How Silent-Film Actors Made the Leap to Talking Pictures

Photofest
Jack Oakie (left) and Spencer Tracy in 'Looking for Trouble' (1934)

A 1946 guest column by comedian Jack Oakie recalls the first time he got a gig in a movie that had sound, and that "frightening" new presence of the mike.

In August 1946, Jack Oakie, the Oscar-nominated star comedian, looked back on his career two decades earlier — specifically when he made the leap from a pantomimer to speaker on the big screen. In a Hollywood Reporter column commemorating the 20th anniversary of talking pictures, the comedian remembers tentatively transitioning to sound films in a piece originally titled "Before We Talked." 

For a couple of years before 1926, we had been reading publicity stories in New York and Hollywood — those of us who could read, that is — about when the movies would talk. 

Nobody seemed to think seriously that they would, but we used to tell each other that if talk came in, it would be the kiss of death for all of us pantomimers. Then, the day came.

Buddy Rogers, Mary Brian and I were down at Chino, California, on location, when wham! here came the mimeographed letter to all hands from Mr. Paramount. 

"...you will," it read, "upon completion of your present picture assignment, report immediately to the studio to make talking tests."

"Well," said Buddy, reaching his hands to Mary and me, "I'll see you in the actor's home." 

We all laughed, but the crease came out of my pants from cold sweat. 

I went to the studio and prepared for the ordeal as if I were fifth on death row at San Quentin. I braced myself and said I would walk up to the mike, say "boo," after which somebody would scream: "Throw that bum outta here!" Then my troubles would be over. 

My knees did Morse as I crossed the lot, and my mind was made up to fail as quickly as I could manage, to shorten the agony, when an old director acquaintance of mine, Bob Milton, came along. At that time, there was a juvenile named Lester Cole, who looked like me. Bob didn't see so good, and there was something familiar about me. 

"Hello, Lester," he said. "I've been looking all over for you. Come with me. I gotta part in a picture for you." 

I tore the script in half which had been assigned to me for the test, and took off with Bob. I never did make the test. 

I went into a picture called The Dummy. Bob used to see me around the lot for years after that, and he would always greet me with "How you gettin' on, Lester. What's that new name they got you usin'?" 

So, my start in the talkies, you might say, was due to a case of mistaken identity. Ken Murray always said it was just a plain mistake. He should make the same mistake — the rut he's in!

Those first talkies would give a guy the horrors. In the picture, The Dummy, they had a kid star named Mickey Bennett, about 12 years old. They brought on some supporting "talking actors" from the New York stage, some unknowns of the caliber of Ruth Chatterton and Fredric March. 

All of us picture people had been taught to look, to make faces, and to move in and out of camera range, all without opening the mouth, as if in speech. If the mouth was moved, they had to cut and throw in a title. 

The actors from the stage knew all about this talking. But the overhanging satchel they called a mike was as frightening to them as it was to us. 

Fred Kohler was the villain of The Dummy, and he claimed to know how to handle "that thing," the mike. 

"You enunciate clearly," he declared like an elocution teacher, "and you THROW your voice at that thing just like it was the last row balcony."

Who could say he was wrong? Nobody laughed, because nobody knew. Fred was to make the first take and show us how. He blasted at the mike with each word carefully separated from the other, and delivered in a monotone. There was little or no expression, but lots of emphasis, as if the microphone was hard of hearing. 

All of us non-participating actors sat around and listened. There wasn't a snicker. We just looked at each other and wondered what it would cost to set ourselves up in a hamburger stand. 

After Fred made his speech, we all went in the adjoining sound room to hear the playback, which everyone had to do in those days. The recording was faithful — it was just as terrible as it had been when Fred made the original delivery. 

But all things considered, I'm about ready by now to consider talking pictures my life's work. I've even gotten a byproduct of the business which brings me in a little money. 

My ranch borders a racetrack where lots of the racing pictures are made. Soon as I see 'em set up for a scene, I get on my tractor, and start plowing along the fence. Pretty soon one of the boys will come over and talk to me. He usually starts with $50 to buy me out of my plowing that day. 

Of course, I can't hear him, and I give it to the footfeed. Pretty soon, he bids $100. A couple more rounds of the field and he gets up to $200, which makes it worth my while. I run the tractor into the barn until the next day, when I bring it out again and repeat the haggling.

You see, I was in this talking picture business from the start and I know all the microphone tricks, even how to make money in the movies by just picking the right time to do my plowing. — Originally published on Aug. 6, 1946

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