Slang City Mail

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November 15, 2007

Slang of the Week: talkie (noun)
a film with sound

Ramona had a great career as an actress until the talkies took over. Somehow, her Bronx accent was at odds with the elegant society ladies she played on the screen.

Celebrity quote:
“In the middle of my third Hollywood picture The Magician, the earthquake hit Hollywood. Not the real earthquake. Just the talkies.”
— Conrad Veidt

Last week, I was reading the racy autobiography of Gloria Swanson. One of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the teens and twenties, she made a comeback as the scary Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard.

In the book, I came across a reference to a 1928 magazine article entitled “The Talkers in Close Up.” The more usual word was talkies, but I suppose it’s not surprising that “talking pictures” had more than one nickname. After all, there were many different techniques used in the twenties to produce sound for films. Al Jolson’s 1927 breakout film, The Jazz Singer, for example, used a system called the Vitaphone, which used a film reel in conjunction with a phonograph record.

It’s not clear whether “silent film” was a retronym, because movies were called silents years before pictures with sound were commonplace. Nor was talkies was not the only contrasting term; contemporary stage plays were sometimes referred to as speakies.

Though short talkies were produced as early as 1900, feature length movies with sound were not the norm until the 1930s, when sound quality improved. While reading Swanson’s book, I spent some time online looking for her films and found this clip from Erich Von Stroheim’s unfinished 1929 silent Queen Kelly, in which she plays a convent girl gone wrong. (Fun fact: Queen Kelly was the pet project of Swanson’s lover at the time: Joseph Kennedy, the married father of Jack and Bobby.)

Whether you think the picture is improved by a new soundtrack may depend on your feelings toward the band Maroon 5, but it’s an awesome tribute to the emotional fireworks of films that relied on title cards for dialogue. If you’re any good at lip-reading, you can see the mad blond queen, played by Seena Owen, utter a profanity when she discovers Swanson with her boyfriend. However, it’s the written word that gives the sequence its emotional punch: “He’s mine—I tell you—mine! mine! Mine! MINE!” Even Norma Desmond wasn’t that over-the-top.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers: A Decade-by-Decade Guide to the Vanishing Vocabulary of the Twentieth Century by Rosemarie Ostler. In it, you’ll find other vintage terms, such as rubber cow (1920s), bed check Charlie (1950s) and giraffe party (1940s).