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The Golden Age of American Talkies: 1929

by Peter Bogdanovich
November 23, 2010 2:18 AM
6 Comments
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1929-1962

The following list reflects my personal choice of the best films of each year, in order of preference. Certain titles are included mainly because of historical interest, because of their popularity or because of their director’s more noteworthy later career. Films with an asterisk (*) have full sound but little or no spoken dialog; they are the final few non-talking “silent” pictures. Officially, the last of these was in 1936, with Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, though Charlie does sing some French gibberish near the end.

1929
The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch)
Hallelujah! (King Vidor)
Eternal Love (Ernst Lubitsch)*
The River (Frank Borzage)*
Lady of the Pavements (D.W. Griffith)*
Applause (Rouben Mamoulian)
Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock)
Thunderbolt (Josef von Sternberg)
The Iron Mask (Allan Dwan)*
Salute (John Ford)
Flight (Frank Capra)
They Had to See Paris (Frank Borzage)
Dynamite (Cecil B. DeMille)

Since 1929 was the first year of full sound, the most interesting work was in the use of this new technique, which altered the essential dynamic of the medium. Lubitsch and Vidor, two great silent masters, each took it all the way and made musicals---“all talking, all singing, all dancing” ran the ads--which used the new spoken words and songs brilliantly while still managing to preserve some of the behavioral magic of the silents (The Love Parade and Hallelujah!). Lubitsch also released his last non-talking picture--a tragic love story with a superb performance from John Barrymore: Eternal Love was a flop in its day but has an extraordinarily modern style and remains extremely moving.

The Love Parade is one of my favorite movies--all the songs sung live with the orchestra just off-camera; no lip-sync gives Maurice Chevalier (in his first full-length feature) and Jeanette MacDonald an amazing intimacy and charm. Part of the audacity and genius of Lubitsch’s first talkie is that among the very first things he has Chevalier do is to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. Hallelujah! is a daring all-black musical that retains much of its power. The master, D.W. Griffith, often called the father of film narrative, released his final silent, and a commendable work it is too (Lady of the Pavements), while arch-romantic Frank Borzage showed his last non-talking love story--a masterpiece from the fragments that remain: The River is very touching even though much of it is lost to us. Hitchcock started Blackmail as a silent, but went back and reshot sections with sound, so that it became England’s first talkie (though quite dated in parts).

Mamoulian’s Applause and Sternberg’s Thunderbolt are particularly good examples of sound technique--indeed, Applause is considered by many to remain its director’s best film. Dwan’s largely silent final Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler, The Iron Mask, delivers what fans expected and is Dwan’s fond farewell to the medium he adored and regretted the loss of to the end of his days, some fifty years later. The Ford, Capra, and other Borzage are essentially of historical interest, though all are fun---John Wayne (in a bit) speaks his first lines in Salute--and the DeMille is typically over-the-top but skillful.

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6 Comments

  • J Owen | October 11, 2010 4:50 AMReply

    When are we going to see lists for 1930 through 1962? I can't wait!!!

  • Rick K. | September 29, 2010 11:43 AMReply

    A few honorable mentions from 1929 ... all falling in the sound-with-little-or-no-spoken-dialogue category. The Cooper/Schoedsack version of THE FOUR FEATHERS, for Paramount, features great location footage by the documentary team (including an incredible hippo stampede) nicely welded to a mostly studio narrative of the A.E.W. Mason story, well cast (including Wm. Powell, Clive Brook and Fay Wray); Keaton/Sedgwick’s SPITE MARRIAGE, Buster’s second for MGM, and sadly the last of quality from the studio which hastened his merciless decline; also from MGM, a rather bizarre version of THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, two stiff talkie scenes and far more fluid silent footage (full score & effects), an engaging fantasy with mythical kingdom/political intrigue subplot ... it has a Melies-like charm, especially the underwater city ... originally shot in Technicolor, alas only b/w survives (the often abhorred colorization process could probably assist to recreate a pretty accurate two-color version here, if someone thought it worth the expense!) ... added film buff interest, uncredited contributions by Benjamin Christensen and Maurice Tourneur, though difficult to identify their respective inputs. Feyder’s THE KISS was also released with a full music score and incidental (but very important) use of sound effects.

  • MAKSQUIBS | September 25, 2010 1:51 AMReply

    But what a weak year in comparison to the years just behind and in front of it. The Talkie revolution took quite a toll.

    This list would look a good deal better if you had included BULLDOG DRUMMOND (F. Richard Jones) which shows a remarkably fluid technique for the period; and Victor Fleming's THE VIRGINIAN. And, of course, those were the films that made Talkie stars out of Ronald Colman & Gary Cooper.

    And what of Frank Capra's THE YOUNGER GENERATION, one of the few part-Talkies that manage to use the sytem to its advantage? It's about a Jewish son who moves up in society and rejects his past.. Verfy sentimental, but also wonderfully funny, rude & powerful.

    NOTE: For those who've never seen THE IRON MASK, be sure to get the restored full cut. For decades this film was only available in a mutilated edition (with a voice-over by Doug, Jr. replacing the inter-titles, that lowered it's reputation. The full-length film is a treat, maybe Doug Sr.'s best, fast, funny and, at the end, incredibly moving.

  • Blake Lucas | September 24, 2010 4:47 AMReply

    It's nice to see LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS high on the list. Few seem to have seen this, but I count myself lucky to have seen it twice and is one of my favorite Griffith films.

    SALUTE is one of my favorite earlier Fords before he really hit his stride with the two 1933 films, which I consider his first masterpieces (haven't seen how you've rated these yet)--the location work, both for image and sound, lifted what is admittedly very light material; but light or no, it's a beautiful film, and especially that long forward tracking shot of William Janney and the wonderful Helen Chandler. Still, I have to ask where is Ford's THE BLACK WATCH, which is not quite as good as SALUTE but is striking.

    Can't argue that (mostly) the most interesting work was with sound in this year--and I would personally rate THUNDERBOLT higher and find it very adventurous and a great Sternberg film. And yet, even though that's true, my own favorite for the year is THE IRON MASK, essentially a silent film except for that introduction. My favorite Dwan film, and favorite Fairbanks as well--and that judgement held up to very recent viewing of a beautiful print seen at the Academy in L.A. within the last few years.

  • Ed Spiegel | September 22, 2010 6:58 AMReply

    Have a sen only Flight and Blackmail of these 1929 movies. Both worthwhile but ould love to see more from '29.

  • D Cairns | September 19, 2010 10:29 AMReply

    Great list! I still have to see Eternal Love and The Iron Mask and Dynamite, which seems to be quite far from the expected DeMille subject and approach.

    Another bit of live dubbing I'm sure you're aware of: Anny Ondra in Blackmail being revoiced by Joan Barry, sitting just off-camera. For my money, Ondra has the more charming voice, but her Mittel-European accent wouldn't have fitted the character.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zl6SMOSXa7A

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