking the role formerly played by Greta Garbo, Charisse is a Russian efficiency expert who is sent to Paris to bring back a defecting pianist and three commissars who have become bewitched by western ways. There she meets and falls for carefree Hollywood producer played by Fred Astaire. She and Fred then dance to Cole Porter tunes such as “All of You” and “Fated to Be Mated.” In Fred Astaire’s autobiography, he pays tribute to Charisse, calling her “beautiful dynamite” and writing: “That Cyd! When you’ve danced with her you stay danced with.” Silk Stockings was Charisse’s last major musical, as that era of Hollywood film-making was coming to an end. Television began winning audience share just as Hollywood musicals became more expensive to make. Foreign audiences weren’t buying either. So MGM began dismantling its collection of talent.
With the decline of the Hollywood musical, Charisse retired from dancing but continued to appear in film and TV productions. In 1958 she played opposite Rock Hudson in a dramtic role in Twilight for The Gods, a film about a court-martialed Navy captain who turns to drink while sailing a rundown schooner in the South Seas with a disparate group of passengers on board. That year she also played opposite Robert Taylor in Party Girl, a ganster film in which she did two dance scenes that some critics felt were overlooked. In 1962, she took on a dramatic role as Kirk Douglas’s wife in Two Weeks in Another Town. She also had a supporting role that year in Something’s Got To Give, the last, unfinished film of Marilyn Monroe.
By 1964 Cyd and husband Tony Martin had launched a successful nightclub act that was taken to Las Vegas and other cities. In 1966, she appeared with Dean Martin in The Silencers, a spy movie spoof. She also had a few successful TV specials, and made guest appearances on a number of TV shows, including Hawaii Five-O and The Love Boat in the 1970s, and Murder, She Wrote in the 1980s. She also worked in theater in the 1980s, performing in Charlie Girl in London. One blogger, R.A.D. Stainforth, wrote of seeing Charisse in Charlie Girl at the Victoria Palace theater in the mid-1980s when “London theatregoers gave her a huge ovation.”
“Meet Cyd Charisse” Ford Startime TV Show & Others
As the glory days of the MGM movie musicals began to fade in the late 1950s, some of the Hollywood stars — including Cyd Charisse and her husband Tony Martin — began doing television specials. On December 29, 1959, for example, a musical variety show named Meet Cyd Charisse aired on the NBC television network as part of the Ford Startime series showcasing various stars. The Ford series ran for about two years in 1959 and 1960. In this episode starring Cyd Charisse, there was dancing, singing, and comedy sketches and a company of over 20 dancers. In one act, Charisse and dance partner James Mitchell did a dramatic ballet set on the Hong Kong waterfront involving a mini-storyline about an ill-fated romance between an Oriental entertainer and a thief. Another dance with Charisse and Mitchell featured a romantic story set to Gershwin’s “Love Walked In.” Charisse also did a song and dance number with husband Tony Martin and two featured dancers, one of whom was Mary Tyler Moore. Another dance and short sketch featured comedienne Eve Arden and dancer Ray Kellogg educating coffeehouse beatniks on the dance and music of the flapper generation. There was also a Tropical Rhythms dance sketch performed by Charisse and a dance ensemble. The show closed with a “last dance” performed by Charisse and other of the show’s guests.
‘MGM Parade’ was an earlier, 1955-56 TV show MGM sought to use to promote its stars & films. Cyd Charisse & George Murphy are shown here.
In the 1960s, she and husband Tony Martin would do similar variety shows on the Hollywood Palace series on the ABC television network, mostly in the 1964-1967 period. Charisse would sometimes host the special, with Martin and other guests performing. Charisse also starred in two TV concert specials — “The Cyd Charisse Special” and “Center Stage: Cyd Charisse” in 1967 and 1968. She would later explain that she and husband Tony, would often take their television material on the road, doing shows in Europe and elsewhere.
A decade earlier, in the mid-1950s, some of the Hollywood film studios had sought to use television to improve their lot at the box office. MGM Parade was the name of a 1955-56 TV show that MGM tried to use to promote its stars and films. But by the late 1950s, and continuing through the 1960s, the TV variety show — like those described above — had essentially carved up the old Hollywood musicals format for use in shorter-length TV segments.
Cyd Charisse, 1953.
Cyd Charisse’s last film was an Italian drama, Private Screenings in 1989, but she continued working in other venues. She made cameo appearances in two music videos — Blue Mercedes’s I Want To Be Your Property (1987) and Janet Jackson’s Alright (1990). In 1990, following similar moves by others in Hollywood, Charisse produced an exercise video for active seniors. At the age of 70 in 1992, she made her Broadway debut in Grand Hotel, The Musical, playing an aging ballerina. She also appeared in 1994’s That’s Entertainment! III as one of the on-screen narrators in the series that paid tribute to MGM musicals. On December 15th, 2000, in Monoco, Princess Caroline presented Cyd Charisse with a Vaslav Nijinsky Award for her lifelong contributions to the world of dance ( Nijinsky was a Russian ballet dancer and choreographer of Polish descent who is regarded as one of the most gifted dancers in history who performed in the early 1900s-1910s). In 2006, President George W. Bush presented Cyd Charisse with the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities, the highest official U.S. honor available in the arts. Charisse died in June 2008 after an apparent heart attack. She was 86.
At her passing, there was much remembrance and recognition of her style and contribution to film and dance. “She Put The Move In Movies,” said the Washington Post headline at her death, continuing — “Cyd Charisse Danced Rings Around Even the Best.” The Boston Globe’s headline said, “Cyd Charisse Was a Cool Classic,” with that story calling her “the choreographic equivalent of a classic Sinatra LP.” “Charisse had a whole different way of carrying herself, pulled-up and light, those legs stroking forward like a cat’s…” — Sarah Kauffman, Washington Post.
Charisse, said the Globe, “expressed her persona through movement rather than dialogue — and in her case that persona was smoky, sinuous, and cool: a quintessential ’50s mix of sex and poise.” Charisse herself remarked to Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times in 1992: “I think that in all my dancing I play a role. To me, that’s what dancing is about. It’s not just steps.” Certainly in film, her innovative approach to dance, coupled with her sensuous appeal made her an all-time audience favorite. Her contributions to MGM and the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals remain in a class all their own. “Unlike the other great movie dancers…,” wrote Sarah Kaufman of the Washington Post, “Charisse had a whole different way of carrying herself, pulled-up and light, those legs stroking forward like a cat’s, because she had been a ballerina before she ever danced a step with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.” She brought something special to her craft and the silver screen. Adds Kauffman: “Charisse, with those legs and that heart, was a choreographer’s dream, an instrument in heavenly form, willing, smart and musical.”
Cyd Charisse, undated photo, possibly late 1940s.
Cyd Charisse appeared in more than 35 films, a number of which had multiple dance scenes. Throughout her career, however, she was always quite struck by the special place MGM was in the 1950s…. “Ballet is a closed world and very rigid; MGM was a fairyland,” she said in one interview. “You’d walk down the lot, seeing all these fabulous movies being made with the greatest talent in the world sitting there. It was a dream to walk through that lot.”
But Cyd Charisse, it seems, also kept a bit of humility about her. “I never thought of myself as a ‘Star,’ not even after I made my biggest films,” she would say in later years. “Perhaps that’s because I am basically an introvert. I knew that I loved working, performing. What the public made of it was their business. I hoped that they liked me and admired my work, of course, but that pedestal they stuck me up on was insignificant in my view.”
Yet clearly, her contributions to dance and musical expression during a unique era of movie making remain in a place of high regard.
Larry Billman, Film Choreographers and Dance Directors: An Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia, With a History and Filmographies, 1893 Through 1995, McFarland & Company, 1997, 252pp.
Hugh Fordin, M-G-M’s Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit, Da Capo Press, 1996, 576pp.
Lawrence Thomas, The Golden Age of Movie Musicals: The MGM Years, Columbia House,1972.
Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical, Indiana University Press; 2nd Edition, 1993, 176 pp.
Clive Hirschhorn, Gene Kelly: A Biography, St. Martins Press,1985, 296 pp.
“A Conversation with Actors and Dancers Ann Miller, Skitch Henderson, Cyd Charisse and Van Johnson about the Heyday of Hollywood Movie Musicals and a 1997 Tribute entitled ‘MGM at Carnegie Hall’,” The Charlie Rose Show, Monday, July 14, 1997 (video, 26:35 minutes).