Thursday, March 29, 1928. 9:00 PM on the East Coast: motion picture audiences across the country settle into their seats, eagerly anticipating hearing spoken words from the world's greatest silent screen actors, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore and others. It was a bold experiment by the NBC radio network and The Dodge Brothers Hour to broadcast the voices of six top United Artists stars not only to homes, but into movie theaters via a 55-city hookup.
The Jazz Singer had premiered in New York just six months earlier. Hollywood studios and the nation's exhibitors were scrambling to convert their stages and theaters to sound. As the 1920s neared an end, radio was just beginning to emerge as an entertainment powerhouse, poised to become the movies' primary competition. This fact led to controversy even before the broadcast took place.
R.F. Woodhull, president of the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America, protested that broadcasting the voices of favorite screen stars during normal show times would sharply reduce attendance. In fact, MGM, Paramount and First National had all been approached by the radio people and had passed on the project. Only Joseph M. Schenck, president of United Artists, was willing to take the risk. In the face of Woodhull's protestations, Schenck could only respond that all the contracts had been signed and the broadcast had to go on.
Besides Chaplin, Fairbanks and Barrymore, Paul Whiteman's Orchestra, "America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford, director D.W. Griffith, and actresses Norma Talmadge and Dolores Del Rio were on the bill. The artists' fee would be $50,000, to be divided equally among them. Miss Pickford eventually had to drop out due to her mother's death. The only major UA star to refuse to participate was Gloria Swanson, citing allegiance to the theater exhibitors.
None of these luminaries had yet made their first talking picture, though most had considerable stage experience. In his pioneering work on Hollywood's transition to sound, The Shattered Silents, Alexander Walker suggests that the one of the purposes of the broadcast was to give audiences a sneak preview of their favorites' speaking voices, and to see if the stars had the "stuff" to survive the ongoing talkie revolution. Preliminary interest was such that the Edison Company expressed interest in recording the program on disc, though sadly for posterity, negotiations came to naught.
Unfortunate audiences first had to listen to Dodge company president Edward G. Wilmer sing the praises his latest model, "The Standard Six" for over ten minutes. The UA stars' performances varied from Hamlet's soliloquy (Barrymore, of course) to the song Ramona from Miss Del Rio (coincidentally the name of her current release). Master of ceremonies Fairbanks espoused health and optimism as the tonic for a happy life. D.W. Griffith discussed on Love in the Photoplay ("eschewing the sex angle completely"). Miss Talmadge reviewed current ladies' fashion trends. The New York Times noted that Chaplin told "characteristic stories".
Variety later reported that "emerging from the locked studio, Chaplin remarked he nearly died while doing it, through mike fright, and was much worried as to how he had done." In contrast, Barrymore was said to have been pleasantly fortified and claimed complete indifference toward the whole business. Chaplin was right to be concerned.
The broadcast was a flop. Clear reception was hindered by rainfall throughout much of the Northeast and ice storms in the Midwest. Audiences at the 5th Avenue Playhouse in New York chanted "take it off!" and after twenty minutes it was. The crowd at St. Georges Playhouse in Brooklyn lasted as long as Paul Whiteman's first few bars, but in Manhattan's 55th Street Playhouse, Norma Talmadge's fashion discourse was the breaking point. Over at Loew's Grand, audiences staged a foot-stamping demonstration at the beginning of each new act (history fails to record if the Loew's management mercifully ended the broadcast).
Exhibitors in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Memphis, Rochester and San Francisco reported similar audience demonstrations of whistling, hooting and clapping. Even running silent comedies and newsreels during the broadcast did not seem to help.
"Brutal" was the succinct verdict delivered by Variety. "Sid" reported that "the only one to stutter was Chaplin". In a parallel review, "Abel" was crueler. "Came Charlie Chaplin, the fellowship of his first name contracted to "Charles" by the staid announcement, and Charlie Chaplin spoke just as Charles Chaplin might be expected to speak. Rather see Charlie in make-up, than hear Charles from now on." It's unlikely that Chaplin ever participated in an entertainment that received a worse reception at any point in his career.
Perhaps significantly, Chaplin became the screen's most famous holdout against the talkies. Though virtually every Hollywood star made their talkie debut by early 1930, Chaplin would continue to make silents until 1940 and the release of The Great Dictator, his first true talking film.
The worst indignities were suffered by Misses Del Rio and Talmadge. Under the screaming headline, "'DOUBLES' FOR LADIES IN RADIO BROADCAST IN HOLLYWOOD", Variety suggested that a professional singer had sung Ramona for Del Rio and that a "voice double" posed as Talmadge. As evidence, the show-biz bible noted that Talmadge had been "notoriously speechless at public events" and that newspapermen had been inexplicably locked out of the broadcasting chamber.
The actress would in fact become one of the first casualties of the talkie revolution, though her vocal abilities may have been unfairly maligned. Surviving tapes of Talmadge's 1937-38 radio appearances with husband George Jessel on Mutual's Thirty Minutes from Hollywood reveal a pleasant, if slightly mannered speaking voice. But no trace of the Brooklyn honk usually ascribed to her.
Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were certainly recalling this incident when they wrote the great MGM musical Singin' in the Rain (1952). Talmadge was given a perverse immortality through the character Lina Lamont, the shrill silent star whose vocal double is revealed to be Debbie Reynolds.
NBC and United Artists hastened to assure exhibitors and audiences that the experiment would never again be repeated. On April 1, Film Daily trumpeted, "U.A. BROADCAST EXPECTED TO BE THE LAST". And it was.
Six years later, Hollywood would inaugurate a much happier partnership with the radio industry when the Lux Radio Theater began a serviceable, if rarely inspired, 21-year run. As the biggest stars in Hollywood each took their turn before the Lux microphone, one can imagine the old-timers recalling Variety's final words on the Dodge Bros. debacle: "Movie stars should be screened and not heard."