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.

Continue reading Who the Hell Wants to Hear Actors Talk?

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)