When the whole concept of getting the movies to talk was being debated, Mary Pickford one of the first superstars of the cinema said that adding sound to film would be like putting lipstick on the Venus DeMilo sculpture.
It’s understandable to see why Pickford felt that way. Silent movies and the people that made them had taken this backwater industry and turned it into something unique. An art form admired and imitated worldwide. Many felt that talkies would ruin everything that had come before and thus force movies back to their primitive origin.
But the public didn’t feel that way. Those title cards were all well and good but like it or not movie goers wanted to hear those shadows on the big screen speak. Once sound was introduced there was no going back to silence.
Once those voices were heard then it became apparent that talkies offered something silent movie in all of its glory could not do and that was allow audiences to admire how certain actors and actresses to turn the handling of dialogue into an art form all its own.
This is demonstrated in PreCode movies. The main female character usually had a friend who was very skilled at making wisecracks. Whether it was an observation on what was happening or just flat out comic relief the wisecrack became a staple for many supporting actors but just a handful lifted it to a whole new level.
In the beginning of talkies it was women like Glenda Farrell with her wit and rapid fire delivery as well as Una Merkel with her expressiveness and stop on the dime retorts who laid the foundation of the wisecracking dame.
And then came Eve Arden. From her debut film Stage Door it became apparent that someone else was about to become one of the queens of the quip. Observing a couple of her roommates going out on a double date with their boyfriends, Arden dropped a line that became one of the movies classics. “A pleasant little foursome. I predict a hatchet murder before the night’s over.”
One reason lines like this go over so well are of course the writing. But many an actor and actress has been handed snappy dialogue such as the above and laid an egg. It seemed with Arden no matter the movie or lines given to her had the uncanny ability to get the most out of it.
Her timing was impeccable and her delivery while at times dripping with sarcasm so severe it should have been bottled and put on a storage shelf away from children never had a vicious quality to it. What needed to be said got said and then move on.
Of course it didn’t hurt that Arden like many of her contemporaries had learned her craft not only at the movie studios but the theater as well. This would be on display in film after film where Arden never played the lead character but always the best friend who never got a guy of her own. In spite of this typecasting she always made the most of it. Arden was a pro’s pro and remains the gold standard when comes to the wisecrack.
Here’s a good example Arden’s great flowing delivery and sense of wit.