Performing Emotion: Women’s Screen Acting and the Transition from Silent to Sound Cinema, 1926 – 1934




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De Montfort University


Thesis or dissertation

Peer reviewed


One of the most striking effects on silent cinema brought on by the introduction of sound technology was the transformation of screen acting techniques. While this has frequently been acknowledged within film studies (Crafton 1997; Gomery 2005), its precise nature, particularly in regard to the central performance of emotion, has not been fully described or explained. This research project will apply an interdisciplinary approach to film studies by combining performance theory, close reading of film texts and approaches from feminist film historiography, to offer a deeper understanding of this watershed moment in film history. Moreover, paying particular attention to women’s performances of emotion on screen, this thesis will contribute to the ongoing research into previously overlooked contributions made by women to the film industry. Locating the study within the context of the transition from silent to sound film in Britain and the US, this thesis will focus on showcasing actresses’ screen craft and labour in the film industry during a key period in which performance styles were evolving and adapting. While silent film actresses have been discussed through various lenses within film studies discourse – from their role as cultural icons within the Hollywood star system (Rosen 1973; Marantz Cohen 2001), to dissections of pictorial acting styles on screen (Brewster and Jacobs 1998; Pearson 1992) – there is limited consideration of the ways in which silent screen actresses responded to and adapted their performance styles throughout the transition from silent to sound, or the challenges many actresses faced during this period. Consequently, this thesis will consider a range of high-profile actresses who were making films in Britain and the US, during this key period of development. In particular, this thesis will examine the performances of Lillian Gish, Colleen Moore, Norah Baring, Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, Mabel Poulton, Madeleine Carroll, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. Furthermore, drawing on primary texts, such as autobiographies, interviews, and fan magazines as key sources for analysis, this thesis will centralise the testimonies of actresses working within the film industry throughout the 1920s and 30s.





Research Institute