This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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MIKE FRIGHT STRIKES THE HOLLYWOOD ELITE IN 1929
From David W. Menefee's December 2010 Newsletter
(reprinted by permission)
(From Radio Recall, February 2011)
During Christmas 1929, many movie stars were in terror. A cover of Photoplay, December 1929, depicted “mike fright” by featuring Norma Talmadge looking warily at a radio microphone bearing the bad luck omen of number 13. The introduction of sound led to a boom in the motion picture industry, but it had an adverse effect on the employability of a host of Hollywood actors of the time, and their quick decline led to several suicides.
Suddenly, those without stage experience were regarded as suspect by the studios, and those with heavy accents or otherwise discordant voices were particularly at risk. Although Norma Talmadge had a perfect good voice, after two attempts, the major silent star’s career effectively came to an end, and Constance, her sister, never even tried a talking picture. Emil Jannings simply returned to Europe. Lillian Gish and others temporarily left films and went back to the stage.
However John, Lionel, and Ethel Barrymore, Colleen Moore, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, Joan Crawford, Lon Chaney, Mary Pickford, Conrad Nagel, Ronald Coleman, and many other silent stars valiantly tried to lead the way with their first attempts at tackling the trials of talking film production. Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, and George O’Brien, all of whom had perfectly good voices, continued to star in silent films for a while, which actually helped their careers because so few theaters had converted to sound equipment.
One lady who could talk and sing was the original funny girl, Fanny Brice, who recorded the part-talkie musical, My Man (1928), one of several shots at film fame the legendary star made during those first tumultuous years as the industry struggled to cope with their newfangled equipment and those infernal microphones.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Fanny Brice, of course, went to radio fame as “Baby Snooks” extending her showbiz career when stage and film roles dried up. The Barrymores, particularly Lionel, obtained many radio jobs, as did Ronald Coleman.