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"YOU AIN'T HEARD NOTHIN' YET, FOLKS--LISTEN TO THIS!" IN 1927, WITH THE HELP OF AL JOLSON, HOLLYWOOD FOUND ITS VOICE. HERE'S HOW I CELEBRATED THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE EVENT IN THE NEW YORK TIMES. --Guy Flatley

THE SOUND THAT SHOOK HOLLYWOOD

Bogart snarled. Mae West purred. W. C. Fields wheezed. Garbo moaned. Will Rogers drawled. Jean Arthur crackled. Gable boomed. Ruby Keeler cooed. Wallace Beery bellowed. Jeanette MacDonald trilled. Ronald Colman soothed. Shirley Temple simpered. James Stewart stammered. Kay Francis lisped. And Rin Tin Tin barked.

This we know, because we heard it with our own ears. But what if we hadn't? What if--like Valentino and William S. Hart and other eternally mute idols--Bogart and Gable remained vivid but voiceless images, irrevocably frozen in silence within our movie memories? What if--in the midst of a creaky tear-jerker about a cantor's son with an affinity for Tin Pan Alley--a playful, charmingly cocky Al Jolson had not stepped forward and jolted silent movie audiences by saying, actually saying, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet, folks; listen to this!"?

That was the sound that shook Hollywood. Those scratchy, inane lines revolutionized an industry overnight. Movies were vitally different; they could never return to their cocoon of silent innocence after the evening of 0ct. 6, 1927. 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. 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.

Most important of all, perhaps, was the drastic change in the look of movies. 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. The public didn't care; it waited patiently in long lines to see --to hear--talkies.

Oddly enough, Jolson's "The Jazz Singer"-- which will be solemnly saluted a week from this Thursday with a 50th birthday U.S. postage stamp--was conceived as a routine silent drama, to be dotted with a handful of songs. These musical interludes--and nothing more--were to be recorded on Vitaphone, the new sound-on-disk system developed by Bell Laboratories and purchased by Warner Brothers, then a struggling, second-rate movie company. But veteran showman Jolson--recruited as a last-minute replacement for George Jessel, whose salary demands were deemed excessive--could not contain his high spirits, and in his zeal to reach that vast invisible audience, he ad-libbed those immortal words, mischievously sandwiching them between two songs, thereby paving the way for a marriage between stage and screen.

To many, it seemed a shotgun wedding, hastily arranged by fast-buck businessmen for a gimmick-hungry public. The legitimate theater, after all, was where big-city sophisticates went to hear pristinely articulate actors voice the lofty sentiments and cleverly crafted phrases of erudite playwrights. Movie palaces, on the other hand, were where the masses flocked to marvel at calamitous car chases, cliff-hanging rescues, lemon-meringued lunacies and limitless violations of the laws of nature. One art was nailed to floorboards, synthetic sets and static texts; the other was free to float as far as the camera's eye could see.

By January 1928, 157 of the approximately 20,000 theaters across the country had been renovated and made ready for sound. Most movie moguls, however, still scoffed at this new toy, convinced that the astronomical sums required to equip Hollywood's studios and the nation's theaters for this mechanical novelty would be money misspent. Surely, they assumed, moviegoers would soon grow impatient with the constricted action and artificial dialogue that seemed an integral part of the talkies technology, a system whose microphones were so sensitive that they picked up every sound, converting burps into cannon blasts and necessitating booths for the noisy cameras, huge, soundproof sweatboxes--claustrophobic tombs that cruelly curtailed pictorial fluidity. Unless a director happened to be extraordinarily adroit at suggesting motion within a rigid physical framework, his movie was sure to emerge looking like a puny, photographed play. Wasn't it altogether logical, therefore, to assume that sound would once again be relegated to the newsreels and musical shorts that had circulated, with scant commotion, throughout a small network of specially wired theaters months before "The Jazz Singer"?

Although a minority of visionaries was quick to spot the talkies' potential, in 1927 the bulk of Hollywood producers, writers and directors persisted in viewing the phenomenon as nothing more than a foolish fad, much the same as a later generation would, with ample justification, shrug away "Bwana Devil" and other juvenile excursions into the realm of 3-D. Actors and actresses who shared the industry's initial disdain for sound paid the highest price, especially those cursed with crude dialects or vocal idiosyncrasies that made a mockery of their meticulously manufactured personalities. It was tragically late in the game for these stars to begin the awesome task of learning elocution, the tricky chore of mastering their native tongue.

As 1929 drew to an end, 8,741 movie houses were already equipped for sound, and snatches of quickly recorded dialogue were urgently inserted into productions that had already been shot as silents. Suddenly, every actor in the industry--with the godlike exceptions of Garbo and Chaplin--felt feverishly compelled to speak out, loud and clear, and the results were frequently as catastrophic as the crash on Wall Street. The December, 1929 issue of Photoplay magazine featured on its cover a tense Norma Talmadge, looking like someone who had been invited to sit in an electric chair, as she faced a menacing microphone prophetically numbered 13. Inside, in a story headlined, "Mike, the demon who sends the vocally unfit screaming or lisping from the lots," Harry Carr wrote with evident relish of the sad fate suffered by a bevy of movie queens, among them Dolores Costello, a gorgeous creature who, clearly, was better seen than heard.

"Magnificent thing that she is, this Mrs. Jack Barrymore, she's got something in her voice that Terrible Mike simply snarls out loud about," Carr wrote. "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."

Similar pranks were played upon silent stars Corinne Griffith, May McAvoy, Charles Farrell and Marie Prevost, but the most devastated star of all was John Gilbert, the great lover of the silent screen. When he opened his mouth to speak irresistible endearments to Catherine Dale Owen in "His Glorious Night," his former fans guffawed not only at the flowery phrases but at his preciously high-pitched voice, as well. Today, there are those--the late actor's daughter, for one--who insist that it was not his voice that did John Gilbert in, but the venom of his boss, Louis B. Mayer.

Leatrice Gilbert Fountain's version of her father's tragedy--a tale revolving around the vindictive Mayer, Greta Garbo, a double wedding that never took place and a violent scuffle that did--was one of a myriad of stories I recently listened to in an effort to hear an echo of the sound that shook Hollywood half a century ago. Fortunately, it is still possible to get a firsthand picture of that transition period, a remarkable time when the dream-peddling industry flourished, despite the Great Depression. In sumptuous, hedge-shielding estates in Beverly Hills, in cramped dwellings off the fume-laden Los Angeles freeways, in cozy Manhattan apartments, in elegant Connecticut homes, the pioneers of movies' sound revolution are still to be found.

Some--men in their 90's, like Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan--can reminisce, sharply and amusingly, by the hour. Others, like Clarence Brown--the man who directed "Anna Christie," whose celebrated sales pitch was "Garbo Talks!"--suffers from occasional fuzziness as he sits, feeble and nearly blind, in the dining room of The Eldorado, the luxurious Palm Springs country club of which he is a part owner. Then there is Mary Astor, the exquisite beauty who remains as silent as the movies in which she made her first breathtaking appearances. Isolated in a tiny cottage at the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Southern California, Miss Astor refuses to be interviewed and is adamantly aloof even in the communal dining room where other ill and elderly actors, cameramen and makeup women eagerly exchange memories.

Fade In ... Pickfair, the poignantly ornate mansion that once upon a time was the gathering place for Hollywood's most colorful royalty and rogues, from Gish to Chaplin, from Clara Bow to William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. The house was established by the movie colony's favorite loving couple, Mary Pickford--the screen's very first star--and her dashing husband, Douglas Fairbanks. Today, America's Sweetheart is a recluse, a faded figure glimpsed fleetingly by visitors as she stands at an upstairs bedroom window. Downstairs, the thick-carpeted rooms are morosely quiet, and what little entertaining there is, is done by Buddy Rogers, the affable young star of "Wings," who wed Miss Pickford after her divorce from Fairbanks.

"The days of the silent film were perfect," says the tanned, white-haired, blue-blazered Rogers, smiling as he sinks into an easy chair directly beneath a long-ago portrait of himself as a boyishly grinning matinee idol. "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]. 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. One of the big things that changed when talkies came in was the music they used to play on the set, to get you in the mood. We always had a three-or-four piece orchestra playing right through every scene. When I had a sad scene, I'd ask them to play 'Liebestraum' and I'd cry right then and there. If it was a fun scene, I'd snap my fingers and ask them to play 'I Want to Be Happy.'

"That was a beautiful time. Work was fun. Automobiles were fun, there were dances all the time, and every star knew every other star. There was a family feeling. Marion Davies was such a good friend. She loved to play tricks on you. Once, when we were all at the Mocambo, she sent her driver home and he came back with a birthday present for Mary--diamonds that were easily worth $30,000 or $40,000. 'But it's not my birthday,' Mary said. 'That's all right,' Marion answered, 'I haven't done anything for you in such a long time.' And when you'd go out to the Hearst ranch, there'd always be a little trinket under your plate at dinner, a diamond from Cartier's or something along those lines."

Much of Hollywood's harmony went out the window when sound came sour-noting in. "I said to my good friend, Gary Cooper, 'Coop, do you know anything about talking?' and he said, 'Yup.' We knew that Jolson had a voice, but we didn't know if we did. So we were taken to the sound studio at Paramount to find out who had a voice and who didn't. Each day, they'd bring in a famous star, and he'd be in there as long as three hours. One day, Wallace Beery was in there for an extra long time, and we all waited around to hear the verdict. Finally, at 3 in the afternoon, a boy came running out of the studio yelling, 'Wally Beery has a voice!'

"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. I recall doing a scene several times with Mary Brian and Jean Arthur, and finally everyone said that it was very, very good. Then somebody came running out and said, 'You've got to do it again - the sound was no good!'"

Fade Out. . . Fade In. Frank Capra, who directed a few silent films before surfacing as one of the top talents of the talkies with such movies as "It Happened One Night," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Lost Horizon," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's a Wonderful Life," chats in the den of his Palm Springs retirement home, though his furtive glances at his wristwatch signal his concern about being tardy for a golf date. "When film found its larynx, it astonished, amazed and absolutely threw everyone into a tailspin. There was panic all around Hollywood. They were being asked to spend millions of dollars to revise everything. It was all pretty chancy.

"Nobody knew if audiences would take to these pictures; they were used to looking at motion pictures, not photographed plays. 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. They talked Mayer into getting rid of his best-known, highest paid star, saying that his voice didn't sound good enough. They threw Jack Gilbert out, and he died of drink. It was ridiculous.

"I was at Columbia at the time, and I know that Harry Cohn [the studio head] was a very worried man. The machines kept coming in, great trucks and panels and wires that looked like so much spaghetti, and Cohn kept wondering if he was throwing his money away. 'Now give me that nonsense about sound again,' he would say. 'We photograph the person and the sound at the same time? Hell, I can see a person, but how can I see a sound?' 'It's a great new tool,' I'd tell him. 'Just stay up there in your office and don't worry.' He couldn't understand that there were light valves that picked up sound from film, that you could photograph little squiggly lines that could be reproduced into sound. The talkies started out on disks, and that was rather simple, but to reproduce properly synchronized disks to accompany each film was a huge problem. Very shortly, they were producing sound film itself."

The toughest problem to be tackled was that of visual paralysis. "Silent cameramen had been free as a bird, but suddenly the freedom to photograph from any position was taken away. In the silent days, cameras sounded like coffee grinders, so that when talkies began, we had to put them into a big ugly, immovable, monstrous box with a window in the front. There was a door at the back through which the cameraman climbed, and once it was closed behind him, he found himself in an insulated, soundproof room, with no air vents of any kind. There was more air in the cameraman's lungs than in the booth. Sometimes, we used three cameras, suitably positioned to the action, and we'd edit it later to give the illusion of movement. The microphone would be hidden in a vase of flowers, or behind a piece of furniture, and the actors had to be careful not to talk unless they were talking directly into the mike.

"It was funny to us and tragic to us. It destroyed everything we knew, all of our carefully developed methods. The soundman became the chief man on the set. He told the actors when to talk and how loud to talk. There they sat with their earphones and dials, and most directors didn't know how anything was turning out until they saw it on the screen, and then they died. But the real chaos was among the actors. It was easy enough to accommodate those who had experience on stage, but no film actor had ever learned lines before.

"And working on a completely silent set was another experience they had never had. In the silent days, 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.

"Through the magic of technology, however, most of the problems that came in with sound were solved within a year. A quieter camera was made, and we were able to throw those awful booths away, and the technicians put together a movable boom that could follow the action around overhead, freeing the actors from the tyranny of that one mike hidden in the flowers. Thanks to American know-how, a revolution had taken place and Hollywood hadn't skipped a beat. We were back to making films, except people were talking now."

Fade Out. . . Fade In. King Vidor, legendary director of "The Big Parade," "The Crowd," "Hallelujah," "The Citadel" and "Duel in the Sun," journeys to Hollywood from his desert ranch and discusses movies, silent and sound. "About a week ago, I ran Murnau's 'Sunrise' again to see if I still felt the same about it as I did back in the 20's. At the time, it seemed to me the height of development of the silent film, reflecting the progress made by the Germans with 'Metropolis,' 'Variety' and 'The Last Laugh.' Possibly 'Sunrise' was overacted, but still you can see how much the lighting, the art direction, the decor, the movement of the camera--the close-ups, the tracking shots, the perambulating shots--the imagery, the composition, the rhythm all contributed to the creation of a work of art.

"My movie 'The Crowd' is roughly comparable to 'Sunrise.' There was a quality about it that, even today, makes you not miss sound. After two or three minutes, you're absorbed in the techniques of the silent film itself. 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. Seeing 'Sunrise' again reminded me, too, that in 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. Sometimes there were what we used to call readers in the audience, people who would annoy us by reading the titles out loud, but when sound came in, they stopped reading and nobody had to concentrate so much on the screen any more. That's when necking started in theaters.

"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. Colleen Moore told me that she was sent to a voice coach who said, 'Say mother,' and when she did, they all jumped up and down, delighted. 'She can talk!" they shouted. 'She can talk!' Hollywood directors weren't supposed to know anything about speaking, of course, so Lionel Barrymore was sent over to the set of 'Hallelujah,' and all the blacks hid behind the trees when they saw him coming. They didn't want anybody telling them how to talk. They knew how to talk."

Fade Out. . . Fade In. Anita Loos, unceasingly vivacious, takes a moment in her memento-stuffed apartment opposite Carnegie Hall and recalls a screenwriting career that included the titles for "Intolerance" and the dialogue for "San Francisco" and "Red Headed Woman." "I was a stage child out in San Diego, and one day I went to the movies. Afterward, I climbed up in the projection room, got the address of D. W. Griffith's company in New York from a can of film and sent him a scenario. It was accepted at once. I got $25 and I said, 'This is where I quit acting.' My first film was 'The New York Hat,' when I was 14, and I continued writing for Griffith for the next two years. Then, when he brought his company out to California, he sent to San Diego for me. I must say, he was surprised by my age. I was sort of like Tatum O'Neal, I guess, just a smart cookie, and I kept on writing for him. For 'Intolerance,' I cribbed from Voltaire-- 'When sex gives women up, they turn to religion.'

"By the time talkies came along, I had already written 200 films, and I had become pretty highbrow. When I heard the dialogue in 'The Jazz Singer,' I said, 'This will never last.' But it did last, and all those who were incapable of talking were soon weeded out. It was a good joke to some of us, how those voices came out on the screen. Lillian Gish told me, though, 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 M-G-M. So Mayer told the sound technicians to manipulate things so that Jack's voice would come out funny.

"I knew the Talmadge sisters very well. Constance was too disinterested to ever attempt sound; all she wanted to do was get out of movies. Norma got a coach, but as soon as she tackled sound, she realized she'd come a cropper. When she made her second sound picture, Time magazine said, 'In her first picture, she sounded like an elocution pupil. Now she has advanced to sounding like an elocution teacher.' But Norma had made over $5 million in silents, and she was married to Joe Schenck, a multimillionaire. So it was no tragedy. To tell the truth, I myself never took movies seriously, silent or sound. I was too busy doing other things."

Fade Out. . . Fade In. Clarence Brown, who directed Garbo and Valentino in silents and went on to turn out such appealing talkies as "Anna Karenina," "The Human Comedy," "National Velvet" and "The Yearling," struggles to sort out his wealth of memories. "Rudy Valentino was a great actor, almost my favorite, and we got along fine together because we were both crazy about automobiles. But he was very ill when he worked with me. Garbo and I were made for each other. Nobody around us on the set ever knew what we were talking about, because I spoke to her in a whisper. For her first talkie, we chose a story where the dialogue wouldn't hurt her--'Give me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby.' Garbo is the greatest screen actress of all time.

"Jack Gilbert was great, too, and it was a terrible thing that happened on his first talkie. He came out sounding like a damned fairy, 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.' They put him in another picture, where he was rough and tough, but the damage had already been done. I don't know, it's so hard to remember all these things. I'm losing my buttons, you know, and I'm never going to get them back. I'm a weak old bastard, and I can't see any more. I'm ready to die. If I go tomorrow, it'll suit me fine."

Fade Out . . . Fade In. Myrna Loy, a minor player in the silents, a national treasure as Nora Charles in the "Thin Man" series and--next season--the mother of Burt Reynolds in "The End," views the turmoil of the late 20's Hollywood from the contemporary calm of her New York apartment. "I was very worried about how my voice would sound. The first talkie I was up for was 'The Desert Song' at Warner Brothers, playing the part of a not very trustworthy belly dancer. I had seen a stage performance of 'The Desert Song,' and I remembered that the girl had a sort of bastard North African French accent, and that's what I tried for on the test I made.

"Darryl Zanuck sat and watched the test with me. I was wearing nut-brown makeup and not too many clothes, and the scene I had to do was a difficult one in which I tell somebody off and throw back the money he has given me. I thought I was pretty good, considering the circumstances, but Zanuck turned to me and said, 'I don't know, you're awfully nervous.' So I said, 'You would be, too.' Then he said, 'Well, I'm not sure you can handle this. We may put you in the movie, and then have to take you out.' 'In other words,' I said, 'you might have to give me the hook?' 'Yes,' he answered, 'that's right. But if you want to take a chance, you can.' 'Myrna,' I told myself, 'this is a bridge you've got to cross. They're dropping actors off like flies. You've got to do this, no matter what.' So I did it, and they didn't give me the hook.

"It was a dreadful time, believe me. If anyone says it wasn't, he just wasn't there. There was panic everywhere, and a lot of people said, 'This is ridiculous! Who wants to hear people talk?' They were people who loved the silent film, the great art of pantomime perfected by the comedians and by Griffith. So much of what happened was terribly unfair. The studios should have taken the time to train those people whose voices didn't match their screen images. Poor John Gilbert--I don't know what they expected him to sound like; his voice always sounded perfectly masculine to me. And I don't know what happened to Marie Prevost--she just disappeared."

Fade Out . . . Fade In. Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, daughter of silent screen stars Leatrice Joy and John Gilbert, toils over her typewriter in Riverside, Conn., putting the finishing touches to her book, "A Dash for the Sky: The Hollywood Tragedy of John Gilbert." She is determined to set the record straight. "I grew up thinking of my father as a has-been movie star. I saw him out when he died--I was 11 at the time--and it's true that he had a problem with alcohol. But he took terrible punishment from L. B. Mayer, and he took it gracefully. For quite some time, they had a series of minor squabbles. My father was very close to Irving Thalberg, which irritated Mayer, and he hung out with the literati, with Mencken and Carey Wilson and Herman Mankiewicz. These men were my father's friends and they were Democrats and Liberals. Mayer's daughter, Irene Selznick, told me that every time he had been out with John Gilbert, he came home quivering with rage.

"It would be difficult to prove that they tampered with the sound on my father's first talkie. But my mother, who was in vaudeville then, saw it in Milwaukee, and she said that his voice in the movie was nothing like his real voice. He had grown up in the theater and he was a serious actor with a wonderful speaking voice. It wasn't even a tenor; it was a high baritone. Clarence Brown told me that he ran into Douglas Shearer, Norma's brother, who was head of the sound department at M-G-M, and he asked him what on earth had happened to Jack's voice. 'My God,' Shearer said, 'didn't you know? We made a mistake and forgot to turn up the bass. We only turned up the treble.' I've also heard it said that Lionel Barrymore, who directed 'His Glorious Night,' was paid a lot of money by Mayer to scuttle the movie any way that he could.

"Mayer and my father had tolerated one another until the day of Sept. 8, 1926. That was to be the day of a double wedding at Marion Davies's house in Beverly Hills. King Vidor was to marry Eleanor Boardman and my father was to marry Greta Garbo. Garbo did not show up, and Eleanor Boardman told me years later what took place. My father was very upset and Mayer said to him, 'Why do you have to marry her? Why not just sleep with her and forget about her?' With that, my father slugged him and dragged him into the bathroom and began hitting his head against the tiles, sending his glasses flying. Eddie Mannix, Mayer's trusted friend and bodyguard, finally pulled Father off of him. Like a cobra, Mayer sat there and hissed, 'Gilbert, your career is finished. I'll destroy you if it costs me a million dollars.'"

Fade Out . . . Fade In. Raoul Walsh, a cowboy who became an actor in one-and two-reelers in 1911, went west with D. W. Griffith, and became a director of such silents as "The Thief of Bagdad" and "What Price Glory" and such talkies as "They Drive by Night" and "White Heat," is totally blind today, but his mind is crowded with vivid images from the past. "When I came out to California to work for Mr. Griffith," he says, sipping orange juice at his valley ranch in Southern California, "they had just built an outdoor stage, quite some distance from town. We'd be doing a roughhouse drama, and another company would be doing a love scene nearby, with the violins playing so the man and woman could get in the mood. We only worked when the sun was out; when it went down, we got drunk. Our biggest problem was that we couldn't get any living quarters, because people just didn't want any part of the actors. The studio had only one car, and they sent it for the girls. We walked.

"Mr. Griffith brought two directors with him from New York. One was from a stock company and he simply couldn't take the rough life, so he started hitting the bottle heavy. Mr. Griffith said, 'Give Mr. Walsh a script and let him shoot it,' and that's how I became his assistant, watching every move he made. So, you see, I had good schooling. Those old films we made are all gone. They were thrown into a vault somewhere and they just fell apart.

"Maybe the reason that director got drunk was that he had read the script, which was based on an Ibsen play. I remember that Wallace Reid was in it. Wally was the Errol Flynn of his day. The director would say, 'O.K., you've had enough' at the end of a love scene, and Wally would go to the door, turn around, and come right back and start kissing the girl again. He and I were living at the same apartment, and he would get all dolled up and go out to some nightclub. Then he wanted to play his trombone when he came back. They kicked us out of the apartment for playing it at 2 A.M. Later, I tried to get Wally off cocaine, but I couldn't. There were fields and fields of marijuana on the back lot in those days, but just a few Mexicans smoked it.

"Mary Pickford and I are the only ones left from the old Biograph days. Mary used to call me her big brother. Whenever she was going out of town, she'd say to me, 'Take care of Jack.' Jack was her real brother, Jack Pickford. Well, I took care of Jack until we blew up the booze cellar, as well as the safe and a few other things. Mary and Old Lady Pickford were in San Diego making a movie, and Jack came to me and said, 'I'm going to give a party and I can't get any booze, because my mother has it locked in the cellar.' We went to a man named Garibaldi, got some dynamite and damned near blew the house down. When Old Lady Pickford came home, she asked the housekeeper who had been there when the explosion took place. 'That old Irishman and Jack,' she said. By that time Jack and I had hightailed it down to Santa Barbara, and when we got back, the old dame looked us in the eyes and said, 'It's a good thing you guys weren't here. You would have been killed.'

"My own favorite of all my silent movies was 'What Price Glory.' Those marines were using all the four-letter words in the world. At 60 cents a ticket, it broke every record during its opening week at the Roxy. Fox played it all day and all night. Finally, we got complaints from deaf mutes who, naturally, could read lips. Then, once that became known, the people who weren't deaf went back to read the lips. So Fox had two audiences.

"I liked working with Gloria Swanson in 'Sadie Thompson,' too. Gloria and I spoke the same language and cussed the same way. I directed the movie and also played a marine in it. According to the play, I was supposed to call Lionel Barrymore a psalm-singing sonofabitch, but I added a lot to it. We were kind of a roustabout crowd in Hollywood then. We never had to waste time studying lines. We were a wild lot, all right, like prospectors, like the 49'ers that came to dig gold.

"I knew we'd have problems when the actors had to learn lines. 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. And poor John Gilbert - 'John,' I said, 'Come on, get in the car.' I took him back into the woods and said, 'Start yelling your lungs out until you get your voice down to a low pitch.' He began yelling and yelling, and the only thing that happened was that we got arrested for disturbing the peace. But I talked the cops out of it on the way back to town.

"I directed the first outdoor talkie, 'In Old Arizona,' though I had to share credit with Irving Cummings, who finished the film. On the to way to catch a train in Cedar City, with a drunken cowboy at the wheel, a big jack rabbit jumped in front of our window, broke the glass and cut out my eye. Now this eye has given out. I'm 90 now, but I still get around. Led around . . . you know. I got rid of all my horses and cattle; it was depressing, because I couldn't see them. But we still have coyotes in the back. They come down from the hills at night and sing me to sleep."

Fade Out. . . Fade In. Allan Dwan directed his first movie, "Rattlesnake and Gunpowder," in 1909, graduated to Douglas Fairbanks and Gloria Swanson vehicles during the heyday of the silents, and steered Shirley Temple and lesser stars through heaps of unpretentious program features of the 40's and 50's. These days, he sits in a neat bungalow near the Ventura freeway and demonstrates more genuine pep than is to be found in a dozen car-crash movies of the 70's.

"You can wash a lot of linen in 93 years, and I'll never regret having gotten into movies. When I came out here, there wasn't even a studio. I used the depot down at Capistrano. When that wasn't big enough, I went up to La Mesa. At that time, there was a battle going on between independent motion picture companies and the patent companies. Biograph and Vitagraph organized and said they would stop independents from operating by declaring that they had a patent on the loop. So we had to make pictures undercover to keep away from the goons they'd send out to destroy the cameras. They'd shoot holes through them. We took to wearing side arms and we'd post our cowboys out at the pass. One goon came up to me and told me his job was to put me out of business. To impress me, he pulled out his gun, threw up a tin can, shot at it and missed. I pulled my gun out - God had me by the hand - and I shot the can, twice. Then, on his way out, down at the depot, he saw three of my men - the Marcus brothers - with Winchesters, so I guess he thought we were pretty tough, and he let us go. After a while we left La Mesa and went to Santa Barbara and drove out the ostriches. I guess we looked like bandits, because the law took our guns away and told us if we had to carry them, to at least put blanks in them. We had to change our style, to stop being cowboys and start behaving like ladies and gentlemen.

"At Santa Barbara, I used to look at Griffith making a movie and come right back and make the same thing with a different cast. That's when I hooked into Doug Fairbanks. Griffith said he didn't like him, because he didn't like jump-around actors. Without doubt, the two greatest talents I came into contact with were Doug and Gloria Swanson. Once, I was making a picture with Doug - 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.

"Gloria was an amazing personality, a versatile actress and a very vital person. She's a great-great grandmother, and yet she looks like a blushing bride. She kills me. She's my outstanding star of stars. Gloria, Raoul Walsh and I had a reunion not long ago right here in this living room. I said, 'Come on, tell the truth now. What kind of affair did you two have?' They didn't confess a thing, but their faces were rosy red.

"Raoul and I talk for hours on the phone. We don't stop to think about what the phone bills will be like. I've known Raoul as long as I've known myself. We were here when there was nothing but a sand lot, and I worked beside him for 20 years at Fox. He was a real mick, always in trouble. I remember the night they brought him home after the rabbit jumped on the hood of that car. All he has now are his memories. I go to see him when I can. And, as I say, we talk and talk on the phone. I tell him about a new story I'm working on, and we swear that we'll shoot it together, making use of whatever we retain as picturemakers. 'You figure out the gags,' I tell him, 'and I'll shoot it and let you see the rushes.' 'See it?' he says, 'how can I see it?' 'Don't worry,' I say, 'I have a new device that will make it possible. If there's a barroom brawl, some guy will hit you in the nose, and you'll feel it.' Raoul pauses. Then he says, 'Oh! O.K., that sounds fine.'"