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The Shattered Silents: How the Talkies Came to Stay

by Alexander Walker William Morrow and Co., Inc. 65 photographs, 218 pages, $10.95

When Warner Brothers, in 1925, first got on to the idea of recording sound—in the form of musical soundtracks to accompany their movies—it was pointed out to Harry Warner that speech could be recorded, too. “Who in hell wants to hear actors talk?” Warner said irritably. In this lively cinema history, Alexander Walker examines the confused years, 1926 to 1929, in which the movie industry timidly backed and blundered its way into producing what were first called “talkers.”

The earliest movies in which actors spoke were a long step backward in cinema art. All scenes had to be filmed indoors in newly soundproofed studios, and actors had “to grow roots” around immovable microphones. The overall effect was to spoil the spirited visual quality of the silents. Although the public demonstrated conclusively with their dollars that they were infatuated with sound, they complained, too. They could no longer chat during a film, or go off into a “charmed, hypnotic trance.” They were forced to listen .

Walker refutes the commonly held notion that dozens of silent-movie stars proved to have wispy or ugly voices and were dethroned by the advent of sound. It is true that John Gilbert, the ten-thousand-dollar-a-week super-lover, was laughed out of the theater after his first talkie, His Glorious Night . But Walker says his downfall was due principally to ludicrous dialogue. Gilbert’s lines consisted of declaiming “I love you” over and over and little else. Audiences also tittered with embarrassment at the audible love-making, in which a kiss sounded like an explosion.

Nicely illustrated, with the pictures appearing where they belong in the text, this book is full of engaging information.

The American Image: Photographs From the National Archives, 1860-1960

prepared by the National Archives Trust Fund Board Pantheon Books 191 pages, $20.00 hardbound, $10.00 paperback

From the five million photographs in our National Archives, 220 of the best have been selected to illuminate a century of our history. Some are familiar; many have rarely been seen. The collection is fascinating, perhaps even more to the eye and imagination than to our historical understanding. The captions—which are the original ones—are sketchy. Why the photographer picked a scene, or even who he was, often is unknown. Some of the most enigmatic pictures are also the most beautiful. Incidentally, eight-by-ten-inch prints of most of these pictures are available for about five dollars each. The book tells you how to order them.

After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture

by Joseph J. Ellis W. W. Norton 6- Co., Inc. 4 portraits, 256 pages, $16.95

Many eighteenth-century Americans believed that the Revolution would touch off a cultural explosion, liberating native Rembrandts, Mutons, and Shakespeares to prosper in the free air of the new nation. The colonial period had remained largely barren of art only because the people were dependent and oppressed, the argument went, and as soon as Americans enjoyed “the blessings of free government,” artistic creativity and economic productivity would leap forward simultaneously.

What was wrong with this happy belief—the inevitable conflict between republican and democratic values, and between making money and creating works of art—is the subject of Joseph Ellis’ perceptive history. Through the careers of four men, he illustrates the collapse of that Utopian dream.

The artist Charles Willson Peale was the most incurable dreamer. Even when such pillars of the society as John Adams and Benjamin Rush agreed that art was “a nefarious influence,” he never stopped trying to prove that painting was consistent with democracy.

Hugh Henry Brackenridge, an author, was more quickly discouraged. He stopped writing entirely for a time, and then turned to that despised genre—the novel. At a time when even the broad-minded Jefferson condemned novels as “insidious influences,” Brackenridge wrote a satiric, picaresque tale, Modern Chivalry , that explored the paradoxes he no longer could reconcile in post-Revolutionary life.

Of all the arts, the theater was the most fiercely reviled—as licentious, sinful, and sure to “dissipate the mind”—but William Dunlap, a dramatist, persisted in writing cheerful, witty plays that he believed would serve the republic by elevating the morals of the audiences. He never gave up his belief that eventually America would become the cultural center of the world.

The most successful of the four, and the sourest, was Noah Webster. His children’s speller brought him a fair income, and to protect his interests he successfully lobbied for the first copyright laws. His major work, of course, was his dictionary. Ellis notes that the only word Webster claims to have coined himself was the verb “to demoralize.”

This cultural history is both lively and accessible.