I just finished another book about movie history: The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s. It’s a surprising book if you take Singin’ in the Rain literally and assume that talkies supplanted silent movies overnight. Al Jolson notwithstanding, the studios weren’t willing to give up on their vast libraries of silents; they wanted to make money from them as long as they could, so they scored and added sound effects (but not dialogue) to some of their big hits and re-released them. Sometimes it worked. The Birth of a Nation, Ben Hur, and The Sheik, re-released with sound, pulled in audiences in the 30s.
And because retrofitting theaters for sound was expensive, many movie houses, especially outside the cities, didn’t; they continued to show silents in the 30s. Moviemakers overseas made silents longer than they were being made in the U.S. (Charlie Chaplin opened his silent Modern Times in New York in 1936, and it was a great work of art, but it was an exception, and it didn’t re-invigorate silent movie-making.); and a small number of theaters chose to cater to a dwindling clientele that preferred silent movies.
It was surprising, too, to read that, although thousands of miles of celluloid burned or crumbled to dust, it wasn’t because old movies weren’t valued. Cineastes in the post-silent era understood what they were losing. Those films were lost because people then couldn’t answer the same questions we ask about preservation now: amid such a welter of stuff, what do we save? How? Where? Who pays to do it? And how do we organize it so we can find it again?
More books on silent movies: