10 Lessons We Learned From Filmmaking in the 1920s

Talkies Won't Kill the Movies
It took microphone technology a while to catch up. At first, the stationary microphones of the time meant previously energetic stars frequently had to stand still near the mic. John Kobal Foundation/Moviepix/Getty Images

In his 1928 book, "Heraclitus or the Future of Films," the writer Ernest Betts despaired. He believed that the advent of talkies signaled "the most spectacular act of self-destruction that has yet come out of Hollywood, and violates the film's proper function at its source. The soul of film — its eloquent and vital silence — is destroyed. The film now returns to the circus whence it came."

Betts was hardly alone. Critics from Paul Rotha to Robert Herring were convinced that the talkies were cinematic poison. In the 1920s silent film had reached expressive heights with films like Murnau's "Sunrise" and Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc." Bringing in sound, the skeptics argued, would sully the purity of the silent art-form.

Aesthetically speaking, they had a point: Because of the limitations of the new technology, early sound films are rarely considered works of cinematic art. Because the microphones were stationary, the performances were wooden and the camerawork static. As filmmakers adapted, however, they proved the critics wrong, creating the often extraordinary cinema of the 1930s.

In the meantime, early sound films might not have been made to stand the test of time, but they did rake in the dollars. The late 1920s saw profits for the major studios skyrocket. Warner, for instance, went from earning $2 million in 1928 to $14 million in 1929 [source: Gomery].