We Do Not Want Now and We Never Shall Want the Human Voice with Our Films

D. W Griffith? Harry Warner? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: D. W. Griffith was the most innovative and important director during the early days of cinema. However, he was unable to foresee the momentous shift away from silent movies. Apparently, he stated that audiences would never wish to hear recorded human voices in films. Is that true?

Quote Investigator: Yes. In 1924 David Wark Griffith published an article titled “The Movies 100 Years from Now” in “Collier’s: The National Weekly”. He speculated about the future of the art form that he loved, but his vision was surprisingly circumscribed. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 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 [/ref]

We do not want now and we never shall want the human voice with our films. Music, as I see it within that hundred years, will be applied to the visualization of the human being’s imagination. And, as in your imagination those unseen voices are always perfect and sweet, or else magnificent and thrilling, you will find them registering upon the mind of the picture patron, in terms of lovely music, precisely what the author has intended to be registered there.

Griffith pointed to the flaws in human speech that would detract from his idealized conception of cinema:

There will never be speaking pictures. Why should there be when no voice can speak so beautifully as music? There are no dissonant r’s and twisted consonants and guttural slurs and nasal twangs in beautiful music.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Griffith was not the only industry pioneer who had trouble grasping technological and cultural transitions. When movie makers Sam and Harry Warner experienced a demonstration of an early film system with synchronized sound in 1925, Sam recognized the importance of speech, but Harry did not according to a 1965 book:[ref] 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)[/ref]

“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.”

Further information about the above remark appears in a Quote Investigator entry here.

The 1974 compendium “The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes” by Leslie Halliwell included the remark ascribed to Griffith:[ref] 1974, The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes by Leslie Halliwell, Section: D. W. Griffith, Quote Page 88,, (Reprint of 1973 edition Granada Publishing, London), Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

But Griffith was full of contradictions. His brain was progressive, his emotions Victorian. For a few years the two aspects were able to join in public favour, but he could not adapt himself to the brisker pace of the twenties, when he made many such blinkered and stubborn pronouncements as:

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

In 1991 a syndicated feature called “Celebrity Cipher” employed the quotation as a puzzle solution:[ref] 1991 June 22, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Celebrity Cipher: Previous Solution (Syndicated by NEA Inc.), Quote Page D5, Column 2, Santa Cruz, California. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

“We do not want now and we never shall want the human voice with our films.” — D. W Griffith.

In 1998 the expanded and updated edition of “The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation” by Christopher Cerf and Victor S. Navasky included the statement in slightly altered form:[ref] 1998, The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation (Expanded and Updated Edition) by Christopher Cerf and Victor S Navasky, Quote Page 191, Villard Books, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

“We do not want now and we shall never want the human voice with our films.”
D. W Griffith (director of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance), quoted in The Saturday Evening Post, 1924

In conclusion, D. W Griffith did make a wrong-headed pronouncement about film. He may properly be credited with the words he wrote in the May 1924 issue of “Collier’s: The National Weekly”.

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