Silent Screen Stars on Radio

We’re celebrating the publication of our new book, OLD HOLLYWOOD IN COLOR 3: WHEN SILENT STARS SPOKE, so this seems like a good time to devote a post to this particular topic. There’s a lot of Hollywood mythology surrounding the fate of silent movie stars when they made talkies, and even such hit films such as SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) only served to reinforce those myths. The fact is that most silent screen stars did just fine in talkies and the ones who stand out because they didn’t do well are a distinct minority. You can read more about it in the book (a shameless plug) but here let’s actually listen to the silent stars themselves when they broadcast on radio.

Let’s take a look at, well, really listen to, three silent stars who never made any talkies: Theda Bara, William S. Hart, and Rudolph Valentino. Strange to say, as talkies supplanted the silents beginning in 1928 and finishing the job by 1929, some stars just walked away from their fame and fortune. Some like Constance Talmadge had become independently wealthy while others married into money or went into business, especially southern California real estate. Perhaps the most famous of early screen stars – we’re referring to the 1910s – was Theda Bara, the movies’ first sex goddess or “Vampire” as they were called then:

Theda’s name is supposedly an anagram for “Arab Death” but I have no idea of its significance. Her real name was Theodosia Goodman and by all accounts, she was nobody’s fool. Here’s an effective study of light and shadow:

By now you’re probably wondering how Bara came by her reputation, at least based on these two photos. OK, here’s one of the most iconic photos of Theda Bara from the lost film, CLEOPATRA (1917):

Now that we’ve been properly introduced, just click below to hear Theda Bara on the November 9, 1939 broadcast of Texaco Star Theater. You’ll hear host Ken Murray, comedian Irene Ryan (who later played Granny on TV’s “Beverly Hillbillies”), and singer Kenny Baker who asks Theda a very good question:

William S. Hart was film’s iconic cowboy star in the 1910s into the early 20s. A New York stage-trained actor – he played Messala in BEN-HUR in 1899 – he transferred his genuine love of the West into a lucrative movie career as a star, writer, producer and director:

Bill Hart retired before talkies came in but he recorded a beautifully spoken prologue to his last film, TUMBLEWEEDS (1926) when he reissued it in 1939.

But Hart occasionally made an appearance on radio in the 1930s to recite his own poem, “Pinto Ben.” Here is Rudy Vallee introducing him on the December 13, 1934 broadcast of the Fleischmann’s Hour:

Rudolph Valentino was the super star of such silents as THE SHEIK (1921), BLOOD AND SAND (1922), and MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE (1924) among many other hits.

Sadly, Rudy didn’t live to make a talkie but he was broadcasting in 1923, long before most of his movie star colleagues were.

None of Rudy’s broadcasts were recorded but he did make two commercial recordings in 1923, thus preserving his singing voice.

At any rate, he carries a nice tune and the timbre of his voice at least suggests that Rudy had a good chance of success in the talkies:

Mae Murray was a Ziegfeld Follies dancer who enjoyed a successful film career from the mid-1910s through the 1920s:

Mae can be easiest described as a successor to Theda Bara although instead of having an exotic sort of mystique like Bara, Mae was a straightforward American gal with a frank sex appeal:

By now you probably want to see one of Mae Murray’s iconic photos to understand her appeal of nearly a century ago:

Unike Theda Bara, Mae did make a few talkies but not successfully. So her appearance on the December 6, 1939 Texaco Star Theater is noteworthy. Host Ken Murray gets in some laughs by the fact that he and Mae have the same last name:

Mary Astor was still in her teens when she played leading lady opposite such celebrities as John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. She is all of 17 here in BEAU BRUMMEL (1924):

By the 1940s it seemed that Mary Astor had been around forever although she was still a relatively young woman. She transitioned superbly to sound films, so much so that many people would forget that once she was a silent film star. She ably added radio broadcasting to her list of accomplishments:

We’re in luck because next we have a complete performance by Mary in the popular half-hour suspense show called, well, “Suspense” that was broadcast live on February 16, 1943:

Lillian Gish’s career in silent films preceded everyone else listed here, having made her first films in 1912 working for director D.W. Griffith. And she was still starring in films through 1987 with THE WHALES OF AUGUST.

Lillian made her best-remembered films during the 1920s such as WAY DOWN EAST (1920), ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921), both directed by D.W. Griffith, THE WHITE SISTER (1923), LA BOHEME (1926), THE SCARLET LETTER (1926), and THE WIND (1928), among many others.

Gish made her first talkie in 1930, ONE ROMANTIC NIGHT, but didn’t care for the new medium. She moved to New York where she continued her career in the theater, on radio, and occasionally, in films such as DUEL IN THE SUN (1946), and eventually on television. Among her more unusual broadcast appearances are as a guest panelist on the popular quiz show, “Information Please.” No, Lillian wasn’t slumming because only the brightest and best of celebrities were permitted to appear on the show. Here is Lillian Gish on the October 11, 1938 live broadcast of “Information Please”:

We have barely scratched the surface of exploring silent stars on radio. Perhaps in a future post we can hear from Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge, Richard Barthelmess, John Barrymore, Conrad Veidt, and even D.W. Griffith. Do you have any requests?

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hello: Just a note: Mae Murray did in fact make a “talkie.” She was in three sound pictures: “Peacock Alley” (1930), “Bachelor Apartment” (1931), and “High Stakes” (1931). She still looked great at age 45! I think Stevie Nicks reminds me a lot of her. Thanks! ~Teil

    • You’re correct, Teil, and I’ve corrected the text thanks to your input. I’ve seen parts of PEACOCK ALLEY including her crazy dance. I didn’t think she came off very well so perhaps I was thinking that Mae shouldn’t have made any talkies!


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