Robert Armstrong — Yeah? Yeah! (1929) 🇺🇸

James Gleason and Robert Armstrong |

December 09, 2021

Robert Armstrong Speaks his Mind about Talking Pictures

by Joseph Howard

The introduction of talking pictures was just about the nicest thing that could have happened for the stage actor who liked Hollywood and films but who felt that the technique of silent pictures discounted his ability about 50 percent.”

Robert Armstrong made this statement in answer to the query put to him on his opinion of talking pictures. The young actor was working on “Oh, Yeah?” the talking comedy in which he and James Gleason will be teamed together.

“What I mean,” continued Armstrong, “is that the stage actor feels that 50 percent of his power lies in his voice. Eliminate that, as was necessary in the old days of picture making, and you will see that the finest actors suffer a tremendous handicap.

“Despite the discrepancies that everyone is howling about, talking pictures — even at their present stage — are very much more interesting than silent films at the peak of their progress. Of course, I feel that I’m just a novice in the new development and really have no authority to announce my views. But who in Hollywood doesn’t air himself on this subject!”

Armstrong declared that he very rarely sees a talking picture which does not interest him in some detail, even though the entire production does not appeal to him. He contrasted this reaction to that he felt for silent pictures.

“Either I liked a silent picture or I didn’t like it. If I liked it, I kept my eyes open. Otherwise I was likely to fall asleep. Now it’s entirely different with talking pictures. I invariably find some little characterisation or some clever innuendo of voice that holds my interest even though the production as a whole does not come up to expectations. I find this feeling general among a lot of people with whom I have discussed the question.”

Armstrong said he believed the great danger imperilling talking pictures is their tendency to be too mechanical. The man who controls the sound apparatus is not an artist with his eye on the picture as an artistic whole. He is interested only in seeing that each sound has as nearly perfect recording as is possible.

“I can explain this best by telling of an incident that happened to me during the shooting of ‘Big News.’ I played the role of a typical newspaper reporter. Now it would have been ridiculous for me to enunciate my lines like an Oral English student. One scene called for my reading a wire story. It was a paragraph in length, but the only words necessary for the audience to hear were the girl’s name and ‘custody of the police.’ I mumbled through the paragraph, being careful to bring out, however, these two points.

“When the scene was played, the operator in the sound box complained that there were only about three words in the whole paragraph that he could understand. And I told him, ‘Sure, they’re the only words you’re supposed to hear.’ But try and make a technician understand that!”

Armstrong is not worried over the future of synchronised films. He is confident the new medium is gradually taking a definite and permanent place in the world’s entertainment.

“Growing pains — that’s what’s happening to pictures right now. You make allowances for human beings to pass through the awkward stage and the period of readjustment. Why not give the same break to the movies?”

Who will be the talking picture directors of the future?

Armstrong says they will be the stage directors who have combined their theater knowledge with the technique of the motion picture; and the film directors who have absorbed the art of the legitimate stage. The combination of the two mediums will be the happy solution, according to Armstrong.

“The most amusing thing to me is all this talk about a ‘microphone voice.’ When an actor goes to a studio looking for a part, the big question seems to be ‘Have you a microphone voice?’ There would be a big laugh if an actor applied for a job with a New York producer and anyone asked the actor, ‘How’s your voice?’ What the producer wants to know is, ‘Can you act?’ That’s the way I feel it should be about talking pictures. The microphone can pick up any kind of a voice. But the camera cannot supply a lack of talent.”

Armstrong has worked out a plan whereby a film producer would be able to gauge the timing of laughs in a comedy.

“On the stage, we ‘feel out’ the audience at each performance. Maybe last night we got a big laugh after such-and-such a line. Using that as a gauge, we hold that the next night to give the spectators a chance to laugh. Maybe they don’t think it so funny as did the audience of the previous night. Then you have to bring on your next line quicker to fill up the gap.

“The big handicap in making film comedies is that you are never sure of your timing. A few people on the set are your only judges. Pretty soon the whole picture is shot and in the can and no chance to adjust the timing of the funny lines. My idea would be to use an average group of people for a representative audience. Seat them in front of a revolving stage which has been divided up into as many sets as the picture requires. Have the players in the cast go through their lines, with the director on the sidelines closely watching the reactions of this representative audience. The round revolving stage would facilitate the change from one scene to the next, since each set could be ‘dressed’ prior to the beginning of the trial performance.

“It is my contention that such a procedure would save the producer a mint of money on each comedy.”

Talking pictures will improve, the young actor believes, when the present practise of using two directors on one production is discontinued.

“Of course, it is necessary to some degree right now. The stage director rehearses and directs the scenes in which dialog is used. The director of the old silent picture school handles the other parts of the picture. The result, I think, is diversified. One brain in charge, with others working under his supervision, is the logical way to secure a unified effect. And this applies to bridge building or any other form of endeavor just as it does to picture making.”

Like James Gleason and every other stage player who finds the motion picture industry a vitally worth-while field in which to work, but who still has the inevitable soft spot in his heart for the footlight-world, Armstrong is of the opinion that pictures can never supply the satisfaction that comes from performance on the stage.

“In the legitimate theater, the audience is something that comes in laughing at 8:30 in chiffons and boiled shirts, paying a good price to be entertained and hoping they will be given a chance to enjoy themselves. Their gala spirit reaches across the footlights and brings about a corresponding reaction among the cast. It is like a challenge which must be fulfilled.

“But of course, we actors know we can’t have everything. And most of us feel mighty grateful to pictures for opening the door to so many things that the actor tied down to Broadway can never enjoy. Look at this tan! A swim every morning. Look at this muscle! A chance to play tennis just about every day in the week. Look at this mashed finger! Got that while helping Mother move into the new house I bought her in order to keep her in Hollywood. You know, she came out from New York to visit me and I thought up the house idea as a good way to make her want to stay. It’s this chance to live like ‘regular people’ that makes us grateful for the work we’ve had in pictures.”

The talkies bring Jimmy Gleason and Bob Armstrong together again, in a talking comedy called “Oh, Yeah?” Is zat so!

Janet Gaynor says: “Here’s winking at you.”

Collection: Screenland Magazine, November 1929