10 Lessons We Learned From Filmmaking in the 1920s

Stars Fall, Stars Rise
In the film "Sunset Boulevard," Gloria Swanson played Norma Desmond, a washed-up actress who lamented the shift from silent films to talkies. Hulton Archive/Moviepix/Getty Images

"They took the idols and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who've we got now? Some nobodies!" It's impossible not to quote from "Sunset Boulevard" again. Norma Desmond's statement refers to the legend that the stars of the silent era fell precipitously from near-godlike status to forgotten has-beens haunting their extravagant mansions.

And it's true the qualities that made one a silent star rarely translated to the "talkies." Acting in silent film was really a form of pantomime and required as much expressive physicality as possible. Actors moved freely around the set with the director shouting commands as the film rolled. Now, suddenly, the set was silent and gestures were restricted during takes. Kinetic actors like Douglas Fairbanks couldn't hurl themselves around the set, but had to remain practically motionless while speaking into a hidden microphone.

In a few cases, foreign or working-class accents got in the way, but more often the difficulty lay with the new mode of performance demanded.

As many of the old guard chose to retire or were shown the door, new acts from the world of theater and vaudeville filled their shoes. Formerly obscure performers like James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck shot to fame in short order [source: Crafton].