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Silent film to talkies

From silent films to talkies – DMU leads international research into greatest ever change in British cinema

The massive cultural and economic impact of introducing talking pictures, or ‘talkies’, into British cinema is to be investigated by experts from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) after being awarded a £466,000 research grant.

Laraine Porter, Senior Lecturer in Film within DMU’s Cinema and TV History research centre (CATH), will lead the investigation while working with prestigious organisations such as the British Film Institute and The Cinema Museum, London. A PhD researcher will also work on the project along with Steve Chibnall, DMU’s Professor of British Cinema.

The research project was officially launched in October 2014 during the esteemed Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, and DMU will work on the three-year project with the University of Stirling.

The research will be the first of its kind to investigate how British cinema underwent a revolution, virtually overnight, with the screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Blackmail”. Mountains of books and research have been published on the introduction of the first-ever talkie in 1927, the Hollywood-produced Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, which contains the famous line “You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet”.

But no serious research has ever been conducted in how Britain was transformed by its own move from silent cinema to talkies in 1929 – the single greatest change in the history of the industry.

Ms Porter said: “Our three years of research is going to be watched carefully throughout Europe and across America. I have been asked it many times since we started looking into this project but I don’t know the answer as to why this research has never been done before. “There is no doubt however that what happened in 1928 and 1929 sealed the fate of the industry as we know it today. It was the single biggest transformation that cinema has ever known.”

Ms Porter says the changes in economics and culture were huge and these elements will be researched over the three year period. They include:

  • The change in the way films were made. For example, in the early years the sound recording equipment was so primitive that the camera had to stand still, muffled in a box
  • The change in architecture, as cinemas looked to be rebuilt to cope with the acoustics of talking pictures
  • The effect on employment, as tens of thousands of musicians who provided live soundtracks lost their jobs virtually overnight
  • The change in manufacturing, as studios and cinemas had to be re-equipped
  • The rise of the Musicians’ Union as its members suffered the triple whammy of talkies, gramophone and wireless
  • The fear that talkies would adulterate the English language
  • Criticism and praise for talking pictures by intellectuals. Playwright George Bernard Shaw was a big fan while author Aldous Huxley effectively said “if this is progress, count me out”
  • The change to European cinema. There were many joint projects between Britain, Germany, Italy, France and the Scandinavian countries. Once sound and dialogue was introduced, they went their own separate ways
  • The effect on the deaf and hard of hearing
  • The effect on actors. Many actors had to learn how to speak for the camera with demand for elocution lessons going through the roof
  • The need to turn to the banks for help with the massive investment needed to keep up with changing technology and its effect on the powerhouses of British Cinema.

The grant money was awarded to DMU by the prestigious AHRC – the Arts and Humanities Research Council.


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HITCHCOCK---BLACKMAIL-insetTHE MASTER AT WORK: Alfred Hitchcock on the set of the first British talkie, Blackmail, in 1929
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