Whether it’s Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard or The Artist we all know the story: silent film stars, and with them silent films, made obsolete by talking pictures, their voices or dramatic style incompatible with the new technological advancements of sound. Silent movies become a relic of the past, an archaic entertainment eclipsed by the technologically advanced “talkies” that dominated Hollywood by 1930.
If talking pictures ruled the screen in the 1930s, what happened to the silents? In his book The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s, William M. Drew argues that in fact, there never was a last silent picture show. On the contrary, Drew asserts that the transition in the 1920s from silents to talkies was not as rapid or as ubiquitous as Hollywood makes it out to be, and that silent films still captivated audiences into the 1930s and beyond, and not just as the object of ridicule or romanticized nostalgia.
Ready to find out more about silents in the 1930s? These posts will give you more historical information about silent film after the rise of talkies from Drew's book:
Silent Film in the 30s and “Why This Play Now?”
Not only does understanding more about the marginalization of and notable attempts to revive silent films in the 1930s and beyond offer a rich historical context for our protagonist Buster Keaton in Barbarous Nights, with its setting in a 1930s of the past and of the future, but it also helps answer the question “why this play now?”
Captivated by both classic and contemporary movies about the struggle of silent film stars against the advancements of sound, modern audiences are familiar with the situation in which Buster Keaton finds himself in this play, even if the world he falls into is not a tangible one. Buster Keaton’s journey is made both more accessible and more poignant to a modern audience in part by its context within and relationship to an era of decline for silent pictures. If Buster Keaton is struggling to find what makes him human beneath his “mask” as a star of silent pictures, his journey becomes all the more challenging in a world where his celebrity identity doesn’t mean the same thing to the people he meets as it did where he came from. Keaton’s struggle to understand and express his inner self in the play is perhaps an echo of what he would have faced in 1930s Hollywood: a silent film celebrity forced to confront the man beneath his exterior identity as the world he knows is radically altered by sound.
And Buster Keaton isn’t the only one who is challenged to navigate his “performed” and inner self. Not only do the other characters in the play know his struggle, who we see grappling with expressing and reaching for their inner most desires, but we as audience members do too. We too find ourselves in circumstances where our notion of self is critically altered, where we must swallow our inner emotions to navigate through society, where we are afraid of what will happen if we express our greatest joys or deepest sorrows. We are also familiar with the ways in which technology changes our means of communication, our connections to others, and our understanding of who we are. Like a silent picture might, Barbarous Nights appeals so strongly to our emotions in part because what the characters experience in the play is so relatable.
 Drew, William M. The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2010. Print.