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Rich voices in talky talkies: The Rich Are Always with Us

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Darryl F. Zanuck produced The Rich Are Always with Us (Alfred E. Green, 1932) for Warner Bros. as a prestige star vehicle for Ruth Chatterton. Set among the New York high society, the picture features characters that, in addition to being wealthy, are clever, witty and well dressed, i.e. the smart set. They are adept at delivering banter in crisp articulate voices, speaking rapidly to signify intelligence, youth and modernity. This ultra-modern film had all the hallmarks of a prestige picture: a major star, a literary adaptation, stylish sets and props, elegant and fashionable costumes designed by Orry-Kelly, and some stunning cinematography by Ernest Haller. Nevertheless, it was shot quickly and cheaply, with a supporting cast made up largely of inexpensive contract players. As much as anything else, it was the rich voices of the cast that lent an air of distinction to this production, exploiting the audience's desire to hear smart talk delivered in voices that were full toned, highly modulated, carefully enunciated and refined. While this is not the kind of film most historians consider typical of Warners in the 1930s considering the likes of The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931), 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1931) and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (Michael Curtiz, 1933) to be more representative this article reveals that there was a very different side to Warners' output during the early 1930s, one that sought to take advantage of Broadway talent and create articulate movies for upmarket audiences. This article, moreover, suggests that rich voices in talky talkies were a significant part of Warners' production strategy during the early 1930s and that New York's chattering classes provided the perfect subject for prestige talking pictures at this critical time of economic austerity.
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Keywords: Hollywood; Warner Bros; depression; economics; prestige; voice

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Sunderland, UK.

Publication date: 2010-12-01

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  • The Soundtrack is a multi-disciplinary journal which brings together research in the area of music and sound in relation to film and other moving image media. A complex cultural, technological, industrial and artistic phenomenon, sound-with-moving image is a rich area for analysis, investigation and speculation. We encourage writing that is accessible to audiences from a diversity of intellectual backgrounds and disciplines as well as providing a forum for practitioners. The Soundtrack's aim is to nurture this new and expanding area of academic investigation in dialogue with soundtrack producers of all kinds.
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