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The Growing Pains of Early Talkies

The time was March 1928. The Jazz Singer was still a huge hit and money maker for Warner Brothers across the country. The studio decided to take a risky move and pull the film while it was still raking in the viewers. Why? They were ready to release their second talking picture, Tenderloin. And this one was more ambitious, with four full scenes of dialogue. Warner Brothers rolled the dice and unleashed their newer spiffier talkie.

The speed at which Tenderloin and other talkies were released is a breakneck pace. And with each of these films, the growing pains and early issues are apparent. And yet, many quick adjustments were made as well. Let’s take a look at what some of these very first talkies brought to the table, as seen in film magazines of the day.

Tenderloin_poster

Unsurprisingly, Warner Brothers had another financial hit with Tenderloin. Audiences came out in droves, but how much they all enjoyed the film is a bit of a different story. The film’s legacy now is that it elicited some of the reactions famously seen in Singin’ in the Rain: audiences laughing at poor quality. Depending on the source, audiences either laughed at Dolores Costello’s lisp or the film’s melodramatic dialogue.

What is known for sure is that the studio felt compelled to recut the film, removing two of the four dialogue. Film Daily had major problems with the second talking scene, stating that while the words may appear good in writing, they “failed to register when spoken.” They went as far as to say the scene so derailed the film that the film “lost its audience” the rest of the way.

In the wake of this fact, Film Daily offered some pertinent advice and opinion for the future:

Producers will flounder until they learn what to do with this un-catalogued element. These portions of the “Tenderloin” dialogue which missed did so no because the idea or the reproduction were poor. The synchronization was excellent, but the conception bad. The invocation suffered because of the utter banality of the words put into the mouths of the characters.

The Warners are rightfully entitled to credit for taking a bold step in an uncharted direction. Exhibitors and others should bear in mind that there exists no precedent for this type of undertaking. The result, of necessity, will be spotty until experience points the way out of the maze of mediocrity.

These words sum up a lot of the problems that these early talkies faced. Tenderloin showed something that would become very clear: serious dialogue and drama were the most difficult things to get right at this time. Light musicals and comedy shorts (usually based on Vaudeville routines) were much safer bets. Warner in particular released endless comedy and musical shorts that were generally popular and of good quality.

But not all musicals faired quite so well. Universal’s first full talkie, Melody of Love, was by all accounts, a disastrous effort. Photoplay even found the music and singing terrible. Their final thoughts pulled no punches: “This horrible example should be a museum piece, valuable because it shows how not to make a talkie.”

Fox and Fox-Movietone also found good success producing comedies, including several Peter Benchley shorts. They also similarly released a flop of a drama, Napoleon’s BarberPhotoplay found this film both technically poor (“the characters, as usual, seem to speak from their vest pockets”) and an overall awful film (“there is but one real consolation–it is only a two reel picture”).

 

While all this was going on, Warner’s constant efforts to make more talkies was paying off. With each new film, more issues were getting ironed out and the quality was increasing. Their third partial talkie Glorious Betty had some technical issues, but Film Daily sung the praises of advancement: “the latest Warner effort marks a rather important something in the advancement of pictures. It offered proof that the use of sound to augment dramatic and entertainment values is no mistake when used properly.” With many attempts at talking in dramas failing, this may have been the first successful use of a talkie drama.

Their next follow up was The Lion and the Mouse, which upped the ante to half talking. Their first full talkie, The Lights of New York, was released in July 1928. While some critics panned it for being crude or lowbrow, Warner had yet another cash how on their hands, making $1 million off the $23,000 production.

Critical acclaim for talkies also came around in due time. Paramount found one of the first critical darlings with the release of The Letter in April of 1929. Photoplay sung the praises of lead actress Jeanne Eageles, calling her work “the first high pressure emotional performance of the all-talkies . . . The Letter is a real landmark in the progress of the microphone drama.”

And considering the first talkie had been released not even two years earlier, that is some amazing progress.

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