The question that was asked of the great actors and actresses of silent film with the coming of sound was simple: Could they speak? Could they adapt the styles they had developed to the demands of dialogue and be as convincing to audiences who could hear them as they had been when they were only seen? But the silent movie comedians had a different and perhaps greater problem. They were original, singular creatures, born and raised in silence. They flew through worlds of their own making, unbound by the laws of commonality that affected the rest of us. Sound could only ground them in a reality they neither needed nor wanted. The question that beset the clowns went beyond “Could they speak?” to become “Why talk at all?” Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp expressed his emotions with every swerve of his balletically agile body. The stoical Buster Keaton could say more with a slight shift of his eyes than most actors could with a soliloquy. And man-child Harry Langdon? He was clearly preverbal.
Of the great silent comedians, Harold Lloyd would seem to have been in the best position for the shift to sound. He had created a screen character as much like the average man as possible. No outsize costume or greasepaint makeup for him—just a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and the occasional straw hat. His comedy came from taking this man who might pass us on the street and walking him one plausible step at a time into a world of outrageous misfortune. No major rethinking should have been needed to let this fellow talk. And his lightly inflected voice seemed just right to sustain the illusion of youthfulness he had always played (he was thirty-six at the time of his first talkie).
But Lloyd’s transition to sound would be rockier
than anyone might have anticipated. He had already shot what he
meant to be his last silent film when he decided to reshoot enough to make it
his first talkie. Released in 1929, Welcome Danger was the greatest
commercial hit of his career. Audiences clearly wanted to hear Harold talk. But
the film itself was terrible, arguably the worst of his prime (well, you might
argue—I’d say case closed). It has no discernable structure or story, a paucity of first-class
gags, and Lloyd had his beloved glasses character behave in ways that made him
thoroughly unlikable, even obnoxious (why?!). It’s hard to reconcile the Harold
Lloyd of Welcome Danger with the man who, a year earlier, had delivered the dazzling Speedy. And
his second sound film, Feet First (1930), was only slightly better, despite
a new building-hanging thrill sequence meant to remind audiences of how much
they had loved his classic Safety Last! (1923). And there was a shocking drop-off at the
But Harold Lloyd, the
artist, shared with his on-screen persona a determination to succeed, against
all odds. And he was going to make certain that his third sound film, Movie
Crazy, would be his best.
“Lloyd’s completely effective use of sound would make Movie Crazy seem fresh and contemporary while still feeling warmly familiar to his longtime fans.”
“It’s safe to assume that some combination of Vincent Lawrence and Agnes Christine Johnson was responsible for the element of Movie Crazy that still feels fresh to audiences today.”
Keaton at the Crossroads: Buster’s Last Silent Comedy, Spite Marriage
Despite the studio system’s stifling conditions, Buster Keaton’s follow-up to The Cameraman remains a testament to the funnyman’s singular style.
The Same Old Song: A Guide to Neonoir
Since its classic-Hollywood heyday, noir has remained a vibrant mode in both studio and independent filmmaking, taking on nostalgic resonances in the highly referential work of Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Brian De Palma, and the Coen brothers.
Carole Lombard’s Divine Lunacy
A raucous, fast-talking diva, the actor had a remarkable ability to convey both glamour and silliness, a gift that made her the queen of screwball comedy before her untimely death in 1942.
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