June 02, 2017

The Hollywood sign. Credit: Matt Purdy

IMAX, 3D glasses, VHS, technicolor… technology has continually reshaped Hollywood. But perhaps the biggest, most important change happened early in the industry’s history: the transition from silent films to talkies. Marc Wanamaker, a longtime Hollywood historian and consultant on films like “La La Land,” walks us through what happened, and how it forever transformed the silver screen. 

Three Takeaways: 

  • “The Jazz Singer” wasn’t actually the first talkie. Not by a long shot. Alice Guy-Blaché (one of the very first female directors) made over 100 sound films in the very early 20th century. 
  • The widespread transition to sound pictures only happened when Warner Bros. invested millions of dollars in outfitting theaters with sound equipment. Before that, sound was a novelty, like IMAX was twenty years ago. 
  • Sound didn’t just reshape Hollywood; it also contributed to the breakup of one of its most famous marriages. According to Wanamaker, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford got divorced partly because Pickford made the transition to talkies… and Fairbanks didn’t. 

More Reading: 

  • If you want a deeper dive into old Hollywood history, You Must Remember This is a great podcast to turn to. 
  • Perhaps the most entertaining examination of Hollywood’s transition is “Singin’ In The Rain.” You can rent it on Amazon
  • Another look at the transition to sound, from the blog Birth.Movies.Death.

Culture, Hollywood, Marc Wanamaker

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