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silentsteph

Silent films to sound

15 posts in this topic

Hi, Im writing my dissertation on the birth of the talkies, and the commercial success of silent films, and i was curious of your opinions on the question 'was the jazz singer the birth of commercial cinema', and was D. W. Griffiths 'The birth of a nation' the most succesful silent film of all time. Silent films were hugley succesful but i have struggled to find much info on where to find details of their financial success, any help or interest would be appreciated, i have fallen in love with silent films...

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Steph, I wrote my first high school term paper on the transition from silence to sound in the cinema way back in -- well, I feel safe in saying I have been researching this period of cinema history longer than you've been around.

 

When I started, I was really swimming upstream. I had to battle most of the truisms associated with the period (e.g., actors' careers were decimated overnight due to funny voices) using mainly primary sources (magazine and newspaper articles and ads). I had little access to the films I wanted to see, so I had to document them from the trades, the popular press and the occasional library screening or TV airing.

 

When I submitted my first bibliography for the paper, my teacher was rankled that I didn't include any modern scholarly retellings of the coming of sound. I explained to her several times that my research showed the so-called experts didn't know what they were talking about, and often grossly misinterpreted the actual history. Nevertheless, I turned in a good paper, and my teacher had to admit it was better than she expected.

 

You, too, have a lot of ground to cover, and I can't tell you how to do it in one post. Send me a personal message through this board, and I can help you get started . . .

 

Message was edited by: coffeedan (who frets over every word)

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Hi there.... finding box office numbers for silents is difficult and even if found don't give a complete picture unless you also have the production cost. Here and there, I've found some info but not much. THE TALKIES by Donald Crafton is a good book and has a table with about 50 films listed. It starts out with DON JUAN and states negative cost at $546,00 with domestic B.O. at $1,258,000 THE JAZZ SINGER is listed at $422,000 cost and $1,974,000 in receipts. Of the films he's listed, the biggest box office winner is a surprise: THE SINGING FOOL. This Jolson film cost only $388 and pulled in a whopping $3,821,000, almost ten times its cost. THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK was another big earning, costing a measly $23,000 and earning $1,160,000.

 

A big hit silent film of the same time was Colleen Moore's LILAC TIME released in August of 1928. It cost $795,000 and earned a very solid $!,675,000. So it's clear that some silent films still had big audience appeal well after talkies started to be churned out.

 

THE BROADWAY MELODY was another early winner, costing $379,000 and earning $2,808,000.

 

While THE JAZZ SINGER was a solid success, it's earning power wasn't THAT much better than some other film. DON JUAN was a silent, the first with a synchronized music score (and sound effects), but most people forget what a big hit this film was.

 

As for THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Personally, I believe it's probably the biggest box office film of all time. From everything I've read about the film, D.W. Griffith, and taking Lillian Gish's comments as true, The film literally played for YEARS. Even as late as 1919, this 1915 film was still being shown. Even discounting the "talkie" re-release in the early 1930s, this silent masterpiece seems to have played for between 4 and 5 years after its 1915 release. Equalizing ticket costs and considering the country had about a third of the population we have now, box office receipts must have been astounding.

 

Bookkeeping was sloppy back then since no one was prepared for a film that would play for years. But when you consider Gish's comment about the film playing to 3 times the population of most towns (so OK even if an exaggeration and only 2 times), the numbers are astounding.

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*Birth of a Nation* provided funds not just to Griffith but to the early moguls and their studios who invested in it. That one film probably had more to do with building Hollywood as a film town than any other. All of them owed their later success in many ways to BOAN. Of course that's not politically correct to say today but it's largely the truth.

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thank you, it sounds like you have already faced the hurdles i have, so far i have more than enough books to keep me going, but none really face the question on how succesful these films were leading hollywood on to sound, i have sort of concluded the B.O.A.N was the most succesful film of its day, but i believe that the jazz singer was the film that gave hollywood the confidence to invest in sound...

 

Any help is gartefully appreciated, i have struggled to find anyone who appreciates and understands this era of film in a buisness context or otherwise....

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it would seem that political correctness overshadowed what appears to be a phenominal film, though the subject matter is not to my taste, the techniques used are still used today and i dont think it is regonized widely enough for its influence on hollywood, because of its non P.C content it is very difficult to find work on it that isn't biased towards to race issue rather than its artistic quality.

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I agree..... THE BIRTH OF A NATION is the film that built Hollywood. Although Griffith would sink (and lose) most of his profits from the film into the magnificent INTOLERANCE, many other investers became millionaires from BOAN.

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> {quote:title=silentsteph wrote:}{quote}

i have sort of concluded the B.O.A.N was the most succesful film of its day, but i believe that the jazz singer was the film that gave hollywood the confidence to invest in sound...

>

While THE JAZZ SINGER was very profitable and to some extent influential, I would say that LIGHTS OF NEW YORK would be the film that gave Hollywood the confidence to invest in sound.

It's low production cost and high profit margin were something that no studio head could ignore.

Unlike THE JAZZ SINGER, THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK was an all talking picture and while looking somewhat clumsy today,it pointed the way for sound film production in the future.

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I agree, Scott.... LIGHT OF NEW YORK (see my post about its box office) tends to be left out of most discussions about the transition to sound....

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There's no doubt that THE JAZZ SINGER is a better film, however in answer to the question posted about what film gave Hollywood the confidence to move into sound film production, I would respectfully disagree with you that THE JAZZ SINGER is that film.

First, THE JAZZ SINGER is silent film with about 3 or so minutes of improv dialogue from Jolson.

LIGHTS OF NEW YORK is 100% talking picture that also has a musical score behind all of the dialogue, which is something that film makers did not return to until the mid 1930s.

Second, as was mentioned by Ed, LIGHTS OF NEW YORK made more money that did THE JAZZ SINGER, and that alone would have been a huge determining factor in the future of sound film production in Hollywood to the studio heads. It has always been about the profits and without a film like LIGHTS OF NEW YORK showing how much money could be made with a 100% talking feature, it might have taken a bit longer for the studios to commit to making only talking films.

Granted, a film like THE SINGING FOOL broke more of that sound/silent barrier, but this film too was part silent.

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As I said: THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK was another big earning, costing a measly $23,000 and earning $1,160,000.

 

While THE JAZZ SINGER had a bravura performance by Jolson and a terrific catch phrase in

You ain't heard nothing yet," THE LIGHT OF NEW YORK showed Hollywood that a 100% talkie with almost no music and no stars could make big money. Actually the film was expanded from a short.

 

But... Hollywood legend will always have it that THE JAZZ SINGER (which I like a lot) was the one single film to cause the sound revolution..... The "revolution," by the way, lasted several years.

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ha ha.... I always think the word "revolution" is an odd choice when talking about the transition to sound since it really did take YEARS for theaters to get wired for sound and for studio to commit to making only talkies. Even in 1930, three years after THE JAZZ SINGER, silent films and goat glands were being released. Partly, this was because the studio had a backlog of silent films. But it was not uncommon for films to be released in both talkie and silent versions..... Movie audience had this sort of "revolution" for years before it all settled out.

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