The End of Silents

My favourite musical has to be ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, for so many reasons, beyond the brilliant script and performances. It was the first musical to make any sense to me. Why would people just burst out singing? I’ve never seen anyone do it, so musicals were, like football and beer something that adults did .

But it was also about an important historical event: the arrival of sound in the film industry. But this being Hollywood, it was not completely accurate.

Film was never intended to be silent.  The first film studio was Edison’s Black Mary, which recorded sound as well, but they never managed to co-ordinate the two so the silent movie was the result. But nobody wanted it to be silent, because the world is a very noisy place. So they introduced music – from a creaky old organ to full orchestras, they had narrators, there were no rules on the new medium, so it became a free for all, often to the objections of the audience who became annoyed at the distractions.

As people learnt how to use the new medium, it became an art form in its own right. Specialised films were used for different settings. Stan Laurel apparently had such pale eyes they needed different, high contrast  film stock, which is why he looks so strange when they colourise these films. The Great John Ford understood, like few others, such as Gus Van Sant, (who trained as a painter) that film is primarily a visual medium, so a far cry from the heavily language driven live theatre.

As the arrival of talkies approached, there were protests at the death of the new art: “the removal of silence would dissolve the last and most important barrier protecting films from their complete subjugation to the depiction of plain reality. An utterly unbridled realism would crush any remaining touch of stylization that yet characterizes even the most impoverished film. Critics claimed: ” a whole rich culture of visual expression in danger”

As ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ showed, talkies arrived like a landslide, making some actors and musicians unemployed overnight, but creating jobs for many others. Talkies allow us to get closer to reality, and to discover a whole lot of new realities, but they took away the magic of the unspeaking darkness. It’s a different kind of magic.



4 thoughts on “The End of Silents

  1. It’s fair to say that I loathe musicals. I feel pretty strongly about it, there are notable exceptions, most particularly Singing in the Rain –
    “Moses supposes his toes are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously.”


    • They provided work for musicians who were put out of work by the films replacing theatres. And so it goes. Some of the orchestras were pretty good – they had to improvise which is no mean feat.


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