The Birth of Film: Women as Audience
Mae West
Mae West in 1933.
Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-111081.
They also danced to provocative new music, which was one of the revolutionary highlights of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927). The first movie to successfully synchronize sound with movement, this film thoroughly changed the industry. By the early 1930s, all studios were producing “talkies,” and the ripple effect throughout the business was enormous. Many actors were unable to cross over into film, usually because their voices did not match the romanticized image that fans had of them. In addition, from vaudeville days through the silent-movie era, actors had been trained to overact to emote exaggerated expressions that could be understood without words and from the back of theaters. When cameras were technologically sophisticated enough to film in close-up, some actors were incapable of dropping such hyperbole and they tended to look not empathetic, but ridiculous. 

Male actors were at least as susceptible to these problems as female ones, and because women were essential to playing female screen roles, many women continued to do well.   Sexy actor Mae West was Hollywood’s first woman to earn a million dollars—but her image belied the shrewd businesswoman that she was. Unlike most acting professionals, she did much more than act: she wrote virtually every word she delivered. Her first big hit, daringly titled simply Sex (1926), was entirely her own production, from writing the script to starring in it. Although she was over 40 during the Great Depression of the 1930s, she made more than a movie per year and was the highest paid actor of either gender.

Other women were not so astute, and a more pronounced gender difference developed at the executive level of filmmaking in the 1930s. Although Americans continued to flock to theaters as an escape from the troubled times, Hollywood began edging female directors and writers out of the business.