July 23

1926 — Fox Studio buys Movietone Sound System


Julia’s great-grandfather had been a silent film actor famous for his expressive face.  He mimed the appropriate emotions — sadness, anger, joy — and there was no need for words.  It had been a great source of pride for him, knowing that directors used very few dialogue cards, if any, in his scenes.

Her distant relative put tremendous effort into practicing facial expressions, and into accompanying body movements that would further support the instructions in the film script.  Reportedly, even at family gatherings as other guests bombarded him with questions about Hollywood, he offered only monosyllabic answers — and yet, his jaw would clench, his eyes would narrow in skepticism or widen in surprise; his nostrils would flare with haughty indignation, or his ears would twitch with mischief…and everyone was satisfied with his replies.

All that effort in silent communication left him ill-prepared for the advent of cinematic sound.  The change seemed to happen overnight.  The Studio judged his voice as too tentative, said his line readings lacked emotion.  His career was over.

Now, Julia faced the problem from a different direction.  She had been a popular radio personality, relying on words and the flexibility of her voice to engage listeners.  With an energetic rant, she encouraged people to sign a political petition; with a heartfelt catch in her voice, she inspired donations to the Children’s Fund at the local hospital.  When she went off-script with an improvised joke, she brought smiles to frustrated rush hour motorists.

She never realized how much she relied on her voice.   The people she needs to convince stand behind an air-locked steel door with a small glass window.  The seal is too tight to let sound through, so Julia is forced into a desperate game of charades.  She thinks of her great-grandfather as she lets emotions rise to the muscles of her face, her eyes squinting in a plea, her mouth twisting into an obsequious smile.

She stands on the heated ground and senses a cloud of radiation moving closer.  If she could only speak to them, convince them she is worth saving.  Her ears twitch in panic.  Her cheeks puff with air, and her mouth flattens in a thin angry line.

Behind the glass a hand raises in a kind gesture. They understand.  They’re going to help her.  In her finest piece of silent-movie acting, Julia’s face beams with beatific joy.

The hand behind the glass reaches the drawstring of a shade, pulling it down to cover the window — a curtain lowered at the conclusion of a tragic performance.