"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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
"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."
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.
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."
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."
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
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
"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
"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.'"