The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930

The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930

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by Scott Eyman
     
 

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It was the end of an era. It was a turbulent, colorful, and altogether remarkable period, four short years in which America’s most popular industry reinvented itself.

Here is the epic story of the transition from silent films to talkies, that moment when movies were totally transformed and the American public cemented its love affair with Hollywood. As… See more details below

Overview

It was the end of an era. It was a turbulent, colorful, and altogether remarkable period, four short years in which America’s most popular industry reinvented itself.

Here is the epic story of the transition from silent films to talkies, that moment when movies were totally transformed and the American public cemented its love affair with Hollywood. As Scott Eyman demonstrates in his fascinating account of this exciting era, it was a time when fortunes, careers, and lives were made and lost, when the American film industry came fully into its own.

In this mixture of cultural and social history that is both scholarly and vastly entertaining, Eyman dispels the myths and gives us the missing chapter in the history of Hollywood, the ribbon of dreams by which America conquered the world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Eyman's history of the four-year transition from silent to sound film reads at times like two books expertly cut and fitted together: a solidly researched, always interesting narrative of the decline of the silent era intercut with the crazy, entertaining story of the rise of talkies. No doubt the madcap nature of the age he chronicles explains the jumps from art to ballyhoo, from individual genius to shameless profiteering. Eyman's style at times parallels his hybrid subject, oddly combining the authoritative tone of the film historian with that of a Hollywood press agent (Old San Francisco is a "story... with Yellow Peril, imperiled virgins, and a deus ex machina from deep left field..."). However, the stories of sound-pioneering moguls William Fox and the Warner brothers unify the narrative, as does Eyman's convincing claim that the myth of the overnight sensation of sound and its evolution from silents masks a longer, more complex coexistence. Perceptive discussions of classics such as F.W. Murnau's Sunrise and King Vidor's The Crowd give way in later chapters to a greater focus on such curiosities as "goat-gland" movies (silent films with sound scenes implanted in them for box-office rejuvenation) and poignant accounts of silent actors (especially John Gilbert) who were lost in the transition to sound. Eyman effectively recounts the sorrow of observers such as writer Robert E. Sherwood who shrewdly saw that the crude novelty of sound would initially regress a medium that had only recently laid claim to being an art form. The interpretive judgments are so good that the book's virtual omission of silent comedy (only two pages of Harold Lloyd) puzzles and disappoints. An analysis of the very different silent-to-sound careers of Chaplin and Keaton would have given further breadth and balance to an instructive book. (Mar.)
Library Journal
The transition from silent film to sound has been covered in many histories of Hollywood but nowhere so thoroughly and delightfully as here. The author of such biographies as Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart (LJ 2/1/90), Eyman combines a historian's zeal for detail and context with a storyteller's talent for the perfect illustrative anecdote. The author deftly juggles a number of stories, including film-by-film accounts of key transition directors King Vidor and F.W. Murnau. He also manages to describe the technical aspects of his story without bogging down in the kind of jargon that would put a lay reader to sleep. A remarkable book that belongs in every film history collection.-Thomas Wiener, "Satellite DIRECT"
Publisher's Weekly
A solidly researched, always interesting narrative of the decline of the silent era intercut with the crazy, entertaining story of the rise of talkies.
Kirkus Reviews
Eyman follows his highly acclaimed Ernst Lubitsch (1993) with an astute look at the most significant upheaval in Hollywood history: the arrival of talking pictures.

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.

James Curtis
“One of the best books I’ve ever read on any facet of American film history.”
Kevin Brownlow
“An admirably clear and vivid journey through Hollywood's most turbulent era.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781439104286
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
03/13/1997
Sold by:
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
416
Sales rank:
837,431
File size:
6 MB

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