Who the Hell Wants to Hear Actors Talk?

Harry Warner? Sam Warner? Jack L. Warner? D. W. Griffith? Apocryphal?

warners09Dear Quote Investigator: Four brothers: Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner founded Warner Bros. Pictures which became a powerful long-lived institution in Hollywood. Their extraordinary success did not arise from a pellucid view of the future. In fact, the development of motion pictures with sound impelled Harry Warner to make a statement that is often included in collections of bone-headed predictions:

Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?

Can you find a solid citation for this remark?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match found by QI appeared in the 1965 autobiography of Jack L. Warner who recounted a contentious episode between his two brothers Harry and Sam. In the 1920s Bell Laboratories had developed a new system that enabled the coupling of film with high-quality synchronized sound, but Harry Warner was uninterested because previous technical attempts to combine sound with movies had resulted in commercial debacles.

In 1925 Sam convinced Harry to attend an ostensible meeting with Wall Street financiers, and when he arrived he was actually shown a demonstration of the prototype Vitaphone sound film system. Harry realized he had been deceived but agreed to evaluate the system which produced music of remarkable fidelity from speakers behind the movie screen on the left and right. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Now, that is something,” Harry said softly, as the lights came up. “Think of the hundreds of small theater guys who can’t afford an orchestra or any kind of an act. Or even a good piano player! What a gadget!”

“But don’t forget you can have actors talk too,” Sam broke in.

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” Harry asked testily. “The music—that’s the big plus about this.”

Harry was excited by the breakthrough because theater owners would be able to save money by forgoing live musical accompaniment. Yet, he did not perceive the primal importance of the expressive human voice to the future of film.

This anecdote from Jack was published decades after the event occurred. Also, Jack was not present; hence, the quotation must have been relayed to him from Sam, Harry, or another participant.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Some major figures in the world of film were hostile to talking pictures. For example, the prominent director D. W. Griffith writing in “Collier’s” magazine in 1924 said the following: 2

We do not want now and we never shall want the human voice with our films.

Further information about the above remark appears in a separate website entry located here.

In 1929 Fitzhugh Green published “The Film Finds Its Tongue” which outlined the rocky transition from silent films to sound films. Pioneering systems such as Cameraphone and Kinetophone failed, and early backers faced financial ruin; hence, Harry Warner was very skeptical of the innovation. According to Green’s description, Harry was finally convinced after seeing the Bell Laboratories demonstration to support sound for music but not for speech. The book did not contain the quotation under analysis, but Harry’s reported mindset was compatible with the statement: 3

“Yes, something might be done with it,” Harry confessed afterwards, when they were back in their own office. “But Sam, I wouldn’t be so foolish as to try to make talking pictures. That’s what everybody else has done, and lost. No, we’ll do better than that we can use this thing for other purposes. We can use it for musical accompaniment to our pictures!”

In 1961 the best-selling novelist Harold Robbins published a Hollywood potboiler called “The Carpetbaggers”, and one of his misguided characters ridiculed the new-fangled talkies: 4

Norman shook his head. “The time isn’t right. The industry is too upset. Warner’s has a talking picture coming out soon. The Lights of New York. Some people think that when it comes out, silent movies will be finished.”

Dan Pierce laughed. “Malarkey! Movies are movies. If you want to hear actors talk, go to the theater, that’s where talk belongs.”

In 1970 “Stardom: The Hollywood Phenomenon” by Alexander Walker printed the quotation as a chapter epigraph and acknowledged the 1965 book mentioned previously in this article: 5

‘”But don’t forget you can have actors talk,” Sam [Warner] broke in.
‘”Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” Harry [Warner] asked testily.’
—From My First Hundred Years in Hollywood, by Jack L. Warner

In 1971 the gossip columnist Margo in “The Palm Beach Post” of West Palm Beach, Florida ascribed the remark to Harry Warner: 6

I am reminded of Harry Warner, one of the famed Brothers, who said when talkies came in, “Who the hell wants to hear an actor talk?”

Right on, Mr. Warner! My point, exactly.

The 1975 cinema history book “The Birth of the Movies by David John Wenden included the quotation, but the justifying footnote simply pointed the 1970 book “Stardom” mentioned previously. 7

In 1984 the “Los Angeles Times” columnist Jack Smith 8 reviewed the recently published book “The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation” by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky. Smith highlighted the entry presenting Harry Warner’s remark: 9

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
—Harry M. Warner (President of Warner Brothers Pictures), c. 1927

Unfortunately, the footnote accompanying the statement in “The Experts Speak” pointed to a secondary source, the 1981 compilation “Don’t Quote Me” by Don Atyeo and Jonathan Green.

In conclusion, there is substantive support for ascribing this quotation to Harry Warner based on the testimony of his brother Jack L. Warner in the 1965 autobiography “My First Hundred Years in Hollywood”. Yet, the evidence is not ideal because it appeared four decades after the 1925 event and because Jack was not present when the words were spoken. Perhaps future researchers will locate superior information.

Image Notes: Picture taken outside Warners’ Theater before the premiere of the film “Don Juan”; image provided by the National Archives and Records Administration. Picture of Western Electric engineer E. B. Craft (on the left) demonstrating Vitaphone sound film system circa 1926; both images were accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Special thanks to the staff of the Central Library of the Seattle Public Library system in Washington for acquiring scans of the 1929 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1965, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood by Jack L. Warner with Dean Jennings, Quote Page 167 and 168, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1924 May 3, Collier’s: The National Weekly, The Movies 100 Years from Now by David Wark Griffith, Start Page 7, Quote Page 7, P. F. Collier and Son Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1929, The Film Finds Its Tongue by Fitzhugh Green, Quote Page 50, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Seattle Public Library system)
  4. 1961, The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins, Quote Page 146, A Trident Press Book: Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1970, Stardom: The Hollywood Phenomenon by Alexander Walker, (Epigraph to Chapter Five: Servitude), Quote Page 209, Stein and Day, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1971 May 14, The Palm Beach Post, Who Wants To Hear Actors Talk? by Margo, Quote Page B3, Column 3, West Palm Beach, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1975 (Copyright 1974), The Birth of the Movies by D. J. Wenden (David John Wenden), Quote Page 172, E. P. Dutton, New York. (Verified in paper)
  8. 1984 October 2, Los Angeles Times, Jack Smith, Quote Page F1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  9. 1984, The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, Topic: Cinema: No One Will Pay a Quarter to Hear Talking Pictures!, Quote Page 172, Footnote 7, Quote Page 333, Pantheon Books, New York. (Verified on paper)