cover image The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930

The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930

Scott Eyman. Simon & Schuster, $30 (416pp) ISBN 978-0-684-81162-8

Eyman's history of the four-year transition from silent to sound film reads at times like two books expertly cut and fitted together: a solidly researched, always interesting narrative of the decline of the silent era intercut with the crazy, entertaining story of the rise of talkies. No doubt the madcap nature of the age he chronicles explains the jumps from art to ballyhoo, from individual genius to shameless profiteering. Eyman's style at times parallels his hybrid subject, oddly combining the authoritative tone of the film historian with that of a Hollywood press agent (Old San Francisco is a ""story... with Yellow Peril, imperiled virgins, and a deus ex machina from deep left field...""). However, the stories of sound-pioneering moguls William Fox and the Warner brothers unify the narrative, as does Eyman's convincing claim that the myth of the overnight sensation of sound and its evolution from silents masks a longer, more complex coexistence. Perceptive discussions of classics such as F.W. Murnau's Sunrise and King Vidor's The Crowd give way in later chapters to a greater focus on such curiosities as ""goat-gland"" movies (silent films with sound scenes implanted in them for box-office rejuvenation) and poignant accounts of silent actors (especially John Gilbert) who were lost in the transition to sound. Eyman effectively recounts the sorrow of observers such as writer Robert E. Sherwood who shrewdly saw that the crude novelty of sound would initially regress a medium that had only recently laid claim to being an art form. The interpretive judgments are so good that the book's virtual omission of silent comedy (only two pages of Harold Lloyd) puzzles and disappoints. An analysis of the very different silent-to-sound careers of Chaplin and Keaton would have given further breadth and balance to an instructive book. (Mar.)