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Eyman, who won praise everywhere for Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart and Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise gives color and depth to that time when America succumbed to Hollywood's bewitching spell in this epic story of the transition from silent films to talkies. 16 pp. of photos. 400 pp. Local author publicity. 12,500 print.
Legend has it that Al Jolson's impassioned monologue to his mother in The Jazz Singer was the first time that anyone talked in the movies and the event that saved Warner Brothers from bankruptcy. Eyman's meticulously researched history of the coming of sound punctures those misconceptions and many others. In fact, as Eyman documents, there were early experiments with sound films shortly after the turn of the century. But there were technical, financial, and sociological reasons for the initial failure of these experiments. Not until 1926, when Sam Warner and William Fox became the champions of two competing versions, did sound films become commercially viable. And that breakthrough would engender hundreds of short films, involving everyone from Gertrude Lawrence and the Metropolitan Opera to singing canaries. Eyman deftly traces the race among competing inventors to get their various methods accepted, the unease with which most of the studios watched the contest from the sidelines, and the chaos that ensued when "talkies" finally came in. The constraints necessitated by early sound-recording technology turned the once imperious directors of the silent film into prisoners of the their sound engineers. But there were directors who refused to allow their cameras to be chained down, and as Eyman reports, a few early talkies succeeded as art as well as novelty. Eyman is particularly good at conveying the beauty of the fully developed art that was silent cinema; in the years 192627 as sound began to supplant silence, Hollywood produced silent films of such accomplishment as Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, The Crowd, and The Docks of New York.
Eyman tells this story with wit and skill, detailing a surprisingly overlooked but crucial period in Hollywood history.